• agency;
  • autonomy;
  • self-determination;
  • culture;
  • female genital cutting

Feminist studies of female genital cutting (FGC) provide ample evidence that many women exercise effective agency with respect to this practice, both as accommodators and as resisters. The influence of culture on autonomy is ambiguous: women who resist cultural mandates for FGC do not necessarily enjoy greater autonomy than do those women who accommodate the practice, yet it is clear that some social contexts are more conducive to autonomy than others. In this paper, I explore the implications for autonomy theory of these understandings of the relation between culture, FGC, and women’s agency. I review the range of worldwide FGC practices – including “corrective” surgery for “ambiguous genitalia” in Western cultures as well as the various initiation rites observed in some African and Asian cultures – and the diverse cultural rationales for different forms of FGC. I argue that neither latitudinarian, value-neutral accounts of autonomy nor restrictive, value-saturated accounts adequately explain women’s agentic position with respect to FGC. I then analyze a number of educational programs that have enhanced women's autonomy, especially by strengthening their introspection, empathy, and imagination. Such programs, which engage women's autonomy skills without exposing them to autonomy-disabling cultural alienation, promote autonomy-within-culture. This understanding of autonomy as socially situated, however, entails neither endorsement of FGC nor resignation to its persistence.