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This paper draws from a longer Article that examines questions of agency, victimization, and cultural essentialism in U.S. asylum adjudication and cultural defense cases specifically, and in international human rights law more broadly. I explore the adjudication of FGC asylum claims based on cultural persecution” that encode a racialized view of culture. I describe the historical trajectory of contemporary FGC claims through a detailed analysis of colonial anti-excision campaigns. I compare early 19th century anti-excision campaigns with contemporary maternal imperialism, as international law, UN agencies, and international financial institutions became more responsive to feminist concerns about eradicating FGC. Throughout the paper, I ask: who is dominating the legal, normative, and political arguments determining the classification of “culture”? How does victimization hide behind and reproduce power when it is associated with culture? Are cultural claims activating latent concepts of pathology, repugnance, or savagery? Where are these discourses being produced and consumed, and what are the relationships between the colonial past and the post-colonial present? In the particular case of FGC, do the respective limitations of universalism, medicalization, and criminalization also demarcate the problems of post-structuralist deference, laissez-faire liberalism, and relativism?


2009 Law and Humanities Junior Scholar Workshop selection.