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The Politics of Female Circumcision

The idea oftampering with the female sexual organ is not peculiar to Africa; it has always been part of most patriarchal cultures. The practice of surgically altering the female sexual organ is an archaic ritual practiced in most parts of Africa. In our time, it has generated a politicized discourse. It is known by different names depending on one’s cultural, social, or political persuasion: female circumcision, clitoridectomy, vaginal surgery, and female genital mutilation.7 Some scholars insist on referring to it as female circumcision, and argue that the intention behind the ritual might be to do to women what is done to men in male circumcision.8 For my discussions in this book, I will follow Chantal Zabus’s and Elisabeth Bekers’s example, and use the clinical term, female genital excision.9 Regardless of the terminology one chooses, I am particularly interested in an analysis of the many ways through which society controls the relations between men and women. It is important that society understands the power relation implied in some rituals. This, I think, is what contemporary African women writers seek to expose in their narratives.

In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault explains that the body is the means through which society displays its power and control, and this is done through the control of pleasure, especially in sex: when it is exercised, how, and with whom. Strictly speaking therefore, to control sexual practice and relations is to control relations in society.10 Patriarchal societies exercise their tightest control through series of norms of sexual behavior, especially for women. The idea of virginity applies only to girls. The same is not expected of boys because they are future men, and in matters of sex, “men have to be men.” If men have to be men, then women have to be women, that is, compliant and submissive to the sexual expectations of men. Female genital excision, therefore, is a technology of power designed to make women compliant to men’s power performance. Chantal Zabus’s analysis of the Dogon myth of creation suggests that excision was introduced as a means of control. In that myth, Amma, the god of creation created the Earth and wanted to have intercourse with her. But the Earth’s clitoris, in the shape of anthill, stood in the way. It blocked Amma’s penetration in selfprotection. Amma was furious and punished the Earth for her defiance; he excised Earth’s erectile organ. In this way he subjected the Earth and her (female) descendants to his will.11

Judging from the testimonies of men in certain African communities, the cultural-political role of female genital excision appears to be close to the idea the creation myth suggests. The men justified female genital excision because it “impairs a woman’s enjoyment [of sex]... [it reduces] sexual desire through making the act painful or removing pleasure ...FGM is seen as a way of physically ensuring that a woman will be faithful to her partner.”12 It is not surprising then that in some African countries, female genital excision has firmly established itself in politics, and is exploited to win votes. For instance, in Sierra Leone:

Patricia Kabbah, the late wife of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, had sponsored the circumcision of 1500 young girls in the presidential election, and other politicians had organised smaller initiation campaigns to gain popularity in virtually every district of the country.13

An African internet news agency,, reported on the October 5, 2003 that three African imams were to be prosecuted in Norway for promoting female genital excision. There was a widespread practice of female genital excision among African immigrants in Norway and other European countries such as France, Britain, and the Netherlands. The news agency also quoted the Gambian president, A.J. Jammeh, as stating publicly that his “Government would not ban FGM, and that FGM is a part of the country’s culture.”14 Jammeh’s excuse echoes that put forward by Jomo Kenyatta in 1938. Kenyatta defended the practice as an integral part of African culture.15 His countryman Ngugi wa Thiong’o also portrayed the practice in his novel, The River Between in the Kenyattan idiom.16 Augustine H. Assah argues that in Thiong’o’s:

schematic portrayal of abolitionists as outsiders, zealous Christian converts, or western stooges, Ngugi has unwittingly influenced contemporary supporters of FGM keen to stigmatize opponents of the operation as western agents or at best as insensitive strangers/alienated Africans.17

Some ofthe African and African Diaspora intellectuals who support the right of African societies to practice their cultures the way they deem fit include Oyeronke Oyewumi, whose ideological stance on African feminism I have discussed in the introduction. Other important voices in the anti-Western, Afrocentric criticism of Western intervention in African ritual of circumcision are Joyce Russell-Robinson, L. Amede Obiora, and Nontassa Nako. I wish to establish their ideas as a prelude to the narratives and poetics of younger African women who now raise their voices against the practice. For these younger African women writers, the issue is no longer a West-versus-Africa discourse, but rather that of the explication of pain in their bodies. They want to reclaim the right to their bodies, and that includes right to pleasure; it is a matter of their rights as women. As human beings.

When Alice Walker published Possessing the Secret of Joy,18 in which she sharply attacked the practice of female genital excision, she attracted much criticism from both within and outside Africa. Many accused her of exhibiting a missionary spirit. For Joyce Russell-Robinson it “echoes a missionary mentality in the worst sense of the term. The voices of the missionaries seem to be saying once more, ‘Let’s rescue those Africans.’”19 She cautions that attacking certain rituals in Africa from the West could be counterproductive and that people should approach such rituals of initiation as female genital excision in Africa with a hermeneutic spirit in order to understand their cultural relevance to the people who practice them. Russell-Robinson neither condemns nor advocates the ritual of female genital excision; rather she argues that any change in that regard must come from within African communities. This is an interesting line of argument, and it has its own merits given the cultural arrogance that the West has exhibited toward Africa and the rest of the world. In the same breath though, she prefers that the West help Africans economically and otherwise:

instead of harping on the ritual of female circumcision, let them save Africans from malnutrition, unhealthy environments and diseases. Let them save Africans from poverty and violence, themselves responsible for malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of clean drinking water and infant mortality.20

This anachronism in Russell-Robinson’s thinking underscores the intellectual and moral quandaries facing postcolonial Africa. How do you engage the West? What exactly can Africa take from the West; what should it reject? There is little doubt that the experience of slavery and colonialism has greatly influenced, alas, distorted the relationship between Africa and the West so that Africa is justifiably suspicious of any gestures from former slavers and colonizers. The condition has impacted African lives to the degree that African people’s pains, such as those experienced in female genital excision, are often ignored within certain African cultures in pursuit of a specific cultural ideology.

Like Russell-Robinson, L. Amede Obiora cautions against overt outside intervention. She argues that “female circumcision is not simply a problem to be solved, it is also a complex culturally-embedded critical act which signifies continuity and meaning, and expresses social values.”21 She acknowledges that female genital excision has health consequences, and “where there is well-founded evidence that the practice causes harm, the custom should be challenged”22 (emphasis in original). Oyeronke Oyewumi adopts a more forceful approach to the outsider interventions in African affairs. She interprets Alice Walker’s intervention in the debates about female genital surgeries in Africa as a part of Western imperialistic involvement in Africa. In her view, Walker is acting as an “evangelist.”23 She therefore sets out to “interrogate Walker’s representation of Africa in both Possessing and Warrior Marks (the book), examining the images of Africa presented and the strategies used to ground the picture [sic].” 24 Oyewumi argues that Walker should be read “within the context of Western imperialism in relation to Africa and the narcissism or naval-gazing of contemporary American life.”25 The issue for Oyewumi is not necessarily women’s genital excision, though it is important; the issue is the power relations between Africa and the West. She argues that “if there were no female circumcision in some parts of Africa, Westerners would have invented it.”26 I cannot agree with this claim. I think that she was led to make such a bogus assertion because of her need to demonstrate the ubiquity of Western imperialism in the African life. This need is ideological to the degree that she ignores the likelihood that some Western critics of African female genital excision such as Alice Walker might just be interested in sparing African women the pain of the ritual itself.

Oyewumi seems not to be ready to challenge the practice of female genital excision. Indeed, she sees some agency in the fact that some African women willfully take part in it and even insist on their daughters taking part in the ritual. She argues:

It is curious that in the larger debate on female circumcision in the United States media, instances of mothers who take the initiative to circumcise their daughters despite the objection of the fathers, are not interpreted as examples of female self-assertion and/or defiance of patriarchal authority. Instead, such women are often projected as having succumbed to community pressure, the community of course being defined as male- created.27

Oyewumi seems to have ignored how ideology succeeds in coopting individuals in its service by the process of what Louis Althusser has called interpellation or hailing,28 and how, as Butler argues, subjects take an active part in their subjection if only to maintain their identity or to stay alive.29 Part of her problem is that she is invested in an ideology, albeit a counter-ideology, based on race. Women who insist on having their daughters undergo the ritual of excision may only be trying to be good members of their society as keepers of the light of tradition. It is doubtful whether they are truly exercising their agency in so doing. Oyewumi’s neglect of the insidious ways ideologies work does not negate her observation that Westerners often act as epistemic missionaries in Africa. Nor does it address the issue of female genital excision as an act that causes needless pain to the body of the circumcised, and, depending on the type, will to a greater or lesser degree negatively impact a woman’s sexual life and possibly also her self-perception.

Obioma Nnaemeka’s edited volume of essays, Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourse is devoted to the same issues Oyewumi examines. Most of the contributions are premised on the Western imperial gaze toward Africa. Nnaemeka’s intervention captures the dilemma and the rewards of engaging the Western imperial othering of Africa:

Female circumcision has been condemned as “torture” or “degrading treatment” that lacks any “respect for the dignity” of women and girls. And it should be. Unfortunately, some of the most egregious manifestations of “degrading treatment” and lack of “respect for dignity” lie in the modus operandi of many Westerners (feminists and others) who have intervened in this matter. The resistance of African women is not against the campaign to end the practice, but against their dehumanization and the lack of respect and dignity shown to them in the process... In my view, the ultimate violence done to African women is the exhibition of their body parts—in this instance, the vagina—in various stages of “unbecoming.”30

Irrespective of one’s ideological stance regarding the ritual of female genital excision, the most important question is: Why is it a cultural norm to damage the vulva in such a way that some women are forever traumatized by the experience? Could the ritual stop if men were to imagine the same thing done to them? This is one reason we must examine the narratives and poetics of the younger generation of African women writers, those who do not feel the need to confront the gaze of the Western world, but rather to address the unfairness that undergird how their world functions. I pointed out Sylvia Tamale’s observation that “those that have never directly experienced gender discrimination” are more likely to downplay its effects on women. 31 She challenges the idea that African women are passive adherents to mostly patriarchal sexual mores. Her field research among the Banganda people of Uganda has revealed to her women’s sincere, silent fight for equality also in sexual matters. Commenting on a particular cultural/sexual initiation institution among the Baganda called Ssenga, she writes:

Explicit and daring topics regarding women’s pleasurable sexuality, such as “female ejaculation” and “clitoral orgasm” have become part of Ssenga’s repertoire of tutoring techniques. While the traditional message from Ssenga focussed on men’s sexual pleasure, young Baganda women today are demanding that men also receive training in how to please their female partners. They have largely rejected the sexual ideology that privileges men over women, one that locates female sexuality in a medicalised/reproductive realm. By insisting on pleasurable sex for themselves, these young women have refocussed culture and used the erotic as an empowering resource to claim justice.32

She thus directly refutes the arguments of those who suggest that African women who undergo female genital excision do so in support of their culture.

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