05 March 2008

Women march for mutilation

clipped from www.thetimes.co.za

Some 800 women in the Sierra Leone town of Kailahun have paraded in favour of genital mutilation and told donors opposed to the practice to keep their money, demonstrators and witnesses said.

Women wearing colourful beads and adorned with seashells chanted songs in the local dialect that warned authorities and foreign organisations against "any attempt to take away our traditional ritual."

The United Nations World Health Organisation says FGM - the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and related injury - is recorded in 28 African nations and opposes the practice on medical grounds.

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This has some interesting missiological implications.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Western missionaries to Africa and Asia were sometimes accused of attacking and destroying the cultures of people they came in contact with. Some of these cultures had customs of bodily mutilation, which the missionaries thought were cruel and inhumane.

In China Christian missionaries started the Natural Foot Society, to discourage the custom of binding the feet of young girls to make them grow up with smaller feet. In Kenya they discouraged the practice of female circumcision. There are various bodily mutilations where various parts of the body are altered. Bits are cut off genitals or fingers. Teeth are knocked out, ears or nostrils pierced, necks are lengthened, cheeks are cut, lips are made to protrude.

Nowadays it is no longer only the province of Christian missionaries to object to such things. Even secular Westerners do so, and this leads to the suspicion that there is a link between such interventions and cultural imperialism.

In Kenya Protestant schools, in particular, demanded that teachers take an oath against female circumcision. The Kikuyu people saw this as part of a general colonialist attack on their culture, closely linked with dispossessing them of their land. Some broke away from the Protestants and became Orthodox.

And even when it is secular groups and NGOs that object, there is a whiff of cultural imperialism. Africans must make their behaviour conform to Western norms, even when Western norms are changing, as can be seen in the continuing disintegration of the Anglican Communion. And whether the Western norms relate to female circumcision or structural adjustment programmes motivated by neoliberalism, the underlying assumption is that the West knows best.

Western values may change over time, but even when they change, Africans had better get in step. And in some of these issues it seems that the Western value, unstated but implied, is that the human right that takes precedence over all others is the inalienable right to an orgasm.

To some extent, I can sympathise. I remember the absolute horror I felt when I first learnt of female circumcision, and what it entailed. It was more than 50 years ago, when as a schoolboy I was reading the book Blanket boy's moon. A friend had told me it was like Cry the beloved country, only it would make one feel even more revulsion against the system, and then I read this:
The first night of the (circumcision) school is known as the Marallo, the secret night. This night is spent outside the village in the dongas, where ritual dances are taught and new code names are given to the girls -- so that they can afterwards challenge the claim of any woman who states that she is circumcised.

At Marallo, too, the Khokhobisa-tsoene, or "Hiding-of-the-monkey" is encompassed. The girls are cut with a blade in their outer sexual organs, and a flap of flesh is drawn down to cover that mischievous "monkey" which can be the source of much pleasure to uncircumcised girls. The performance of this rite tends to encourage chastity among the women, for a circumcised girl can know little of the joys and passions of physical love. During this ceremony when the blood flowes from the wounded flesh, black magic medicine is rubbed in as a protection against bewitchment.

It can perhaps be said that the circumcision of women not only denies the girl great pleasure and joy in the sexual act, buit must in consequence lessen the happiness and exaltation of the man, and thus shut out any upliftment of the spirit -- lying with a woman, then, becomes a selfish rather than a mutual pleasure. Here in the very homeland, in this circumcision of women, lie the seeds of the physical love of man for man, which is brought to flower in the living conditions imposed on African mine workers by the white man.

As a schoolboy I was shocked and horrified at the thought that people could treat others like that. It seemed unbelievably cruel. Reading the book made me feel revulsion against capital punishment, but the revusion I felt against female circumcision was far stronger, perhaps because it was the first time I had heard of it.

But now I've thought about it a bit more, and I remember that the countries that protest most strongly against such practices hardly protest at all when children are mutilated by cluster bombs and landmines, and go on making more cluster bombs and land mines to rip children apart.

The countries that protest so vociferously against female circumcision very often kill hundreds of thousands of children in abortions, all in the name of a putative right of women to control their own bodies. Isn't it ironic that women in Sierra Leone are protesting that very right, to control their own bodies, a right they want to exercise in female circumcision?


Yewtree said...

Female circumcision often causes the accumulation of menstrual fluids, and results in infections of the vagina, as well as the loss of sexual pleasure.

A pity that the campaign against it has been connected with colonialism (secular or otherwise) because I think the practice is wrong in so many ways.

Steve Hayes said...


I believe there are different varieties of female circumcision, not all of which have the same effects. The one in Lesotho (described in my post above) is probably different from the way it is done elsewhere. As I said, I was horrified by the very thought of it when I first read about it.

But after reading some of the rhetoric of those campaigning against it, I grew more cynical, and would be tempted to respond with one of the things often said by "pro-choice" campaigners: "If you don't like abortion, don't have one." And similarly: if you don't like circumcision, don't have it done.


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