Articles on Shifting Sands
Men do not benefit from the FGM tradition
It is always a problem when traditional beliefs conflict with modern values.
While FGM/FC (female circumcision) may be an accepted custom in one society, when viewed from the perspective of another, it may be considered barbarous. And frequently is.
But an outside attack is not viewed only as an attempt to stop an abusive practice, it is also felt as an attack on the culture and identities of a people and their roles within those societies.
That’s because customary practices represent ways in which a society protects itself; they cannot be changed overnight or on demand. So lambasting men for benefiting from patriarchy because they have authority over their families and are responsible for its welfare and the continuance of a practice like FGM/FC, is unlikely to be well received.
For example, despite that the medieval writer Christine de Pizan espoused the rights of women in the fourteenth century, it took until the eighteenth century for feminist ideas to even begin to take hold.
To try to begin to understand the resentment of people being forced to abandon FGM/FC, we could substitute marriage for the practice and demand an end to it. Even today, that would be considered a shocking idea.
That’s because we have been socialised, from an early age, into accepting marriage as a desirable institution. If laws were suddenly passed forbidding marriage, we would regard them as objectionable because we are not convinced of the need for them.
Similarly, those for whom FGM/FC is an expected and desirable practice, attacks and the many forms these take, are objectionable.
There are laws banning the practice in approximately 26 of the 29 practising African countries. That these laws are regularly flouted and/or the practice has gone underground in some, is testament to ineffectiveness of this approach there.
For laws against FGM/FC to be effective, supporters and practitioners have to be convinced of their need before accepting and supporting them. This requires changes to people’s belief systems.
An often unacknowledged but extremely important reason for supporting the practice in some societies is the need for the absolute guarantee of a child’s paternity.
While paternity is still considered important in most societies, it can be determined through DNA testing where the technology is accessible and affordable. But where it can only be guaranteed through making sex for women impossible before marriage, FGM/FC serves this purpose.
Societies have traditionally devised ways of controlling passion in women in order to determine paternity with certainty. Marriage is the usual means of doing this. It was until recently, even considered important among British royals.
In 1981, Diana Spencer was expected to be a virgin when she married Prince Charles. Thirty years later however, her son’s fiancé, Kate Middleton wasn’t, reflecting that even the traditional House of Windsor could adapt to a different era of sexual politics.
Attitudes changed with the acceptance of women’s equality, the demand for greater respect and freedom and the availability of contraceptives.
In more traditional societies where FGM/FC is still practised, it is usually accompanied by a code of behaviour. Pre-marital chastity is an expected aspect of the code.
In this respect, FGM/FC reduces men and women to children, even to prisoners, and denies them free will. It becomes a means of locking up both sexes.
However, the practice will only end when those who believe in the need for and value of it, accept that it is no longer necessary. That would require major societal changes – not least developmental and educational. As well as placing greater trust in men and women to effect those changes.
Berating people about the barbarity of the practice generally and lambasting men for benefiting from its continuance in particular won’t make those changes any easier. Nor will attempts to stop it coercively succeed.
Pushing the total unacceptability of FGM/FC may make some feel good, but that is a very high price to pay for this approach. Instead, by addressing the delicate issue sensitively, adherents and practitioners might be more open to examining its continuing relevance and meaning to them in our fast changing world.
Mutual Naidoo is a retired teacher and author. She blogs at
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