Articles on Shifting Sands
There is no place for ‘FGM’ in the 21st Century?
“First of all, I will start off by saying that it was an incredible honor to be on BBC HARDtalk, which was aired on Monday, January 11, 2016. I think Stephen Sackur did a fine job as an interlocutor and I appreciated the opportunity to engage with another smart, passionate African female activist who is concerned about the empowerment of girls and women on the subcontinent and Diaspora. This was a very intense, very personal and sometimes deeply emotional discussion of an aspect of our private lives that has become such a heated, controversial, political and global issue.
My goal was to represent and legitimize, for the first time in history, the voices of empowered, smart, and sexually confident circumcised African women who utterly reject and resist the label Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The fact of my appearance on HARDtalk engaging with another African woman who represents the legitimate experiences of those who consider themselves victims or survivors of FGM, ironically, achieved this end.
There was so much to talk about, from differences in personal experiences, issues of informed consent and criminalization to forging a way forward and negotiating through our disagreements; twenty-five minutes was not enough to scratch the surface! My hope or appeal really is that myself, Nimko and other women who are directly affected can continue the conversation outside and away from the gaze of the global media, far from the limelight and the fixation of outsiders – many of whom have their own personal and political agendas. And, I am confident that we can achieve this.
The walls that have kept us divided – to ensure that we do not talk to one another or compare notes or connect our shared experiences or importantly, to whisper to one another our vision for our future and the future of our sisters, nieces, daughters and grand-daughters – have been shattered with this important global broadcast. That we – all African women – own and shape our own destiny is the aim of African Women are Free to Choose and I hope, the Daughters of Eve.
Now to BBC HARDtalk’s main question (citing President Obama’s speech in Kenya last year) that unfortunately was not posed directly to me during the discussion: Is there a place for FGM in the 21st Century?
No, there is absolutely no place for FGM! There has to be an end to the suffering of women like Nimko who as young, vulnerable and helpless girls felt betrayed by their mothers and their communities, who experienced unimaginable pain and see themselves as permanently disfigured, women who feel as if something has been irrevocably taken and that they will never experience the capacity for full sexual enjoyment. Women who feel that, as young immigrant girls, they were “different” or from another culture, race, ethnicity or religion and therefore they were not cared for, respected and protected from the violence in their very own homes. These women of African descent, non-white or non-western women who identify as victims or survivors of what they believe is the worst form of patriarchy or male brutality should never have to see their horrific experiences visited onto the next generation of girls. I absolutely agree that there should be an end to FGM!
But not all or even most women who have experienced customary genital surgeries experience themselves as mutilated or identify with the horrors of FGM. Surely, there is a place for circumcised women who, like myself, have a positive genital self-image, who are sexually confident, healthy and proud of their cultural and religious traditions and hope to carry their identity over to future generations of girls from the same ethnic groups. Surely, there is space in the 21st Century for women who do not see themselves as victims of patriarchy but celebrate their ancient matriarchal traditions and beliefs in the centrality, sanctity, privilege, authority and preexistence of primordial motherhood like the women of Bondo in my country of heritage, Sierra Leone. Surely, global feminism can make room for African women who boldly play out the rituals that situate them as reproducers of men, as mothers of patrlineages or rather as the maternal origin of patriarchy.
As African Women are Free to Choose, we are the voices of millions of grassroots women in Africa and our sisters in the Diaspora who regard ourselves as the moral equals of all other adult women and men in the world and demand full autonomy, self-determination and equal rights in the control of our lives, persons and children under our care. We are women who are entitled to dignity, respect, access to the highest standard of health, to privacy, to adulthood, to our own humanity.
It is morally unjustifiable that white or western women – and their underage daughters – can legally opt for anatomically and aesthetically comparable genital surgeries for “cosmetic” or “comfort” or “hygienic” reasons while we are labeled as “mutilated” and denied our full rights, dignity and autonomy in the 21st Century. So, the question for me is not whether there is a place for FGM in the 21st Century – I can agree with the world, Nimko, and other anti-FGM activists that absolutely not! We should continue to listen to and understand the experiences of FGM victims and survivors in order to prevent another girl from the experience of mutilation or growing up as a mutilated woman; in my view one obvious way forward is informed consent, at least for certain forms of genital surgeries. The question for a proudly circumcised woman like myself is whether there is a place for the continuation of a positive tradition, handed down through our grandmothers, that is thousands of years old and most likely predates even male circumcision? My answer to that is an unequivocal yes!
At a time when the demand for female genital cosmetic surgeries in western societies has increased tenfold in the last five years; when smart, educated, wealthy, elite white women are opting (less and less quietly) for labiaplasty and clitoroplasty or clitoral reduction (both procedures fit WHO Type II FGM/C) as well as clitoroplexy (WHO Type I FGM/C), vaginal rejuvenation (read: tightening), how on earth can feminists denounce comparable female circumcision practices among my African sisters? When the popular media reports and anecdotal evidence from practicing physicians indicate that western girls as young as 10 and 11 are being taken for labiaplasty, which is paid for under the National Health System in places like the UK and Australia, how can western women justifiably condemn our African mothers as mutilators and child abusers?
When male circumcision continues to be practiced as a routine procedure in western hospitals and in accordance with traditional Jewish or Islamic customs but the equivalent surgery, WHO Type I, in girls is considered FGM – doesn’t this pose a dilemma for gender equality? At this critical moment in history, when transgender operations that involve radical amputations, alterations and refashioning of both internal and external genital organs to change biological sex has become normalized and mainstream, yet the slightest nick to an African girl or adult woman’s genitals is decried as FGM, doesn’t this beg another question: Isn’t female and male genital reshaping a la Caitlyn the latest buzz of the 21st Century? So, what exactly is the problem with the notion of fully autonomous African women possessing the same right to choose what to do with our own bodies?
As some other observers have indicated, it is time to end the moral hypocrisy in relation to female and male circumcision and I would add as well as to female genital cosmetic surgeries and other forms of modern, 21st Century sex changes or body modifications. It’s time to stop infantilizing African and other non-white women who uphold various forms of female circumcision and treating them as antiquated, brainless, masochistic “prisoners of ritual” and begin a reasonable discussion on informed consent, bodily or sexual preferences and genital aesthetics. What needs to happen in the 21st Century is the complete liberation of African female bodies from the gaze, fascination, fetishizing, policing and manipulation of others – African men, white men, all men; and especially white women or benevolent feminists (hiding behind our African sisters) with their own political agendas and psychosexual fixations. What needs to happen in the 21st Century is an end to the “divide and conquer” of African women, pitting daughters against mothers, younger sisters against older sisters, uncircumcised women against circumcised women.
The 21st Century has launched “The International Decade of People of African Descent”. As African women, this is our time to define ourselves and to decide for ourselves who we are, what we want to be and how we want to live our lives. For an African sister like Nimko Ali this means rejecting an ancient tradition and preventing other girls from being subjected to what she experienced as patriarchal torture. For me, this means rejecting the label FGM and embracing an ancient African tradition that embodies an ideology of female empowerment or Matriarchy. We need to talk directly to one another. So, I invite the Daughters of Eve on this soul searching journey with African Women are Free to Choose so that we can pave the way for our liberation as complete, entirely equal and wholly autonomous, grown ass women in the 21st Century.
Watch the recording of BBC HARDtalk Female Genital Mutilation Discussion here.
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