Articles on Shifting Sands
“FGM campaigners use a ‘pick and choose’ approach.”
Interview with Zwedi
Zewdi*, a 35 year old woman, originally from Eritrea, discusses her views about FGM/C and her thoughts about the campaigns against it in the UK.
You were circumcised in Eritrea as a child in the early 80’s? Yes, but I have no memory of this. It was done when I was a baby, about 40 days after I was born.
Were your brothers and sisters circumcised also? Yes. I have one brother and two sisters.
What type did the girls undergo? Female circumcision, probably removal of some of the clitoris. My labia weren’t sewn together. I watched my baby cousin having the same thing done when I was 7-8 years old.
Why? What happened? Was it a special occasion? I was just curious! I wasn’t invited so sneaked in. There wasn’t a ceremony or a party. Just a normal, routine thing that’s done to boys and girls.
Why was it done? It’s a cultural tradition in Eritrea. A bit like being baptised is if you’re a Christian. It’s something that parents do in their childrens’ best interest.
It’s a bit different in Sudan where I lived for a while also. My friends there were circumcised aged seven to eight. There was a huge ceremony with presents, singing, dancing and a party. I felt jealous because we didn’t get presents or special attention. So we understood it as being just a different tradition to Eritrea’s. I never spoke about it with those girls although I knew them into their teens. It wasn’t an issue and was not necessary because it was just a rite of passage.
You said everybody was circumcised in Eritrea when you were a child. But nobody talks about it? No, it’s not an issue. Boys don’t go around talking about it. So why would girls? What’s done is normal.
Do you consider it mutilation? I understand why people here find it distasteful but I see it as a traditional cultural practice that no longer has a place in modern society. But to call it mutilation is an exaggeration. It implies that there is a harmful intent. Parents do it because they love you and want the best for you. Everybody did it. It was part of belonging to your society.
Do people talk about it here in the UK? No. It’s a dying practice here.
How do you know that? My friends who’ve had girls don’t circumcise them. Nor do I believe girls get taken back to be circumcised either. Only male circumcision remains common. Female circumcision is not.
It’s also illegal in Eritrea. People’s perception about many things changed after the revolution. The government brought about a lot of change in terms of attitude. And legislation also. So it’s dying out. We can’t see the benefit of it. That’s the main thing. People stopped it despite it being a tradition.
There was no need for it? Yes, absolutely. With male circumcision it’s linked to cleanliness. With female, it was linked to the need to remain a virgin. But it’s dying out. People don’t do it anymore.
Here, a big part of campaigns against FGM/C is to legislate against it and to strengthen the laws. But campaigners also see the need for education and persuasion. What’s wrong with that? I think it’s wrong to legislate. It criminalises people for doing something they really believe to be important to their society, to be accepted by the communities they live within. Of course there’s something to be said for education and local campaigns within communities. But I don’t agree with the heavy-handed campaigns or the legislation that demonises and marginalises people.
Some communities who practice it live on the margins of society; they are not all integrated. These campaigns fall on deaf ears. They can write all they want to in the Guardian etc. But many women from the Eritrean or Somali community are not going to read that material. Campaigners are barking up the wrong tree if they think they will.
How will change come about? Even within marginalised communities change is already happening. People are realising that there isn’t any need for it here. The reasons for doing it don’t apply here.
Maybe that change is because of legislation and a heightened awareness? That’s not the case within my community. The Eritrean community in the UK is a relatively new one. Changes are already happening here, back home and in other parts of the world where Eritreans live. But the changes are not not happening because of legislation. People are realising that FGM serves no useful purpose now, so they are stopping the practice.
There’s a lot of grassroots campaigning going on within communities. In Eritrea, for example, specific work is being done with traditional midwives -the women who carried out circumcision. Now, FGM awareness raising campaigns are directed through them – to spread the message that it is harmful and illegal. This ties in with other education, like supporting women when giving birth. Many women used to die in childbirth and midwives were not well trained to support them. That’s where I see the change. They’re at the forefront of what goes on within communities.
What do you think about educating children in schools about FGM/C? The NSPCC e.g. encourages that approach. So the kids will in turn talk to their parents about it. A kind of ‘pester power’. A bit like what happened with anti-smoking initiatives. I haven’t heard of this. But I can’t see that it would work. People who want to carry it out, will.
Men don’t see it as important any more either? Virginity used to be a big thing for girls. They needed to be virginal on their wedding day. Circumcision was linked to keeping a girl virginal. But that’s changing. It’s probably still not as acceptable in Eritrea as it is here, but it’s no longer taboo there either. It’s now accepted there that girls will have boyfriends. That links the two together. Girls are no longer required to be virginal. Therefore circumcision is not needed.
Since independence (1991) there have been massive cultural changes within Eritrean society. For example, people are marrying ‘outsiders’ and dowries are being done away with. There’s been a shift in outlook in regard to female circumcision also. The shift is seen as a progressive development following a progressive political and cultural change.
In colonial times, some people defiantly hung on to their traditional practices. They retained a very conservative outlook. During and after the war, the Christian freedom fighters, women and men, married Muslims and vice versa. They introduced new cultural changes that were welcomed.
Sudan e.g. also had a war but the outcome is not interpreted as progressively as you suggest Eritrea’s was. How do you think positive change could come about for them? It’s a generational thing. People emigrate and as time goes by, they integrate and change. In some traditional societies, everything is governed by your communities’ culture. But moving away allows people new freedoms, to see and observe how other societies work. To reflect and question and make decisions about what’s wrong or right, good or bad about their own and the new one. It’s hard to question your culture when you’re immersed in it. Then, you have to be the same as everybody else.
Immigrants’ culture has changed here, for better or worse. They come to realise that they don’t need to circumcise their daughters any longer. And because families generally live alone here they are under less pressure from the community. That’s how generational change comes about. It may be slow but it’s better that people do it out of conviction, not under threat or fear of prosecution.
The anti-FGM campaigners ask ‘How much longer must we wait’? They want the law used to prosecute now. I don’t know. I don’t know when it’ll change. Complicated sets of values are attached to FGM. Campaigning aggressively or legislating against it will not change them overnight. That I do know. The people have to want to change themselves. Some may have a longer way to go than others.
I have three daughters. I won’t circumcise them. But I want people to come to that conclusion themselves, just as I did. Putting them in prison for breaking the law is not going to help or change their minds. Maybe it’ll even do the exact opposite?
But anti-FGM/C campaigners say putting people in prison sends out warning message to others that prosecutions will happen if they continue. But people don’t see it as mutilation. I’ll give you an example. I talked about this to a woman with daughters. I asked her how she felt about circumcision. She said: ‘Do I want my daughters to end up like those girls on the telly here, half naked and prancing about, some even drunk?’ They see problems with western culture that frighten them, so want to preserve what they see as important about their culture, in the interest of their children. Protecting their daughters from promiscuity etc. They will go underground if necessary if they feel driven from the mainstream. It’ll all becomes hush – hush, leaving some girls ‘at risk’.
Anti-FGM campaigners talk about ‘the cutting season’ i.e. school holidays. Is this a common practice? No. Definitely not. People save up and travel a long way to see their families during the expensive, summer school break. It’s just a holiday. It’s definitely not happening among the Eritrean communities that I know.
A doctor was accused of re-infibulating a Somali woman early this year. Do people talk about it? How was it perceived? But re-infibulation is not practiced by the Somali people! Surely the prosecutor should have know that?
But no, there has been no talk about it. I doubt that anybody is even aware of it. A lot of the women I speak to do not follow what’s in the media. Half don’t even read or write English. They’re not participating fully in society. That’s what I mean about the campaigns’ irrelevance to them.
Who then should be talking to communities who are not integrated and/or don’t speak English, about FGM/C? We should do other things to engage them, not just focus solely on female circumcision. It needs to be about positively encouraging them and offering them opportunities to be part of the wider community and of British society generally.
Many people live in poverty and are marginalised from society. They can’t speak English or are not integrated into the mainstream. You’re not going to engage them by talking about FGM. Other work is needed first to make them feel welcome and included in society. There is a need to talk about immigration, education etc. Some charities and community workers understand this better than others so are better accepted and more respected.
I can see that it would be a strange thing, shocking even, to go into a community and to prioritise FGM as a topic, particularly as it’s a taboo issue. Yeah, you can get people being very defensive about it. It’s perceived as picking on bits of my culture you think is disgusting but not talking to me about the things that are important to me.
Such as? Feeding my kids, my housing situation, my kids education. Your priority may be FGM but it may not be mine.
I know, for example, that some Eritreans have never spoken to a white person outside of work or a formal setting. They don’t have British friends. They’ve never been to a white person’s house. They don’t mix or socialise. And that’s not just Eritreans. Lots of immigrant communities buy from shops owned by their own people, they eat only their own food. We keep people in boxes and everybody stays in that box. It’s hard then when people come and say – get out of your box, I want to talk about this one thing (FGM) only. We need to talk about the box first.
Some mums at my children’s school don’t speak English. They have little involvement with the school. They have their own friends. If you say ‘Hello’, they are wary. I’m closer to some of them now, they know who I am and where I’m from. They will say ‘Hello’ to me now now but won’t speak to my white friend. Suspicion of outsiders is still huge. It’s hard to get them to talk openly.
And why should they trust me? Or talk to me about FGM? Why should they?
Is patriarchy the problem? Not in the sense that women do it to other women and men are not involved. But I don’t think that men or women actually benefit from the practice.
But fathers want girls to remain virgins until marriage? Yes. My mother and my gran often talked to me about the importance of remaining a virgin until I married. I’d bring shame and disgrace on the family if I didn’t. Their reputation within the community as well as their honour was at stake.
That’s because for many girls in traditional societies, getting married is the only option open to them, so being a virgin until then is crucial. As a child you belong to your family. You grow up and you belong to your husband. My mother was engaged when she was five. She had no choice in the matter. She wore a necklace to show that she was promised to somebody. She married him at 15.
Marriage is therefore crucial to your survival. Everything depends on it. Traditionally, if on the wedding night it was discovered that the girl wasn’t a virgin, she’d be stripped to her undergarments, put on a donkey and sent home, humiliated, for all to see. The family would be publicly shamed. It was cruel. Thankfully that doesn’t happen any more.
Here FGM is viewed as violence against women (VAW), and an assault on a child. What do you think? No, I disagree. The intent is not to hurt or abuse the child. It’s done to keep their honour and secure their future within their societies in ways that their parents believe is best for them. FGM is barbaric. It’s painful. It causes complications. I don’t agree with it. But it’s not violence.
I certainly don’t feel abused or violated. Neither am I a victim or a survivor. It’s just something that happened to me and I’ve lived with it. It hasn’t stopped me from having relationships or children. Calling it VAW is wrong. It’s not the most pleasant of practices and I’m sure we can do better than that.
I don’t want it done to my daughters or to anybody else. It’s not something I excuse but today’s campaigns and pressure to use the law is not the way to engage with people about FGM.
Zewdi* is a pseudonym. She is married and has two young daughters. She lives and works in London.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.