Articles on Shifting Sands
We need to understand FGM history to deal with it
Sara Mire’s recent opinion piece entitled ‘We won’t eradicate FGM if we keep misunderstanding its history’ is drawn from a chapter in her new book ‘Divine Fertility’. In it, she develops “the deeprooted relationship between the ideology of sacred kinship in North-East Africa, archaeology and the continuation of practices such as FGM.”
She suggests it was part of a collection of sacrificial rituals to the divine in trying to avoid an ancestral curse. The initial intention was an act of self-preservation related to sacred blood, existence itself, and reproduction. The issues of sexual control, virginity and virtue are secondary and more recent additions.
This lack of knowledge has hampered efforts to tackle the issue. ‘Though often long-forgotten, the tradition of communal sacrifice still leads people to believe an ancestors’ curse will materialise in a lack of rain, failed crops, droughts, dead livestock and illness. Who wants to risk that? So cutting a girl is thought to be worth it, much like it was thought worth risking losing a son to a beast in a ritual hunt or the stick fights. Many people in north-east Africa still blame droughts on those who have abandoned their beliefs.
This helps explain why, despite wanting FGM to end, some continue to have their daughters cut: they do not want to be the ones to bring shame and dishonour.
But expectations that people blindly adhere to traditions are based on a poor concept of culture. People’s beliefs and practices change.
The recent Population Council report acknowledges that the practice with its social and cultural underpinnings, is changing, partially linked to changes in mothers’ educational level as well as increased female autonomy.
Demographic and Health Surveys in 15 African and MENA (Middle East & North Africa) countries up to 2019 have shown the prevalence of FGM/C among girls and women aged 15–19 years is markedly lower than among those aged 45–49 years. And is less common in urban than rural settings.
In 2015, Johnsdotter and Essén reported that American anthropologist and circumcision expert Ellen Gruenbaum pointed out that when ‘reformers assume that people follow “tradition” for no conscious reason, they overlook the complexity of decision-making processes within a culture’ [60, p.456]. She emphasises how culture is always dynamic. Many people who have the ability to escape the practice of female circumcision – when the social pressure disappears in a new social context – choose to do that, when the possibility presents itself after migration.
Cultural change follows migration
Johnsdotter and Essén noted in the review of current knowledge on cultural change after migration, that there is a tendency towards abandonment of the practice. And that trends of radical change especially in regard to the most extensive form are evident. The widespread interpretation that Islam would require circumcision of girls is also questioned when, for example, Somalis meet other migrants, such as Arab Muslims, who do not circumcise their daughters.
The few criminal court cases for circumcision of girls that have taken place in Western countries also support the conclusion that substantial change of the practice has occurred among migrants.
Publication of Mire’s opinion piece was welcomed by many. This response by Sierra Leonean-American anthropologist Dr Fuambai Sia Ahmadu was one of the fullest and most thoughtful.
‘It is refreshing to see a more serious understanding of the cultural and symbolic roots of female circumcision or what opponents including this author refer to as FGM in preancient African religious beliefs about Divine Fertility. I do agree that FGM campaigning has been largely ineffective because it misses the point: Practitioners uphold female circumcision because of perceived religious/ritual, aesthetic, health and sexual benefits for women (as defenders of male circumcision would say about their own practice).
However, I disagree with the simplicity of the author’s dismissal of these factors as “irrational”. Circumcision beliefs are not about irrational “fears” of ancestral retribution (although some informants might say this) but are based on both collective and subjective ontological experiences – of sex, gender, identity, preference, desire, aesthetics, hygiene, power and social status in relation to divine creation of heterosexual marriage.
Female and male circumcision cannot be divorced from their original meaning rooted in a specific symbolic order – the divine creation/separation of female and male, or specially wives and husbands for the purpose of marriage and the social reproduction of family, kinship, matrilineages and patrilineages. This is what connects the various forms of circumcision, male and female, vertically and horizontally from preancient societies to the Abrahamic traditions to the present state of “forgottenness” that the author describes.
Unlike the author, I am not an FGM survivor- I am a proudly circumcised/initiated and sexually confident African woman. I think we need to get rid of the terminology FGM – that does more harm than good – and treat both female and male circumcision as a part of the same symbolic complex that gives sense to these practices. We can certainly advocate for the equal regulation of bodily practices to ensure prevailing human rights values such as consent. But in my view it is fruitless, morally unnecessary and a violation of other fundamental human rights principles (i.e. self-determination) to speak of “eradication” of cherished cultural, religious or aesthetic values and preferences that different people in different places choose to uphold.
Readers can learn more about this in my book (based on my PhD Thesis on the Mandinka of The Gambia) Male and Female Circumcision among the Mandinka of The Gambia: Understanding the Dynamics of Traditional Dual Sex Systems in. Contemporary African Society. LAP Lambert Academic Publishing. Düsseldorf: Germany.’
Activist and author Nimco Ali wrote ‘Fascinating that you took a different viewpoint to the majority of just those who wishes to harm their own. Very true that a lot of things are done out of habits and abiding community unspoken laws. Hopefully Somaliland gets to a point where new community laws are created if God wills.’
Opinion pieces like Mire’s and thoughtful responses help shine a much needed light on what has been a very one-sided, public discussion for far too long. After all, who wants another hundred years of official campaigns against FGM that don’t work?
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.