Wednesday, July 21, 2010


In French here, it’s ‘l’excision.’ Most people know what we’re talking about when we say female circumcision. In academic discourse, the practice was referred to as female genital mutilation. More recently, this was redefined with the conscientious term of female genital cutting (FGC). In Mali, the practice is widespread, concentrated among certain groups (Bambara, Maraka, Nomo –the blacksmiths, Mandinka). My region, the Bambara heartland, is where it is practiced most intensively (usually surveys say 98% of the population). It’s an ancient tradition in Africa, predating the arrival of Islam by a long shot. FGC is practiced in a variety of ways from a small nick of the clitoris to the stitching together of the inner or outer labia (infamously practiced in Somalia and Egypt). According to health-related NGO’s working in Mali, there are four classified types of FGC (Type 1 – consists of cutting a part of or removing the clitoris and/or the hood of the clitoris, Type 2 – cutting a part of or removing the clitoris and labia minor, with or without harming the labia major, Type 3 – infibulation, reducing the vaginal opening - may include modifying clitoris as well, Type 4 – any other practice that modifies the female genitalia for non-medical purposes). Most Malian women undergo Type 2 according to information dispersed by health organizations. From what I understand from personal discussion on the topic, the practice performed here usually involves a cut or partial to complete removal of the clitoris.

I recently read a CNN article about how the American Academy of Pediatrics had rescinded ‘a controversial policy statement raising the idea that doctors in some communities should be able to substitute demands for female genital cutting with a harmless clitoral "pricking" procedure.’ This change was made to appease advocacy groups and the Western international community. I was struck by the blatant Western bias and found myself in a kind of no man’s land on the issue. It left me with questions such as ‘Where does this obsession with FGC come from in a place where it’s not even practiced? Why do we ignore other types of body modification? And what is so deeply unnerving about ‘medicalizing’ a pricking procedure that would satisfy cultural requirements and remove the very concerns the international community has raised?’ Perhaps, these questions have obvious answers, but they are worth illuminating.

Why the fixation? It’s a cultural practice that runs so counter to ours. In the Western world the practice is a seen as a complete affront to feminism. It demonstrates a will to maintain control over women’s sexuality, recapitulating the existent patriarchal system. As any other young, feminist Westerner would be, ‘I’m against FGC.’ I am personally outraged by the practice. Experiences, such as having to pay my neighbor a visit to wish their daughter healthy again (a girl of 5 years who had just been ‘cut’), have only reinforced my disapproval. But, my experience here has undoubtedly made me more attune to Western biases. And I fear that we often become so impassioned by our own goodwill that we end up crusading on behalf of a disinclined people. Adding to the cross-cultural misunderstanding, I believe our benevolence is misconstrued as cultural imperialism.

So why is FGC practiced? From personal communication with Malians, the most predominant response I receive is it’s performed to moderate the sexual desire of women. Women are believed to be naturally more sexually-driven than men (converse to popular Western belief). I’ve had many a person tell me that even if they have doubts of the utility of the practice in this sense today, they will have it done to their children as a precaution. Furthermore, it’s an important expression of cultural identity.

What are Western objections to FGC based on? I think it can be summed up by pointing to the concern of ensuing health problems, as a human rights violation, and, from a feminist angle, as sexual oppression.

1. I believe long-term health concerns (such as infections, painful or prolonged menstruation, fistula) are related to Type 3, not Type 2 as practiced here. For Type 1 and 2, health concerns are based mostly on the immediate act…e.g. infection immediately following the procedure or the same blade being used on a group of girls. My friends who have undergone FGC say they don’t experience any health-related problems in the present.

2. As a human rights violation. Put simply, it boils down to a girl not having a choice on the subject. But, recall that human rights are a Western creation. And the parents making the decision for the girl are most likely making it with her well-being in mind (in addition to the reasons noted previously, she risks being ostracized by her community). Furthermore, it’s about maintaining a long-held tradition, a cultural requirement. It’s not supposed to be an act of cruelty; it’s an expression of cultural identity.

3. Feminist angle – does it limit sexual fulfillment? A topic I’ve only discussed with a few close friends, but they say, despite being affected by FGC, they derive sexual fulfillment from intercourse.

Despite my friends’ claims, I imagine that physiologically FGC must diminish sexual fulfillment. However, a woman’s sexuality is also psychological and sociological. Not undergoing FGC may cause a sense of shame, which could be just as detrimental to sexual pleasure for psychological and sociological reasons. Is it then possible to view FGC like other body modifications (e.g. breast augmentation, nose jobs, tummy tucks)? In the example given above, does FGC not fulfill a culture’s beauty-femininity requirement, as any other body modification?

Malians, in the course of discussion on the topic, will tell me that their ideas on FGC (and female promiscuity) don’t apply to me. They assume that ‘chez les blanches’ (where the white people live), it’s not a part of our culture and must not be necessary. Is this a naïve point of view, or is it incongruously open-minded? On the flip side, there has been Western financed advocacy against FGC in Mali for decades. The efforts emphasized health concerns posed by FGC. But, when this simply led to the increased medicalization of the practice, the debate shifted towards the human rights aspect. And I think this is where it gets tricky. There’s a philosophical choice that must be made between respecting another’s culture (and not imposing your own system of beliefs, customs, and values) and accepting the universal idea of human rights transcending cultural norms. I don’t think in this case you can reconcile cultural sensitivity and cultural relativity with the Western notion of human rights.

Also, I don’t ignore that there are many Malian voices that speak out against FGC. But, at the same time, even those who take part in the anti-FGC marches, don anti-FGC apparel, work for organizations that disseminate information on the danger of FGC, will often have FGC performed on their daughters.

Today, the ritual has changed in many areas of the country (I think particularly in cities). Traditionally, the rite was practiced on a group of girls at a similar age from the same village at the same time (20-30 girls being ‘cut’ at one time). This probably served a social function of creating a kind of bond between women, or a source of group solidarity. Today, it’s done secretly and individually. The male circumcision rite is still performed in groups and much more visible (afterwards, they dress up in a color denoting their class and clap broken pieces of calabashes together demanding money on the side of a road. This is the only occasion you can cast money at people. I’ve literally chucked coins out of a moving vehicle to a group of these boys).

In conclusion, I recognize the importance of awareness/advocacy – of the potential health risks and against stigmatization. It’s unfortunate that this notion was first planted by the West, which continues to the present to view Africa through a paternalistic lens – it’s the ‘dark continent’ that needs our help and support. It’s evident to me in my personal interactions and even in the media (Malian popular music always tends to be feminist and socially critical) that Mali wants to deal with its own issues. They don’t want their discourse steered by ‘l’occident’ (the West).

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