Is my generally positive experience of initiation and excision unique? Response to Khadi Mansaray and others on Sierra Leone Gender Watch Facebook Group
Hi Khadi and others and thank you so much for posting my appearance on SBS-TV on your FB group. There's a lot here in these exchanges (on the Sierra Leone Gender Watch) to discuss but I'll focus on one major point - the suggestion that my experience is unique. I have been studying female initiation and circumcision for over twenty years now and spent five years on the field in Gambia doing nothing but attending these ceremonies and witnessing first hand hundreds of these operations as well as talking to doctors, nurses, traditional circumcisers and so on. I have also studied the available medical evidence -- and this is very important. The most reliable studies (and most are not) are those that have a control group that compare the experiences of both circumcised and uncircumcised women. Time and time again, it became apparent to me that my experience is not unique but the norm, contrary to media and anti-FGM activist representations. Whether the issue is sexuality or reproductive health, there are hardly any differences between circumcised and uncircumcised women.
How do I know this? I know in this new digital age of twitter, facebook, instagram and so on, folks just hate to have to actually read something but I encourage everyone on this forum to have a serious look at the Public Policy Advisory on African Female Genital Surgeries (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hast.81/full). This groundbreaking article was published by a leading bioethics journal, the Hastings Center Report, which is in turn published by Wiley-Blackwell – perhaps the largest academic publishers in the world. In the advisory, fifteen professionals (including myself) from a cross-section of fields, based in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia put our professional careers and reputations on the line to present the most up-to-date data on female circumcision, sexuality, reproductive health, patriarchy and other issues. The signatories are chairs of academic departments at major US, European, Canadian and Australian universities; they are medical practitioners, feminist and legal scholars as well as anthropologists. Only one other signatory - a Kenyan feminist scholar, Wairimu Njambi - is African and circumcised.
The major findings of this nearly five year collaboration are that: 1. circumcised women (all three types) have normal, healthy sexual experiences as compared with uncircumcised women; 2. circumcised women (all three types) fare pretty much the same as uncircumcised women when it comes to maternal and perinatal mortality as well as sexual health; and that, 3. when provided with same standards of healthcare, circumcised women fare the same and in some cases slightly better than uncircumcised women in terms of childbirth.
This is not to say that some circumcised women have not suffered psychologically or even physically (as we saw in the Insight Program and Khadija on this forum) but that this kind of experience is not the norm. In my opinion, if one woman says she suffers and actually agrees that she is mutilated then that is reason alone to rethink how we carry out these practices and this is why I personally advocate for consent. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to consent in my own case and I know many other women who also joined Bondo as adults. In some East African ethnic groups, females undergo excision in their early teens and twenties and are quite sexually experienced beforehand.
But I think we have to be careful and a bit wary about jumping on the bandwagon when it comes to using the racist language, methods and objectives of anti-FGM campaigns. The radical feminist overtones and cultural imperialism is not something I believe we should imbibe as Africans, especially given that it is predominantly white women who are driving and financing this global campaign. We can discuss implementing social change that is evidence based and not racially charged or divisive. It is simply not okay to use disturbing colonial images about a dark Africa in order to secure funding to “eradicate” aspects of someone else’s culture, especially given that white mothers and daughters are doing the same thing in their own back yard and with impunity.
If it is a question of protecting girls before they reach the age of consent from surgical procedures they may resent in future, this can be addressed through culturally sensitive programs and policies as well as legislation that are applied across board to all children irrespective of gender, socioeconomic class, religion, ethnicity, culture, nationality and so on. My purpose as a Bondo woman is to make sure that circumcised girls and women are not being unfairly stigmatized through global policies that they have little power to challenge as well as to ensure the important social and cultural value of Bondo in maintaining gender balance in what we call traditional society. I do not want to see women’s bodies come under the control of predominantly male politicians in Sierra Leone no more than I want to see our genitals politicized by western feminists and others with their own agenda. It is absolutely appalling to me that African women are being jailed in France while Western male (and female) doctors are free to perform very similar procedures on white women and girls.
Visit tomorrow to read my response to Khadi’s question concerning proponents’ beliefs about the health and hygiene benefits of female circumcision.