By Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, PhD
On Monday, March 9, 2020 The Guardian-UK, a long-time campaigner against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) published the article below by Dr. Sada Mire, an archaeologist and self-described FGM survivor.
We Won't Eradicate FGM If We Keep Misunderstanding Its History by Sada Mire, PhD
The following is a response I posted on my facebook page @fuambaisiaahmadu
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 specifically 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) Male and Female Circumcision among the Mandinka of The Gambia: Understanding the Dynamics of Traditional Dual Sex Systems in a Contemporary African Society. LAP Lambert Academic Publishing. Düsseldorf: Germany