Should We Really Fight FGM?

I clicked on a link from Pruncie and it led me to these stories. By the time I finished reading, I was crying, but I was also thinking. I was thinking about a discussion I had a few weeks back while sitting with a client on a beautiful beach.

What. We were working.

Anyway, we were looking at the ocean and a boat appeared. The client started talking about how evocative that sail was. Just by looking at that faded white triangle, he thought about explorers, conquistadors, Christopher Columbus, pirates, lost islands. That’s a lot of ideas to spring from a dirty piece of cloth.

For me, the sail made me think of this replica dhow I saw in a museum in Zanzibar. I remember looking at the flimsy historical thing and thinking, ‘You could pay me a million dollars and I wouldn’t get into that thing. Not even to sail inside a bathtub.’

Yet people used those ‘flimsy things’ to sail across oceans and travel halfway across the world. And they didn’t even get paid for it … except maybe by ngingi with the locals. They must have been nuts.

The discussion drifted to whether the sailors think sunsets are romantic, or whether their main concern is, ‘Oooh fish!’ Perhaps their idea of romance is taking said fish home to their wives, who gladly make love to them despite the smell. I wondered whether these sailors ever stand in the boat and ‘fill their lungs with salty sea air while gazing at the vastness of beauteous nature,’ like the fishermen in my stories.

Maybe that’s why one editor called my characters unrealistic – my stories are full of philosophical soldiers and deeply thinking fishermen. The editor felt I was using these characters as puppets and imposing my ideas on them, forcing my words into their mouths.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s not what activists are doing.

The first story in the magazine talks about FGM among the Somali. They mostly practise Type 3 Mutilation, where a girl’s clitoris and her inner lips are cut off, and the outer lips are sliced and/or stitched together. With time, the skin fuses and the ‘hole’ pretty much disappears.

On the wedding night, the groom has to forcefully penetrate the fused area as a test of his manhood. The women scream from the pain, and the men sometimes yell from the effort. In the process, the guys get injured too, but they have to keep going. Otherwise, they’re taken as boys, not real men.

To help this process along, the newlyweds are put in a house far from everyone else. The ‘privacy’ of their honeymoon protects their family from the awful noise.  Then men in this article are good ones, because they question the process. They say that many men quietly divorce their wives when:

  1. they can’t penetrate
  2. they can’t have regular sex since each session hurts the wife too much

The point of this ritual is to keep the women chaste. And it works, because after FGM, sex hurts so much that they have no desire to do it unless forced. By their husbands. If they refuse too often, they get divorced, yet, ironically, if they’re not stitched up to begin with, no one will marry them.

Another story in the magazine talks about Maasai girls. Usually, their clitoris [and part of the hood] is cut off, but they escape the part of being stitched up. The girls interviewed for this story insist that they were cut voluntarily and healed well. They were tired of being teased by their agemates, and they believed that unless they were cut, they could not be married.

For girls like these, it’s not their bodies that are mutilated – it’s their minds. Funnily enough, many of the voluntarily cut girls insisted they would not have their daughters cut, even as they admitted that they have to be cut in order to have daughters.

Many of these girls don’t realise that they may be forced to do just that. One mother says that she protected her daughter until the girl herself insisted on being cut. The mother had been threatened with expulsion, and the girl couldn’t bear the verbal abuse from her agemates. She begged her mother to let her get cut.

According to the article, the origin of circumcision comes from Maasai folklore. A girl named Naipei allegedly slept with an enemy and was punished by circumcision – to protect her from her own libido. The whole idea is to keep a girl chaste by making her hate sex. It’s no different from the old English Aunts who told their nieces, ‘Sex is for babies only. It’s painful hateful, and dirty’. Only, these myths were not physically reinforced.

Why do I doubt the validity of fighting this thing? Girls bleed to death. They’re in agony during sex, menstruation and childbirth. They catch infections and incurable diseases. And after all that, they still get divorced for not providing conjugal rights.

But these same women are praised for their bravery. Men in those communities will not marry uncut girls, and honour the ones that bear the pain.

I realise it’s more about ownership. You see the pain of your woman every time you’re inside her, so you know she won’t risk it anywhere else. ‘Traditional’ women are not meant to enjoy sex, that’s why us ‘modern’ ones are labelled for daring to say we like it. Some guys want to tame us by taking out the fun.

But the girls in these communities feel degraded when they’re uncut. They can’t find husbands, and they’re not taught to value independence. In their minds, you’re someone’s daughter or someone’s wife, no matter how many years you’ve been in school. They’re taught that if you’re not one or the other, you’re useless.

So are we helping them by telling them things they don’t [or can’t … or won’t] understand? When they see us progressive women with out cars and high heels and degrees, our achievements and our confidence, they still ask, ‘Where is your husband?’ And when they don’t see a ring, they think you’re worth less then a pregnant termite. All our glory is worth nothing to them.

One part of me says that these grown women are like children and that we need to educate them, to free them from their ignorance. Just like the western powers did when they brought us Jesus, Mary … and cotton fabric…

Not the same thing, right? I’m being sacrilegious just by comparing them, right?

But when we’re looking at the girl who’s wailing, pleading with her mother to let her be cut, to risk bleeding to death because she believes that being dead is better than living with the shame of being uncircumsised …  and we’re lecturing her about the value of believing in herself, aren’t we just pulling the marionette strings on philosophical fishermen? We can’t get inside her head, we can’t experience her pain or shame, but how bad must it be that she’s willing to risk torture and death?

We do hear stories of girls who want out, girls who run away to escape, but it’s strange that those stories are a minority. Most girls seem content to survive the operation, get married, and have sex when they must.  They think it’s okay. They think it’s normal. For them, it’s our activism that is strange.

I realised this in a new way when talking to a fellow writer that I deeply respect. He had just watched a video on male circumcision, and he was traumatised.

I laughed at him. For a long, long time.

I’m so used to it, it doesn’t seem like mutilation when it’s guys. But hearing his horror as he described the skin being pulled loose and hacked off with a big knife [fwap!!], I can see how it would look to him.

Just like it’s normal for us to think of guys being snipped, the ladies from those communities think it’s normally to be chopped. I’m not saying it’s right, or even sane. I wouldn’t do it, and I’d kill anyone who put my daughter through it. But is it possible that maybe … just maybe we need to see it from their point of view?

Bed of lies Matchbox 20

For more information on 3CB, click here.

10 thoughts on “Should We Really Fight FGM?

  1. I always wonder the same thing myself about getting my privates cut up and stitched, first there is nothing to be cut as far as I am concerned we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.
    But most of the girls who cry to be cut I knew a few, who were my friends all of 10 years old and insisted on being cut. It was a glorious affair new clothes and shoes and special food. I strongly suspect that they did not know what would happen much later, they were too blinded by the feast! At 10 years a girl’s knowledge of her sexuality is rudimentary.
    What I appreciate about the activism surrounding FGM is that one should be left free to decide when they are old enough to know the story behind being cut. I could bet my last cent that if a girl was let to wait until the age of consent before getting cut and then is informed of the consequences of getting cut to her sexuality not one would go through with the procedure.

  2. Is it really their view or that of a bunch of men who need them tamed and a society that relegates them to that status?
    FGM defeats its purpose because eventually they will be married off n have to die, or live in pain for the pleasure of men am sorry but nothing about this act has anything to benefit the women so NO its not their view……and i disagree with you

  3. FGM jusst like the binding of women’s feet as practised by the Chinese, is a form of control. Men want to control women and it does not help that sometimes women are their own worst enemies with female family members forcing the young ones to undergo the procedure wholly knowing the consequences. When a woman feels she does not own her own body and her destiny is to be someone’s wife, to please that one man, it does not matter how much the activists preach, FGM will still go ahead among that group. It is not unheard of for grown up women even from the kikuyu community to undergo that because their husbands want them to as they are not considered marriageable(or maybe they cannot bear to have a woman who enjoys sex as the man feels threatened more so given how some men do not know their way around the female body).

  4. Maybe instead of seeing it from their point of view, maybe we need to understand why we cut the genitals of our children. If we analyze our male circumcision culture and see why we do it, maybe we can figure out how to stop cutting our male children. After we understand that, we should have a much better understanding of cultures that support FGM. Until we understand why people cut children, girls and boys, we cannot hope to change that behavior.

  5. Of course it’s wrong. We’re inured to it because of male genital mutilation in the Jewish community. It all has to be stopped. Genitals belong to the person, who can make a choice as an adult. The body belongs to the person in it, not parent, culture or religion.

  6. 3CB good article, you have touched on the issues that really affect these poor women and yet we are in the 21 Century. I’m guess alot of awareness through community education. Wasn’t FGM banned sometime back.

  7. This is an amazing article. It should be read widely!

    I hope things improve. But yes 3CB, you do have an interesting view that most people, in most circumstances aside FGM, don’t look at.

  8. I respect the fact that different cultures all have traditions that seem strange to outsiders (after all, we don’t really have a good reason for men not ever wearing dresses). But also consider that people can be pressured and brutalized into thinking that they need to do almost anything. A girl thinking that she needs to be mutilated to fit in is a sign of mental oppression, not just a cultural quirk. If it were a mere cultural difference, they would to it to make themselves happy, not to gain acceptance by men. This sick practice should be recognizable by anyone as brutal and needless torture.

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