Table of contents
Editorial: Female Circumcision in Africa
by Prof. Gloria T. Emeagwali
Chief Editor of AfricaUpdate
The Nigerian feminist and literary critic, Molara Ogundipe-
Leslie, in her provocative and insightful text, Recreating Ourselves:
African Women and Critical Transformations (AWP, 1994), wonders
at the growing popularity of "narratives of victimhood" about African
women, in Euro-American discourse, over and above their other experiences-a
discourse totally isolated from the "violence" done to women's bodies
in Western cosmetic surgery and disembodied from the roles and activities
of African women in other non-sexual domains.
This issue of Africa Update offers the analyses
of three African women on the explosive issue of female circumcision
(so-called female genital mutilation). While none of the accounts constitutes
a blind defence of this social practice, all three emphasize the need
for a holistic perspective that brings into the discourse the rich,
complex and diversified nature of African civilization- in its patriarchal
and matrifocal dimensions, its strength and weakness, its glory and
pain. African Polytheists (including the Ancient Egyptians) as well
as African Muslims, Christians and Jews, have often practiced female
and male circumcision in their rites of passage, for the transition
to puberty and adulthood seldom went unnoticed.
Ifeyinwa Iweriebor points out that the practitioners do
not perform genital surgery on their girls (and sons) to harm them,
but rather they engage in the activity for "the noblest of reasons."
For Apena the issue of female cicumcision is more appropriately contextualised
in analyses of age, class and power, than in term of gender. Aisha Samad
Matias reminds us that the custom was in some cases done to enhance
sexuality; that all groups circumcising females generally circumcise
males; and that the actual day of circumcision is one of accomplishment
and recognition as much as fear and pain.
Each of the three contributors to this issue of Africa
Update has been active in both research and social struggle for
over two decades. Iweriebor was indeed a founding member of the influential
Nigerian organisation, Women in Nigeria, which was established in 1982.
Adeline Apena, after graduating from the London School of Economics
and the University of Lagos, carried out research on the NCWS, another
powerful women's organisation, ideologically distinct from the more
radical "Women in Nigeria" organisation. Aisha Samad Matias is not only
the Executive Director of the Somali Association for Relief and Development,
but also directs FCIASN, Female Circumcision Information Advocacy and
We thank them for agreeing to contribute to Africa Update.
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Brief Reflections on Clitorodectomy
by Ifeyinwa Iweriebor
Black Women in Publishing, New York
There has in recent times been a hue and cry about the
practice of genital surgery on women in Africa. The prevailing perspective
in America has been absolute condemnation. What is bothersome is not
so much that people have a negative opinion of the practice, but that
the issue is misrepresented as a form of child abuse or a tool of gender
oppression. The language and tone of the outcry in most cases reflects
a total lack of respect for the culture of other peoples. Even more
bothersome is the false portrayal: the falsification of statistics and
a successful demonization of the practitioners.
There may be an on-going debate about the effects or necessity
for the procedure, but the essential truth is that the practitioners
do not perform genital surgery on their girls, (nor on their sons for
that matter) to oppress them or do them any harm. For them the procedure
is carried out for the noblest of reasons, the best of intentions and
in good faith. The fact that it can be performed in public in the countries
that permit it demonstrates that the practitioners do not consider it
dirty laundry or a dark hidden secret.
All over the world, innumerable reasons abound for the
practice of genital surgery of both sexes, a procedure that dates back
to a least 5,000 B.C. Broadly, they can be categorized according to
health, religion, social, political and cultural considerations. While
there has always been debate about the hows, whys and effects of the
procedure, in recent times the genital surgery of women and girl children
has been embroiled in contentious controversy.
In Africa, the rationale for genital surgery are as diverse
as the continent itself. However one overriding perspective is that
it is conceptualized as a process that applies to both men and women.
Hence a framework that differentiates it according to gender is not
a useful tool of analysis.
Be that as it may, here are some of the posited reasons
for carrying out the procedure on women. For some cultures it is a component
of a rite of passage to socially acceptable adulthood. For others it
is a nuptial necessity. For yet others, it is a mark of courage, particularly
where it is carried out on older people. For some it is a reproductive
aid, increasing fertility. For others, it enhances sexuality. Many parents
want surgery done on their daughters because it protects them from would-be
seducers and rapists.
There are several countries in Africa where efforts are
being made to discourage female genital surgery. They are doing this
by providing up-to-date information to show its disadvantages, and why
it may not be necessary to achieve whatever it is believed to accomplish.
For example, with respect to infant mortality, when health workers explained
to women that sexuality transmitted diseases could be treated with medication
and that it is possible to have healthy living babies without genital
surgery, they were convinced to refrain from having their daughters
undergo genital surgery.
There is however, no question that like any other form
of surgery, particularly for the delicate region of the groin, if carried
out improperly, or under unsanitary conditions, the damage done can
be absolutely terrible. That is why, as long as it remains a practice,
little girls and women deserve to have access to the same quality medical
care that little boys and men have.
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Female circumcision in Africa
By Aisha Samad Matias
Director Women's Studies, CUNY
I. Background and Scope
Over 80-100 million women in the world have experienced
the custom first recorded over 4000 years ago in ancient Egypt. Because
of its origin, it is sometimes, particularly in its variation as infibulation,
referred to as a "pharonic custom." The ritual apparently spread from
the Nile and its tributaries into adjacent regions such as Palestine.
It spread through migration routes into the Magreb area (N.W. Africa),
and across the Sahara and Sahel regions into the West African savanna.
It also spread along The Red Sea Coast into The Horn of Africa and parts
of East Africa. In some areas it is practiced by almost all groups,
in other areas by some ethnic groups and not others, and in other African
areas, such as Southern Africa, by only a few groups.
Traditional Spread Outside of Africa
Female circumcision (FC) is traditionally practiced in
some other areas outside of Africa. In those areas, it is found among
certain indigenous Andean and Australian ethnic groups (of varied traditional
religious and cultural backgrounds) and among Bedouin groups in Israel
and surrounding areas. It was practiced (before European colonialism)
in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, although in these mainly matrilineal
areas, it was done to enhance female sexuality rather than to control
it as in most other places.
In Africa Today
This custom is practiced predominantly in the Nile, Sahara,
Sahel and Horn regions, where in most areas the overwhelming majority
of women have or will experience it. In those areas some groups who
traditionally did not have this custom are adopting it when they move
into regions or urban zones where it is practiced, for example in Khartoum.
In adjacent African regions such as West and East Africa, many cultures
traditionally have practiced this custom. Examples of such groups are
the Kikuyu and Masai of East Africa and the Fulani, Ibo and Hausa of
West Africa. The custom is also found, to a lesser degree, among some
groups in central and southern Africa.
Most western seminars or media focus on FC as a Muslim
custom or among African Muslim groups. This is interesting because this
custom, not only originated in Africa during pharonic (pre-Judaic, Christian
or Islamic times), but it is still practiced in the continent among
African groups practicing traditional Judaism (in Ethiopia); traditional
Coptic Christianity (Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt); some of those who became
Christian during or after the European colonial era; and among some
In some regions, FC can be seen to be practiced by certain
socio-economic groups, for example, among those of a particular culture
or lifestyle: nomadic versus settled, or farming herding; Muslim versus
Christian or traditionalist. In other regions, one finds the custom
practiced by those of varied cultural / socio-economic types, for example,
among sedentary urban and farming groups and among migratory herding
groups in the Ethiopian-Eritrean highlands and Ethiopian-Somali Ogaden
regions. It is mainly found in predominantly patrilineal groups in Africa.
Some groups circumcising females also circumcise males.
Many groups that now circumcise men but not women were
influenced by missionary and other European colonial influences to stop
circumcising women and to also stop or reduce the traditional long socialization
period, rituals and ceremonies preparing boys to be men. In the colonial
period (the British in Kenya, see Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya)
and also today some modern westernized African States have sought to
minimize, limit or outlaw certain traditional practices of some ethnic
groups within their borders (which, of course, do not reflect traditional
ethnic borders). Such governments apparently value colonial or western
institutions (such as government schools and churches) and the socialization
of youth toward the sedentary lifestyle, national unity, loyalty and
"modernization" much more than traditional customs such as the migratory
lifestyle, ethnic Anbal group unity, loyalty and traditionalism.
Today, for example, the Kikuyu of Kenya find their land
and customs under attack. The Masai of East Africa find their traditional
area divided into two nation states, Kenya and Tanzania. They find themselves
being pushed into more and more arid areas as officials and tourist
companies feel that their cattle are overgrazing on grass-lands that
wild animals that attract tourists need. The traditional Masai socialization
of youth (both male and female) that lasts several years involves travel
in groups with elders throughout their traditional region. During this
period youth are intensely socialized for adult life, including several
ordeal rituals, which includes male and female circumcision. The initiations
are firmly rooted in and dedicated to their Masai identity and reject
modern westernized society, which they are taught is inferior to their
own lifestyle. After completion of this period, they are considered
Masai adults and able to marry. Male and female circumcision is an essential
part of the Masai socialization into adulthood. It is also an integral
and necessary part of many other African groups' socialization towards
recognition as adults in their society. In circumcising groups, a person
who is not circumcised is often considered unclean, not fully formed
as an adult member of society, not prepared to marry and bear children
and a perpetual child.
When modern African governments seek to limit or outlaw
such traditional practices as female circumcision, the groups practicing
them usually either cross borders and continue the practice in adjacent
nations (their own traditional ethnic territory) without such limitations
or continue the practice in secret (usually under less hygienic conditions
or access to an outside clinic, hospital or professional aid).
These two brief examples are typical of the conflict between
traditional groups, their land and social customs and the interests
of colonial or modern western states and institutions. It is always
difficult for a group to accept dictates from the group they feel is
attacking their land, and turning their children away from their traditional
lifestyles towards one they neither understand nor admire and which
diminishes their sovereignty and power. In such cases their distrust
of outsiders based on material evidence (the loss of group property,
taxation without true representation, the forcing of youth into national
armies instead of allowing them to stay with their own people, lack
of respect, work exploitation, etc.) makes meaningful dialogue on female
circumcision impossible. Their children are taken away to government
boarding schools and their youth to the army. Before children or youth
are taken away, during school leave periods or during furlough periods
from the army, elders seek to socialize and circumcise their offspring
in shorter more intense periods. Naturally, when the environment or
the economy changes, the culture is also affected. In this case, more
extended socialization periods and later customary circumcision rituals
become changed to shorter, more intense socialization periods and often
earlier (before school age) circumcision of boys and girls.
Some practitioners of FC state its functions as: "It is
our culture;" or, "It is our religious obligation;" or "All normal (our)
people have done it," or "It makes you clean, beautiful, better, sweet-smelling,"
or "You will be able to marry, be presentable to your husband, able
to satisfy and keep your husband, able to conceive and bear children."
Keep in mind that among practicing groups, everyone or
almost everyone in the community is circumcised. Therefore, it is normal
in such groups. In such communities, those women who are not circumcised
are traditionally prostitutes or members of outcast or formerly "slave"
groups. But even most of those women are circumcised in communities
where this custom is practiced. The only other women not circumcised
in such a community would be outsiders-African or other women from non-circumcising
groups-the others. Intermarriage with non-circumcised men or women is
usually not allowed or is extremely rare. When it does occur, the circumcising
group usually only permits it if the non-circumcised future spouse becomes
During conflict, one way of identifying "the other" (as
in Europe during W.W.II) is whether or not he or she is circumcised.
Sometimes, even during certain recent intergroup conflicts in parts
of Africa forced circumcisions, (usually of men kidnapped or captured
from the non-circumcising competing group) sometimes occurred.
Often the rationale for male and female circumcision is
that it is necessary to make a child (neutral term) a real male or female.
This leads to a further explanation that "men are hard and women are
soft," and that the "soft" part of a man's genital, e.g., the pre-puce
or foreskin and the hard part of the female genitalia, e.g., the clitoris
(possibly erectile) must be removed in order to make them truly male-all
hard, and female-all soft. As in many other instances, the "crossover"-soft
foreskin and hard clitoris-is seen as dangerous to the formation of
"completely" male and female adults, who in traditional societies almost
always have an equal but separate and complementary rather than equal
and overlapping sexual and social role.
The explanation of surgical procedures that temple drawings
and pyramid carvings show, done 4000 years ago, indicates that early
African societies: ancient Egyptian, Nubian, Ethiopian, as well as medieval
and modern societies, were aware of the erectile nature of the clitoris
and that it was an orgasmic area of stimulation. Research also indicates
that the process of socialization with the usually patrilineal birth
group of a male or female child was often physically marked. That mark
could be circumcision or scarification.
Scarification was to protect children from kidnapping
in war or slave raiding and to locate those so abducted. It was also
in many traditional groups thought to make the child different from
the child sent by the gods or ancestors and therefore, hopefully, keeping
that child from being reclaimed or taken back to the gods or ancestors
quickly because of an altered physique. Ear piercing would be done for
Female circumcision, like male circumcision in the same
group, is often thought to purify and protect the next generation from
dangerous outside influences, to bind all youth to their peers or age
set. As part of intensive group socialization, it also firmly establishes
age set relationships, generational respect and authority patterns.
At marriage, the authority over the bride is transferred to the spouse's
patriline. The respect and economic value of the bride to her patriline
and to her spouse is dependent upon her unquestioned virginity as demonstrated
by the intact circumcision.
Other obvious functions include the control of female
sexuality and marital chastity. At or before marriage in many circumcising
societies, brides-to-be were inspected by their prospective marked female
inlaws. Their circumcision is often inspected by their mothers, aunts,
and other older female relatives.
Another function is to insure marriage in a society in
which men have been taught that only circumcised women make good wives.
Yet another function of FC is to limit the possible enjoyment level
of sex for women. It also serves to implant fear of pain and being shamed
and cast out if not a virgin girl or chaste wife. The actual day of
circumcision is one of fear and pain, but also accomplishment and recognition
as a full adult marriageable member of society. Some have compared it
in western terms to a combination of first communion, confirmation or
bat mitzvah and sweet sixteen occasion. The girl gets more recognition,
including attention, special beautiful clothing, special food and jewelry,
after this coming of age ritual than at any other time in her life except
on her marriage day.
It is said that the three most difficult and yet joyous
times in a women's life are at her circumcision, marriage and on the
birth of her first child. Each marks a liminal period or transition
from one stage of life to another, from the authority of one patriline
to another. Female circumcision thus physically marks the female as
belonging to a male family whose rights over her will be violated and
whose wrath will be faced if she is sexually invaded.
Another of its functions is to symbolize the stability,
respect and continuation of the group as expressed in the obedience,
docility, faithfulness and maintenance of tradition of its females (the
transmitters customs and maintainers of home and family-the basic social
In summary, all of these functions emphasize the superiority
of group needs over those of the individual and tie the individual to
the group of birth. They also emphasize and support group solidarity
and tradition over modern changes and male authority over female. However,
they also emphasize and symbolize the male and group responsibility
for females who accept group norms.
- Abdullah, R.H.D. Sisters in Affliction. London:
- Arbesman, M., et al. "Assessment of the Impact of F.C.
on Gynecological Genitourinary and Obstetrical Health Problems of
Women in Somalia." 20:3, 1993, pp. 27-42.
- Dawit, Seble and Salem Mekuria. "The West Just Doesn't
Get It." New York Times (editorial) 12/7/93.
- El Dareer, A. Women, Why Do You Weep? Dirie,
M. "Female Circumcision in Somalia and Women's Motives." Acta
Obstetrical Gynecology of Scandinavia. 70:7-8, pp 581-88, 91.
- French, M. "The Open Wound." Washington Post.
11/22/92, pp. F1 and F2.
- Hite, Shore. The Hite Report. N.Y.: Macmillan,
- Hosken, F. The Hosken Report: Genital & Sexual
Mutilation of Women. 4th Review Edition. Lexington, MA: Women's
Internet Network News, 1992.
- Kluge, E.H. "Female Circumcision: When Medical Ethics
Contradict Cultural Values." 148: 2, pp. 288-89, 1993.
- Konner, M. "Mutilation in the Name of Tradition." N.Y.
Times Book Review. 4/15/90, p. 5.
- Lightfoot-Klein, H. "Special Needs of Ritually Circumcised
Female Patients." Journal of Obstetrics and Neonatal Nursing.
20:2 (1990), pp. 102-7.
- _________. Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into
FGM in Africa. Binghamton, N.Y.: Harworth Press, 1989.
- London Black Women's Health Action Projects. Is Female
Circumcision Child Abuse? Proceedings of 1991 Conference.
- Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy.
Suffolk, U.K., 1990.
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Female circumcision in Africa and the problem of cross-cultural
by Dr. Adeline Apena
History Dept., Russell Sage College, Troy NY
Female circumcision, described as female genital mutilation
in Western discourse, has been actively addressed in recent years. The
conclusions of these discussions seem to redefine the nature of African
womanhood, objectifying African women as ignorant and powerless.
Female circumcision has been perceived as an act of barbarism,
savagery, torture and maiming which deprives African women of their
feminity, especially with regard to sexual sensitivity and pleasure.
These views are articulated by Alice Walker (1992, 1993), Lightfoot-Klein
(1989), Awa Thiam (1986) amongst others.
Further, it is argued that the act represents violation
of human rights of children and women (Dorkenoo and Elsworth, 1992,
Rodney and Dorkenoo, 1992).
These conclusions are affected by two major factors. One,
is the use of Western cultural perpectives in assessing an African cultural
experience. The second, is the discussion of the experience in isolation
of its full cultural context. Assessing cultural values of people through
different cultural frameworks have often led to distortions, misinterpretations
and misrepresentations. This has been the case of female circumcision
and the African woman.
The objective of this paper is to present an African based
perspective for an insight into the discourse of female circumcision.
It will discuss the cultural dynamics which affect female circumcision,
fill gaps in existing anlysis, and assess some of the conclusions in
Female circumcision is an intrinsic part of a total cultural
experience. Its discussion can only be effectively undertaken as part
of an entire cultural experience.
It is important to note that not all groups in Africa
practice female circumcision. It is practiced in twenty-eight out of
fifty-three countries (Lightfoot-Klein, 1989). Female circumcision is
a cultural ritual whose nature varies among the different groups which
practice it. As an essential part of cultural values, it affects the
integrity and survival of communities.
Specifically it relates to the essence of womanhood, family
system and religious beliefs; age, class and power; social identity
and responsibilities. It is part of the corpus of female education and
health care. A more comprehensive discourse of female circumcision should
include all of these issues.
Is circumcision an abuse of individual rights?
African societies exist as networks of mutually interrelated
and dependent groups, emphasizing community rather than self and the
individual. This value is evident in the family system characterized
by polygamy and extended household, ancestral veneration, comunual land
ownership and residential systems. The rights of individuals are not
isolated questions and are not normally asserted against group interests
because, traditionally, the group protects the individual.
Therefore like other cultural rituals, female circumcision
is a collective experience. But, Western cultural perspectives, which
emphasize the individual and self, see female circumcision as an individual
experience and concludes that it is a violation against individual rights.
If it is violation of rights, it should not be perceived strictly in
relation to individual women or girls but it should be considered as
a violation within a group or societal perspective.
Consequently, the young girls and women who undergo circumcision
do not have individual legal status and rights apart from those of their
communities and cannot challenge the collective wisdom of their communities.
Such an exercise amounts to serious deviation from the norms of society.
This study argues that circumcision is an issue that goes beyond gender,
being affected by age and class and power. Therefore, for more effective
analysis and interpretation of circumcision, youth culture in Africa
needs to be examined in relation to the practice. African tradition
does not ascribe equal status to both the young and elderly.
Desensitization and deprivation of sexual pleasure.
The perspective that female circumcision necessarily robs
women of sexual pleasure presupposes that only the clitoris ensures
sexual urge and guarantees sexual pleasure for women. Therefore, alI
women who are not circumcized should experience sexual urge and sexual
pleasure. If having the clitoris alone does guarantee sexual satisfaction
and pleasure, it implies that all women with clitoris should always
have sexual pleasure. But if that is not the case then there are other
parts of a woman's body and dynamics yet to be made known and emphasized
which affect female sexuality and responses.
This presumption suggests common reasons for women to
engage in sexual relations and that all women should react to sexual
stimulation in the same way regardless of cultural differences and social
back- grounds. Sex in most African societies serves procreation, not
necessarily the satisfaction of emotional needs. It is conceived as
a sacred act and a spiritual experience with emphasis on spiritual compatibility
It is believed that sexual urge depends on the nature
of existing relationship between women and their spouses to a large
extent. Is the man caring, is he protective, emotionally and morally
supportive? These are some of the concerns which affect the state of
mind of many African women in their responses to sexual stimulus and
- Dorkenoo, Elsworth. Tradition Tradition. 1992.
- ________ and Scilla, E. Female Genital Mutilation:
Proposal for Change. 1992.
- Ecker, Nanette. "Cultural and Sexual Scripts out of
Africa," SIECUS. 1993
- Forward Ltd. Report of the First Study Conference
of Genital Mutilation of Girls in Europe/Western World. 1993.
- Hedley, Rodney and Dorkenoo, E. Child Protection
and Female Genital Mutilation. 1992.
- Hosken, Fran. The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual
Mutilation of Females. SIECUS. 1991.
- Koso-Thomas. O. The Circumcision of Women: A Strategy
for Eradication. 1992.
- Lightfoot-Klein, H. Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey
into Female Genital Mutilation in Africa. 1989.
- Scilla, Maclean, ed. Female Circumcision, Excision
and Infibulation: Facts and Proposals for Change. 1980.
- Thiam, A. Black Sisters, Speak Out: Feminism and
Oppression in Black Africa. 1989.
- Toubia. N. Female Genital Mutilation. A Call for
Global Action. 1993.
- Walker, A. Possessing the Secret of Joy. 1992.
- _________ and Pratibhua, Parmar. Warrior Marks.
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Africa and the net
By Haines Brown
History Department, C.C.S.U.
A UN Special Initiative on Africa was launched 15 March
in New York. Its object is to "leap frog over past development deficiencies
into the future."
"Unless African countries become full actors in the global
information revolution, the gap between the haves and have-nots will
widen, opening the possibility of increased marginalisation of the continent."
The initiative includes a $25 million dollar development package. "The
attitude has been that it is a waste of resources to try and be in sync
with the most advanced countries, yet information is vital and accelerates
the development process."
The resolution of two conflicting development models,
whether to expand existing infrastructure or jump to LEO satellite access
to provide low cost and reliable education, phone service and Internet
access in remote areas, is apparently not indicated by the initiative.
The UN Economic Commission of Africa (ECA) and the World
Bank are re-assessing key strategic issues, and at the forefront of
this is InfoDev, the Bank's global initiative to facilitate developing
countries' access to the information superhighway. UNESCO is also promoting
the Intergovernmental Informatics Programme with the International Telecommunications
Union and ECA to improve informatics.
Following the direction of structural adjustment programs
elsewhere in the world, the programs urge policy reforms that shift
initiatives from public to private control, a deregulation of telecommuni-
cations and the setting up of infrastructure for full Internet connectivity
in pilot countries.
Quick to volunteer for a leading role are countries already
enjoying some advantage: Egypt, Senegal and South Africa. But it is
recognized even by private interests that if initiatives are governed
by market forces and therefore are function of existing development,
they will simply magnify inequities in the long run.
Anriette Esterhuysen of SANGONeT, a Johannesburg private
access provider, observes that "The challenge is that once the infrastructure
is in place in Africa, it is not confined to multinational corporations
in urban areas."
In other news, the US Department of State announced the
first meeting of the Ad Hoc United States International Telecommunications
Advisory Committee (ITAC) on the implementation of the Leland Initiative:
Africa Global Information Infrastructure Gateway. The meeting is scheduled
for Wednesday, April 3,10:00 a.m. to noon, Loy Henderson Auditorium,
Department of State, 2201 "C" Street, NW., Washington, DC. The purpose
of the Committee is to advise the U.S. Government on the Leland Initiative
a multi-year program to support full Internet connectivity in up to
twenty African nations.
Also noteworthy is that Lesotho will acquire full Internet
connectivity at the National University of Lesotho, with likely service
for NGOs and other academic and government institutions. The target
date is late March or early April.
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