Vol. III, Issue 2 (Spring, 1996): Female Circumcision in Africa

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 Support Network.

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 Muslim groups.

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.

II. Functions

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 circumcised.

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 similar reasons.

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 unit).

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.

Partial Bibliography

  1. Abdullah, R.H.D. Sisters in Affliction. London: Zed, 1982.
  2. 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.
  3. Dawit, Seble and Salem Mekuria. "The West Just Doesn't Get It." New York Times (editorial) 12/7/93.
  4. 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.
  5. French, M. "The Open Wound." Washington Post. 11/22/92, pp. F1 and F2.
  6. Hite, Shore. The Hite Report. N.Y.: Macmillan, 1976.
  7. Hosken, F. The Hosken Report: Genital & Sexual Mutilation of Women. 4th Review Edition. Lexington, MA: Women's Internet Network News, 1992.
  8. Kluge, E.H. "Female Circumcision: When Medical Ethics Contradict Cultural Values." 148: 2, pp. 288-89, 1993.
  9. Konner, M. "Mutilation in the Name of Tradition." N.Y. Times Book Review. 4/15/90, p. 5.
  10. Lightfoot-Klein, H. "Special Needs of Ritually Circumcised Female Patients." Journal of Obstetrics and Neonatal Nursing. 20:2 (1990), pp. 102-7.
  11. _________. Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into FGM in Africa. Binghamton, N.Y.: Harworth Press, 1989.
  12. London Black Women's Health Action Projects. Is Female Circumcision Child Abuse? Proceedings of 1991 Conference.
  13. Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy. Suffolk, U.K., 1990.

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Female circumcision in Africa and the problem of cross-cultural perspectives

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 Western literature.

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 of partners.

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 satisfaction.


  1. Dorkenoo, Elsworth. Tradition Tradition. 1992.
  2. ________ and Scilla, E. Female Genital Mutilation: Proposal for Change. 1992.
  3. Ecker, Nanette. "Cultural and Sexual Scripts out of Africa," SIECUS. 1993
  4. Forward Ltd. Report of the First Study Conference of Genital Mutilation of Girls in Europe/Western World. 1993.
  5. Hedley, Rodney and Dorkenoo, E. Child Protection and Female Genital Mutilation. 1992.
  6. Hosken, Fran. The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females. SIECUS. 1991.
  7. Koso-Thomas. O. The Circumcision of Women: A Strategy for Eradication. 1992.
  8. Lightfoot-Klein, H. Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into Female Genital Mutilation in Africa. 1989.
  9. Scilla, Maclean, ed. Female Circumcision, Excision and Infibulation: Facts and Proposals for Change. 1980.
  10. Thiam, A. Black Sisters, Speak Out: Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa. 1989.
  11. Toubia. N. Female Genital Mutilation. A Call for Global Action. 1993.
  12. Walker, A. Possessing the Secret of Joy. 1992.
  13. _________ and Pratibhua, Parmar. Warrior Marks. 1993.

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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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