The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 23 February 2013
Somewhere, buried deep within the sometimes fierce debate about the merits or otherwise of female circumcision, lies the truth, which is being poisoned by many on both sides of the debate, simply to advance their cause.
And the victim of this highly charged and emotive war of words, is ‘truth and social justice’.
Those arguing against this centuries old cultural practice, say that it is barbaric. They have come to demonise it – with the help of global humanitarian institutions, as ‘Female Genital Mutilation (FMG)’; a powerful choice of poisonous words, which many believe to have been constructed by western society to undermine and destroy an African way of life.
But is female circumcision a barbaric act, conducted on hapless and defenceless women and children in Africa?
Organisations such as the Orchid Project are being heavily funded, globally, to bring the practice of what they refer to as FGM to an end.
One of Africa’s influential and most vocal protagonists of female circumcision – Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, strongly disagrees.
She says that Western women are themselves paying huge sums of money to have various forms of female genital surgery, for aesthetic reasons, without being demonised by their own societies. And that in Africa it is done for highly powerful cultural reasons.
Speaking from experience growing up in Sierra Leone, she asks: “As long as women – whatever their race, ethnicity or motivations – are old enough to make these decisions for themselves, what purpose does making moral distinctions among these cultural practices serve?
Some twenty odd years ago, when I was just finishing university in the US, I chose to travel to my country of heritage – Sierra Leone – to undergo female initiation. This included female circumcision.
My aunt, mother and grandmother approached me and said they wanted to take me, along with a slightly older aunt, my younger sister and cousin, to “join Bondo”.
I was excited, recalling memories of my childhood in Africa, watching exuberant women dancing and singing during adolescent girls’ initiation ceremonies, called Bondo.
These women would take over the town, while men and uninitiated children had to stay in the houses.
The women flanked the awesome Bondo masquerade, a powerful representation of our female ancestors, dancing and entertaining the crowds.
We underwent several rites as part of our transition from girlhood to womanhood, the most significant being our excision operation – the reduction of the exposed clitoral hood, glans and labia minorae.
My immediate experience was of pain and culture shock, while my eight year old sister felt nothing and was soon up and about with other young girls playing in the Bondo encampment.
My initial fear – that I would never enjoy sex again and be scarred forever – turned into pride and amazement when I first held a mirror “down there”.
Instead of disfigurement, I saw a clean, smooth, sculpted look and experienced my first post-operation sexual orgasm with my then boyfriend back in the US.
In December 2012, this practice – now condemned as ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ – came under an official ban by a UN Resolution at the same time that the Hastings Centre Report, a leading bioethics journal, published an advisory statement dispelling many of the popular myths about female genital surgeries.
Yet, in recent years, all over the internet and in Western women’s magazines I see glossy advertisements of white women who have undergone what is now popularized as Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery (FGCS).
Doctors, including gynaecologists with no surgery background, can charge thousands of dollars for procedures very similar to what I underwent and which the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies as Type II Mutilation.
I do find this puzzling. African women have been berated for over thirty years now for “mutilating” our own and our daughters’ genitals.
Medical practitioners are prohibited from performing these surgeries under clinical environments, even when requested by adult African women.
But, white Australian girls as young as 14 and 11 can obtain “labiaplasty” underwritten by the National Health Service in local hospitals?
According to the World Health Organisation; “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.
So, how can Western public health officials, global health institutions and feminist organizations maintain a straight face in condemning African female genital surgeries as FGM, yet turn a blind eye and even issue guidelines for the performance of very similar and sometimes more invasive procedures on Western (mostly white) women under the guise of cosmetic surgery?
When I look at the before and after pictures on some FGCS websites, I can see that the aesthetic effects of surgeries on white vaginas are conspicuously similar to our supposedly mutilated black vaginas.
Exactly who is kidding who – the doctors themselves, the female patients or WHO?
Whether done with a laser or a razor; at a high-priced Beverly Hills plastic surgeon’s office or at a sacred women’s initiation grove in the heat of West Africa; whether no one will find out about our private cosmetic surgery or we join other face-painted initiates in a communal celebration of womanhood; whether we are anaesthetized under the modern knife of a male plastic surgeon with fancy framed degrees across the walls of his office or our legs are held open as we display our courage before an experienced traditional Digba, these are “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia…for non-medical reasons”. Period.
As long as women – whatever their race, ethnicity or motivations – are old enough to make these decisions for themselves, what purpose does making moral distinctions among these cultural practices serve?
At the time of my initiation, the concept of FGM had not quite gelled in Western psyche.
I chose to identify with the African women who raised me, the powerful women I so admired; the financially independent, hard-working and self-sacrificing women who, at least back when we lived in Africa, seemed so empowered.
I chose then to experience a cultural tradition that both honours our female ancestors and also ridicules men’s supposed sexual superiority.
I did not choose initiation for aesthetic and hygienic reasons or for sexual enhancement, though for me, these have been the unintended psycho-sexual benefits of my operation.
I see no reason why a white woman can opt for genital surgery for cosmetic reasons, or if she wants to change her gender, but African women must be labelled “mutilated” for even the slightest knick to the clitoris as part of our ancestral traditions.
Why not the notion that all girls and women should be free to choose?
To begin with, we (meaning all of us concerned women) can rethink what we mean by genital aesthetics and stop using the invidious expression “mutilation.”
We can push for acceptable ages of majority for all children – irrespective of gender, nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic status, religion, perceived cultural depravity, etc – to consent to certain surgical procedures.
We can impart accurate, evidence-based information that reflects actual risks and perceived benefits, devoid of moral judgement.
We can stop infantilizing, pathologizing and criminalizing African women for upholding their culture, while rewarding Western, predominantly male doctors who appropriate, re-brand and gain financially from African women’s ancestral traditions and at the expense of Western women’s own sexual insecurities.