Female circumcision – women must have the right to choose – says Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 8 February 2015

Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, PhDRecently, a senior minister in the Koroma government of Sierra Leone – the Minister of Gender and Social Welfare – Moijueh Kaikai, said unequivocally that female circumcision will not be abolished, echoing the views of most politicians,and perhaps that of millions of people up and down the country. (Photo: Female Rights Activist – Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu).

And as the global debate continues intensely, there is a consensus emerging between those calling for banning of the practice and those defending the right of women to choose.

This emerging consensus is based on the general acceptance that female circumcision should be out of bounds for children.

But what is not clear is the determination as to the acceptable age at which consent can be deemed to have been given by a young woman. Hence the principle of consent and the capacity to give such consent, cannot be swept under the carpet by either side of the debate, as a blanket ban seems simply impractical and against the tenets of civil liberty.

Sierra Leone Telegraph’s Washington correspondent Dennis Kabatto caught up with Sierra Leonean-American medical anthropologist and female rights activist -Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, who is calling for an end to what she describes as Zero Tolerance Propaganda Campaign. This is what she told Dennis Kabbatto.

DK: Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, you recently participated in the BBC television Hardtalk debate. How did that come about? 

Dr Fuambai Sia Ahmadu - left founder of African Women are Free to Choose debate - Nimco Ali-right - co-founder of Daughters of Eve on BBC Hardtalk (2)I was invited by the producers of Hardtalk to take part in a discussion on what I refer to as female circumcision, alongside Nimco Ali, a campaigner against what she and other opponents call FGM. (Photo: Fuambai – left, and Nimco – right). 

It was a very intense debate, but I think enlightening for a lot of viewers who never once thought there was another side to “FGM”.

DK: How will the Zero Tolerance for FGM Act of 2015 impact the traditional practice of female circumcision in America?

Traditional female circumcision is virtually unheard of today in America.  Anti-FGM activists manufacture the most outrageous statistics on the risk of FGM in the U.S, as well as unfounded claims regarding an underground trafficking of girls from the U.S to Africa for “vacation cutting”.

Mainstream media outlets clearly do not feel obligated to do simple fact checking or due diligence when it comes to such reports.

Twenty plus years ago, there were some African immigrant women who were keen on maintaining this aspect of their culture, and few were able to financially and logistically take their daughters to their home countries in Africa for female initiation or female circumcision. This is what happened in my case, but it was a rare occurrence in our communities even then.  

DK: Although FGM is banned in the United States, a new CDC report released in January says the number of women and girls in USA at risk of FGM have tripled over the last 25 years. Is that a victory for ‘African Women Are Free to Choose (AWAFC)’?

The recent CDC report that over 500,000 girls are at risk of FGM in the US is completely and I believe deliberately misleading.  The purpose is to provide for the anti-FGM NGO – Equality Now, the data it needs to bolster its lobbying efforts to pass the Zero Tolerance for Anti-FGM Act of 2015. This will guarantee allocation of funds and resources towards Director Shelby Quast’s inflated income and other activities in the U.S.  In other words, ‘Equality Now’ wants money and will stop at nothing to get it. 

All the experts I know, submitted their concerns about the methods being used by CDC to calculate FGM risk and the initial report’s gross exaggeration of these figures.  

The numbers used by the CDC are based on African women, who are already circumcised, the prevalence of the practice in their countries of origin and the erroneous assumption that they will circumcise their daughters when they immigrate to the US.

There is no evidence to substantiate the assumptions that are made in the report.  Further, this report is ultimately attributing a priori criminality to certain groups of African women, and advocating for a dangerous form of racial or ethnic profiling, targeting African and Muslim communities.  

We intend to make our concerns about this CDC report known to anti-FGM activists, the mainstream media, policymakers and all relevant stakeholders in the U.S administration as well as within our own communities.  

I am not sure what you mean by whether this is a victory of AWAFC.  We are not here to spread female circumcision in the US or anywhere in the world. Our key mission is to create awareness about the negative psychosocial and psychosexual impact of harmful anti-FGM campaigns, legislation and global policies.  

AWAFC is also concerned with creating dialogue on ways to preserve the rights of all affected adult women and adolescent girls to their own bodies, to self-determination and to equality with other adult women and adolescent girls worldwide. 

DK: What is your reaction to the Gambia’s recent ban of FGM?  What are the implications for people who practice the tradition in that country? 

Yahya-Jammeh

I believe President Yayah Jammeh (Photo) had his reasons for taking such a surprise and potentially unpopular decision, in a country where the vast majority of women are circumcised and celebrate this tradition in large, open initiation ceremonies.  

President Jammeh is a shrewd and savvy quasi dictator.  He is well aware that Gambian women in western countries can apply for and receive automatic asylum on gender based violence claims, with respect to FGM.  

This recent executive decision has effectively closed the door to his most vocal critics and opponents in the UK and US. I also lean on believing his sincerity, when he says this practice is not sanctioned by Islam and that he is genuinely concerned about the health implications for girls and women.

There’s a lot of ignorance and misinformation about the varied forms of female circumcision in relation to Islam, as well as well purported health and sexual outcomes.  Most people, like President Jammeh, are regrettably misled by the media and activist led anti-FGM propaganda.

AWAFC was created to end this insidious disinformation and to hold the media and anti-FGM activists accountable for what they print, say and do.     

As far as implications for the practice – an important Senegambian study funded by UNICEF clearly indicated that the law has little effect on the practice because it is driven underground.  

A Gambian friend recently told me that what we will see is an end to the open celebrations (similar to what is happening now in Kenya), but the operations will continue.

This most certainly means that girls will be circumcised at younger and younger ages, and that their health and lives will be at the mercy of greedy quacks instead of highly trained traditional circumcisers or medical practitioners. 

DK: UNICEF estimates 24 out of 29 countries where FGM is practiced have passed laws against it. Do you think it would be outlawed in Sierra Leone?  

Absolutely not and we will certainly lobby hard against this new form of neocolonialism in Sierra Leone. What is the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL) going to do, lock up 80% of the population of women?  

Are the predominantly male policemen going to arrest their grandmothers, mothers, sisters, wives and so on? 

Bondo2The Minister of Gender and Social Welfare, Hon. Moijueh Kaikai, stated unequivocally to a group of Soweis (the women leaders in charge of traditional female initiation and circumcision) that Bondo will not be banned in Sierra Leone.

Bondo is the local term for female circumcision.  However, the GoSL appears to be ambivalent about its position and intentions, but my hope is President Ernest Bai Koroma will continue to listen to the voices of grassroots women who make up the bulk of voters in the country.

We are officially launching AWAFC in Freetown very soon and we intend to work closely with GoSL on a way forward that will advance and protect the rights of all women and girls on both sides of this issue.

Western orchestrated anti-FGM laws have had no impact on a practice that dates back thousands of years. We have seen that in those countries  in Africa that have passed such laws.  

While our African governments are busy succumbing to pressure from western women to outlaw our traditional female genital aesthetic practices, western countries have developed a flourishing female genital cosmetic surgery industry, using our own operations as the aesthetic standard.

And, instead of fighting to defend the rights of our mothers and grandmothers, many of us who are western educated have given carte blanche for them to be stripped, degraded and punished by and for the sake of the very white women whose own mothers and daughters are now freely opting for the same procedures.

 I have always said, Sierra Leone is the ground zero where modern western feminism meets the power of ancient Bondo society.  As you can see, I’ve placed my bets on Bondo.

You can watch the BBC Hardtalk debate here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mV6UfEaZHBE 

6 Comments

  1. Santhkie Sorie: Please explain to me, if you can, what you mean by these statements giving examples where possible. In anticipation of your quick response. Thank you.

    “…But when I saw that you were using language unbecoming of a man dealing with a female issue, it upset me. I am sure, my academic, that it is not lost to you that some of the hair raising, gruesome words which you have tapped to describe Bondo, you will not dare use in the north, south and east of Sierra Leone.

    You claim to speak eight languages, implying that you have lived in all corners of Sierra Leone. Did you ever use F.G.M. to describe Bondo in these places or you were only able to find your daring self once you were being jetted across the Atlantic?”

    Below is a 2012 research paper on FGM in Sierra Leone. Let me know in case you need the article itself. Any more comments from you on this?

    “ORIGINAL RESEARCH ARTICLE

    Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone: who are the decision makers?

    Health, College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, University of Sierra Leone.

    Abstract

    The objectives of this study were to identify decision makers for FGM and determine whether medicalization takes place in Sierra Leone. Structured interviews were conducted with 310 randomly selected girls between 10 and 20 years in Bombali and Port Loko Districts in Northern Sierra Leone. The average age of the girls in this sample was 14 years, 61% had undergone FGM
    at an average age of 7.7 years (range 1-18). Generally, decisions to perform FGM were made by women, but father was mentioned as the one who decided by 28% of the respondents. The traditional excisors (Soweis) performed 80% of all operations, health professionals 13%, and traditional birth attendants 6%. Men may play a more important role in the decision making
    process in relation to FGM than previously known. Authorities and health professionals’ associations need to consider how to prevent further medicalization of the practice. (Afr J Reprod Health 2012; 16[4]: 119-131).

    Table 2: Names of aspects of Bondo Society in the Main Sierra Leonean Languages.

    Ethnic Name of Bondo Name of Head of Name of new initiate Name of noninitiate
    Group Society Society/Bush

    Fulah Baytee Barajelli Betijor Jiwor

    Limba Bondo Baregba Gbonka Gboroka

    Loko Bondona Digba Bondona/Bondofayra Gborrga

    Mende Sande Sokonday/Sowei/Majo Sandewi Kpowei

    Susu Guhngiri Joangojeri Taysingeh Amoogaangeh

    Temne Bondo Digba Aboanka Gburka”

  2. Mustache, you can call me all the names you want. It won’t make the littlest difference to my position that whatever pertains to Sierra Leone – in the name of culture – should be the business of Sierra Leoneans, and Sierra Leoneans alone.

    I am not a neocolonialist, that is, I do not subscribe to anything that is characterised by the odour of imperialism, however subtle the procedure is. I simply get very hot under the collar when anybody, like your CNN, tries to control me from afar.

    If this whole thing , which you describe as F.G.M., and which I call Bondo, had entirely originated from you – using refined language – I would have seen it as your right to express yourself whichever way you felt comfortable as a Sierra Leonean. But when I saw that you were using language unbecoming of a man dealing with a female issue, it upset me. I am sure, my academic , that it is not lost to you that some of the hair raising , gruesome words which you have tapped to describe Bondo , you will not dare use in the north, south and east of Sierra Leone.

    You claim to speak eight languages, implying that you have lived in all corners of Sierra Leone. Did you ever use F.G.M. to describe Bondo in these places or you were only able to find your daring self once you were being jetted across the Atlantic ?

    Allow me to remind you Mustache that different methods are always being used by outsiders to sow trouble on the continent. If they don’t use religion, they use something else , like our source of argument at the moment . Bondo was there during the period of Indirect Rule [ I faced a question on this when I took my O’Levels ]. Why was it not described as F.G.M. then, my academic, by the CNN of the world ?

    Using the expression sister or brother is quite simply within the realm of endearment. Allah/God knows that I hold no grudge against you.; we are just moving at tangents this time, who knows what the future holds ?

    There is something I must reiterate : my position is not for or against Bondo. Take a look at everything I have written so far. I simply believe that whatever is part of our society should be altered, amended or banned by us and no one else, after deliberation. That’s why Sir Milton and others fought for our independence , although we have made a mess of it economically.

    This will be my final comment.

  3. Santhkie Sorie: Have you been able to “place” me now? My origin(s) and ethnicity? etc. Anyway, Bondo is an underworld practice from a marine spirit with strings of beads around its waist. The more reason why it is always done close to a stream, river or grove- historically considered sacred in pagan cultures that have ethnographic accounts. For further reading on this, see Helen F. Leslie Jacobsen, “The Sacred Grove in Scandinavian/Germanic Pre-Christian Religion,” University of Bergen. Retrieved 29 June 2015.

    According to Dubinskas, a finely carved sowei mask is nyande (“good,” “pretty,” “beautiful” and aesthetically “pleasing”) when it includes the following elements, each of which has a symbolic meaning:

    Full forehead = Wisdom, intelligence

    Somnolent, downcast eyes = Modesty

    Shining black color = Mystery

    Neck rings = Health and prosperity (as well as the mask’s mythic rise out of the water)

    Birds = Messengers between spirits and humans

    Cowries = Wealth

    White cloth = Ritual purity

    Fish, snakes, tortoises = The riverine home of sowei

    Antelope horns and lasimoi (scripture) = “Good medicine” (hale nyande)

    Three-legged cooking pot = represents sowei as a repository of women’s knowledge, and as a symbol of domesticity.

    Based on ritual purity mentioned above, Fuambai Ahmadu woefully failed it. For she had had sexual experience before initiation. Did you know this, Santhkie Sorie? Absolutely not. Shame on you!

    Lastly, we have been hoodwinked too long to believing that the pagan Bondo Devil Mask is good. On the contrary, it is terribly bad. And must be stopped. Amen.

  4. Santhkie Sorie: Zeinab, who is a foreigner from Egypt, has now become your “sister” on FGM. And I your own Salone brother an enemy for simply opposing the practice that leads to a lifelong excruciating pain, bloodshed and even death. You are a typical lightweight Sierra Leonean without any sense of reasoning. Shame on your naiveté. May God have mercy on you. Amen.

    I can conclusively say that supporting FGM practice of any kind today is devilish and a big disgrace to anyone, irrespective of title or status in society.

    As a Christian, let me leave you with the following Shakespearean warning on Merchant of Venice Act 4, Scene 1 (Modern Text).

    “PORTIA: So get ready to cut off the flesh. Don’t shed any blood, or cut less or more than exactly a pound of flesh. If you take more or less than exactly a pound, even if it’s just the tiniest fraction of an ounce—if the scale changes by even so much as a hair, you die, and all your property will be confiscated.

    GRATIANO: A Daniel, Jew! I’ve got you now, pagan.”

  5. Santhkie Sorie: I am an academic from the South and North of Sierra Leone. I speak at least 8 local languages, and have traveled in all the 12 Districts of the country as a Consultant.

    Question: What crime has the clitoris committed that it must be tampered with and chopped off from a woman?

    Please respond to this question and remain focused to the subject of FGM. Thank you.

  6. No, my sister Zainab , mustache is not a Jew. If he were, he and his cohorts would know about circumcision. I think the man needs to sit down, take a deep breath and ask himself who he really is. I doubt his nationality as a Sierra Leonean.

    If indeed Mustache is a Sierra Leonean, I would like to know his origins, especially which part of the country he was born and which local language he can speak. He does not have to reveal much for me to place him.

    Somebody like him, if he is honest about his nationality, is someone whose shadow should never be allowed to darkened the corridors of power in Sierra Leone. He is a massively dangerous character, whose sole purpose would be to dance to the tune of foreigners.

    I am so glad that the indomitable Fuambai has unnerved him and others who think like him, who are not sure who they are anymore.

    My challenge to him still holds : travel to the north, south and east of Sierra Leone, and use the same language to rest your case.

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