“Yes – I am passionate about the Bondo Society” – says Dr. Sia Ahmadu

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 17 June 2015

Dr  Fuambai Sia Ahmadu  jpg2Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu’s (Photo) article about so called FGM published here, was always going to be highly controversial and thought provoking.

But this is nothing new for Sierra Leone’s most formidable African women empowerment advocate and champion.

Almost single-handedly taking on the rich and powerful anti-African female circumcision movement, Dr. Sia Ahmadu is most certainly keeping alive the question as to whether the debate should be about regulation and raising of the age of consent, rather than an outright ban of a cultural practice which many women regard as their right and freedom to chose.

There are many deadly things that are killing thousands of people every year in Sierra Leone – including cigarettes, alcohol, drug abuse, poverty, corruption, and teenage pregnancy, which pro-female circumcision campaigners say should be prioritised.

Responding to critics of her scathing attack on what she sees as Western hypocrisy and neo-colonialism, Dr. Ahmadu says this: “In Sierra Leone, we will have this open debate on the international protocols that the GoSL has signed on to concerning the bodies of the vast majority of women in the country without their knowledge or participation in any of these formal and back door deliberations.”   

And on the question about her passion for saving an aged old African tradition and standing up for African women’s right to chose, this is what she says:

Yes, I am obsessed with Bondo/Sande, if this means that I am passionate and relentless in protecting the honor and dignity of my mother, aunts, grandmother and the majority of silenced women and girls in Sierra Leone who are Bondo/Sande then I accept this label with great pride.

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I have made a lot of personal and professional sacrifices to stand up for over two decades for what I believe is right.  I have no qualms with being obsessed with countering the dangerous myths that are being uncritically recirculated surrounding female circumcision. 

 I make no apologies for using my education, experience and knowledge to demand equal treatment and equal rights of Bondo/Sande women with the rest of adult women and men in the world. 

 I will continue to insist on open access to and public debate of the medical evidence of the supposed differences between circumcised and uncircumcised women in terms of our long term reproductive and gynecological health and sexuality. 

Sorry, the usual sensationalist and bigoted propaganda is no longer going to fool the women of Sierra Leone.

With regard to one of those myths, I can address this right now — the ludicrous idea that female circumcision is “dying” or “waning” in Sierra Leone.  

The UNICEF 2013 Report on FGM/C identifies Sierra Leone as one of the highest prevalence countries with 88 per cent of girls and women ages 15-49 circumcised.   Of this number, only 26 percent want to see the practice end.

Bondo society

The UNICEF report states clearly that even the 26% figure could be inflated because of the expectations respondents have of what their “correct” response should be.  What this basically means is that most circumcised women, just like most circumcised men, support their genital modifications.

Sierra Leone is no Nigeria.  Nigeria has a relatively smaller minority of women who practice female circumcision and the outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan used the distraction of his last few weeks in power to push through and sign a bill to ban the practice.  

He had nothing to lose and a lot of goodwill to gain from western countries.  In Sierra Leone, the vast majority of women in the country are circumcised and support female circumcision and form the largest voting bloc in the country.  

As someone who has worked extensively on CEDAW as a consultant for UNICEF in The Gambia, I am very much familiar with its provisions as well as the behind the scenes politics that goes into forcing the hands of aid-dependent countries like Sierra Leone into compliance with those protocols that are not in the interest of the majority of women on the ground.  

In Sierra Leone, we will have this open debate on the international protocols that the GoSL has signed on to concerning the bodies of the vast majority of women in the country without their knowledge or participation in any of these formal and back door deliberations.   

We will have open and free discussions on human rights, the various conventions and whether specific special protocols promote the rights of all women to equality, non-discrimination and to self-determination with respect to female circumcision. 

There are some women and girls who have had negative experiences, perhaps even horrific experiences in the Bondo “bush”.  I am sure there are many men and boys with their own horror stories and fears of male initiation.  Shall we call an end to male circumcision as well?

I do believe that these self-styled “mutilated” women have rights and these rights ought to be protected by the Government of Sierra Leone.  

However, there are ways we can work together to advance solutions without using degrading language to insult the private parts of our mothers and grandmothers, or to disparage an aspect of our culture that is still very meaningful for the vast majority of women and girls.  

Further, I do think it is very relevant what western or white women do – since they are the ones with the power, money and resources to influence what happens to our African bodies in our own countries.  

Their own women and preadolescent girls are rushing in numbers to acquire the same genital surgeries that they condemn us for and yet we don’t see their disembodied faces on western magazine covers or the decontextualized pictures of bloody surgical tools held by some faceless and bodyless white hand.

Of course, there is more to life than Bondo – this is a silly truism.  But for the majority of women in Sierra Leone, Bondo remains a very meaningful part of daily life.  

Female circumcision has existed for thousands of years, has pre-existed male circumcision and all the Abrahamic religions as well as western civilization.  

Bondo and Sande have predated the very western feminist organizations that want to destroy these African female institutions of power.  

The practice will not end in our lifetime and we need to stop giving anti-FGM activists all the money they want simply to tell the world that they can end it – that they got this.  

The only thing that will come to an abrupt end is the heyday that many western feminists and some African women themselves have enjoyed, in reproducing these ridiculous FGM meta-narratives about the sexual subjugation of circumcised African women. 

6 Comments

  1. Nonpartisan,

    I am sorry that you’re not happy with my choice of passions and would rather I focus on something that seems to make more sense to you. I guess you feel the same privilege in telling African women what or what not to do with their daughters’ bodies.

    “I don’t think any woman should be deciding the fate of another woman’s clitoris. It is the only organ on the human body devoted solely to pleasure”.

    I agree with you, nobody should decide the fate of another woman’s clitoris or any part of her body, whether devoted solely to pleasure or not. This is why I am against the anti-FGM movement’s hypocritical policing of the genitals and clitorises of African girls and adult women only.

    “A clitoris has at least 8,000 nerve endings and it is highly contested as to whether a woman can achieve an orgasm without it. Because not all women understand the physiology of the clitoris, they mistakenly believe they are having orgasms without it. There is an inner and outer part of the clitoris and it is widely believed that most women cannot achieve a climax without some form of stimulation to the clitoris.”

    So, Nonpartisan, you want to educate us about the anatomy of the clitoris, so we can better understand that we’re not really having orgasms even though we think we are? Or, by your response are you admitting that we are having orgasms but we just don’t know that it’s because of the inner clitoris being stimulated.

    You are correct in noting that a woman would probably not be able to have orgasm without the clitoris. In fact, a woman would not survive if anyone tried to remove her entire clitoris. The fact is that it is impossible to entirely remove a girl or a woman’s clitoris without killing her and yet the anti-FGM movement has a new generation of circumcised girls believing that they are walking this earth without a clitoris!

    The visible, external foreskin and glans is a small fraction of an extensive and functionally complex organ and clearly its removal does not impair sexual functioning, pleasure and orgasm in women. The subcutaneous clitoris remains intact and the site of excision remains highly sensitive after excision. Women can and do achieve amazing, beautiful, crazy orgasms just through manual or oral stimulation of the site of excision. And fyi, our female elders, especially the traditional circumcisers who are also midwives, are not ignorant of female genital anatomy – it is precisely this “hidden” clitoris that is celebrated in initiation ceremonies and reified in our masquerades.

    In order to gain some knowledge about these traditions, you will have to put away the anti-FGM propaganda and instead have a look at the very rich source of data that has been written about our initiation practices by anthropologists and other scholars in the past. Or, click through a digital copy of SiA Magazine which you can access from my website http://www.fuambaisiaahmadu.com.

    “If I ended up with only 7,999 nerve endings because my mom and grandmother decided it was their right and duty to allow someone to fiddle around with my private parts, I’d be awfully pissed off.”

    Completely unimpressed. For women like me, who were sexually active before excision and after, it means nothing at all whether it’s 8,000 nerve endings or 7999 or the solitaire one as long as I am being transported to mind blowing orgasms. Excision made no difference in my sexual response at all and this is the case with countless women I’ve interviewed in the field and thousands of others who have been subjected to all kinds of embarrassing research questions by outsiders.

    It is the brain, not excess flesh or tissue on the external vulva that is the key to female pleasure and orgasm. Our entire bodies are deeply erogenous and the emphasis should be on each woman learning to explore and delight in what works for her, circumcised or not.

    “Let me make an informed decision as an adult woman about whether or not I want to be cut so I can be a part of a society”.

    As a woman who went through circumcision at 21, I am perfectly okay with notion of adult consent. However, this would have to apply to men as well and male circumcision in SL. When our local anti-FGM activists are ready to come to the table with male circumcision, we’ll be happy to bring our female traditions to the discussion.

    What we will not tolerate is the discriminatory policies that are promulgated by western countries, which largely accept male circumcision and white female genital cosmetic surgeries yet regulate the genitals of African girls and women. Not in Sierra Leone.

  2. Hugh Young, it is the anti-FGM movement that is indirect and disingenuous when it comes to the issue of consent. These activists are happy to morally condemn and outlaw genital surgeries performed on African (or non-white) girls and women while ignoring parallel genital surgeries performed on boys (WHO type I fgm/c is equivalent to male circumcision) and on white girls and women in western countries (here I am talking about the increasing popularity of female genital cosmetic surgeries including clitoral reductions, clitoral hood removals and labia removal, all of which are aesthetically and anatomically similar to type II fgm/c).

    I am against using consent as a smokescreen to single out African girls and women while ignoring the issue of consent with respect to boys and underage white girls going to get “labiaplasty” paid for by the NHS.

    Do a google search and you will find that this is happening right in your own backyard and you don’t need to come to Sierra Leone to protect the genitals of young girls. The WHO definition of FGM is the removal of part or all of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. This definition does not make any reference to age, consent or manner in which these operations are carried out.

    So, why the singling out and fetishizing of African girls’ clitorises – why not have policies that are equally applied to all children irrespective of sex, gender, race, class, socioeconomic status, geographic origin, location of surgeries etc?

    Why is that according to British law, adult African women are legally defined as children and cannot request any form of genital surgery but white British women are free to “hack” off their labia and clitorises as they desire?

    Who is really blurring or ignoring the issue of consent here?

  3. Male, female or intersex, the issue is consent, informed adult consent. Let adults cut or have cut off anything or everything, and good luck to them. Don’t do it to any children except for pressing medical need.

    By blurring or ignoring this vital issue, Dr Sia Ahmadu does nothing to empower women or anyone else.

  4. AL,
    I really don’t get the author’s point on so many levels. Sierra Leone has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. If you wanted to be passionate about something, that’s a good starting place.

    I don’t think any woman should be deciding the fate of another woman’s clitoris. It is the only organ on the human body devoted solely to pleasure.

    A clitoris has at least 8,000 nerve endings and it is highly contested as to whether a woman can achieve an orgasm without it. Because not all women understand the physiology of the clitoris, they mistakenly believe they are having orgasms without it. There is an inner and outer part of the clitoris and it is widely believed that most women cannot achieve a climax without some form of stimulation to the clitoris.

    If I ended up with only 7,999 nerve endings because my mom and grandmother decided it was their right and duty to allow someone to fiddle around with my private parts, I’d be awfully pissed off. Let me make an informed decision as an adult woman about whether or not I want to be cut so I can be a part of a society.

    I’m not judging anyone who wants to make an adult decision to join these societies, but I think little girls should be off limits. I think this argument is especially irresponsible at a time when Sierra Leone is fighting to end Ebola, but the number of cases has increased again.

    Just as people had to adapt their cultural norms around burial practices to adjust to current health issues, the same has been true with Bondo. Do the benefits of these cultural practices outweigh the risks?

    • Non-partisan thanks for the detailed description. When you imagine 8000 nerve endings being severed you then can picture the amount of grief and pain considering that FGM is not carried out under anaesthetic and the crudest implements are being used.

      There is no way any reasonable person will undergo this procedure if consent is required.

  5. In response to this second article, I must point out that the first article sought to make two points. One was that Kabs Kanu needed to be aware of opposing female circumcision and there was a threat about potential voting by Sande / Bondo women; and the second was a ridiculous comparison to Bruce Jenner’s sex change – which the article suggested was an initiation into western womanhood.

    The article failed to spectacularly put across any objection to the practice of female genital mutilation which is not the preserve of Sande / Bondo women, as this is widely practiced in African.

    In reply to the previous article, Non-partisan whilst not rejecting FGM, made the point that girls and young women should be able to give consent, as Dr Ahmadu would, if she underwent the procedure at age 21. However this is precisely the problem with FGM.

    If consent of young women at an age of accountability (lets say aged 18 years) was to be obtained, FGM would gradually die out as a practice in Africa.

    FGM cannot be sustained where consent is required. FGM can only be sustained through compulsion and coercion. If this was not the case – why do women have to be taken into the bush?
    Why not carry out the practice in a clinic or at home? This coercive nature of the practice of FGM in Sierra Leone, is why it can only be seen as a flagrant abuse and violation of the rights of girls and young women.

    The 26% of women who Dr Ahmadu cite in the UN Report, who would want FGM to end does not reflect reality. Do we know the circumstances under which this survey was conducted and whether the respondent felt able to express their true preference?

    Dr Ahmadu is right to draw a comparison to male circumcision in men. However a distinction has to be made about the complexity of the procedure and the relative impact that male circumcision has on men, compared to FGM on women.

    There are just too many of these practices which we can no longer continue with, if we are to mature as a society.

    Just recently in London there was a report of the practice of Breast Ironing which is also growing among African diaspora in London. This is a practice where pubescent girls have their breast pressed with an iron over several weeks to stop their breasts from growing.

    You have to ask the question why would a girl or young woman’s clitoris or breast bother anyone, such that they have bestowed on themselves the right to remove or stunt the development of these organs.

    Why are these practices any different from the actions of RUF forces who compelled their victims to choose between short sleeves or long sleeves, before chopping off their arms at the elbow or the wrist?

    These archaic customs and traditions which may have been practiced in days gone by for reasons known to our ancestors, and based on their limited knowledge and world view at the time, cannot continue in the 21st century.

    Therefore, I genuinely have difficulty with Dr Ahmadu’s representation of herself as Sierra Leone’s most formidable empowerment advocate and champion.

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