Do African women have the right to choose female circumcision?

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 8 February 2014

Sarah Tenoi with one of her childrenThe global debate on the circumcision of women – dubbed by those calling for the banning of the practice as ‘female genitalia mutilation’ took centre stage once again this week, as the UN celebrates its ‘International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM’.

In Sierra Leone, the Demographic Health Survey 2013 Report, published by the office of Statistics Sierra Leone (SSL), shows that over 80% of women interviewed across the country have been circumcised.

According to press report from Freetown, the north of the country has the highest rate of female circumcision, prompting further debate about the practice which opponents say must be banned.

But African female activists in favour of this aged-old cultural tradition are angry at those calling for a ban. They say that the right of the African woman to choose is being taken away from her.

 Thomson Reuters Foundation published an article this week, based on an interview with Sierra Leonean born anti-FGM activist – Sarian Kamara who lives in London. This is what she said:

sarian kamara“I’ll never forget what happened to me. I was only 11 years old and I’m 36 now. I’ve had five children and the pain I went through on that day cannot begin to compare to any of my labour pains. It’s indescribable. (Photo: Sarian Kamara).

“Some people might think that FGM is just a cultural practice, that it is normal or acceptable for some communities. But it is not acceptable because it causes so much physical and psychological harm and has no benefit at all.

“It also damages relationships, but people don’t discuss this because it goes against our upbringing. I’ve had problems in the past when I’ve met men from other communities and the relationships did not get anywhere because of this. The sexual part is totally destroyed. You have to have somebody who really cares for you for you to ever enjoy sex.

“I’m married now and happily married because my husband is from a community that practices FGM so he will not treat me any differently.  But I know a lot of women who have not been so lucky.

“There is also psychological trauma caused by FGM. You always have flashbacks when you see things that remind you of what you’ve been through and it brings you back to that day when you were 11. This will stay with me for the rest of my life. I’m still on a healing process.

“What I find really worrying here is that so many health professionals turn a blind eye. If a pregnant woman turns up in a maternity ward with signs of FGM you have to consider that if her baby is a girl she may also be at risk.

“My girls are 10, 7, 5 and 14 months. The older ones go to school in Peckham in southeast London and sadly most of the teachers there don’t even know what FGM is.

“If you don’t know about it and don’t know the effects how will you protect the child? There are a lot of Sierra Leoneans in my area and FGM is widely practiced. It is very shocking that teachers don’t know about it.

“I’m from a Christian community. My dad was against the practice, but my parents separated and my grandmother organised and paid for everything to be done.

“Back home in Africa you don’t discuss these things with your parents. But I have asked my mum and she said it is shameful for parents to have a daughter who has not been initiated because the chances of marriage are very slim. You have to do this to integrate into the community so they apparently do it out of love.

“When my mum had my younger sister 20 years ago she was in labour for 10 days. She couldn’t go to the toilet. She nearly lost her life – and all because of problems caused by FGM. But she still supports it. It’s a big issue, a big party. It’s a time to eat and drink. If my mum hears the drum announcing the ceremony she will stop what she is doing to join the celebrations.

“She says some people are now beginning to campaign against the practice because it is causing too much harm. But she also told me that I have to be careful because people believe when you talk about these things something bad will happen to you.

“My younger sister is now 20. I said to my mum: ‘You can forget you have me as a daughter if you ever get her cut. I will never send you money. I will never call you’. My sister has not been initiated and I don’t think she’s going to be.”

But feminist campaigners on the other side of the debate, strongly believe that the right of African women to choose whether they undergo female circumcision or not, must be protected.

Their voice it seems continues to hold sway in many African countries where the practice is prevalent, as Sierra Leone’s latest Demographic Health Survey Report shows.

And that strong majority, policy analysts believe – cannot be overlooked or silenced.

Dr Fuambai1Almost a year ago, Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu (PhD) a strong international African female activist, said in an article published by the Sierra Leone Telegraph, 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, where it is done for highly powerful cultural reasons, black women are being demonised.

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?”

One year on, Dr. Fuambai continues to assert the right of African women to choose, without exception and fear of recrimination and obscene labeling.

Dennis Kabbatto – our U.S Special Correspondent, caught up with Dr. Fuambai this week. This is Kabbatto’s report of that interview:

The International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM, a day sponsored by the UN was first observed on February 6, 2003 to raise awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM) and to promote its eradication.

Although the United Nations and other international organizations describe FGM as nothing more than child abuse, supporters of female genital surgeries reject the “term mutilation” and see the anti-FGM campaign as an affront to their basic human rights to equality, dignity and self determination.

Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu is a Sierra Leonean medical anthropologist based in Washington, DC. She describes herself as a third wave feminist activist.

I caught up with Dr. Ahmadu recently to share her thoughts and perspectives on the observation of the International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM, as well as to discuss the re-launch of her SiA Magazine and ‘African Woman Are Free to Choose (AWA-FC)’.

Dr. Fuambai:  Dennis, it is good that people are listening.  Especially on a day like today when it appears we have capitulated to the definition of African women’s bodies as “mutilated”. 

As descendants of Africans with our history of enslavement, imperialism and colonialism, we have to be very careful when we are shamed into forgetting or denigrating our culture, our past, and our traditions. 

By labeling circumcised African women as “mutilated” and “oppressed” and our cultures as “barbaric” – some feminists even say “sadomasochistic” – the financiers of anti-FGM campaigns who are largely white, educated, middle-class or wealthy women and men continue to define for us who we can and cannot be as African women, how we can or cannot feel, what we can or cannot do, and what we can or cannot appreciate about our histories, our bodies and our own sexual organs. 

My interview conducted by you last year, was published just after my appearance on SBS-TV’s Insight Program in Australia. The show was appropriately called, “Breaking the Taboo”. 

That was perhaps the first time that western audiences got to hear a more balanced view of African female genital surgeries.  It was the first time I “came out” so to speak in a public way to engage with others about my own experience and my support of what we call ‘Bondo’ in Sierra Leone.

I spent the first half of last year giving talks at universities, academic seminars and conferences.  It is amazing how receptive normal, reasonable and liberal thinking people are when they hear my story and the perspective of millions of African women and girls who continue to celebrate what we call female circumcision. 

I spent the second half of the year quietly, writing and editing several manuscripts for publication this year.  I have worked with other women to re-launch SiA Magazine and ‘African Women Are Free to Choose (AWA-FC)’. 

The SiA Magazine began publication in 2009 as a light, Afropolitan women’s fashion, entertainment quarterly, aimed mainly at Sierra Leonean women in the diaspora.  But the new magazine is more serious – African third wave feminism for circumcised women who support their tradition.  

AWA-FC is a budding grassroots global movement that I co-founded to raise awareness among circumcised African girls and women about the denigrating psychosexual impact of anti-FGM campaigns and blatant infringements on our basic human rights and constitutional rights in the countries in which we reside. 

My close female relatives joke that I am not a feminist but a Bondo activist. 

Indeed, for me Bondo is and has always been radical, grassroots African feminist activism – long before western women awakened to a consciousness of their own oppression.     

Dennis: You have mentioned quite a few things here that I’m sure people want to know more about – especially many westerners or even other Africans who are from ethnic groups that do not practice female genital modifications.  Many of us are familiar with your work and your open support for female circumcision and want to be as objective as possible in understanding and representing your views.  What is Bondo exactly?

Dr Fuambai2Dr. Fuambai: Well first, Bondo refers to the various traditional women’s associations in Sierra Leone that manage female initiation, which includes but cannot be reduced to customary female genital surgeries. 

Bondo also refers to the entire process of this transition to womanhood, the powerful masquerade owned by the women, as well as the physical operation itself. 

The parallel for males in Sierra Leone is the Poro society.  Poro is responsible for traditional male initiation and also includes men’s masquerades and customary male genital surgeries or male circumcision.

Female and male circumcisions are considered complementary and interdependent. 

Part of the task of SiA Magazine and AWA-FC is to begin the necessary weeding out or sifting through those external meanings that have been imported, imposed and incorporated into the traditional meanings – not just by western feminists and anti-FGM activists over the last 40 years, but by the harbingers of Abrahamic religions -that is Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

Dennis: So, why the name SiA Magazine?  I know Sia is your name as well, but is there another reason why you decided on the name SiA?

Dr. Fuambai: The name of the initial African women’s lifestyle magazine was ‘Sierra Afrique’.  My business partner – also a Sierra Leonean, thought it would be kind of cool to add an “i” in the middle that would stand for “international” but would also signify my name – the name of Sierra Leone’s First Lady and thousands of other women in the country. 

Sia is commonly known as the name of the first born girl among the Kono tribe, and some Kissy in the east of Sierra Leone.  Saa is the name of the first born boy. 

So, the name also symbolizes maternal responsibility and Saa would signify paternal responsibility.  This female and male gender balance and attention to the hierarchical position of the first born, represents for me the core of gender roles in many African societies.

It also explains why our feminism differs at times from western feminism – often to the dismay of our transatlantic sisters.

But I found out only two years ago, through what seemed like a bizarre coincidence, that Sia and Saa was also the name of the “firstborn” female and male in Egyptian or Memphite theology. 

And here’s the part that really threw me – Sia and Saa was created by the Supreme God from the blood of his or her own circumcision!  This Memphite religion is literally written in stone – the Shabaka Stone, which completes the name of the magazine – ‘SiA and The Shabaka Stone’. 

The Shabaka Stone predates the writing of Genesis and the Torah, and points to a credible origin of the most important symbolic act in Abrahamic religions – circumcision. 

Although male circumcision is not a requirement under Christianity, unlike with Judaism and Islam, the symbolism of the blood of circumcision as Christ himself, remains very important. 

More importantly for African descendants, the creation of the firstborn  Sia or Saa through the blood of divine circumcision, points to a probable origin of both female and male circumcision among the Mande peoples, which include the Kono tribe, perhaps hundreds if not thousands of years before the Nubian kings took over all of Egypt. 

One thing that western feminists need to understand is that the original ideology that supports these practices among peoples of Mande or Nubian descent is profoundly matriarchal and not patriarchal, in contrast with the Abrahamic traditions. 

SiA magazine was created in part to make this hidden knowledge available and accessible to modern day women and men from ethnic groups that practice both female and male circumcision as complementary experiences.

Dennis: With the global anti-FGM movement showing no signs of backing down in what they say is a war against the “mutilation” of girls and women and against Gender Based Violence in general, what do you really hope to accomplish with this new magazine and the grassroots movement?

Dr. Fuambai: SiA Magazine is a reclaiming of this hidden part of our history as Africans.  There is a dirty word that is used to deter educated, liberal, westernized African descendants like you and me from inquiring into our histories, and especially questioning the unnerving parallels between western civilization, the Abrahamic faiths and that of the ancient Egyptians or Nubians – “Afrocentrism”. 

We don’t want to be labeled Afrocentrics – a term that discredited many fine historians, sociologists and anthropologists in the early 70s and 80s – so, our generation of intellectuals don’t go there. 

A few of us may sneak into the Nubian boutique at the local mall, look over our shoulders to make sure no one sees us, lower our heads and walk quickly past the burning incense and mini ornaments of black pharaohs, to the shelves at the back where we can find books by Cheikh Anta Diop, Walter Rodney, Franz Fanon etc. 

We read these books in private, shake our heads in private, knowing that we have much too much at stake to really rock the boat of our comfortable modern lives or grand aspirations to Oprah-like success in corporate America.

My hope is that SiA Magazine will help some of us get over ourselves and who we think we are in today’s global economy. 

Hello, remember we have a black President in America.   We have a black First Lady holding court in the big White House.  Not only that, the President is of direct African descent. 

Like my dad and the dads of many other first generation Americans, Obama’s dad immigrated to the US from Africa.  Like my dad and the dads of other Africans, I know Papa Obama came as an African scholar and was enrolled at a prominent university, with the intention – whatever his personal character flaws – of returning to his homeland to develop the country during the early years of African Independence.

We are the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by these audacious African men and women, but we have somehow lost the spirit of independence of the 50s, 60s and early 70s. 

We have abandoned the revolution – we apologize and compromise for UN jobs, government posts and contracts, high-powered consultancies, cushiony faculty appointments.

We collude and connive to become award winning journalists, best-selling authors and Nobel Prize laureates – we agree to the “mutilation” of our African spirit.

 SiA Magazine is for me and I hope for others like me, the voice of that spirit that says it is okay to be African. 

We give permission to ourselves to celebrate ourselves, our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, our culture and our traditions. 

Yes, we can wear our hair natural – for those who do – and sport African couture while rocking boardrooms on Wall Street, winning Nobel Prizes, Oscar awards, or making millions in the hip-hop industry. 

All that is good and well and I say bravo to those who show that we can be as “modern”, “global”, chic, and successful as our Euro American and Black American counterparts. 

But, and I say this especially to my Bondo sisters in the diaspora, it is also okay to be African by our own standards, to enjoy our kinfolk back home, to take part in the grand masquerades – and yes, to dance in our initiation ceremonies.

That is what I believe third wave feminism is all about – defining for ourselves who we are and choose to be. 

And, for those of us women and men who are descended from early Mande civilizations in the Niger Valley and from the great Nubians or Egyptian civilizations that followed, it is okay for us to prefer, enjoy and celebrate our circumcised bodies. 

Read Part Two of Dennis Kabbatto’s interview with Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, including an open letter to the President of Sierra Leone by African Women are Free to Choose (AWA-FC)  in the 5th edition of SiA Magazine, which will be available on February 23, 2014 in PDF.

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