For some reason, the subject of female genital cutting makes me extremely uncomfortable. There are not many subjects that make me uncomfortable. A few, yes, like mental handicaps, paralysis and rape. But not very many. Female genital cutting is among the few. I suppose this is because while it is a real problem for some real women, it is also among the list of stereotypes of the African continent that make my skin crawl. Still, it is a real thing that happens to real people as I said. Although, I have only met one of such people (to my knowledge) and we didn’t have a chance to discuss her experience. Yet, according to the videos I’ve watched and articles I’ve stumbled across, about 3 million girls are in danger of getting cut every year. I am torn between feeling sorry/angry for the girls and feeling irritated at Western people’s fascination with the issue. Up till now, I have refused to do much research on the topic simply out of spite for the fact that it comes up in every Western discussion about Africa (or African Women). Generally, conversations about Africa tend to follow the same trend: Child soldiers, poverty, AIDS/Malaria/Ebola, arbitrary civil wars, wild animals and of course, female genital cutting1. And because of my frustration with the constant oversimplification of and willful ignorance regarding an entire continent, I have up till now not paid close attention to any issues that bear a resemblance to those I mentioned above. What changed?
I came across two TED talks that discuss female genital cutting. The first was by Khadija Gbla, a woman originally from Sierra Leone, who eventually moved with her family to Australia, but on the way was subjected to the practice. She speaks of her personal experience of the cut, and all the physical, psychological and emotional effects it had on her life in the years that followed. The second talk I watched was by a Kenyan lady, Kakenya Ntaiya. She mentions FGC, but as a small chapter in the larger story of her journey to educate (and consequently) empower herself, and other girls and women in her village. The two talks are very different in what they focus on, but what struck me was that each woman mentioned that the actual cut was performed by an old woman ”with a rusty knife”. That made me shudder (not the old woman, the rusty knife). It made the danger of female circumcision very real to me. Before then, I kept stopping short of forming an opinion on the issue – I wasn’t even 100% certain that it was an issue. Now I realize that it is at best painful and (biologically/medically) unnecessary, and at worst, fatal2.
And this made me wonder why it exists at all. Ms Gbla gave the answer (or at least one answer, if others exist) in her talk. The aim of the practice is to ensure that women do not enjoy and therefore do not seek out sex. This way, they will not sleep around. Ok. I suppose that’s one way to go about it. I will confess that this thought momentarily flit across my mind: “well, since it takes two to tango, did anyone think to solve the same ‘problem’ by cutting snipping off a different set of genitalia?” Turns out, they did, but I’m not remotely comfortable with that either. I mean, why does anyone feel the need to control another person’s sexuality? I feel like it’s already more than enough work to deal with your own. Still, there are those who think that it is a necessary and intrinsic part of their society (contrary to popular opinion, not only in Africa but in parts of the Middle East and South Asia as well) and they are not willing to part with it. Sad, no?
As I had opened my mind to an issue that I’d been previously avoiding, the next question that logically followed was, what do I do about this? Well, I know that there are quite a few organizations and foundations that are supposed to help victims3 of FGC. Yet, how many of these groups are founded and run by women from these communities where FGC is practiced? I believe very strongly that the impetus for any kind of positive change movement in a community must come from within that community, otherwise it will very quickly fall apart, no matter how noble one’s intentions. And seeing that many of the people who are most vocal about FGC do not come from or live in places where it is practiced, it gives me pause. Still, I have not yet done any in-depth research on the topic, so I cannot say with authority that it is mostly White foreigners who are vocal about FGC. Ms Gbla and Ms Ntaiya are certainly not outsiders to the problem.
I ought to give some kind of conclusion here, but the truth is I don’t really know too much about the topic I’ve tried to discuss (two videos and a handful of articles). So, instead I’ll throw this open to anyone else who might read this: what are your thoughts?