Behind The shadow of tradition, looking for the values of fgm. May 5, 2015 marks the passage into Law of the “Violence Against Persons ( Prohibition) Act 2015” on the part of the Nigerian Senate. Six months later, on Nov 7, 2015, the law officially came into force. Although heralded as a legal victory for Human Rights by women’s group and gender activist Stella Mukasa, director of gender, violence and rights at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), the limitations remain, as highlighted in her article in The Guardian underlining the importance of the actual implementation of the law. She continues: “It is crucial that we scale up efforts to change traditional cultural views that underpin violence against women. Only then will this harmful practice be eliminated.”
One might wonder, how it is possible that a law banning such an invalidating ritual for women, need be implemented? How come it seems necessary to convince people, even women, that female genital mutilation (FMG) is merely a brutal and archaic tribal rite of passage to be abandoned, disabling both for her sexual and the reproductive spheres? Actually, FMG is a traditional cultural practice viewed as a banner of values, such as family dignity and cleanliness, as well as a guarantee of virginity and marital fidelity, while also purportedly protecting from witchcraft, which all underlie this practice and render it so entrenched. Often, in fact, in countries where this rite is in use, it is the women themselves to be the most adamant in their unwillingness to change this traditional mindset.
The heart of my research will focus on highlighting how the effects of globalization and international migration have led to an encounter/clash of worldviews that has witnessed the triumph of western culture, clearly encroaching on the time-honored customs and rituals of non-western civilizations. No moral judgment on the rite will be passed hoping to offer an opportunity to analyze the phenomenon from an unbiased perspective in terms of integration of cultures, rather than forced assimilation.
The theoretical approach that will be used is constructivist, because the aim of my research is to elucidate what values are linked to the ritual and how these might change as a result of globalization. Firstly, I think it is important to reflect on a question: “Does acknowledging the existence of cultural diversity entail as its necessary corollary a position of cultural relativism, i.e. an argument against the possibility of a supracultural criterion of evaluation of cultures?”. If this were true it would mean that we have fallen victim to relativism, here defined as the position whereby “no action is, in and of itself, inherently commendable nor wrong.” Therefore we would have to infer that the condemnation of FMG is simply a reflection of the canons of justice and morality deriving from Western culture, the result of centuries’ evolution and affirmation of rights, also corroborated by medical studies on the physical consequences and dangers of FGM, as well as by psychologists investigating the psychological traumas endured by its victims, which have collectively favored the emergence of a negative judgment. Although such an opinion would be devoid of any universal value, given the premises, at the same time it would, no doubt, be impossible to deny that the rite does impact woman negatively, both physically and psychologically.
In the paragraphs that follow, I shall attempt to make an objective albeit not value-free analysis to find out if there is a true relativism of values able to defend such barbarity; a practice condemned by the UN, UNICEF, and WHO as a violation of human rights. The text aims to show that there is also a different way of approaching FGM, born out of the anthropological literature of the works of scholars who have studied the ceremony closely, finding themselves passive spectators of this ritual so as to approach it from a different scale of values having a notion of Justice remote from the one more universally shared, but nonetheless deserving to be taken into account. While the negative psycho-physical effects of the rite are blatantly obvious to anyone approaching the topic, we should instead focus on the consequences for women failing to submit themselves to the ritual. Nonetheless, for them, which is the lesser of two evils: undergoing these horrific mutilations or having to bear the life-long social stigma in a community where all women have had FGM, where her future depends on being accepted by the group and judged worthy of carrying on her family name/identity, pure in the eyes of her would-be spouse and his kin?
Until a few years ago, the community was isolated, such that cases occurring on the outside were relatively few, but with the recent upsurge in the migration fluxes, the rite has been increasingly exported to Western countries. In particular, the European Union has had to come to grips with an alarming escalation in the number of cases, a dilemma that, due to its rapid expansion in the West, has advanced to the forefront of the current political agenda.
This paper aims to provide a consistent evolutionary pathway of the significance of the ritual, highlighting the influence that globalization has had on it, by way of developments in international law, with the spread of protection measures for women and children, thanks to the proliferation of dedicated advocacy associations and movements.
The analysis is divided into three parts: the first will deal with the characterization of the practice and its values as emerges from the testimonials of anthropologists who have observed and studied the phenomenon closely in order to discern its dynamics. The second part focuses on the research and debate within the medical community, which has made efforts to raise the awareness of the international community so as to bring this rite to an end. Lastly, there will be concluding considerations on the current scenario and what the future appears to have in store.
To jump into the heart of the issue, we must first ask ourselves: can we really rise up as champions of justice and determine what is right or wrong? Is it really so simple to condemn a practice as ancient and widespread as that of female circumcision?
Scholars from the legal profession seek to defend women’s rights through the rule of law, philosophers turn to relativism of values for solutions, physicians take a stand on the basis of the impaired physical integrity, psychologists refer to the pathophysiology of pain; yet, if the ritual continues to be passed down from one generation to the next, notwithstanding the science, ethics, law and, reason that in unison invoke a ban, we have to acknowledge the power of culture and tradition.
What drives women to accept such violence and submit a defenseless child to such torture? It is happening under our very nose: every year “according to Amnesty International, 135 million women undergo mutilation in the world and every day 2 million girls are at risk of FGM. The latter is practiced on minors under 15 years of age, however the majority are girls under 10. The Albero della Vita (Tree of Life) association, on February 6th of this year, on the occasion of the World Day Against FGM, estimated more than 90,000 women, including 7,700 girls, to be at risk in Italy alone”.
Can we still label it a ‘tribal ritual’? They refer to it with descriptors like ‘good,’ ‘pure,’ and ‘lovely,’ instead we condemn it? Regardless, the phenomenon is spreading with the waves of immigration into the West. How is it possible? In the next section I shall try to furnish explanations by going back in time, so as to elucidate the concept of the ‘sinful woman’ as described in the pages of writings, from the most ancient sacred texts up to contemporary literature.
Amidst literature and reality. My personal interest for the topic was piqued by reading a novel by an Italian researcher, Alessandra Sorresina, entitled “Questa Notte Parlami dell’Africa” (Tell Me about Africa, Tonight), a brutal and gritty, but powerful, African story. One of its main characters, a girl about to be circumcised, lives out her fears admixed with joy, as paraphrased below:
There would be a big celebration in her honor and she would make her mother proud. She would be worthy of her father if only she could manage to not shed a tear, she kept telling herself. If she flinched or winced it would be a disgrace to her family. The other girls in the village, who were already pure, had been courageous and advised her to try praying and focusing her gaze on a fixed spot.
Usually women born into these cultures by no means refuse infibulation: rather, they are accomplices in passing it down to their daughters. Genital mutilation, in fact, is not directly performed on women by males. Women are not only the victims, it is they who perform it themselves on other women.
Mothers who, in the name of a the tradition set by their ancestors, sacrifice the health, well-being and serenity of their daughters. Steeped in patriarchal values, they consider themselves “worthy” only if their vulva is stitched. If the girl cries, she is told to stop, to not shriek: the message is, if she cries she is unworthy of her father.
In their eyes, it is the cultural heritage, a rite of passage and a crucial milestone, her gateway to womanhood, rather than a horrible punishment or pointless mutilation. Upstream, there is an ingrained cultural drive towards genital mutilation. Such is the anticipation that the girls yearn for the day they finally get “cleaned up.” An “uncircumcised” female is considered “impure” and, as such, gets excluded from the family, the social group, anything meaningful whatsoever. Female circumcision represents a status symbol of belonging, “Now you are a woman,” say the others to the child who has just been “cut.” A true safe-conduct, it is a process that entitles her to a personal identity, otherwise canceled and rejected.
Here our minds are compelled to linger for a moment to indulge in a thought: it is hard to remain unfeeling, or worse still, indifferent to the suffering of another human being, especially a woman, all the more so when it is an innocent child, the helpless victim of the will of her own parents.
Female circumcision exists, but until you read about it in a newspaper, or happen on a dissertation dealing with these distant experiences, you might find it hard to believe. We remain perplexed: how can this be going on? It can only be so if those women are genuinely convinced there is no alternative to their burden, where being accepted and surviving, in a society so different from ours, is hardly optional, and being a woman means being able to endure their share of pain for an ideal of purity.
Already in ancient times, sacred texts planted the notion of the woman as the vile being who must atone for her sins through suffering. Without going too far, just think back to the Bible where the Christian God punishes Eve for the Original Sin by condemning her kind to forever expiate through the pains of labor and giving birth.
Far be it from me to mislead the reader into believing that the underpinnings of the ritual are religious, when in fact, despite being widespread in Muslim countries, the traditional cultural practice of FGM predates both Islam and Christianity. The reference to religion might, if anything, be interpreted as a male bias in sacred scripture, whereby the woman turns out being innately sinful, but (fortunately) can become pure through suffering.
Actually, the conceptual frame is somewhat of a leitmotif in literature and fiction in general. Just to mention a few classic examples, think of Hester Prynne, the adulteress in the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne or the tormented Emma of Madame Bovary by Flaubert or finally Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Both religion and literature have perpetuated, at length, the image of the woman bearer of sin that need be expiated. However, contrary to African tradition, where these purification rituals still persist, in Western culture a new idea of Justice evolved following the Dark Ages, driven forward by the Enlightenment, ultimately triumphing with the rule of civil law and finally international law.
Victims of a timeless horror, these women have borne the centuries-old tradition engraved in their flesh. While a horrendous barbarity, it is utterly mindful of sexist traditions. At the behest of the fathers, but soldiered on by the mothers, that is where the law came to a halt, unfortunately or fortunately, still for a short while.
From the article “Rethinking Female Circumcision” by Melissa Parker in which the author describes her experience in Omdurman aj Jadida, a village in Gezira / Managil, emerges relevant data to support the arguments under analysis considered as of yet. The anthropologist’s investigation aims to go beyond the existing research in the field. What strikes me as being quite relevant is the evolution and change in her judgment during her stay at the village. At the end of the article, reading between the lines, there is a poignant sense of loss. An authentic feeling of disorientation emerges born out of her participation in the rite, which at first she observed with disgust and dismay, keeping her eyes shut, almost not wanting to watch the cruel reality, but with time changed into an anticipation of the ritual, to the point of actively taking part in the ceremony. According to the anthropologist’s own account:
“This was the first time that I consciously and defiantly challenged expected codes of behavior in Omdurman aj Jadida (…) My distress was manifest in a number of other ways (…) It became increasingly difficult to attend a ceremony without actively participating in the events which followed (such as singing, dancing). I frequently wondered whether I should have witnessed these circumcision ceremonies and whether my presence lent tacit approval to something I found disturbing and abhorrent. However, the portrayal of female circumcision in a positive light was disarming and a sharp reminder that it can take a long time to acquire an understanding, however partial, of a world that is different from one’s own.”
The author is astounded in realizing that her stay in the village is allowing her to learn a new perspective, that of women who, rather than feeling victimized, faces her destiny head-on with courage. She goes on to write:
“The abhorrence of female circumcision and the reification of sexual enjoyment were widespread among friends and colleagues. I was shocked by the number of people who felt able to describe female circumcision as ‘disgusting’, ‘revolting’, ‘obscene’, ‘abusive’ and ‘inhumane’ without enquiring about the meanings ascribed to the practice.”
The idea of approaching this subject within the context of the impact of globalization is born out of the need to find a different explanation that can give voice even to its darker sides, while trying to avoid prejudiced demonization. Thanks to the efforts of scholars like Melissa Parker, ready to put our ideal of justice and ethical certainties at stake, and similar initiatives, we are allowed to view the phenomenon from multiple angles.
In this regard, it seems only appropriate to recall the words of another anthropologist, Fuambai Ahmadu. Specialized in female sexuality and health and an activist for women’s rights, she not only observed, but decided to subject herself to circumcision. From an excerpt of an interview:
“As an anthropologist who has studied female mutilation rituals in West Africa for many, many years and has written about it extensively, most women do not experience it as mutilation and would never refer to themselves as mutilated.” She also speaks from personal experience. Despite growing up and studying in the U.S., Ahmadu chose to be circumcised at age 21 in her home country of Sierra Leone. She was already sexually active at the time and told Insight that the traditional initiation ceremony, in which her clitoris and labia were cut, did not negatively impact her sexuality.
Well knowing that not all women have the same experience, she tried it on her own body and accepted the tradition of her native country, returning there to get circumcised. These accounts clash with the scientific literature on the subject, such as the renowned study conducted by epidemiologist El Dareer (1982) which concluded with an outright condemnation, similarly to other reported testimonies of women who claimed they would have preferred the shame to the torture, as we can read in the pages of Sabrina Avakian’s “Women Stitched: Investigation on Female Genital Mutilation.” It is an essay-reportage that is a circumstantiated indictment and at the same time an appeal to raise public awareness.
Conclusions. The international community could not remain silent and for this reason has launched an all-out campaign to raise awareness that would seem to be yielding its firstlings, if a country wherein the ritual is practiced widely resolved to condemn it by law, so as to put an end to the legitimacy of the rite.
Thanks to the effects of globalization, the Western mindset of women’s rights together with the new conceptualization of childhood and child protection are surpassing all borders.
As highlighted above, the debate remains a heated one. The recent headlines on Nigeria’s adoption of a law banning circumcision elicit the questions addressed herein. i.e. whether a law, which does not reflect shared values ingrained in tradition, can end the phenomenon or not.
What repercussions will there be within these groups? This paper has no pretensions to being comprehensive in scope, however, the hope is of having succeeded in presenting the issue in somewhat relativistic terms while offering a novel perspective, respectful of the cultural values of others acting in good faith for the benefit of their own communities. The thought of stripping away deep-rooted tradition may result bewildering and generate further concerns, raising serious doubts that the law, in and of itself, will have any real impact. Nevertheless, if on the one hand, through globalization, the international community is faced with new opportunity at the same time it must accept the challenges that a variety of cultures entail, on the other hand, it would be ill-advised to seek short-cuts or quick fixes at the risk of seeming overbearing in imposing its ideological worldview.
The road to integration needs to start from a deep understanding of the perspectives of others, focusing more on the similarities than on the differences. Once that process is set in motion, as I have briefly attempted herein, we can often see ourselves mirrored in others.
Simona Di Gregorio
 L. Allodi Rivista sociologia e politiche sociali, art. Globalizzazione e relativismo culturale, 2002, Pg. 35.
 M.A.E. Dummet The logical basis of metaphysics, London : Duckworth, 1991.
 Aldo Morrone, “mutilazioni genitali femminili: un problema nuovo e antico”, Esperienze Dermatologiche, Vol. 3 n° 4, 2001, pp 413-430.
 ALESSANDRO RAFFA, “infibulazione un orrore da fermare”, www.nocensura.com
 EL- DAMANHOURY , “The Jewish and Christian view on female genital mutilation”, African Journal of Urology, Volume 19, Issue 3, September 2013, Pages 127–129
 MELISSA PARKER, “Rethinking Female Circumcision”, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 65, No. 4 (1995), pp. 506-523, Edinburgh University Press, 2009