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Global Exchanges
2002 MMLA Panels
Minneapolis, MN
10 November


Cristina Thaut
University of Nebraska

"A Patriarchal Wound": Tradition, Imperialism, and Female
Genital Mutilation

Do not cite without permission of the author.

Now we know what it is. Now we know where lies our tragedy. We were born of a special sex, the female sex. We are destined in advance to taste of misery, and to have a part of our body torn away by cold, unfeeling cruel hands.
--Nawal El-Saadawi after experiencing female genital mutilation, The Hidden Face of Eve.

One can read story after story of the terrifying experience young African girls undergo in the name of "tradition"; it is their story of female circumcision, or female genital mutilation. The "West" has increasingly heard these stories as African women empower themselves and speak out. Nawal El-Saadawi, Egyptian writer and political activist wrote of her experience in 1980 in The Hidden Face of Eve; she continues to speak out against female genital mutilation and subjugation of African women. Since roughly 1979 following a World Health Organization regional conference in Khartoum, numerous human rights organizations--UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the Organization of African Unity, the Inter-African Committee, among others--have dedicated time and resources to the eradication of the practice. CNN aired a special on female genital mutilation in 1994. Fauziya Kassindja, a young woman from Togo, caught the attention of the media and human rights organizations in 1995 when she sat in prison for eighteen months trying to gain political asylum in the United States, claiming female genital mutilation violated her human rights.(Note 1) She was granted asylum in a precedent-setting case on April 24, 1996 (Kassindja 471).

Despite growing worldwide interest in female genital mutilation as a "universal" human rights violation, the practice continues in at least twenty-six of forty-three African countries (Note 2) (Reymond 1), and more than forty countries worldwide, including the United States and Britain among Muslim immigrant populations (Maher 1). An estimated 100 to 135 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM, and an estimated two million girls are at risk every year (WHO FGM fact sheet, p. 6). The issue of FGM has been addressed by international organizations since 1952 when the UN Commission on Human Rights raised the issue for the first time. Since that time, FGM has been part of an ongoing discussion in at least twenty-one UN conferences and conventions (WHO FGM fact sheet 21-24), many regional (African) conferences, and international women=s conferences. The issue has been addressed by individual African countries, the Organization of AfricanUnity, the Inter-African Committee, and Amnesty International and other NGOs. Yet, the practice continues with very slow progress toward eradication.

Tradition is the primary reason given by those who continue to practice FGM on their daughters (Slack 448). It is practiced primarily by Muslims, and mistakenly thought to be required by Islam; the practice itself actually precedes Islamic influence in Africa and may be as old as 6000 years (Walker 57). But FGM, like many African cultural traditions, is complicated by a long and turbulent history of contact with the West. Traditions become not only symbolic of community solidarity, but an opposition to oppression, a representation of independence. Thus, understanding FGM as a tradition also facilitates in understanding why Western/universal human rights and their organizations have had little effect on changing or ending this practice; FGM must be an internal struggle involving and understanding of the meaning of tradition. For a continent that has been battered by colonialism, any eradication programs must take into consideration in what context this traditional practice continues--a context which supports cultural identity and opposes the West. Given the often antagonistic relationship between Africa and the West, eradication of a traditional practice must be the result of a primarily internal process of economic and educational improvement. It must be African women who empower themselves to end this practice; this can not be a decision made and executed by Western feminists who have little idea of the African Muslim woman's experience.

I. Female Genital Mutilation--the Practice

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced as far north as Egypt, as south as Uganda, and from Cote d'Ivoire to Somalia. Girls from a few days old to just a few days before their wedding are circumcised. The World Health Organization defines female genital mutilation as Aall procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons. The "operation" is generally done by a midwife in an unsterile setting and with no anaesthetic (A joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA statement). Few African families take their daughters to professional health care practitioners, one, because the practice is criminalized in many states, and two, very few can afford to. The WHO tries to remain objective when describing FGM, giving rational arguments to support eradication, but real women's stories are painful and frightening.

Very few remember anything but pain. Lightfoot-Klein has discovered that those who do not remember the pain tend to be more heavily wracked with other psychological problems (see Lightfoot-Klein 247-288). Both immediate and long term complications are many and often severe. Immediate complications include hemorrhage, shock, infection, urinary retention, and injury to adjacent tissue. Long term complications include bleeding, urinary retention and tract infection, incontinence, keloid formations and dermoid cysts, permanent infections, severe pain in sex and childbirth (due to keloid scar tissue), psycho-sexual dysfunction and depression, to name only a few (WHO FGM fact sheet 10-13).

The most common reasons given by those who practice FGM for continuing this practice are tradition, (misunderstood) religious demands, promotion of social and political cohesion, enhancement of fertility, prevention of promiscuity, preservation of virginity, maintenance of feminine hygiene, aesthetics (Harvard Law Review 1949), and marriageability of girls within their community or neighboring communities (Koso-Thomas 5). All of these reasons reinforce the power of the patriarchal system and its subjugation of women within much of Africa. Julie DiMauro notes that AThe cultural practice of FGM was designed to subjugate women by controlling their sexuality and by preserving patriarchal attitudes with respect to marital and sexual relations (334. Also see Koso-Thomas 24). Thus, female genital mutilation is part of a larger patriarchal tradition which also denies women access to economic freedom, a right to divorce, a right to their children, among other denials of rights. How do we then understand tradition (patriarchal or otherwise) as the primary motivation of FGM, where it comes from, and how and why it is perpetuated?

II. Female Genital Mutilation--Tradition

Tradition or custom lies at the root of any cultural group cohesion. Traditions, as Kwame Gyekye argues in Tradition and Modernity: Philosophic Reflections on the African Experience, are the result of many generations justifying the need for a particular practice viewed as beneficial to the community as a whole. FGM was and is considered a beneficial practice by those who continue the tradition. Mothers who have their daughters circumcised, although they are acutely aware of the pain and suffering, are doing it out of love for their children, believing it is in their daughter's best interest. A girl's prospects for livelihood are generally limited to marriage; most tribal men will not marry an uncircumcised woman. FGM may have begun centuries ago to protect young girls working in the fields from being raped by other tribes or as a primitive kind of population control (Slack 445). Today it is considered to be a cleansing and aesthetically pleasing thing to do.

FGM could have two of possibly many points of origin, which assist in understanding why it started, why it continues. First, there is the philosophical inquiry into the role of ritual, ritual being the physical manifestation of tradition.(Note 3) Why did African cultures begin a practice like FGM? Rene Girard, in Violence and the Sacred, discusses why ritualistic traditions begin and why they continue. Blood plays a central role in ancient societies' understanding of the world around them; it signifies life, death, and violence. ABlood serves to illustrate the point that the same substance can stain or cleanse, contaminate or purify, drive men to fury and murder or appease their anger and restore them to life (Girard 37). Women easily become the focal point in matters of blood due to childbirth and menstruation; both activities take on a symbolic meaning for the ancient society, and both "mysterious" activities make the vagina a focal point for symbolic formation. This symbol formation (here, purity and cleanliness) is relevant to Islamic-African societies as well. As previously mentioned, one of the reasons for practicing FGM is cleanliness or "purification." Further, Muslim women follow a strict cleansing regiment following their menses (See Kassindja). Girard writes, A . . . there is nothing incomprehensible about the viewpoint that sees menstrual blood as a physical representation of sexual violence. We ought . . . to inquire whether this process of symbolization does not respond to some half-suppressed desire to place the blame for all forms of violence on women (36). Both sexual violence (often thought to be brought on by "female wiles" in patriarchal societies) and menstruation must be curbed or controlled for the sake of peace; a logical outgrowth of this is to eliminate the source of sexual pleasure/violence (all sexual activity encompasses some degree of violence, according to Girard), i.e., the clitoris, and sew shut the area which is the source of this violence and blood, thereby solving the problem. The dismembered female genitalia then becomes the physical sacrifice to appease a god, or such a source that may, in the eyes of ancient peoples, understand the mystery of life, death, and their intimate connection to blood. African societies' reasons for continuing the practice of FGM support Girard's philosophy: it is a purification or cleansing process which involves blood in every aspect--the cutting, coitus (with infibulated women), menstruation (or the slowing of), and childbirth; a way to control sexual desire in women, and prevention of promiscuity in women, both of which involve violence either in the act of sex itself or a reaction to adultery.

The practice of mutilation, of course, is not limited to women. Male sexual organs also become the focal point of sacrifice as seen in Judaism and Islam.(4) Alison T. Slack notes that both forms of circumcision/ mutilation began (before Islam or Judaism) as a part of traditional puberty rites, and may be an outgrowth from human sacrificial practices (443-45). Jeannine Parvati Baker argues that fear The of a Adominator society and its rules is at the core of this sacrifice/mutilation. She writes that "Cultural patterns of violence are inherited through the way we are treated by those entrusted to protect us (179), creating a tradition. Human beings feel compelled to alter the sexual organs due to, as Girard argues, a fear of sexuality itself and the violence it encompasses, as well as the mystery sexuality once encompassed for ancients in the form of childbirth and menstruation.

Girard also notes, "Like the animal and the infant, but to a lesser degree, the woman qualifies for sacrificial status by reason of her weakness and relatively marginal social status. That is why she can be viewed as a quasi-sacred figure, both desired and disdained, alternately elevated and abused (142). This statement serves to differentiate FGM from male circumcision, which is less fraught with domination and patriarchy, though it is just as fraught with fear of sexuality and the idea of sacrifice. A second cultural element in FGM as a tradition, why it began and why it continues, is the role of women in patriarchal African society, historically and today. The history of ancient Africa has revealed that these societies possessed a strong matriarchal component. In African Feminism: The Politics of Survival in Sub-Saharan Africa, Gwendolyn Mikell discusses women's roles in African society. In pre-colonial Africa, male-female roles and responsibilities were clearly designated, yet the responsibilities of women were not necessarily viewed a less valuable. She notes that A . . . traditional African cultural principles and social status factors allowed women to participate publicly in society prior to European and Muslim interventions . . . (Introduction, 17). Nawal El-Saadawi notes similar things concerning ancient Egyptian women, noting that a system of matriarchy was significantly altered by the advent of private property 3500 years ago (108). Both women argue, in essence, that the interpretation of Islam in Africa and the damage of colonial power reinforced a patriarchal system, doing great damage to the status of women.

Religious tradition--Islam--is the second most popular reason given for circumcising girls, following the vague and nebulous reason simply called "tradition" or "custom." It should be noted that FGM is also practiced by a few Christians, Animists, and Jews in Africa (Slack 446). Islam is the primary religion in which FGM is practiced. Islam, together with colonizing by Western Christian nations, is a key component in perpetuating patriarchy, in whose best interest it is to continue to subjugate women, one way being through the practice of FGM. FGM is not traditionally a part of Islam, as is revealed by Egyptian mummies who were circumcised (Slack 445). According to ancient Egyptian mythology, male and female possess both a feminine and masculine soul. The female's masculine soul is located in the clitoris, while the male's feminine soul is located in the prepuce. At the time of puberty, these respective parts must be cut away so that a male will be fully male and female fully female (Lightfoot-Klein 29). Another proof that the practice is pre-Islamic lies in the fact that 80% of the Islamic world does not practice FGM, most notably it is unknown in Saudi Arabia--the cradle of Islam, or Iran. Hanny Lightfoot-Klein notes that, AIn Egypt it is largely confined to the Nile valley, suggesting a Pharaonic rather than Islamic origin (41). Africans incorporated already-existing traditions into their new religion, revealing the strength of "tradition" in and of itself. Mohammed, though he speaks of male circumcision, says nothing in support of female circumcision. El-Saadawi points out that Mohammed directly speaks out against the practice of FGM. FGM was wide-spread in the pre-Islamic Arab peninsula. She says, AMahomet the Prophet tried to oppose this custom since he considered it harmful to the sexual health of the woman. [He says,] "If you circumcise, take only a small part and refrain from cutting most of the clitoris off . . . The woman will have a bright and happy face, and is more welcome to her husband, if her pleasure is complete" (39). The words of Mohammed have been misinterpreted by African Muslim religious leaders and others to mean that he was in favor of female circumcision.

Illiteracy in Africa serves the same patriarchal system. Because many Africans (more women than men) are illiterate, they do not have the opportunity to interpret the Qur'an for themselves. Often religious leaders continue to perpetuate the myth that Islam requires FGM; this is done simply for the sake of continuing their control over a large portion of the population. Lightfoot-Klein quotes the official position of Islamic jurists in countries where it is practiced: AFemale circumcision is an Islamic tradition mentioned in the tradition of the Prophet, and sanctioned by Imams [religious leaders] and Jurists in spite of their differences on whether it is a duty of sunna (tradition). We support the practice and sanction it in view of its effect on attenuating the sexual desire of women and directing it to desirable moderation" (42). Farida Shaheed writes of the position in which most Muslim women, including African women, find themselves: "Fear of being pushed beyond the collectivity of one=s nation, religion, and ethnic group, of being cast out and losing one's identity, militates against initiating positive action for change. Under these circumstances, questioning, rejecting, or reformulating 'Muslim' laws is indeed a major undertaking and one that women--isolated as they are and collectively the least powerful social group . . . are ill-equipped to face" (83). Hanny Lightfoot-Klein in Prisoners of Ritual and other researchers have discovered that many African women would like to challenge the practice of FGM, but fell powerless in a patriarchal society. Women often accept their inferior societal role and perpetuate their own suffering because patriarchal society and tradition leave them little choice. With few options, the African woman uses tradition as her source of agency. Tradition as agency is exacerbated by the desire of religious and political leaders, as well as women, to oppose Western influences which roundly denounce the practice of FGM.

III. When Tradition Meets the West

Kwame Gyekye theorizes about tradition and its counterpart, modernity, in Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience. He argues that tradition is not something that is passively transmitted from one generation to the next, but that each generation must justify the continuation of a tradition (221). He further argues that a community will eventually change or abandon a tradition that does damage to it, continuing only that which is beneficial (262). He gives full credit to traditionalist societies--which many African societies are considered--in making a conscious decision to continue a tradition. It is often a weakness that Western writers consider that a practice like FGM is ignorantly and unconsciously passed from one generation to another; the West to cannot fully comprehend the African point of view, and remain the speculating outsider. African communities and African families often do see value in continuing FGM. Men in communities which circumcise women insist that marriageable women must be "clean," i.e., cut. Mothers know that their daughters must be cut if they are to find a husband; thus, there are legitimate economic reasons for a parent's interest in having their daughter circumcised. In some tribes, the female genitalia are thought to cause problems in childbirth, impotence in a man, infections in a woman, etc. (Lightfoot-Klein 38-40, Koso-Thomas 9); under such false beliefs, parents' best interest is for the health of the child. When tradition alone is considered, Gyekye could be quite correct; it may eventually be discovered by these African communities, armed with more education, that babies don't die in birth when their head touches the clitoris (Lightfoot-Klein 38), and that men can function normally with an uncircumcised woman. A patriarchal system would not necessarily need to continue FGM given the many other tools of oppression they possess to use against women. Yet, the practice of FGM continues. What Gyekye does not explore is the conscious political reasons for continuing a tradition; in the case of much of Africa, the traditional becomes the political in the face of colonialism and Western imperialism.

The list of repercussions from Western colonial rule in Africa are familiar to anyone who has come across colonial literature. Franz Fanon writes in depth of the psychological damage done to the "native" by the "settler," Chinua Achebe expresses in his novels the profound destructive effect Westerners had on traditional African culture, and Nawal El-Saadawi is filled with outright anger toward the damage done not only by her own government, but past colonialism. Rhoda Howard, in discussing Africa, colonialism, and universal human rights, gives a laundry list of common human rights violations practiced by the British in colonies, including those states in Africa. She mentions subjugation by violence, British governmental control, "preventative detention" of suspicious (and sometimes not at all suspicious) black Africans, forced labor, forced military recruitment, and forcible confiscation of African land for white settlers (9). It was these "run of the mill" colonial behaviors that help to form the antagonistic African impression of the West.

Like Islam, Western colonialism in Africa hurt and subjugated women more than any other sector of the population. Western colonialism, due to Western patriarchal precepts, encouraged the further subjugation of women in Africa. Traditional female customs and women's economic role in their society came under colonial attack (Mikell, Introduction). Mikell notes that "Westerners often felt compelled to intervene in African cultural practices that included women (polygyny, "forced marriage," clitoridectomy, widow sacrifice) and which were viewed as repugnant, un-Christian, and in need of changing" (18). African men were encouraged by colonial powers to take a leading role in local markets; they took over economic activities once controlled by women such as selling food (that women were still responsible for growing) and selling clothing made by colonial powers. Clothing was once made and sold by African women; this, and the food market, were once women's source of economic power (Mikell 18). In 1946 British-ruled Sudan passed a law which criminalized FGM. "This law proved not only ineffectual, but actually cause a political backlash under the leadership of Mahmud Mohammed Taha against colonial control. The population promptly pharaonized [infibulated] its daughters . . ." (Lightfoot-Klein 43). Following decolonization, in the 1950's and '60's, African communities openly opposed the West and any further role the West attempted to take on within Africa's increasingly traditionalist societies.

In the face of the colonial experience, many Western scholars still approach African studies, or specifically studies of traditional practices such as FGM (as a human rights violation) as either universal or culturally relative. From a Western perspective, it is easy to accept the idea of "universalism"; a concept which holds that Acertain moral tenets are universally applicable. This theory purports that every person is endowed with a core set of fundamental rights simply because he or she is a human being. Universalists contend that cultural traditions are, "irrelevant to the validity of moral rights and rules, which are universally valid" (DiMauro 337). On the other hand, the doctrine of cultural relativism claims that "the variations that persist among autonomous groups should generally be immune from criticism and remediation by outsiders" (DiMauro 336). Scholars who discuss FGM, or any "universal" human rights issues, invariably take a position on this continuum stretching from what Jack Donnelly calls "radical universalism" (33) to strong cultural relativism. It seems to me to be hubris alone that says we can approach FGM or any non-Western practice or culture from this binary opposition, given the African experience with colonialism and the feeling of opposition that experience has created. "Universalism" is not universal at all; it is couched in Western political philosophy from the eighteenth century forward, and a philosophy of "universal" human rights is an outgrowth of this Western political philosophy which relies upon the idea of the rights and dignity of the autonomous individual, thus making it a concept of Western human rights. While Western/universal human rights may have the best interest of the individual in mind, a conflict arises, as in the case of many African communities, when the rights of the autonomous individual are significantly less important than the rights and well-being of the community as a whole. Universality or cultural relativity are in essence subjective terms understood only through one's cultural experience, making universality as well as cultural relativity particularities, in effect destroying the arbitrary binary opposition of these two concepts. Considering either a universalist or culturally relativist perspective as a legitimate approach to a traditional practice is in itself imperialist given that: one, as just and moral as "universal"/Western human rights may be, this concept is indeed a result of Western political philosophy and not necessarily a part of any African society's experience; and two, the entire notion of binary oppositions, like human rights, is an outgrowth of Western thinking beginning with Rene Descartes. In short, any plan for the eradication of FGM must be considered from an African cultural perspective.

IV. Eradication efforts

To end a harmful practice like FGM one needs: greater education, greater participation in governance, and a better standard of living, all of which may benefit from involvement of the international community's human rights laws and monies. Unfortunately, any assistance from the international community (i.e., generally the more wealthy Western powers) is fraught with African opposition to Western concepts. Decolonization brought with it not only resistance to direct Western involvement, but resistance to Western concepts such as democracy and capitalism as well. New governments in Africa formed in the 1950' and '60's were "social experiments," antagonistic toward Western republicanism, and generally resulting in oppressive military dictatorships (Ayittey 126). Since international/Western assistance in the form of resources (as opposed to opinions and moral standard's) will facilitate an internal effort to end FGM, this opposition must be dealt with if African regional and domestic efforts are going to be able to incorporate international resources.

Often the above Western concepts are equated with modernity or modernization; thus, African traditionalist culture resists anything "modern." Gyekye argues that tradition and "modernity"--which represents the West in most perspectives, are not conflictual as they are generally considered. Part of the opposition to the West includes an opposition to a "modern" kind of lifestyle which threatens a traditional lifestyle. He writes, "The truth of the assertion that every society in the modern world inherits ancestral cultural values implies that modernity is not always a rejection of the past, but it also casts serious doubts on the appropriateness of perceiving tradition and modernity as polar opposites" (217); modernity is then a form of tradition. Edwin Wilmsen writes in The Politics of Difference: Ethnic Premises in a World of Power, "The philosophy of modernity aims to emancipate human beings from the power of privilege (whether of partitioned wealth, oligarchic governance, class dominance, or intellectual arrogance) to dictate the terms of human existence" (19). And finally, Rhoda Howard points out that modernity is not exclusively Western; African "modernization" does not mean "Westernization" (27). Thus, African states can "modernize"--meaning changing the institutions of education and general participation in government, and economic systems, without feeling as if they are destroying traditional culture and simply mimicking the West. In short, tradition can be critically examined and changed under the right conditions. Old traditions can be exchanged for new ones.

Eradication efforts, then, must consider: the power of tradition; the opposition to Western attitudes, concepts, and monetary assistance; and creating in African states their own more modernized or "new traditional" institutions without equating modern with Western--an equation which causes all people to suffer. Although eradication needs material resources from the West, change in attitude and tradition must be primarily internal. A key question in the eradication process is, how do African women feel about ending this practice? It has been clearly indicated in studies that African women, and men with higher education (high school or college) oppose the practice in greater numbers, while illiterate women and men tend to unquestioningly stick to tradition (Koso-Thomas 59, Maher 3, Lightfoot-Klein 58, Reymond). African women and their communities must be able to make an informed decision concerning the practice; thus, eradication's first and most vital step is education. Education concerning FGM, taken on primarily by the Inter-African Committee and the World Health Organization, has been the most effective of any given plan in slowing the practice, but efforts at education have not taken into consideration the importance of and the motivations behind tradition. It has focused on teaching just the negative health consequences of FGM. For education to take into consideration something like tradition which will not be changed simply by pointing out that the tradition is not a good one, it must be at a much greater level; i.e., strengthening the entire educational system in areas where it is weak. (In Africa, this includes most areas). Greater education needs support and funding; getting money to the wider population needs a participatory government where people have a say in how their government spends its budget, as well as a stronger economic system. Education must be the result of a multitude of efforts from a multitude of sources.

Eradication efforts--education, treaties, laws, and moral pressures--for FGM come from international, regional, and domestic sources. International sources, driven primarily by Western money and Western precepts are met with resistance from African communities (HLR 1953) for the reasons discussed above. In the face of such opposition, international human rights continues to offer support. There are weaknesses in international approaches which support the suggestion made by numerous scholars that resources from international sources for grassroots African organizations may be helpful, but direct intervention with moral or judgmental motivations will not be roundly accepted in Africa. International supporters for the eradication of FGM--including WHO, Amnesty International, UNICEF, UNFPA, and other UN committees (Ras-Work 143-44) have strong support for eradication in already existing treaties and conventions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (a treaty that went to great pains to be culturally sensitive) maintains in Article 3, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person," in Article 5, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," and Article 25(2), "Motherhood and childhood are entitled special care and assistance." The problem with this and other UN treaties is the impossibility of enforcement. The treaty language itself provides activists, African or Western, ammunition to use against these violations, but no power of enforcement. The UDHR and other treaties can also be effective via the UN publication of human rights violations.

Jack Donnelly notes in International Human Rights that "If rights-abusive regimes take international condemnation seriously enough to struggle to avoid it, the work of international human rights agencies is unlikely to be entirely pointless!" (75). The Convention for the Rights of the Child and the (1989) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women--CEDAW (1979) are two additional treaties which support eradication of FGM.(Note 5) Again, these conventions run into the problem of implementation. Many Islamic states, including African states, fundamentally oppose CEDAW on a religious basis (DiMauro 343). DiMauro argues concerning the Children's Convention, "It is pointless to impugn the women who subject their children and grandchildren to the practice of FGM if they did not have the luxury of choosing to do so" (341); since women must be circumcised for survival via marriage, then the fundamental problem here becomes the lack of personal empowerment for women.

Eradication efforts, whether international or domestic, must take into consideration attitudes of African women. African women have many of their own reasons for not accepting international human rights initiatives which stem primarily from their negative experience with colonialism and Western feminists. African women activists clearly express: one, the same hostility the power structure possesses toward what they see as outside, invasive influences; and two, that FGM, the veil, abortion, or contraception are not their primary concerns as they are for Western feminists. "Instead, they are most concerned with the rampant hunger and malnutrition besieging their children, and the persistence of civil wars which decimate families and destroy homes" (DiMauro 338-9). The difficulty in African women's acceptance of outside assistance further immobilizes any help international organizations can offer. Another problem which hinders women's acceptance of international treaties is the treaties' insensitivity to the situation of already circumcised women. If they possess a right to be a whole and complete person, and these rights have been violated, then the language of the treaties imply that these women are incomplete, that their personal integrity has been compromised. Like many women around the world, African women do not want to be viewed as victims in need of sympathy. International treaties are only empowering if they are implementable; international assistance is most helpful in the form of material resources rather than influence and opinion.

A further complication in the process of eradication is funding. Due to colonial exploitation as well as present inefficient governance, sub-Saharan African states are poor. To improve the educational standards in an attempt to eradicate FGM and other harmful practices, African states meed monetary assistance, but international and bilateral funding to sub-Saharan African has been tantamount to disaster. Multilateral and bilateral lending has also exacerbated the antagonism between many African people and the international and Western lenders due to bad planning. Monies from outside Africa have been ineffective due to ignorance on the part of the lenders and corruption in African governments. Monies are not efficiently used, or simply not distributed to the citizens, and purchasing weapons for the military are disguised as "development" projects--monies meant for such things as education (Ayittey 137). Structural adjustment programs fail because they encourage input from African governments, often corrupt governments, and include no input from African citizens. The success of SAP's is measured in a vacuum, without considering civil wars, environmental degradation, or deterioration of the infrastructure; thus, plans that look successful and justify increased spending, in reality utterly fail to improve the standard of living for the average African (Ayittey 141-42). Like international treaties, African citizens are less than enthusiastic about multilateral and bilateral lending programs that seem to do more damage than good.

Many African communities simply will not accept many universal human rights treaties, or have little use for international lending, because they are seen to conflict with "traditional" African values; thus, many African states have signed onto the Organization of African Unity's African Charter for Human and Peoples' Rights which is similar to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but with a stronger emphasis on community rather than individual rights. The separation between individual rights and community rights may be as arbitrary as the separation between universality and cultural relativity, but once again, cultural perspective is central in finding any plan to end FGM which is compatible with the African experience of colonialism, imperialism, and importance of social/community rights. International human rights organizations could be very helpful if utilized, but in such a way that they foster grassroots support for FGM eradication, not only outside or Western moral "support."

Cultural outsiders are not accepted by the ruling elite, but assistance, especially monetary, may be accepted more openly at lower levels of society. As mentioned above, many African power structures following decolonization deny wide participation in governance. If international human rights organizations and multilateral and bilateral lending organizations offer assistance and education to the women themselves or "the dominated," they may have an impact. International assistance, of course, is in need of a significant overhaul which allows for funding and empowerment to be obtainable by African citizens and African NGO's which can best assist African citizens. This assistance would also be facilitated by SAP's which include human rights agendas for states borrowing monies.

Just as international assistance, whether in the form of treaties, well-meaning NGO's, or lending institutions have not had a profound impact, domestic efforts alone have been of very little help in eradicating FGM. In many African governments, monies are not reallocated in such a way as to benefit the larger population (Ayittey). In other cases, a government may oppose FGM, but laws alone have little or no effect. Countries with laws against FGM include Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea, Sudan, (also Great Britain, Sweden, France, and the United States), yet FGM in these African countries is still as high as countries with no laws (Reymond 10). Domestic laws also tend to push the practice underground, meaning that if girls have severe complications, parents are less likely to take them to a hospital due to fear of prosecution (Lightfoot-Klein 44-45). Another problem with domestic efforts is the tendency to medicalize FGM. FGM is usually performed in ritual ceremonies by traditional birth attendants. As people become aware of the dangers of FGM, performance of the procedure has been moving into clinical settings in countries where there is no laws against it. This gives the appearance that the medical community condones the practice, potentially increasing the practice, or at least hindering the process of slowing it down (WHO FGM fact sheets 14).

Despite domestic weaknesses, many African governments do support the eradication of FGM. These include Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Kenya, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda (Reymond 10). These separate states need an organizing force which can bridge the gap between state and international differences. Regional organizations are their best option. The Inter-African Committee (IAC) is one regional organization which is capable of bridging this gap. Following a conference in Dakar in 1984, the NGO Working Group on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, in collaboration with the Government of Senegal, the WHO, and UNICEF, organized the Inter-African Committee whose purpose it was and is to find an eradication solution for FGM and other harmful traditional practices (Koso-Thomas 107). Even the IAC=s initial reaction to Western/international interest was negative. Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh writes in "Jehovah, His Cousin Allah, and Sexual Mutilations," "In 1984, the Inter-African Committee stipulated that 'for understandable psychological reasons, it is the black women who should have the say in the matter.' This committee asked for restraint, in order that the project might be successful, claiming that 'the wave of uncontrollable and violent denunciations of those mutilation on the part of Western countries' was doing more harm than good" (55-56). Realizing that support from the international/Western community, especially monetary support, was vital if they were to be successful. In 1987, having not made an impact on attitudes toward FGM, the IAC changed their position concerning the need for international support and laws (Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh 56). Their original position and altered position reveal that this regional organization has in mind the best interests for African countries; as it has been shown traditionalism inevitably elicits such a reaction. It also reveals the pragmatism of knowing that international monetary support is needed.

The IAC's eradication plan focuses primarily on education. Since its creation, the IAC has set up national committees in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda (Ras-Work 149). Among other things they pursue a Training and Information Campaign which provides health education to African women, research into FGM, and extensive production of educational materials. They also approach economic factors such as alternative employment for traditional circumcisers (Ras-Work 149-50).

The IAC, along with statistics from the Demographic and Health Survey,(Note 6) have shown that attitudes among African women are changing as a result of education, and real numbers are changing as well. In Kenya, a 1991 survey showed that 78% of adolescents had undergone FGM, compared to 100% of women over 50. In the Sudan the prevalence dropped from 99% to 89% among 15 to 49 year old women. Women in many countries are choosing less severe forms of FGM (Reymond 8). Reymond also reports that attitudes are also changing, with more women saying that they will not circumcise their daughters (8). The DHS and IAC have also recorded declines in actual numbers in Central African Republic (DHS 1994/1995), Cote d'Ivoire (DHS 1994), and Kenya (Maendeleo Ya Wanawake survey, 1992) in urban areas (WHO FGM facts sheets 6-9).

It is roundly accepted that education affects change in attitudes toward tradition and thus support for eradication. The IAC has approached its educational campaign in the one way it is capable of doing: by teaching specific information about FGM to communities with high rates of illiteracy who have little access to accurate information about FGM. As noted above, this is clearly having an impact. But the impact may lessen over time as IAC educators are forced by time and money constraints to educate one community for only a short period of time. Unfortunately, once the IAC and other supportive and educational organizations such as WHO leave an area, social pressure is sure to bear down on the mothers who do not wish to circumcise their daughters. Women hold an inferior status in African communities, and this decision may not finally be theirs. A truly successful eradication program must be much more profound. It has been shown that women with higher education, high school and college, are much more likely to oppose FGM and generally think more critically of traditional practices in general (Reymond 8, Koso-Thomas 57-58). Higher education means that women would be freer and more capable of deciding for themselves. They could read the Qur'an to discover that it does not support FGM. Education could lead to greater economic freedom which would allow women to challenge patriarchal power structures.

African countries must pursue broader education programs for the public in general; this is not an easy process and beyond the scope of the Inter-African Committee or the World Health Organization. To increase educational standards means that African governments must be pressured to allocate funds to education rather than weapons. Many African countries rely heavily on multilateral lending institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, etc. Multilateral and bilateral lending institutions must incorporate, as they are beginning to do, human rights policies into their structural adjustment programs. African people must also begin to have a voice in the governance of their countries. Democratization, like Westernization or modernization, is often met with resistance because of a colonial experience; nevertheless, this does not mean public participation is not possible and necessary. Both education and public participation do not challenge African cultural precepts. Both human rights are in fact considered social or cultural rights, the proclaimed focus of African human rights. The right to education is in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Article 13 and 14), yet is not present in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights--a treaty considered by many socially oriented communities such as those in Africa and in China as "Western" in its approach to human rights. The Organization of African Unity's Declaration, the African Charter of Human and People's Rights, claims that there is a fundamental right to education and to participation in government. Article 17 reads: "1. Every individual shall have the right to education. 2. Every individual may freely, take part in the cultural life of his community. 3. The promotion and protection of morals and traditional values recognized by the community shall be the duty of the State." Article 13 reads, "1. Every citizen shall have the right to participate freely in the government of his country, either directly of through freely chosen representatives in accordance with the provisions of the law. 2. Every citizen shall have the right of equal access to the public service of his country. 3. Every individual shall have the right of access to public property and services in strict equality of all persons before the law." Thus, African particular concept of fundamental rights supports every aspect of the above argument. Education as well as the right to culture, women's right to receive an education as well as men's, and public participation.

Traditions are powerful institutions and change cannot be expected in any short period of time. It took more than 200 years to eradicate the Chinese practice of binding women's feet; a practice that was short lived compared to FGM (only 700 years), and lacking the religious importance (Slack 482-82). As Kwame Gyekye supports, African nations do not have to change tradition for the sake of the West. They have, and must have the power to alter tradition for themselves. Cultures are dynamic; because a practice ends does not facilitate the end of that culture. Ayittey argues that the international community as well as Africa's ruling elites, must learn to trust the judgement of the African people if the African people are going to create a more empowered existence. And empowerment to end justification for a tradition could take many, many years.


1.. Fauziya Kassindja published her story, Do They Hear You When You Cry, in 1998. She was escaping both FGM and forced marriage.

2.. Some of these countries include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, and Zaire.

3.. The act of FGM is couched in ritual.

4.. Although many see male circumcision as a human rights issue, I believe an elaborate discussion of male circumcision, as compelling a human rights issue as it is, would seem out of place in this paper. For discussions of male circumcision see Sexual Mutilations: A Human Tragedy. Eds George C. Denniston and Marilyn Fayre Milos. Plenum Press: New York, 1996. Especially chapters 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 21, and 22.

5.. Other UN human rights treaties include: The UN Convention on Violence Against Women (1993), The World Conference on Human Rights, Declaration and Programme of Action, Vienna (1993), The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (1994), The Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), and The UN High Commission on Refugees, Statement Against Gender-Based Violence (1996). (See FGM, A joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA Statement 10-12, and Reymond 9-10)

6.. The DHS program is funded by the United States Agency for International Development and implemented by Macro International Inc. To date, the DHS has provided technical assistance for more than one hundred surveys in Africa, Asia, the Near East, Latin America, and the Caribbean. For more information see


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