Identity and sexual politics: female genital mutilation
By Meryem Fati
Morocco World News
Laurence, Kansas, July 8, 2012
Nowadays there is a great debate around the construction of identity. Many theorists attempt to see how nations tend to agree upon certain principles that serve as the major components of identity construction. Basically, there are some universal ethics but still there are some nations that tend to include some labels that they consider as having an effect on their sovereignty. But the problem is that those labels can affect directly some members of the nation and thus make of them a minority group.
This observation made me gear my research to this issue and try to see how sexual politics affects one’s national identity. The research led me to francophone sub-Saharan African countries. My major focus will be on films produced by francophone sub-Saharan African filmmakers.
Francophone sub-Saharan films are almost not universally known since francophone sub-Saharan African countries are known by their poor cinematographic industry. However, if one attempts to watch one of the films that are produced by those countries he/she will be astounded by the strong narratives that may make us as viewers neglect the technical aspects. In addition, I have observed through these films that most of them address the issue of identity which is the basis for their being. Identity is tackled in different ways by different directors. For this reason I have chosen to talk about this theme in relation to sexual politics which is a vital component in the francophone sub-Saharan African countries’ identity.
I- Sexual Politics
Sexual Politics mainly designates how sex and gender are governed in a certain nation by using specific rules. The word politics in this phrase is not used to designate parties, parliament, elections, campaigns or meetings. It rather denotes rules that a person abides by. Kate Millet said that:
The term “politics” shall refer to power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another. By way of parenthesis one might add that although an ideal politics might simply be conceived of as the arrangement of human life on agreeable and rational principles from whence the entire notion of power over others should be banished, one must confess that this is not what constitutes the political as we know it, and it is to this that we must address ourselves.
This shows that not all people respect what is political since there are certain groups that have no representation in a number of recognized political structures. In addition, this view stresses the point that still we have some minority groups that need recognition, and that is the aim of sexual politics. The relationship between people, their status, class and position in society are all seen as being political since they all involve the general control of one group over the other. In the same manner, when we examine sexual relationships we discover that the situation between the sexes or couples throughout history is seen as what Max Weber defined as “Herrschaft” that means a relationship of dominance and subordinance. This can be confirmed by the fact that the essence of all politics is mainly power.
Sexual Politics is also concerned with families but more specifically the role of men and women in this institution. Since in this thesis we are concerned with patriarchal families Kate Millet admits that:
If one takes patriarchal government to be the institution whereby that half of the populace which is female is controlled by that half which is male, the principles of patriarchy appear to be two fold: male shall dominate female, elder male shall dominate younger. However, just as with any human institution, there is frequently a distance between the real and the ideal; contradictions and exceptions do exist within the system.
This power difference creates some problems in society that may be varied. Moreover sexual politics obtains consent through the “socialisation” of both sexes to basic patriarchal policies. Its aim is to highlight how society is primarily built on the discrepancy between males and females. Kate Millet argues that this consent is established with regard to temperament, role and status:
The first item, temperament, involves the formation of human personality along stereotyped lines of sex category (“masculine” and “feminine”), based on the needs and values of the dominant group and dictated by what its members cherish in themselves and find convenient in subordinates: aggression, intelligence, force, and efficacy in the male; passivity, ignorance, docility, “virtue,” and ineffectuality in the female. This is complemented by a second factor, sex role, which decrees a consonant and highly elaborate code of conduct, gesture and attitude for each sex. In terms of activity, sex role assigns domestic service and attendance upon infants to the female, the rest of human achievement, interest, and ambition to the male. The limited role allotted the female tends to arrest her at the level of biological experience.
The statement shows clearly the major premises of patriarchal societies. All the abovementioned characteristics have cultural rather than biological bases.
When talking about sexual politics it would be of a great importance to mention what Slotter and other experts define as “core gender identity” which is thought to be established by the age of eighteen months. Kate carries on saying that:
Because of our social circumstances, male and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are utterly different and this is crucial. Implicit in all the gender identity development which takes place through childhood is the sum total of the parents’, the peers’, and the culture’s notions of what is appropriate to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture, and expression.
There is a difference between sex and gender. Sex is biological while gender comprises a range of differences between men and women. all in all sexual politics is concerned with the status of men and women, their relationship and the problems that they may encounter. It also refers to the different sexual behaviors that the person may adhere to.
II- Female genital Mutilation
Female genital mutilation/cutting or excision is a traditional practice that consists on the removal of all or just a part of the external parts of the female Genitalia for cultural, religious, or other non-medical reasons. While reading many books on this subject, I found that there are many terms that describe this procedure. It is commonly referred to as female circumcision however some people saw that since this practice is analogous with male circumcision they suggested other terms like female genital mutilation/cutting. It could be said that nowadays all the terms are actively used to mean one particular practice. For this reason I will not limit myself to using one term but I would rather use them all throughout the thesis.
Female circumcision includes a wide range of procedures that vary from one culture to the other. Sunna circumcision mainly consists on the removal of the prepuce (a fold of skin that covers the clitoris) and/or the tip of the clitoris. Clitoridectomy consist on the removal of the entire clitoris and some or all the surrounding tissue. The last type which is the most difficult one is excision and infibulations (Pharonic circumcision). It consists on the removal of all or part of the Labia Majora and the remaining skin is sewn together. They leave only a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood.
1- Female genital mutilation in Africa
Female genital mutilation is mostly practiced in the African continent, especially in northeast and eastern Africa across the Sahel to West Africa. The practice is considered as a cultural ritual believed to enhance a girl’s beauty, honor, marriage ability, social status and chastity. Parents encourage cutting so that the family honor and the girl’s best interests are protected. Therefore, what is the origin of this practice? How is it celebrated? Why is it practiced? And what are its consequences?
The emergence of circumcision and its origins are till now not known. However anthropologists date it back to the pharaonic era in Egypt since they were the first ones to practice this ritual. Malek Chebel claims that:
Les plus importants groupes ethniques africains qui pratiquent la circoncision depuis toujours sont les dogons, les malinkés, les sininkés, les bambaras, les kabiyés, les youroubas, les bozos, les pygmées de la région équatoriale, les mossis. [ The most popular ethnic groups that practice circumcison are the Dogons, the Malinkes, the sininkes, the bambaras, the kabiyes, the youroubas, the bozos, the pygmees and the eqoitorial region of the mossis]
Francophone sub Saharan African countries believe that the origin of mutilation is based on the myth of Ogo since the rite was known before the spread of islam in the ninth century. Among these countries, circumcision is mainly associated with an endemic disorder of the universe which was generally provoked by a hero who disturbed the divine order. Ogo was looking for his twin sister who was captured by his enemies and while doing so he broke the divine order. Therefore, all human beings were seen like Ogo since they face in their life ups and downs and for this reason men and women had to be circumcised. Circumcision was seen like an initiation that seeks to “establish the person within his or her own sex”. The French ethnographer Germaine Dieterlin believes that:
Toute l’histoire de la circoncision africaine est liées au va-et-vient d’Ogo qui circule avec intrépidité entre la Terre et le Ciel [the history of african circumcision is mainly linked to the to and fro of Ogo who circulated with intrepidity between Earth and the Sky]
Female genital mutilation is practiced in most cases between the ages of two and eight. The procedure is done without the care of medically trained people firstly because it is a tradition and people claim that it should be done by the elders of the village and secondly because of poverty and lack of medical facilities. Circumcision of girls is a festive occasion. Some prefer to circumcise their girls with other one and others do it individually. In some regions the day of circumcision, girls wear special clothes designed for the occasion they are blind folded and carried out into the bush by women of the village while singing “ today is the day for picking the ripe mangoes”. Ripe mangoes represent the clitoris which means that it is ripe enough to be removed. The girl is held down while a practitioner takes a razor blade to her genitals. When the practitioner finishes women start screaming from joy. After the healing process she is considered as a real woman. The girl is held down by older women to prevent her from moving around. Outsiders are not allowed to attend the ceremony.
To perform circumcision women can make use of different items such as: razor blades, scissors, knives, broken glass and other sharp objects. These items are not sterilized before or after usage and can be used in different circumcisions and this may be the cause of different diseases. Once the genital area is removed, the young girl is stitched up and the legs are bound up for 40 days. Moreover, girls are left with a small opening. Sometimes some girls find it difficult to urinate because the opening does not open completely that is why the women who are responsible for taking care of the girls insert a small object such as a piece of straw for urinating and menstrual flow. Also Ellen Gruenbaum maintains that:
The extremely small size of the opening makes first sexual intercourse very difficult and impossible, necessitating rupture or cutting of the scar tissue around the opening.
The unhygienic circumstances in which circumcision operations are carried out together with the minimal training of many circumcisers pose serious risks. The effects of the practice can lead to death. Some of the consequences of this ritual could be serious inflections, HIV, tumors, hemorrhages, shock, depression, sterility and other serious problems. Therefore, people stress the fact that this ritual is part of their culture and most importantly their identity. They say that it is a tradition that must not be abandoned. People claim that risks like bleeding are mostly associated with demons. Whenever it happens it happens that a girl bleeds excessively they will say it is because she is a witch. In addition other communities believe that the ritual is a basic constituent of their culture and if they stop it they will die. Girls that are not circumcised are cast out.
Francophone sub Saharan African countries have many claims of why the procedure should be done. It is widely known that he major aim behind this procedure is to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and in doing so it will reduce the chances of having extra-marital relations. Others say that the clitoris and the labia are mainly male parts on a female body and their removal enhances the femininity of the girl. Women who are not circumcised are seen as unclean and thus can not be allowed to handle food or water. There is another believe which says that if a woman with a clitoris gives birth she and her child will die. They justify this by saying that her clitoris will come up to her head it will come out of her nose and back into her head it will kill her. In addition, they say that if the clitoris touches the man’s penis the man will die. For them female genital mutilation prevents vaginal cancer, prevents the face from turning yellow and makes the woman more beautiful.
The majority of francophone sub Saharan African countries are Muslims that is why it is believed that the majority of circumcised women in the world are Muslims. Therefore, this leaves us wondering if female genital mutilation can be linked with Islam. The answer to this question is no. Sami Aldeeb Abu-Salieh says that:
Neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament mention female circumcision. There are, however, many verses in these two books on male circumcision.
However, some collections of hadiths tell the story of the prophet Mohammed (PBUH), who meets a woman that circumcised female slaves (jawari). The story says that:
A discussion was recorded between Mohammed (PBUH) and Um Habibah (or Um’Alyyah), a women performed infibulations on slaves. She said that she would continue the procedure “unless it is forbidden and you order me to stop doing it”. He replied (according to one translation) “Yes it is allowed. Come closer so I can teach you: if you cut, do not over do it, because it brings more radiance to the face and it is more pleasant for the husband.“
According to the aforementioned statement we can say that there was no direct instruction from the prophet to practice female genital mutilation.
2- Voices against FGM
Female genital mutilation is a culture identity practice. However, some writers and organizations fought against it and are still trying to stop it. George C. Denniston, Frederick Mansfield Hodges, Marilyn Fayre Milos say that:
Cutting any healthy part of a child’s body, including the genitals, is wrong . the female clitoris should be guaranteed the same protection as the nose, the hand, or any other body part.
The statement shows that female circumcision is a serious problem that should be known by all people. It is an inhuman practice which violates the privacy of young girls. Human rights’ organizations were faced with this question when a bill was introduced to the US congress in 1993 to criminalize female genital mutilation. However, some political leaders expressed their incapability of eliminating such a ritual since it has a cultural basis and it is a basic constituent of the identity of francophone sub Saharan African countries. George C. Denniston, Frederick Mansfield Hodges, Marilyn Fayre Milos maintain that:
Social messages that accompanies female female circumcision are: “as a woman your sexuality is dangerous, damaging, and must be controlled at all costs” and “ you must confine yourself to the role of reproduction and providing sexual services to men without asking anything for yourself”
These are messages that should be definitely replaced. Female genital mutilation opponents recognize that in order to end the practice it would be better to work with local communities. Female genital cutting is a procedure that is primarily carried out in Africa which is currently the least dominant culture in the world.
Amnesty international has taken up the fight to stop this practice. Today female genital mutilation is seen as a human right issue and it is internationally recognized. Female circumcision was in the universal framework for protection of human rights in 1958. It was during the UN decade for women (1975- 1985) that a UN working group on traditional practices affecting the health of women and children was created. This group was an agent that helps in the development of the 1994 Plan of Action for the Elimination of Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children. There are some places where the ending of female genital mutilation was successful as in Senegal.
To Be Continued….
Meryem Fati is a PhD candidate at the faculty of education in Rabat and a Fulbright scholar at Kansas university. Miss Fati received a master in English language and culture. She is currently working on the development of cross cultural awareness through language education.
 Medical encyclopedia
 M. Chebel, (2006), Histoire De La Circoncision, Perrin, P.70
 Y. Bonnejoy, W. Doniger, G. Honigblum, (1993), American, African, and Old European Mythologies, published by University of Chicago Press, P 127
 G. Dieterlin, (1981), Dictionnaire des Mythologies et des Religions Traditionnelles et du Monde Antique, Flammarion, P. 201