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Female Gender Mutilation:The barbaric Practice part 1

BY Fareeda Munir
Hello, my name is Fareedah Munir, let’s talk about female genital cutting.
In our high school Model United Nations class, the teacher and a classmate asked me about female genital mutilation. That was the first time I heard about it.  Looking slyly at each other and then looking back at me, they showed me a map on the computer that indicated Nigeria as one of the countries that has FGM cases.  I immediately rebuked what they assumed about me, because I never heard of it.  I dismissed their suspicions and assured them I knew nothing of it.  I even told them that there must have been an error on the website.

Few years later in Nigeria, I learnt that two ethnic groups, the mid-western Bendelites and the north-eastern Shuwas practice FGM.  Soon after, I heard that the south-western Yorubas also do it.  Then recently, I learnt that the northern Hausas perform something similar, though to a lesser degree compared to the other ethnic groups.  I think that many Northern readers will find this surprising just as I did.

Apparently little is known about the Hausa female genital cutting, and I believe this is because it is done to baby girls within the first seven days of birth.  A family wanzami sent from the husband’s family, is expected to shave the newborn’s head, remove the baby’s uvula, and then snip off “something” in the private area.  And then no one really talks about it.  When I asked around what was “snipped off”, I got no specific answer.  I found it absurd that women, whom this procedure is done to, do not know what is done to their bodies.

Suffering in Silence

Unfortunately, there is a culture that expects wives, mothers, and daughter-in-laws to be docile and subservient when it comes to decisions about their own children.  This is because traditionally the father’s side claim to have more rights over children.  So in the case where hair shaving, uvulectomy, clitoridectomy, and hymenectomy are concerned, the mother of the newborn has no say.  This “stay silent” culture is so deep-rooted that women do not ask about what is done to them, let alone have the courage to challenge the idea.

Because it’s twenty-seventeen and the process is archaic to me, and the fact that none of my siblings had the widespread uvulectomy done, I assumed that it was something that happened in the distance past.  Visiting a cousin who gave birth few weeks ago, I asked if they knew anything about genital cuttings.  To my dismay, I was told that her daughter was “circumcised”.  The word they used was kachia, which means circumcision.  However, it was not unhooding.  It was something else.  Something else not clearly known.  After grilling them for letting it happen, I learnt that two other younger cousins also let their in-laws decide on snipping their daughters.  I partially excused the older ladies in the house, but the new mother was a university graduate, yet she allowed it to happen.

Odd enough, her mother asked the local barber to spare the hair shaving and uvulectomy, but he performed the genital cutting.  The step mother who handed over the baby for the procedure said the wanzami explained that it was necessary to prevent the vagina from closing up.  He explained it to her as something that comes down and blocks the vagina and birth canal.  Since she had no knowledge of it, she believed him. The new mother’s elder sister said had she been around, she would not let them do it.  I left the house disgusted and wasted no time in visiting a wanzami’s shop to ask about this practice that remains quite covert.  The middle-aged local barber owned a barber shop in Kaduna’s inner city.  It was a locally built room attached to an extended bungalow building, furnished with wooden benches on worn out concrete floor.  The small room had wooden circular stools used for washing traditional caps.

The Local Barbers (wanzan)

The barber was friendly and eagerly answered my questions.  On how common the ectomy is, he said these days less uvulectomy is done because there is an alternative medicine given to prevent the uvula from growing bigger and becoming an ailment.  I asked him what they remove from a baby girl’s private part and why.  He said “angurya” was necessary to remove because it may prevent penetration in the future.  The uvula is sometimes called belu-belu and the angurya called belun gaba (gaba referring to the nether region).  I wanted to confirm whether what they do is clitoridectomy or hymenectomy, so we agreed to meet again in a few weeks.

I went back to the wanzami with diagrams so he can point out what is cut out.  He showed me the bottom part of the labia minora and said that the angurya looks like an ear poking out of the vagina.  He stated that when he examines a newborn girl’s vagina, he can determine if she needs the angurya removed or not.  He showed me the locally made blade and how he scrapes it out.  Bent on the conviction that the cut out part grows to prevent intercourse, he also mentioned that he performs hymenectomy on married women who have problems with intercourse.  I asked if he uses any anesthesia on the babies and women, and he said no he didn’t.

I briefed him about enlarged genital area in newborns girls due to extra estrogen from the mother and different types of hymen formation.  I explained cases of septate and imperforate hymen and the medical procedure by surgeons to rectify such conditions.  Most importantly I mentioned anesthesia and pain management.  Then he told me that there are herbs (apparently known only to them) and red potash that is put in a bath bucket where a baby girl sits in as angurya treatment.  He claims it will prevent it from growing bigger and covering the vagina.  So in cases where the family request herbal medication, he does not cut anything.

I asked the wanzami if their living depends on the ectomies and he said that it did not.  They do it as a side job, but their profession is barbing men’s hair.  He pointed to the hats on the wooden stools, saying he also washes for extra income.  The most important question I asked was whether FGM was cultural or religious, and he said it was a cultural practice.  I mentioned that I wanted to start a campaign to raise awareness to stop the practice.  And he calmly responded that it is a practice that can be stopped.  After all, less uvulectomy is performed and tribal marks are rare these days.  It would not be a big deal to stop cutting.  He then added that they were never informed about its irrelevance and he can arrange for a meeting where I can present my argument with other barbers.  He also offered to set up a meeting with one of the leaders in their wanzan association.

I left feeling quite optimistic, but still remained confused about what is removed, therefore I sought out a second wanzami the next day.  Their shops were close by in the same neighborhood.  His small room had herbs and stalks bound together on shelves.  He was shaving a man’s beard, so I waited for a little while.  The barber had similar answers with the first wanzami I interviewed, except that he was quite arrogant and seemed irritated by my rebuttals to his answers.  He said he cannot refuse to do what his clients ask him to do, and this included scarification (tribal marks).  He said no authority, not even a religious scholar, will convince him to stop doing what his grandparents and parents did.

We talked about the uvulectomy and he said it was necessary to prevent uvula disease.  I showed him a picture of an infected tonsil with the uvula in tact, and he said he had herbs and branches that he uses to cure such infections.  When I asked him what tree he got it from, he refused to disclose the information.  He pointed to his shelf of several containers and bags and said he has his own mixture he prescribes.  I asked him if he knew about any baby deaths related to uvulectomies, and he said he never heard of such.  Of course he lied.  There are several reports of newborns getting infections (tetanus) or bleeding to death as a result of quack uvulectomy.

Furthermore, his explanation of the genital cutting was different.  He showed me the same area on the diagram the previous wanzami pointed out, but he told me there were three parts that pokes out, and sometimes the angurya comes out of the urethra when it grows big.  But he pointed at the vagina as the urethra, so I had to show him the position of the “kofan pitsari”.  In the middle of explaining basic anatomy and how unnecessary it was to cut out a baby girl.  Obviously irritated, he excused himself and left me mid-speech.  On my way home, I spotted a wanzami sign in the next neighborhood.  I went in and I got slightly different answers.

The shop was smaller than the other two shops.  He had a single bench and fewer items around the shop.  He was reading a Qur’an, which he kept aside and welcomed us.  Again, he explained that a woman whose angurya is present will prevent her from having intercourse.  He described it as two separate parts that will eventually fuse the vagina shut if not cut out.  He also adds that it gives the woman inexplicable strength to resist the husband at night.  To him, it is simply a cultural practice that is necessary.  I told him I intend to raise awareness about the issue and he gently laughed saying he cannot be an advocate to the cause because the occupation is his sustenance.

However, he advised me to talk to parents to stop requesting for the uvula and genital cuttings.  I asked him if he could at least encourage taking herbal drinks instead of cutting, and he answered that he could not refuse to do what he is going to get paid for.  I mentioned the sit-in herbal bath for babies instead of FGM and he said there was no such thing.  That was when he made an interesting point that there are wanzamai who are dishonest about certain remedies to get money.

I asked if he still did tribal marks, and he said no because it is forbidden in Islam.  However, he said he might do scarification to an adult who asks for it, but never to a child.  I pointed out that if we could phase out tribal marks, why not the cuttings?  He laughed again and picking up his Qur’an, he said if I can prove that Islam forbids it, he will stop and also tell his fellow barbers at their monthly meetings.  He said he would gladly listen to any Islamic scholar, but will not pay attention to a medical doctor because it is not their line of work. (Ten steps back, ‘ey?)

Basically, according to wanzamai, the angurya and uvula ectomies are preventative procedures.  Sadly, it will be difficult to convince the wanzamai to stop the cuttings because they believe they are preventing future infections of the uvula that may swell, erupt and cause death.  They also believe they are saving marriages.  They may have their different reasons and methods, but the unifying factor among the wanzan is the economic reason.  They simply do it for the money.  I doubt they genuinely care about community health.

The uvula has its immunological and physiological functions.  It is important for sound and certain intonations, controlling excess nasal sounds.  This is one of the reasons some Islamic scholars in Nigeria discourage its unnecessary removal because it prevents melodious Qur’anic recitation and pronunciation.  It also serves as throat lubrication secreting saliva and has gag reflex that prevents choking.  When infected, it can be removed professionally at hospitals under sterile conditions and anesthesia.  FGM/C comes with several complications that affect women physically, psychologically, sexually and socially.

Doctor Maryam Nasir who works in Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, said she’s come across patients whose clitoris have been removed.  She points out that according to scars she examined, more than just the hymen is tampered with.  Her dissertation was on FGM and during research at a VVF clinic she found out there are different types of cuttings.  Apparently it is believed that the angurya removal is a gynecological treatment for several sicknesses that include backaches.  She came across several women who developed obstetrical complications because of angurya cuts.  So perhaps the wanzamai were not completely honest with me.  There is definitely more damage done.

To be continued…

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