Female Gender Mutilation:The Barbaric Practice Part 2
By Fareeda Munir
Women are deceived into allowing FGM and FGC. If they show any resistance to the practice they are forced to comply. Asabe, a university graduate and local government health worker in Kaduna said her in-laws insisted on tribal marks and uvulectomy for her first two sons. And it became a battle between her and the sister-in-laws concerning doing the same for her next two sons. She had to report the case to the patriarch of the family and he told his sisters to back off. He said Asabe should have told him earlier she did not want the marks for her other sons. He wouldn’t have allowed it.
But when she gave birth to her first girl, again some women on her husband’s side insisted that the girl get marks and the ectomy done. They claimed that the marks are of family origins and she had to bear them. Asabe stood her ground about the tribal marks but unfortunately she gave in to the ectomy. Her sisters convinced her to let them do it so she does not come off as stubborn and argumentative. Asabe said she cried along with her baby girl as she was handed back to her. She continuously rocked her daughter as the three-day-old baby coughed up blood and cried in pain. She shook her head and sucked her teeth as she narrated the ordeal.
Aisha, in her thirties, married into a family in the inner city of Kano. Living within her in-laws and traditionalists, she refused to be bullied into performing any type of ectomy on her children. She said after her third born, her in-laws stopped sending the family wanzami to her. Instead they insist that she gives him money for coming. Aisha told me she did not let anyone shave off her babies’ hair, so touching their body was not an option, and she did not care what they thought of her. She told me there were a lot of strange ideas she refused to follow. For instance, after removal, the piece of bloody uvula is pasted on the baby’s forehead. ( #cultish ). When I asked one of the wanzamai about the forehead stunt, he shrugged and said, “al’ada”, meaning tradition.
Maryam, an educationist who got married in the early nineties, insisted no one touch her daughter’s private part. Even at that time, it did not seem right to her. To ensure she remained untouched, Maryam put a diaper on her and stared through the window, keeping an eye to make sure it was not removed while her uvula was taken out. With pity and disgust she demonstrated the position in which the baby girls were locked in for the procedure. The wanzami stretches out his legs, presses on the newborn’s arms with his feet or claps the baby’s hands in between his toes, then tucks the baby’s feet under his thighs to expose the vagina.
Sadiya, a middle-aged woman, said the main purpose is to reduce a woman’s arousal. “They do not want to say, but they believe it prevents women from being promiscuous,” she said, “Women our age group have all been excised, but I did not do it to my daughters.” Which brings me to my next target group after the barbers, the parents. Mothers and fathers should be properly informed about FGM/C. When another cousin recently gave birth, I went to the hospital immediately and warned her about blindly handing over her daughter to a wanzami. On the seventh day, the morning of the naming ceremony, her father-in-law came with a barber and asked to see the baby. Our aunt told them that our family do not follow such tradition and the father-in-law agreed to leave the babe be. But my cousin still had to pay the barber for coming.
Kande said, “We just do what our elders tell us to do.” An elderly unlettered lady, she said when they were younger they had no say in making decisions for their babies. All they did was hand them over to family members and did as they were told. I asked how come she was never curious about what was going on down there? She laughed ( aaand I don’t understand why they laugh in response to my questions)… then shook her head, “We just do what we are expected to do.” She told me that recently a married woman in their neighborhood had to get her angurya removed. She said sometimes even when cut as a baby, the angurya may regrow. This is when they say, “ya zo da gaddama,” which means a “stubborn” angurya. Then she added, “I heard some wanzamai use women to make sure the obstruction is cleared.” When I asked other women if they heard about such allegations, they said yes they heard it before. That the sexual abuse is usually whispered around when it happens.
It gets more tragic. Two years ago, eighteen-year-old Hannatu, was forced into marriage with a young man in their small town. When she refused to consummate the marriage, the husband told her family. Her father took her to a gidan gargajiya where men held her down, spread her legs apart, and tampered with her privy. Although as a baby, she was cut, they diagnosed her with the same angurya ailment. She bled for days in pain. Weeks later, she still refused to consummate the marriage and sought refuge at the village emir’s palace. The marriage was dissolved and she eventually went back home. No one was punished for what Hannatu went through and there will be more girls who will suffer the same fate.
It is depressing that this very moment several more babies are cut and there are women held down in excruciating pain. Did I feel any shame “ladysplaining” the female anatomy to the barbers? As long as a grown man, medically unqualified and ignorant about basic biology, feels no shame in opening apart a baby’s thighs with stubby fingers and a sharp blade, then I also feel no shame talking about it. No one should remain silent about this issue.
There’s a saying, da dan gari ake cin gari, roughly meaning “you conquer a town with the help of its citizen”. Before we yell out patriarchy, it is important to note that women also enforce this practice. For the Shuwas it is partly for aesthetic reasons, which comes with a price of inability to feel stimulated. It is like a rite of passage and young girls take pride in being “fixed” down there to appear appealing. It is similar mentality to labiaplasty in western society. In addition to looking better, the removed bits are dried and ground for future use to make a control concoction that is secretly served to husbands.
In other sub-Saharan cultures (mainly Sudan and Ethiopia), the entire clitoris and vulvas are cut out. And some go as far as to stitching up the major labia (if that’s not also removed) to keep the woman a virgin until marriage. With pride (but mostly prejudice), the husband gets to open her up when married. So before then, with the stitches, they are left with a small opening for urination and menstruation. This type of FGM is called infibulation. A Sudanese friend told me that it takes them forever to empty their bladder and it takes longer for menstrual blood to flow out. Some ethnic groups go as far as re-stitching the wife when her husband will travel to ensure that she’ll remain loyal. And I hope that I am recollecting stories that once were and are practiced no more.
Ironically, while some are being cut, others have their labia minoras elongated. For what reason? You guessed it – for the man. My mother told me a Congolese friend told her about it. In southern parts of Africa (Zambia, Congo, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda area) young girls are encouraged to continuously pull their labia minora until it gets long and flaps loosely. Again, the elderly ladies enforce this practice. Girls engage in the elongation from a young age because they are told that it is more pleasurable to men. The women believe in it so much they are convinced they will not get married if the labia is not long enough.
Again, before we point fingers at Africans and Asian cultures that perform FGM/C, the obsession with vaginas has been a global threat since time immemorial. The word infibulation is from “fibulae”, a metal piece used by ancient Romans to pierce through the labia of slaves to prevent pregnancy. The Greeks circumcised females with “large unhealthy” clitoris to prevent promiscuity. Until bans around nineteenth century, some countries in Europe and the United States used to perform clitoridectomies to cure illnesses classified as depression, masturbation, and nymphomania.
At that time, Western doctors believed there was a link between psychological issues and having an inflamed female genitalia. In Victorian England, clitoridectomy was considered treatment for epilepsy and unfeminine behavior. Even flimsy reasons like talking back to husbands can get you a dectomy treatment. The reason why the Obstetric Society of London dismissed the surgeon who championed clitoridectomy was because he did not consider husband and father consent for the surgeries.
As individuals, we can start a discussion. We can be vocal and prevent its continuation within family and friends. We can let women know exactly what is being done to their bodies. Men should also be aware of the complications of FGM/C. After all husbands have complained about their wives unresponsiveness to stimulation and frigidness. Besides that, many times patriarchs have been helpful in stopping traditional cuttings, since they have the last say and often remain unopposed.
As a nation, the government needs to improve healthcare and education. Schools can have interactive classes on current events and awareness that will encourage critical thinking and produce confident leaders. Skits, dramas, and plays can highlight the issue in an entertaining way. In the seventies, my father did not allow any of my siblings born in Nigeria to get cut. He consulted a doctor and then informed his mother and relatives that none of the traditional ectomies will take place. With quality education, people will make well-informed decisions. Then the next generation of leaders will be qualified to challenge and stop detrimental traditional practices.
As for the health sector, health workers should provide information for their patients. Posters, commercials, billboards, and handouts need to emphasize the complications associated with unnecessary and unprofessional surgical procedures. For instance, parents can be sensitized during antenatal visits and during postnatal briefings before being discharged from hospital. Communities that lack primary healthcare clinics should get ’em built!
Health inspection at clinics and hospitals should be priority. There needs to be restored faith in our healthcare centers. It is crucial to prevent medical malpractice that will result in post-surgical infections, misdiagnosis, and wrong treatment. Most importantly, nurses and doctors need to be trained to be considerate and compassionate towards their patients. Many times the crass attitude of health workers discourage people from going to the hospital. They need to become the better option as opposed to wanzamai and herbalists. The government has to instill the culture of care in our healthcare.
Because even when parents are informed by healthcare workers, pressure from extended family members might get to them. To tackle this issue, religious scholars and community mosques should have enlightenment khutbahs (sermons). At the same time politicians and traditional leaders can play a role in influencing public opinion and providing affordable healthcare. In the event that none of the above convinces those hell-bent on risky practices, then the law should step in. Incriminating such practices will deter people from taking part in it and it will give baby girls and women the protection they need.
Finally, the wanzan guys need a source of income other than mutilation. By their appearance, their surroundings, and their shops, one can see they are in abject poverty. The government can implement an economic empowerment scheme for the local barbers or sponsor skill acquisition programs for them. If one wanzan becomes successful, hopefully others will follow suit. Clearly what they’re doing now is not working for them. I am yet to see a wanzan living it up. Unless there is an alternative occupation they can engage themselves in, it will be difficult to convince them to put the hooks and blades down.