Over the years I have come to a limited knowledge of female genital cutting (FGC) and its role in Bondo Society—Sierra Leone’s secret society for women—much as a fog lifts from a city harbor. Slowly, reluctantly and never completely. I come to this issue as an outsider many times over but most importantly by belonging to the only ethnic group in Sierra Leone that does not practice FGC as a rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. I grew up in Nigeria and this also distanced me from the knowledge of just how common and pervasive a practice it is in my country. The only way I have been able to learn more about FGC in Sierra Leone has been through books and the willingness of other women to share their knowledge and stories. Recently, over the course of a week, nine courageous and inspiring Sierra Leonean women challenged me by sharing the experiences of family members, friends and some of their very own with female genital cutting as part of their initiation into Bondo Society.
The result has been that what was once a simple black and white issue for me is now multicolored and multilayered. Where there once stood a clear conviction now lies a morass of new emotions that I still struggle to identify. Despite this upheaval, one value that still stands out like a lighthouse on a beach, guiding the ship of my conflicted emotions through to safer waters is choice. In fact if anything, these conversations have served to crystalize the importance of this value within the context of any debate about female genital cutting.
More specifically, by choice I mean a meaningful choice that arises from an understanding of the benefits and risks associated with any given action. For all of us, the fight for the freedom to choose what is or is not done to our bodies is very personal. This fundamentally human and justifiable demand that we make of one another comes to us when we are young and beginning to navigate the boundaries of our identities. It evolves throughout our adult years. Whole societies have engaged in this battle to set boundaries and rules around what can happen to the bodies of the members “within” and most importantly about who gets to decide the parameters of those rules. We’ve seen this debate rage on in many movements including the civil rights, colonial independence or feminist movements.
In many ways we all know the pain of having our choice and therefore humanity stripped from us. We’ve felt it when people deny us the option of freely giving our energy, money and bodies without manipulation or coercion. There is something inherently violent—even if not always physically violent—about experiences that we define as happening against our will or without our express consent. The distinction we give experiences based on the presence or absence of meaningful consent is what makes rape and sex completely different events despite the appearance of sharing the same physical act. When it comes to FGC I have come to believe that the debate revolves around more than the physical act of cutting a young woman’s genitals and expands to the varied contexts within which it occurs.
What most disturbs those who support and oppose its practice alike is this notion of choice and meaningful consent. On the one hand those who oppose it charge that the girls and young women who often undergo this practice rarely have a choice or way of giving meaningful consent to what is happening to their still developing bodies. On the other hand those who support it resist a wholesale demonization of the practice in a way that denies the real choice of communities—and even consenting members within those communities—to treat and ascribe meaning to their own bodies as they see fit.
Given how my conversations with the women began, it makes perfect sense that the most poignant lesson I have come away with is this notion of choice and its importance in any conversation about female genital cutting. That’s because each conversation began with me giving each woman a choice.
Their Stories. My Story.
“What do you call it?” was one of the first questions I asked. Their ages ranged from the mid-20s to mid-40s and their answers opened up worlds of knowledge, vast and deep. By inviting them to choose for themselves how they would name the practice I hoped they would take charge and lead me down paths I could not go myself because of my own limitations. I expected and heard “female genital circumcision” and “female genital mutilation”. I was reminded of the existence of “female genital cutting” and was once again struck by its frank banality. Its simplicity and directness has the ability to name while simultaneously leaving room for others to use a different label that more accurately reflects their own reality. It is for this reason that I use ‘cutting’. I had not expected to hear “an abomination” but understood its use in the midst of a story about betrayal and trauma. I was intrigued by a story of pride and a desire to boldly challenge what appears to be a global consensus that this practice must end. Each woman had a strong viewpoint and they were not all the same.
Before diving into a study of female genital cutting in Sierra Leone it is important to know certain things. In Sierra Leone, 3.5 million girls and women, one of the highest concentrations at 88%, have undergone the practice. While FGC is practiced across 29 countries throughout Africa and the Middle East there are variations in how it is practiced. There are four major types with the most common one practiced in Sierra Leone being Type II or excision which is partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora.
In Sierra Leone the added complexity of a secret society (Bondo) as the context within which FGC takes place further sets the country apart. It is this pledge to secrecy that many development agencies hold responsible for Sierra Leone’s much slower progress to end the practice. It is another reason why the country has earned the reputation and nickname of being ground zero for anti-FGC campaign efforts.
Furthermore, if you would gain an understanding of FGC in Sierra Leone you must understand its meaning and symbolism. This is what one woman told me as she shared her own story. FGC must be understood as a rite of passage without which a young woman is not considered suitable for marriage or eligible to sit at the decision-making table of adult women. It should not be understood as teaching women to be sexually submissive but rather as a subversive act to teach them to control their bodies and be bonded to other women—especially older women—in deference. She pointed out that it is difficult to fully translate all the symbolism of one culture to another without reinterpretation and loss of meaning. Furthermore the presence of Islam in many communities where this is practiced reshapes our understanding. Religious prescriptions require that female sexual empowerment and control be publicly reinterpreted as submissiveness. Meanwhile, she assured me, there exists behind closed doors a culturally rich world of female empowerment. Her own initiation experience, which she voluntarily underwent as an adult, challenges those that are often used as examples for global public debate. She spoke of it as a positive and culturally enlightening rite of passage. She made it clear that she is not alone in this regard and knows of many other women who also share the same sense of pride about its meaning and role in their cultural heritage.
However, many of the other women who I spoke with did not share an understanding of their experiences as being about female empowerment and bonding. For them it was a violent, disempowering and isolating experience—further compounded by the fact that they were sworn to secrecy. They did not experience it as consenting adults but as ignorant and often frightened children.
One woman said “I was 6 or 7 years old when it happened and I call it mutilation. I didn’t understand what was happening. For years I was scared to talk about it because we’re sworn to secrecy and told that we and our families will be cursed by the “Bondo debul (devil)” if we do.”
Yet another shared, “I was 12 years old and tricked. I had no idea what was going to happen to me. For months afterwards I wouldn’t speak to my mother or anyone because I was so angry that they knew what it was and encouraged me to go. On the day it happened I was grabbed and dragged into a room. Stripped naked and a woman sat on me covering my mouth and nose. I couldn’t breathe and struggled to get free. I thought I was going to die and then they spread my legs and cut. I just keep asking why? Why? Why? Why?”
Many of the stories they shared were of either violent or equally disorienting experiences that showed that the young girls who were going through the initiation did not grasp what was happening to their bodies. Their trauma was as much about the physical pain as it was the violent or bewildering context within which it occurred. For them there was little to no meaning beyond the trauma and pain. No culturally rich accompanying ceremonies. No reason. No “why”. Where some could articulate what they came to know as reasons for the practice the messages were that it was to prevent them from becoming promiscuous women of ill repute in addition to ensuring their hygienic cleanliness.
Despite these conflicted explanations of FGC’s meaning in Sierra Leone, I noticed a common thread of agreement among the women, regardless of where they stood on the issue. There was agreement that the youngest girls—those who barely understood their bodies—needed to be protected and given room to grow and give meaningful consent. Nobody raised objections to an adult woman opting to voluntarily participate in an initiation ceremony that involved genital cutting. This made it clear to me that their objections were not simply against FGC itself but that age and context made all the difference in how they interpreted it.
One woman articulated the complexity of the issue well with a simple statement. “So what if you are for it or against it” she said. “This is a much more complicated issue than that. Mutilation is such a finite term. You can’t come back from it. It boxes women in and stigmatizes their bodies more so than it stigmatizes the act itself. What does it matter what your position is when real girls—the ones most affected by this—are rarely asked what they think or brought into the discussion?”
These conversations raised more questions for me than they answered. However they made one thing very clear. When it comes to FGC we’re often not just arguing about the practice itself but about the context within which it occurs. We are interpreting it differently depending on the presence or absence of violence and the presence or absence of choice. Most importantly we are talking about the inability of the youngest girls to give any meaningful consent to what is about to happen to their young and still developing bodies. We are talking about their relative powerlessness when compared to that of older women who have privileges that age and experience affords them.
This brings us back to choice. When it comes to FGC the most important question is not whether we are for it or against it. What we should ask is this. Do the young women undergoing FGC have the tools available to make a meaningful choice about what happens to their bodies? More importantly, who has the power to choose and who doesn’t?
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Frontline Journals