Listen to the People: “Female” Circumcision

Many people do not understand the difference between listening to someone’s perspective and obeying.  When people cease to feel remotely heard they usually cry out “listen” and those who are already ignoring them think it means “obey me, submit, everything I say is right.”

That is not what listen means. In fact, I just looked it up to be sure. There is no definition of the word that implies that “listen” is synonymous with “obey” or “submit.”

I say all this because on the issue I am about to tackle everyone needs to just listen. Listen to the history, the motivations, the culture, and the people who surround this issue: particularly the women actually affected.

Female Circumcision is the topic at hand, clear from the title. Or as the Western World has labeled it Female Genital Mutilation. As an academic I have learned to stick to circumcision or excision because it lacks that immediate cultural judgment. That sense of disgust that leads people to say things like “ugh how backward, how primitive, how savage.”

Now before anyone says “well it is!” let’s get this part out of the way because no it is not. It is not “backward” or “primitive;” it is not “savage,” those words have lost all meaning! They are too firmly entrenched in Western centric ignorance and colonial propoganda. So where do I, personally, stand on it? I think it is harmful physically and I am in fierce opposition to its practice without consent; like all things consent is first and foremost. I think it is predicated on some pretty absurd ideas about female sexuality, as is male circumcision. However, these are my opinions. Consent is not an opinion it is a right; but everything else is all opinion and the truth is my opinion is irrelevant to understanding it. As is yours.

What is relevant is the rhetoric of perspectives surrounding this issue and the women it actually effects. How did this issue gain precedence? Who first began attacking the cultural practice? What were peoples motivations? How has it been attacked or promoted or discussed? What does its history mean to the women who are pressed to chose between fighting for or against it? Who chose to practice it or reject it? How does it play into the power moves of Western colonizers, missionaries? How does it play into African leaders’ rhetoric and creating a national or cultural identity?

Female circumcision is presently, practiced in Subsaharan Africa, Southern Asia, the Middle East; however, it also includes certain communities in Eastern Europe, South America, and in diaspora populations throughout the Western World. It is practiced even in places with “official bans” even when legal systems are empowered to enforce them such as my country of study: Senegal. In fact, 24 of the 29 African countries in which female circumcision is practiced have officially banned the practice. Additionally, in an untold vein of this story it was also practiced, legally,  in America and Britain until the mid-1900s; and surgical procedures that trim the labia, cut the vagina, and mess around with the clitoral hood still exist in America under the idea of “vaginoplasties” and “labiaplasties.”

The point is this practice is a human practice not limited to any region of the world, not limited to any culture, and not limited to any justification cosmetic, religious, or sexual. While I am specifically addressing it because of its practice in Africa and people’s perception that it is mainly and overwhelmingly practiced in Africa, this issue is global. Which means our intense condemnation of anyone who performs them, our pity and condescension towards those who may “so blindly” chose to have them performed, our intense hatred of the “problem” is at best influenced by racism, sexism, and imperialism and at worst a method of population and labor control exerted by a hypocritical and self indulgent empire.

I will use Kenya as my case study for how the conversation of banning or permitting female circumcision became the tangled battle ground of nationalism, sexism, empowerment, imperialism, racism, and religion. Kenya, the beautiful country in which Mau Mau occurred, was colonized in 1895; however, it was not until the 1920s that a conversation about restricting excision became popular.

Why was there such an expansive gap of time between the start of colonial rule and the “defending” of “women’s rights?” Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Britain, like any colonial power, was only interested in issues within the country that affected the colonial government and labor. In fact, the question is not why did they not care before it is why did they start obsessing in 1920, especially when clitoridectomies were still being performed in London until the 1940s.

Lynn Thomas, African historian, utilizes the term “the colonial politics of the womb” to introduce the core of colonizers motivation: reproduction. The politics of reproduction exist for the same reason slavery is, thus far, an unending component of humanity: free labor will always be in demand. Colonial governments were consistently focused on labor because it was fundamental to building and maintaining their costly empire. The answer is: they started caring because concerns over “low population growth rates” which endangered their long term supply of African labor. Believing circumcision was harmful to women’s ability to reproduce they began pressing local “big men,” Kenyan “chiefs” who were the mediator (more like enforcers) between the colonial government and village, to restrict the practice of female excision. They covered this motive with the missionaries’  rhetoric of controlling the “abnormal” customs of “barbarous savages” and helping Christianize – “civilize” –  the Kenyan population.

It had nothing to do with believing these women had a right to informed consent, physical or psychological protection, or especially any right to sexuality or pleasure (which was perceived as dangerous by both African and European cultures alike). This fact is particularly accented by the West’s own use and justification of female excision or “clitoridectomies.” Numerous psychologists would encourage the practice to control “deviant” behavior such as masturbation, an active libido, and psychological issues such as the misogynist invented condition: “hysteria.” The full removal of the clitoris and labia would theoretically solve pathologies inherent to femininity.

Thus, while derisively condemning a cultural practice as “alien” to British culture, “savage,” and outdated they performed the same practice. It was common in the 1800s becoming less popular until the 1940s and 50s. In North America  it was practiced until the mid-1950s and covered by Blue Cross health insurance until the 70s. Britain formally banned the procedure in 1985 with America following in 1996. I was born in 1993, my mother in 1977. The practice of “female genital mutilation” as the West termed it and indeed used it was only officially banned in our lifetimes. It was a global issue that was made to be a slanted, regional issue by colonial motivations, rhetoric, and outright hypocrisy.

In a move that seemed to prove their hypocrisy British officials changed their policy on initiation again when they discovered that pregnancy was actually in decline after anti-excision movements spread. British officials’ earlier fear and their crack down on circumcision, created an unforeseen consequence. See, it was called initiation as circumcision established your adulthood. Male and female children would be circumcised in yearly groups, you even adopted a circumcision name. To be uncircumcised made you a child, for life. You were not mature, not ready for adulthood. Therefore, to become pregnant without initiation was shameful enough that women began seeking abortions when they did conceive. The British government, in their own words, began encouraging the initiation of girls “in a timely fashion.”

Meanwhile, missionaries were ultimately concerned with conversion; therefore, the issue of circumcision became an issue to Christianity because it was tied to reproduction. Jocelyn Murray examines missionary policy concerning circumcision and found that it became a focal point of the Christianizing mission because women were perceived as the root of conversion. Women had previously left missions after circumcision to pursue their adult life, particularly marriage, and children. This meant that women were leaving the bosom of the church where conversion could be monitored, enforced, and ensured. When women were not allowed or chose not to pursue initiation they became isolated. There were no more routes to success but to stay in the mission because in Kenyan society they were uncircumcised children. Therefore, banning circumcision would allow the church to control the culture and religion of the next generation of Kenyans. Again, controlling women’s bodies became a concern because women were the cornerstone of reproduction, it was not ultimately rooted in a desire to “save them.” This is further emphasized by other missionaries’ theory that if you Christianized the excision ceremony you would draw in more women and Christianize Kenya faster. They were promoting the opposite action for the same result because the result was what mattered.

After Britain shifted to encourage “timely” circumcision the debate had nearly died down until Mau Mau stirred the Colonial government and outright conflict over circumcision emerged in 1956. The British government began pushing anti initiation social and cultural programs “for the women” of Kenya in hopes of “capturing the loyalty of the Kikuyu” in the threat of Mau Mau. This was particularly true considering Kikuyu women were actively involved in supporting Mau Mau. Now, most Kikuyu during this period did not welcome the government; however, officials believed they all desired “development, class, and Christianity” and would welcome the protection of anti circumcision laws if they came packaged with health services and respectability. It was absolutely true that many Kenyan women began to refuse circumcision for their daughters or themselves for health and benefited from the services which discouraged circumcision. However, for the numerous women who were torn on the issue or defended circumcision these crack downs illustrated not a concern for their health but a concern over control of their bodies and lives.

A woman who chose to be circumcised, perform circumcisions, or circumcise her child was punished often to the fullest extent of the British Colonial Government’s Emergency powers. Girls would even perform their own excisions. They practiced Ngaitana (I will circumcise myself) in secrecy and developed their own community schools that permitted circumcised girls. However, some Kikuyu believed these self-performed excisions were not valid. The girls were isolated and trapped between hardline Kikuyus, hard line British officials and loyalist Kikuyus, and the middle ground of confusion. Female circumcision debates “did not operate in a vacuum” as Onni Gust succinctly puts it. There were built in tensions that were socially exposed by circumcision between loyalist Kikuyus and nationalist Kikuyus. The same tension that was reflected in the Mau Mau conflict as Kikuyu fighters mainly targeted Kikuyu loyalists.

Furthermore, it became a visible social, cultural, and religious symbol of the struggle to maintain Kikuyu culture, establish a national identity, and reject colonialism. To practice circumcision became a defiant action against the colonial establishment, a symbol of pride in one’s nation or culture. Jomo Kenyatta, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Gakaara wa Wanjau, etc. (even while in detention or prison) were in the midst of creating ethnologies to define Kikuyu culture and in creating this literature they were responding to colonial violence. They were defining the culture and in defining it they were also inventing what Kikuyu culture was. Culture was a way to reject colonialism and empower the people. Kenyan Nationalists began to use the issue of circumcision to their own political advantage as much as the colonial government and missionaries.

According to these Kenyan nationalists, particularly Kenyatta, circumcision was the center of Kikuyu culture. They placed it at the center and emphasized its importance because, like the British, they recognized that women were the linchpin of their society and culture. To allow British officials and missionaries to take control of the next generation of Kikuyu and influence the body politic of women was a grave offense. They argued that without circumcision there would be no Kikuyu because it was the only way for men and women to proceed into mature adulthood. It was the heart of Kikuyu peoples and for the British to attack this core of the population while also waging a literal war against Kikuyu peoples complete with detention and torture was practically genocidal. Nationalists were fighting over control of females bodies as an expression of the same literal war being waged in Kenya.

Meanwhile women have been largely left out of a conversation that first and foremost affects them. Their health, their success, their cultural identity, their bodies and they have been simultaneously ignored and manipulated. The history of this conversation is not the black and white picture of the issue the world has been provided. It is not just a girl screaming, being held down in a dusty village hut and cut with a shard of broken glass or a razor. It is also a girl defiantly trying to assert herself as a woman, as a person as she sneaks into the woods. It is also going to the hospital and having a surgical procedure. It is also a ceremony with boys and girls where your family embraces you into the community as an adult. It is reality and reality is nefarious in its complexity.

That’s the past and it might be argued that the conversation has changed. After all colonization is gone. An independent Kenyan democracy banned circumcision in 2001 and 2011. Women are involved in the conversation, women are involved in NGOs, political parties, the UN, etc. in the fight against circumcision. These countries are no longer being forced by a colonial entity with only its own desires in mind. Kenyan nationalists are no longer so at threat that the protection of the custom is an utmost priority. Some of that is definitely indicative of a positive change in the conversation.

However, I do not think the conversation can be separated from the past. It is indelibly connected to imperialist motivations, imperialist racism, and the sexism of controlling women’s bodies to control the society. Particularly when a society unabashedly labels an entire diverse custom with many willing participants as “female genital mutilation.” Particularly when a society believes vaginoplasties and labiaplasties, a purely cosmetic surgery with no health benefits in which protective labia are trimmed away and vaginas cut, are acceptable but female genital cutting is “savage, barbarity” when it happens in Africa. Particularly when a country denies its own recent, arguably ongoing, history of the custom and similar procedures. Particularly when we are still using women to “civilize” or rather Westernize their nations.  Particularly when the single most prevailing image of its practice is the broken bottle and the screaming girl. We only recognize its most violent aspects. We cannot separate how the West perceives circumcision and then reacts to it from its history. We must recognize it constantly to avoid infusing the debate, laws, and new practices with the same discrimination and imperialism.

So… How, in the context of a renewed global effort to denounce clitoridectomy as “female genital mutilation,” are historians to understand the ngaitana’s act of self-circumcision and Gikuyu adherence to the practice more generally, even in the face of criminalization and punishment? 

Again Oni Gust says it well, how does this conversation, this effort to end circumcision reconcile itself with women’s self-circumcision? In a similar vein, in this period of Western conflict and imperialism with Muslim nations and peoples how are we to reconcile women’s desire to wear hijab, niqab, or burkha?

That is what the world is trying to answer. How can we truly listen to women and understand these issues from our own intensely biased perspectives? My answers so far are understanding the history and allowing the women who this issue actually affects LEAD the debate. It is an issue far from settled and women and girls are injured physically, socially, psychologically either by being forced to undergo it or not undergo it every day. It is too important an issue to allow imperialism and racism to continue to derail any progress towards a solution.

So we must listen to and support the people who are directly affected. I feel like this should be obvious but this society gaslights us all en masse. We can testify to our own experiences and no one knows better than a person, a family, a community how to address their needs than them. Give them the access, give them the power, give them the lead.

Reference Material and Further Reading

United Nations Population Fund.

Oni Gust, Mau Mau Anti-Colonialism and Female Gential Mutilation,

Derek Peterson, “The Intellectual Lives of Mau Mau Detainees,” Journal of African History 49 (2008): 75.

Hayford, Sarah R. “Conformity and Change: Community Effects on Female Genital Cutting in Kenya.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 46 (2005), 121-140.

Murray, Jocelyn. “The Church Missionary Society and the ‘Female Circumcision’ Issue in Kenya 1929-1932.” Journal of Religion in Africa 8 (1976), 92-104.

Presley, Cora Ann. “The Mau Mau Rebellion, Kikuyu Women, and Social Change.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 22 (1988), 502-527.

Presley, Cora Ann. “The Transformation of Kikuyu Women and their Nationalism.” PhD Dissertation. Stanford University, 1986, 149-200

Thomas, Lynn M. “‘Ngaitana (I Will Circumcise Myself)’: Lessons from Colonial Campaigns to Ban Excision in Meru, Kenya.” In Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change, edited by Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund, 129-150. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2000.

Thomas, Lynn M. Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Primary Source Research Materials

Kenyatta, Johnston and Ormsby-Gore, William. Kikuyu Central Association: Political Activities. Kenya: The National Archives, 1922-1929.

Lockwood, H.M and Thompson, J.K. Advancement of African Women in Kenya. Kenya: The National Archives, 1954-1955.

Kenyatta, Jomo. Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.

Waciuma, Charity. Daughter of Mumbi. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1974.

Waiyaki Otieno, Wambui. Mau Mau’s Daughter: A Life History. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1998.

Lugard, Sir Fredrick and Vischer, Major. Advisory Committee on Native Education in Tropical Africa. Britain: The National Archives, 1923-1928.

Ormsby-Gore, Williams. Operation on Kikuyu Girl (Circumcision). Kenya: The National Archives, 1929.

Webb, Sydney and Shiels, Dr. Drummond. Status of Native Women in Colonies and Protectorates. London: The National Archives, 1930.

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