Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “female circumcision”

Circumcision and Aids

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Circumcision is a cultural practice and should not be used as a preventative measure in the fight against HIV-Aids, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said yesterday.

It had therefore sought to discuss the matter with traditional leaders to “inform and enlighten all concerned”.

Tshabalala-Msimang told traditional leaders and healers that cultural practices should not be used for “purposes other than those for which they were meant for at the beginning”, her department said in a statement.

“She also called on all role-players to guard against sending confusing messages that would encourage people to get circumcised with the hope of not getting HIV infected,” it said.

The minister again called on traditional leaders to “assert their role” in the fight against HIV-Aids.

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The Minister’s ideas on what should and should not be used in the fight against HIV/Aids have been pretty weird in the past. Circumcision has been practiced for various reasons, and male circumcision has often been practised because it was believed to be “healthy”, though this is in itself a cultural belief.

One of the problems with using it in the fight against HIV/Aids is that it is believed to reduce the incidence of male infection, though does nothing to reduce the spread of infection from infected males. Thus circumcision could in fact encourage male promiscuity (because males think they are “safe”) and do nothing to stop the general spread.

Women march for mutilation

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Some 800 women in the Sierra Leone town of Kailahun have paraded in favour of genital mutilation and told donors opposed to the practice to keep their money, demonstrators and witnesses said.

Women wearing colourful beads and adorned with seashells chanted songs in the local dialect that warned authorities and foreign organisations against “any attempt to take away our traditional ritual.”

The United Nations World Health Organisation says FGM – the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and related injury – is recorded in 28 African nations and opposes the practice on medical grounds.

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This has some interesting missiological implications.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Western missionaries to Africa and Asia were sometimes accused of attacking and destroying the cultures of people they came in contact with. Some of these cultures had customs of bodily mutilation, which the missionaries thought were cruel and inhumane.

In China Christian missionaries started the Natural Foot Society, to discourage the custom of binding the feet of young girls to make them grow up with smaller feet. In Kenya they discouraged the practice of female circumcision. There are various bodily mutilations where various parts of the body are altered. Bits are cut off genitals or fingers. Teeth are knocked out, ears or nostrils pierced, necks are lengthened, cheeks are cut, lips are made to protrude.

Nowadays it is no longer only the province of Christian missionaries to object to such things. Even secular Westerners do so, and this leads to the suspicion that there is a link between such interventions and cultural imperialism.

In Kenya Protestant schools, in particular, demanded that teachers take an oath against female circumcision. The Kikuyu people saw this as part of a general colonialist attack on their culture, closely linked with dispossessing them of their land. Some broke away from the Protestants and became Orthodox.

And even when it is secular groups and NGOs that object, there is a whiff of cultural imperialism. Africans must make their behaviour conform to Western norms, even when Western norms are changing, as can be seen in the continuing disintegration of the Anglican Communion. And whether the Western norms relate to female circumcision or structural adjustment programmes motivated by neoliberalism, the underlying assumption is that the West knows best.

Western values may change over time, but even when they change, Africans had better get in step. And in some of these issues it seems that the Western value, unstated but implied, is that the human right that takes precedence over all others is the inalienable right to an orgasm.

To some extent, I can sympathise. I remember the absolute horror I felt when I first learnt of female circumcision, and what it entailed. It was more than 50 years ago, when as a schoolboy I was reading the book Blanket boy’s moon. A friend had told me it was like Cry the beloved country, only it would make one feel even more revulsion against the system, and then I read this:

The first night of the (circumcision) school is known as the Marallo, the secret night. This night is spent outside the village in the dongas, where ritual dances are taught and new code names are given to the girls — so that they can afterwards challenge the claim of any woman who states that she is circumcised.

At Marallo, too, the Khokhobisa-tsoene, or “Hiding-of-the-monkey” is encompassed. The girls are cut with a blade in their outer sexual organs, and a flap of flesh is drawn down to cover that mischievous “monkey” which can be the source of much pleasure to uncircumcised girls. The performance of this rite tends to encourage chastity among the women, for a circumcised girl can know little of the joys and passions of physical love. During this ceremony when the blood flowes from the wounded flesh, black magic medicine is rubbed in as a protection against bewitchment.

It can perhaps be said that the circumcision of women not only denies the girl great pleasure and joy in the sexual act, buit must in consequence lessen the happiness and exaltation of the man, and thus shut out any upliftment of the spirit — lying with a woman, then, becomes a selfish rather than a mutual pleasure. Here in the very homeland, in this circumcision of women, lie the seeds of the physical love of man for man, which is brought to flower in the living conditions imposed on African mine workers by the white man.

As a schoolboy I was shocked and horrified at the thought that people could treat others like that. It seemed unbelievably cruel. Reading the book made me feel revulsion against capital punishment, but the revusion I felt against female circumcision was far stronger, perhaps because it was the first time I had heard of it.

But now I’ve thought about it a bit more, and I remember that the countries that protest most strongly against such practices hardly protest at all when children are mutilated by cluster bombs and landmines, and go on making more cluster bombs and land mines to rip children apart.

The countries that protest so vociferously against female circumcision very often kill hundreds of thousands of children in abortions, all in the name of a putative right of women to control their own bodies. Isn’t it ironic that women in Sierra Leone are protesting that very right, to control their own bodies, a right they want to exercise in female circumcision?

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