12.1 African Academics Are at the Forefront of Illuminating the Cultural Underpinnings of This Practice

Editors—As a Sudanese woman who studied and taught at an American university, you will be very aware of the differences and discrepancies between the perspectives of Africa and the West on the issue of FGM/C. From your point of view, how has the academic research on FGM/C been going so far?

Prof. Abusharaf—I must start by saying that academic research is critical and more so for those involved in human rights activism and social policy-making in any arena of state and society dynamics. Since the practice of FGM/FC continues to attract the attention of scholars from a vast array of disciplines, I believe that there is an excellent opportunity for concerned academics to dispel some of the preconceived notions about Africa and its peoples. There are already damaging perceptions that African women suffer from. And specifically, when it comes to cutting, African women are seen as irrational and primitive. In many African societies today, there are impressive efforts to end harmful practices. Therefore, we notice more than ever before, the increased awareness of the importance of engaging the communities in which FGM/FC is practiced. There is also a rising recognition of the importance of listening to people’s voices either about the continuity or the change experienced vis-à-vis FGM/FC.

Academic researchers also made a huge difference in the ways in which they approached this subject. There is a significant acknowledgement of the significance of the language used to describe this long-established tradition. Elsewhere, I emphasized the point about the term “mutilation,” and the ways in which it othered African women, not only the supporters of the practice but also its opponents. Any meaningful discussion dealing with this practice should heed the significance of terminology. Attention to language is vital to understanding the political and ideological debates that surround this thorny subject. Anthropologists in particular have always used female circumcision or cutting rather than mutilation to acknowledge the views of the people who adhere to this practice as a rite of passage. The usage of the word mutilation has been extremely alienating as it is a value-laden term that has no resonance with African communities’ understanding of the ritual.

African academics are at the forefront of illuminating the cultural underpinnings of this practice. They are by no means supportive of the cutting but rather invested in a nuanced approach guided by a great sensitivity to the local contexts. Scholars like Leslie Obiora, Asma Abdel Halim, Asha Mahmoud, Fuambai Ahmadu, Hamid Albashir and Shahira Ahmad are among those who called for the recognition of the practice’s symbolic significance in a life-cycle’s transition. Their work is critical for crafting any appropriate remedy deemed well-informed and keen on change. For example, it is becoming common knowledge that where it is practiced, female circumcision is passionately perpetuated and closely safeguarded; it is regarded as an essential coming-of-age ritual that ensures chastity, promotes cleanliness and fertility, and enhances the beauty of a woman’s body. In Arabic the colloquial word for circumcision, tahara, means “to purify.” Elsewhere, a New York based human rights organization, RAINBOW under the able leadership of Dr. Nahid Toubia, who is a fervent activist of women’s rights throughout Africa, published a list on the terminology used to describe the practice. I share them here because none of the words actually translates into “mutilation.” The practice is known as bolokoli, khifad, qodiin, irua, bondo, kuruna, and kene-kene. Let me turn to the importance of these terms and their local associations so that we can get a clearer picture as to why the recent recognition of language is so important.

In some societies the experience of this rite of passage includes secret ceremonies and instruction in cooking, crafts, childcare and the use of herbs. After circumcision adolescent girls suddenly become marriageable, and they are allowed to wear jewelry and womanly garments that advertise their charms. Among the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania, girls undergo the operation publicly; then the cutting becomes a test of bravery and a proof that they will be able to endure the pain of childbirth. Circumcision gives girls status in their communities. By complying, they also please their parents who can arrange a marriage and gain a high bridal price for a circumcised daughter.

The consequences of not undergoing the ritual are equally powerful: teasing, disrespect and ostracism. Among the Sabiny people of Uganda, an uncircumcised woman who marries into the community is always lowest in the pecking order of village women, and she is not allowed to perform the public duties of a wife, such as serving elders. Uncut women are called girls, whatever their age, and they are forbidden to speak at community gatherings. The social pressures are so intense that uncircumcised wives often opt for the operation as adults. Girls, too, can be driven to desperation. Genital cutting is often so closely associated with virginity that a girl who is spared the ordeal by enlightened parents is generally assumed to be promiscuous, a man-chaser. Such beliefs may seem absurd to outsiders. Because of these symbolic considerations, the women themselves are more often than not the primary agents for the continuity of the practice.

Here we must look at the state of the activism on the continent. I think that African human rights activists are painfully aware of women’s agency in upholding this tradition. No one is calling Africans by disparaging adjectives or calling them “prisoners of ritual” as the American Hanny Lightfoot-Klein called women in the title of her book. There is also another important development that we are seeing today with respect to the current scholarship and activism. For example, there is a shift away from the emphasis on male oppression as an explanation of this ritual’s continuation.

Some Western feminist representational discourses on female “circumcision” as a signifier for sexual oppression have come under considerable criticism for their ethnocentrism and reductionism. Let me be more specific here and just use The Hosken Report, as an example throughout. Fran Hosken’s report is not an exception to the West’s condescension. Like a myriad of similar reports, it is filled with negative statements about the African societies in question. The report attempts to discuss “circumcision” as a symbol of universal male dominance. However, when I convened a gathering of African activists in Bellagio Study Center, I was extremely impressed about the efforts that illuminated the important role of women as the ultimate brokers in the change we have seen in Ghana, Sudan, Egypt, and Kenya, among other places. They also shared powerful lessons about the critical role of religion in challenging the idea about the practice as a religious edict. We learned that in Egypt, Sudan, Senegal and Mali, religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, who may otherwise espouse conservative views on gender, worked very closely to challenge the practice and to deploy their authority in service of the women’s rights campaigns in their countries. We rarely hear about these important approaches.

12.2 Western Feminist Representations and Negative Images of Africa and Africans

Editors—You offer a critical examination of Western feminist representations. What do you think are the problems they have faced?

Prof. Abusharaf—I have to stress at the outset that my misgivings about the representations of the practice by white feminists is not a defense of the practice by any means on my part. Make no mistake: I believe that this practice must end if women are to enjoy the most basic human rights. It goes without saying that I am very supportive of the right to health, the right of the child and the right to bodily integrity. Therefore, my reservations about Western feminists (of course not all of them) who addressed this practice are based on the moral judgement they exude. I agree with anthropologist Richard Shweder who wrote powerfully against the ideas about African mothers as bad mothers who put their girls in harm’s way. Therefore, it does little good for a Westerner, or even an African-born woman such as myself, to condemn the practice unilaterally.

We must learn from history: when the colonial European powers tried to abolish the surgery in the first half of this century, local people rejected the interference and clung even more fiercely to their traditions. This is what we have learned from Lynn Thomas’ work on the resistance with which these efforts were met. Without an understanding of indigenous cultures, and without a deep commitment from within those cultures to end the cutting, eradication efforts imposed from the outside are bound to fail. Let me elaborate a little. Varying and conflicting paradigms have generated controversy and increased polarization between some Western feminists and Africans who view their interventions and protestations as inherently paternalistic and as another incidence of veiled racism.

Many commentators have concerned themselves with the question of why women who undergo an ostensibly harmful procedure tend to venerate their own mutilation. Since Hosken’s report is widely cited, often uncritically, by the most sophisticated scholars, I will return to it. The report describes the practice as a vehicle for the sexual mutilation of females and contends that the operation has been practiced by male-dominated tribal societies of Africa and the Middle East for centuries. She describes the types of “circumcision” women endure and discusses whether they are able to experience orgasm. Hosken and others who have gathered information on the subject have tended to oversimplify the complex tapestry of values that account for its resilience among a wide range of societies. She argues that Western intervention is imperative “because the myth about the importance of cultural tradition must be laid to rest, considering that development—the introduction of Western technology and living patterns—is the goal of every country where the operations are practiced today.”

By overemphasizing the effects of female circumcision on sexual pleasure, she has distanced herself from the socioeconomic contexts of broader violations of women’s rights. Her report not only lacks a comprehensive view on the subject but also is noticeably impressionistic. The emphasis on lack of sexual gratification due to “circumcision” may be wrong-headed. A number of circumcised women I interviewed in a northern Sudanese town near Khartoum North said: “Do people think that because we are circumcised, we do not experience pleasure? We have very rewarding relationships and good experiences in our sex lives.” This is a big problem, the inability to recognize the historical and existential realities of African societies makes her work not only ethnocentric and partial but also conveniently unconcerned with the specificity of women’s experience. Instead, her intervention has focused on the universality of female oppression by patriarchal authority throughout the world. The assumption of a “universal sisterhood” falls short of understanding how multiple factors like class, religion, race, and sexuality converge to produce a diversity of experiences that determines the extent to which sexism will be an oppressive force in the lives of women across the globe.

In another publication, “Female Genital Mutilation and Human Rights” (1981) Hosken emphasized bodily integrity as a paramount idea. This is not in dispute; yes, bodily integrity is supreme in any discussion of women’s rights as human rights. Ever since the UN Fourth World Conference of Women’s Platform of Action (1995) affirmed that women’s rights are human rights, this concept has raised complex issues regarding the applicability of universal laws to local sociocultural settings. According to one Nigerian scholar (as reported by Rebecca Cook), such human rights discourses may not be productive in Africa, where the severity of socioeconomic problems faced by women in countries undergoing structural adjustment and grinding poverty are devastating. In many societies in which cultural expressions are often seen as deliberate acts of violence, as dominance and transgression against women, such rights discourse is perceived as an ethnocentric commentary on cultural difference. I have no doubt there are campaigns that have well-meaning intentions. However, I will not retreat from my view that the views perpetuated on this problem have succeeded in foregrounding negative images of Africa and Africans.

12.3 Feminist Movement in Sudan

Editors—How has the feminist movement in Sudan developed? Could you begin by telling us about its history?

Prof. Abusharaf—As with feminist movements throughout the Third World, the history of Sudanese feminism is intricately connected to that of the nationalist anticolonial resistance and has, throughout, mirrored the broader political complexities. Women’s rights activists yearned for a truly transformative politics. From its inception, the politics of the women’s movement in the Sudan depended on multiple alliances, recognizing and drawing upon the broader identity of women as wives, mothers, workers, and citizens. That, however, does not in any way make it “less feminist,” for there is no doubt that “women’s issues” and gender have played a pivotal role in shaping oppositional consciousness and in affirming the inalienable rights of Sudanese women within the household and beyond.

Recently, I have shared some background about the Sudanese women’s movement in Foresight Africa, a publication of the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. I tried to locate women’s rights activists in the Sudan at the forefront of the revolution under way in the country. Maybe a brief background can help address your question. When the first Sudanese woman to be admitted in Kitchener Medical School, the formidable Dr. Khalda Zahir Soror Al-Sadat, and her schoolteacher friend, Fatima Talib, got together one afternoon in Omdurman, they felt it important to reach out to others in their neighborhood to establish a Sudanese woman’s union to agitate for the rights of women under British colonialism (1898–1956).

Under colonial domination, women’s lives were adversely affected by the colonial pursuit of economic policies, which fundamentally changed their traditional roles without providing alternatives. The oppressive British policies against Sudanese people in general and women in particular generated multiple forms of resistance. At the level of the family, social conservatism and male favoritism added a conspicuous dimension to the movement of liberating society and its most disadvantaged members: the women. They brought to light the complex relationship between Sudanese women and the institutional state structure as a vital component of her vision of agitating for women’s rights. The extent to which colonialism, militarism (after independence), and patriarchy have all collaborated in the subordination of women and their relegation to the status of second-class citizens, was examined and elaborated upon. Their idea gathered momentum as evidenced in an impressive gathering at the home of their compatriot Aziza Makki Osman Azraq.

The effort came to fruition in 1952 with the founding of the Sudanese Women’s Union. Far from being an elitist, urban-based effort, the Union succeeded in including women of all regional, religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds throughout the country. Along with significant milestones achieved since then, such as the adoption of equal pay for equal work in 1953, the Union focused on a plethora of discriminatory practices often rationalized as revered traditions. They ended “Obedience Laws,” which forced a woman to return to her abusive partner and relinquish every right or entitlement due to her as a human being. These monumental struggles, however, were not without adversaries who mounted unjustified criticisms of the Union as foreign innovations that had no roots in Sudanese customs and traditions. One of the main objectives was focused on strengthening women’s position in society. SWU initiated adult literacy classes and emphasized education as a primary feminist goal.

According to Kashif (1994), between 1952 and 1959, thirty-four night-schools were established throughout the country, with the largest enrolment by residents of Omdurman in Khartoum, and in many regions such as Singa, Kassala, Fashir, Wadi Halfa, and Juba. In addition to declaring its intention of obliterating illiteracy among women, the union listed other goals for a strategy for women’s liberation. Foremost among these is the liberation of women from oppressive practices within the household and on a societal level. In this regard it aimed at ameliorating prevailing social injustices and securing women’s self-representation, political participation, literacy, legal rights, equal pay for equal work, childcare and better terms of employment, including maternal leave. When I interviewed Dr. Khalda Zahir in Khartoum about the union’s approach to female circumcision, she averred:

If our movement had focused on eradicating female circumcision when it started, people could have been very suspicious of our motives. That is why we tried to address fundamental questions and issues such as poverty, illiteracy, and exploitation in and outside the home and employment. Circumcision is a symptom, not a cause of women’s subordination.

Dr. Zahir’s point is validated by the facts on the ground. Studies have shown that the more educated women are, the less willing they are to have their daughters circumcised. I have no doubt that when African women have taken their rightful places in the various spheres of life, when they have gained social equality, political power, economic opportunities, and access to education and health care, genital mutilation will end. To understand genital cutting as a practice that touches female sexuality, it is necessary to understand specific institutionalized ideologies. Those ideologies represent a plethora of complex notions of culture, ritual, male dominance and female authority over younger generations, social behavior, and economic power. From this vantage point it becomes obvious that female genital cutting should be squarely situated within the contexts of women’s political and economic status and sex roles within the family and society.

Editors—What is the essential difference between the Sudanese feminist movement and the Western feminist movement?

Prof. Abusharaf—Unlike feminist movements in the West, in Sudan women’s emancipation was hardly equated with sexual liberation. Instead, the broader conceptualization of women’s issues taken by the Sudanese feminist movement differs fundamentally and constitutively from that of feminists in the Western world. This in turn raises a fundamental question: just how important is politics to the Sudanese feminist agenda?

SWU’s ultimate goal is achieving equality between men and women within the society and the family. The deep conviction of women’s equality held by SWU activists manifested itself in attempts to ensure women’s participation in public life on equitable terms. Securing women’s right to vote in 1956 attested to this effort. With regard to the sphere of family, SWU succeeded in 1969 in changing existing family law, including ending the so-called obedience law. An Act was issued, also in 1969, providing women with the rights to be consulted before marriage, to initiate divorce, and to secure custody of their children. Other aims included the provision of health care, affordable housing, safe drinking water, and the protection of children through the prevention of child labor.

Editors—Can you be more specific about what the feminist movement in Sudan, specifically the SWU, has accomplished?

Prof. Abusharaf—In an interview I conducted with Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, she indicated the following to me: In addition, the group succeeded in 1955 in creating Sudan’s first woman’s magazine, Sawt el Maraa (Woman’s Voice), which attempted to explain the real issues behind female oppression and clarify the position of Islam on women’s status in general and on female “circumcision” in particular. This publication helped Sudanese women to express their concerns. Advocating a general transformative change does not mean sweeping female circumcision under the rug. Indeed, evidence of the efforts of SWU to end the practice can be found in Our Harvest in Twenty Years.

It can be argued that SWU women were cognizant of the implications of genital cutting, through which women and men are indoctrinated into feminine and masculine roles and subsequently into specific societal responsibilities. Under such circumstances, the female body not only emerges as a battlefield, but practices of female excision or the obligatory physical recognition of virginity are both carried out with the sole objective of preserving cultural values and traditions. With this in mind, the SWU made its position unmistakable: that efforts for the obliteration of female “circumcision” have to be initiated by Sudanese women themselves. Only when we talk about social change that recognizes the existential realities of women can we talk about eradication of harmful practices. Any efforts that overlook historical and political contexts can only produce what David Harvey has termed “a well-meaning pseudo-science”.

The SWU unyieldingly attempts to empower women to devise strategies addressing the complexities of their everyday life, by challenging hereditary forms of power. Resisting patriarchal institutions, military oppression, and class oppression must take precedence over striving for sexual freedoms. Were it not for the painstaking efforts of the SWU, the impact of state policies could have further deepened the exploitation and oppression of Sudanese women.

12.4 International Campaigns Should Collaborate with Community Activists

Editors—Currently, there is an intense international campaign for a zero tolerance policy, but it has not yielded tangible results in many countries. What do you see as the challenges facing the movement to end FGM/C?

Prof. Abusharaf—International efforts to end genital mutilation began in 1979, when the World Health Organization published statements against it. Then, after a gathering of African women’s organizations in Dakar, Senegal, in 1984, the Inter-African Committee Against Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children was formed; since then, affiliates in twenty-three African countries have been working to end the practice. In 1994 the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo adopted the first international document to specifically address female genital mutilation, calling it a “basic rights violation” that should be prohibited.

A variety of projects have aimed to end genital cutting:

Alternative initiation rituals: In 1996 in the Meru district of Kenya, twenty-five mother daughter pairs took part in a six-day training session, during which they were told about the health effects of circumcision and coached on how to defend against being cut. The session culminated in a celebration in which the girls’ received gifts and “books of wisdom” prepared by their parents.

Employment for midwives: In several African countries, programs have aimed at finding other ways for midwives, and traditional healers to make a living. A soap factory set up near Umbada. Sudan, with help from Oxfam and UNICEF, is one example.

Health education: Many African governments have launched public-information campaigns. In Burkina Faso, for instance, a national committee has held awareness meetings and distributed teaching materials. A documentary film, (“My daughter will not be excised”), has been shown on national television. And in Sierra Leone, health workers found that when it was explained to women that genital surgery had caused their physical ailments, they were more willing to leave their daughters uncut.

So far, the success of such pilot projects remains uncertain. The available statistics are disheartening: in Egypt, Eritrea and Mali the percentages of women circumcised remain the same among young and old. Attitudes, however, do seem to be shifting. In Eritrea men and women under twenty-five are much more likely than people in their forties to think the tradition should be abandoned. And in recent years in Burkina Faso, parents who are opposed to circumcision but who fear the wrath of aunts or grandmothers have been known to stage fake operations.

I think the Zero Tolerance campaign has also picked up momentum as I can see from newsletters issued by different local and regional activists. I think it is a great step. I cannot but agree and support any effort to end the needless suffering. I hope for greater material support for community activists to help further their efforts. The Sudan right now is in a devastated economic and political situation. Moving from one spot to the next is a daily challenge. Still, there is room for coordination with the growing number of non-governmental organizations. In my view the international campaign can frame its efforts with these community activists who are aware of the local conditions and are working diligently to address elimination efforts. These include the Babikir Bedri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies, the National Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices, the Assembly of Sudanese Muslim Women, and the most recent Sudanese organization to take up this issue, the Mutawinat, among others who I am confident will cooperate to end harmful practices to the best of their ability.

Editors—Thank you very much, Prof. Abusharaf. It was a very valuable talk for us as we try to find concrete ways to improve the FGM/C abolition movement in all the regions facing difficulties at the moment.