Cut Both Ways

Ninety percent of women in Sierra Leone have undergone female circumcision as part of a coming-of-age ritual. Its detractors call the tradition traumatic and say it can lead to sexual dysfunction and complications during childbirth. So why are some of the practice’s strongest defenders women?

Winner, 2008 Amnesty International Media Award for excellence in human rights reporting.

By Susan McClelland
Chatelaine, October 2008

Umu Nabie hugs her knees to her chest and looks around the small apartment in Scarborough, in the east end of Toronto, that she shares with her cousin, niece and two sisters, all young women originally from Sierra Leone. The 24-year-old Nabie, who is usually talkative and bubbly, is quiet and sombre. “The room was dark,” she says in a low voice. “It smelled like incense. You know, the kind they use at funerals.”

Nabie is telling me about when she was a seven-year-old tomboy, still living in the small city of Makeni in Sierra Leone. Not yet in school, she spent her days planting and harvesting cassava on her father’s farm and playing games. “I was always running,” she says. “Carefree like the birds.”

But everything changed when she entered the room that smelled like a funeral. It was the beginning of Nabie’s Bondo initiation, a rite of passage for young girls in Sierra Leone. The induction into the Bondo Secret Society is, traditionally, a program that lasts several months, during which girls are said to gain the insight and wisdom needed to become women.

At the beginning of Nabie’s initiation, her mother led her to a clay and grass hut deep in the bush of mango and palm trees, outside the city. Then some women from Makeni guided Nabie onto a sheet on the floor, while 16 other initiates sang a traditional tribal song: I was born a virgin and I remain a virgin, one sang. Prove it, the chorus replied.

Two women grabbed Nabie’s arms and others spread her legs while another cut her vulva with what felt like a sharp knife. “I was screaming,” Nabie says. “No one told me this is what was going to happen to me. I felt the blood gush down the sides of my legs. I tried to kick and punch, but I could not free myself.”

Nabie’s cutting lasted about 15 minutes, but the screaming went on for hours as other girls, ranging in age from 18 months to 19 years, had their turn. The cutting, which in Nabie’s case involved the removal of outer parts of the clitoris, is commonly referred to in the West as female genital mutilation, or FGM. Afterwards, despite the pain, the girls smiled and sang, comparing stories of their bravado and showing off the thickness of the bandages between their legs.

The initiated girls felt proud to be cut, and this may be why FGM is so widely practised despite the growing opposition to it. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 94 percent of Sierra Leonean women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM. Globally, the organization estimates that between 100 million and 140 million females have had the procedure, and an estimated three million will do so each year. FGM has been documented in 28 African nations and in parts of the Middle East and Asia, predominantly in Muslim nations, although there is no connection between Islam and support for FGM in the Quran.

Organizations such as UNICEF and such activists as the feminist author Alice Walker have condemned FGM and are demanding its eradication, calling the practice traumatic and a violation of human rights. But they’re meeting strong resistance – often from women who have themselves been cut. Despite popular beliefs that it is men, or patriarchal forces, perpetuating the practice, in most cases it’s women doing the cutting and defending the tradition. In Sierra Leone, women who are cut are viewed as beautiful and worthy of being married. Those who are not are seen as impure by men and women alike.

Even the 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 did little to stop the practice: According to Amnesty International, girls were cut in displaced persons’ camps not far from where rebels were waging the war. As the Sierra Leonean anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu wrote this year in a New York Times blog responding to a post about the sexual consequences of FGM in Africa, “I am proud to be a circumcised woman and would not opt to be otherwise.”

According to the WHO, the most common forms of FGM involve the removal of some or all of the clitoris, and often some or all of the labia minora. In parts of northeastern Africa, particularly Somalia and northern Sudan, however, the most extreme form of FGM takes place. In what is known as infibulation, the external genitalia are cut and the vaginal opening is stitched or narrowed, leaving only a small opening for menstrual blood and urine. This procedure may be undone, and later redone, to accommodate intercourse and childbirth. FGM is usually performed in non-clinical settings and ceremonies with knives or scissors, leaving girls vulnerable to infection and excessive bleeding.

The United Nations and other non-governmental organizations, such as the Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project, have condemned FGM. In February, 10 UN agencies, including the Development Fund for Women and the WHO, came together to encourage communities to abandon FGM within one generation.

These efforts have been moderately successful: It’s now illegal to perform FGM in 15 African nations and in many Western countries, including Canada. Maria Gabriella De Vita, who recently retired as UNICEF’s specialist for gender equality and social change, says the best results are seen when local women spearhead change in their own communities.

Critics of FGM cite its health risks: A 2006 WHO study of 28,393 women in six African nations found that those who’ve had the procedure have a greater chance of experiencing difficulties during childbirth, including increased risk of death for both the mother and the baby, unplanned Caesarean sections and hemorrhaging. Researchers theorized that the complications may be caused by inelastic scar tissue that can obstruct the birth canal and tear during delivery.

Other concerns have been raised that FGM causes difficulties during sex. However, a study by the Italian gynecologist Lucrezia Catania, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine last November, disputes this. Catania interviewed 137 women now living in Italy who had undergone some form of FGM. The majority said they had very healthy sex lives. Interestingly, she also found that while these women felt good about their bodies in their home countries, when they moved to Western countries, they experienced self-esteem issues. “In some of these initiation rituals involving FGM, wisdom is passed on about the beauty of the female body, the beauty of sex and of conceiving children,” says Richard Shweder, a psychological anthropologist at the University of Chicago. “But when these women move to the West, they’re told that what their mothers did to them was abuse. They’re told that their bodies are ugly and mutilated.”
The origins of the Bondo, also called the Sandé in other parts of Sierra Leone, are unknown, but the initiation has been documented as far back as the 17th century. Digbas – adults who play a medicine-woman role – guide the girls through it. According to the University of Chicago anthropologist Jean Comaroff, the Bondo teaches girls how to be good mothers, wives and elders. Like other rites of passage, the Bondo is seen as “the death of the girl and her rebirth as a woman,” says Frederick J. Lamp, an art historian at Yale University, who has studied the cultural significance of the Bondo. “The initiation period, in which the girls move away from their homes, is the symbolic death. So, while in public, the girls would be [covered in white, chalky paint] to symbolize the death stage, or the state of being dead, a spirit, invisible.”

FGM, the first step of this initiation, is seen as a purification. The parts of the female genitalia believed to resemble the male penis are cut away, Shweder says. “Girls emerge from the Bondo believing they are more feminine.”    

When she was 21, the anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu, who grew up in Washington, D.C., returned to Sierra Leone to be initiated. A university student at the time, she was sexually active, interested in fashion and “typically American,” she says. Yet she chose to be circumcised. “I was always surrounded by Sierra Leonean women who viewed the Bondo as very special,” she says. “Women who are associated with the Bondo are highly regarded. I was envious of my older aunts…the way they talked about it. I wanted in.”

Ahmadu, now 41, has no regrets and no side effects. She says she has a healthy sex life and no self-esteem issues. In fact, she feels a deeper connection to her community as a Sierra Leonean woman. And, along with a handful of other academics, policy-makers and lawyers, she would like to widen the discussion about FGM. Last fall, Ahmadu took part in a debate about female circumcision at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting. One of the arguments made in favour of FGM is that the campaign to abolish it is just another form of colonialism: The white, Western society that views this practice as barbaric is imposing its values on another culture. “The anti-FGM movement claims that they are promoting the human rights of the individual girl, but what about the human rights of the people to determine their own traditions and practices?” asks the University of Chicago’s Shweder.

“Right now, it’s zero tolerance,” Ahmadu adds, referring to Alice Walker and Pratiba Parmar’s influential 1993 documentary and book Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, which helped to bring attention to the anti-FGM movement in the West. “People are extremely shocked when they hear there is another side to what Walker put forward. What we need is for affected African women to be given the opportunity to be heard and be believed, and not come up against this very oppressive campaign that suppresses their viewpoint.”
Nabie feels differently. Immediately following her circumcision, she celebrated with her peers. “I was no longer this tomboy running around, but a pretty girl,” she says. “I could tell by the way the other women looked at me. I wasn’t invisible anymore. I had done something that they respected.” But she adds that she’s never been the same since. Once she returned home, she felt ashamed of her body, particularly the cutting that was done to her vulva. An aspiring filmmaker and student at Centennial College, she does not enjoy sex, finding it painful at times. Nabie takes the position that the Bondo should be banned for any girl under the age of 18, and offered only to those over 18 who choose it. “Right now, very few women are given an option,” she says. “They’re shunned if they even question the Bondo. Families force young girls to take part when they are not able to decide for themselves. There is no public debate. That’s wrong to me.”

In 1998, several years after Nabie’s initiation, rebels from the Revolutionary United Front invaded Makeni, using the city as their main fortress. Nabie and her family fled to the capital, Freetown, and an older sister sponsored Nabie to come to Toronto in 2002. It was there that Nabie learned that the cutting performed on her was not smooth. Part of her clitoris hangs precariously and hurts when touched. “Because we couldn’t even talk about the initiation back home, I assumed it was done properly.”

Nabie’s father, a devout Muslim who lived in Sierra Leone with her mother until his death, was against his daughter being initiated because the practice is not in the Quran. Nonetheless, he could not convince Nabie’s mother. “Every woman my family knew was part of the society,” says Nabie. “So how could my father resist?” Nabie hopes to return to Sierra Leone one day, but knows her objections to FGM will not be well received. The country was ranked the second-most-impoverished nation on earth by the UN in 2006, and the Bondo is integral to local economies. Parents, who often save up for years, pay the digbas to oversee the initiation and perform FGM, and also buy expensive gifts for their daughters once they have completed the initiation. Many digbas live off their fees and don’t want to see the practice abolished. According to Ahmadu, male politicians are also reluctant to speak out against it because they don’t want to offend their constituents.

While there are a growing number of African women speaking out against FGM, an open debate is unlikely to happen in Sierra Leone. At a recent women’s conference organized by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Dakar, Senegal, three Sierra Leonean women addressed the assembly and declared that they were against FGM. According to UNICEF’s De Vita, “they said they’d be killed” if they aired those views at home. Even Nabie’s cousins in Toronto discouraged her from being interviewed for this article, fearing she will be harassed by family and friends.

In 2007, Sierra Leone’s parliament passed a children’s-rights bill banning underage marriage, but a section that would also have targeted FGM was dropped after a closed and private debate. Senior MP Alassan Fofana told the BBC that politicians “were afraid to be tagged as calling for a ban on FGM. For a lot of people, this would have cost their political career.” Experts say that in Sierra Leone, the cutting is linked to female identity, and the only way to change this perception is to change how women in Sierra Leone perceive beauty.
I am standing on a dirt road in a small village in Sierra Leone. It’s 2008, the third week of no rain near the middle of the dry season. I’m about to enter the schoolhouse when I hear the sound of several shegburehs, instruments made out of gourds, string and beads. A Bondo spirit dancer (a digba wearing a thick, heavy mask) comes into view, leading a procession of singing and dancing women and girls. The mask is the embodiment of the supreme female spirit, o-Nowo. During the Bondo initiation, other female spirits take form, including a snake that represents the cycle of life. The finale of the initiation involves the girls following the Bondo dancer in single file, like a serpent weaving its way through the village.

As I watch the girls trail the dancer, I remember Nabie’s story of her own initiation, which ended much the same way. Before she returned to the village, she had to paint her face and body, don a grass skirt and go from hut to hut, singing and soliciting money for the digba. She then had to perform an obstacle course in the bush. Once she completed it without error, she was adorned with the gold earrings and silver bangles her father bought for her, and then visited the chief of Makeni for a blessing.

The next morning, Nabie was taken to the river to wash and was dressed in a traditional outfit. When she returned home, “all I wanted to do,” she says, “was change my clothes and get dirty with the other kids in the village. I was feeling respected, [but] at the same time I was hurting. I felt betrayed by the women I loved most.”

Nabie has a 12-year-old cousin still living in Makeni. The family has little income, and Nabie’s mother has asked her for help to pay for her cousin’s initiation. Nabie is trying to delay the girl’s circumcision until she’s 18. “If I come right out and say no, I won’t pay for the Bondo, my mother will initiate my cousin anyway,” she says. “So I’ve told my mother I’ll pay for it, but let me pay for the girl’s schooling first. Then, when she’s 18, I plan on telling her all about the ceremony, including the FGM, and letting her decide for herself.”