Towards the end of October 2019, the world watched and keenly followed a case where a ‘proudly African woman’ has petitioned the Kenyan judiciary to find that laws prohibiting female genital mutilation be declared unconstitutional because the 2012 legislation criminalizes female circumcision.
Dr Tatu Kamau, a woman of the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya and a practising medical doctor of many years, has caught the attention of millions of men and women across the globe. While a majority are arguably those shocked by her application, which defies the grain of anti-FGM campaigns, millions more have got premise upon which to finally voice themselves on this dicy subject.
Millions of women in Africa, Asia and the Americas have gone through the cultural initiation rites that are manifested by different gestures, majority being a symbolic cut on the female genitalia which they describe as circumcision. But this has in the past few decades been classified as a mutilation of the female genitalia, with advertise medical and reproductive effects.
Anti-FGM groups have vehemently opposed the application saying it would encourage FGM but Dr Kamau and her backers have stood their ground that theirs is a case of pro-female circumcision and that they “don’t support mutilation”.
Those opposed to her say repealing the Kenyan law would put children at risk of being subjected to FGM, while she insists the law as currently crafted makes it illegal for a woman to decide what she can do to her body upon attainment of the consent age.
This contrasting interpretation of the application is at the core and should be one of the issues the three-judge bench must determine and put into the right perspective.
This makes consent and protection of minors from allegedly harmful practices for variety reasons as provided by the Constitution of Kenya 2010 the core issues of this petition.
The question then becomes, is there a difference between female circumcision and female genital mutilation or are the two synonyms of each other?
The protagonists differ on this, Dr Kamau and her supporters say the two are as different as day is from the night.
The Oxford dictionary terms female circumcision as “another form of genital mutilation”, the same definition given by the Collins dictionary, which then defines FGM as “the practise observed in some cultures of removing part or all of a woman’s or girl’s genitalia”. This is the description adopted by many opposed to this case.
However, a significant number of women who have undergone the cut as a rite of passage would say “I don’t consider myself mutilated. I am circumcised”.
Dr Fuambai Sia Ahmadu agrees with the millions of women who say the description in the dictionary is wrong as it is borne out of a lack of understanding of the practise (female circumcision), it’s significanceto the communities that practised it for ages and even how it was done.
“All circumcised women must reject the use of the term ‘mutilation’ to define us and demean our bodies, even as some of us are or fight against the practice,” said the Sierra Leonean American anthropologist, who herself flew back to her native country from the United States to undergo the initiation rites in December 1991 and sees anti-FGM campaigns as presenting a one-sided, ethnocentric picture of female circumcision.
“My own sense […] is that many Euroamericans reactions to the removal of any genital flesh is shaped by parochial understandings and perfectly contestable biases and values concerning bodies, gender, sex and pain,” writes Carlos Londono Sulkin, a Colombian-Canadian anthropologist at the University of Regina in Canada.
“[…] I can no longer condemn the practices of genital cutting in general, nor would I be willing to sign a zero-tolerance petition.”
All Women Are Free to Choose is a non-governmental organisation co-founded by Dr Ahmadu to provide advocacy for female circumcision worldwide.
“We focus on challenging anti-FGM laws, policies and campaigns that infringe upon the human rights of immigrant or non-western women and girls and are harmful to psychosexual wellbeing,” a brief about the organisation that has backed Dr Kamau’s petition, says.
“We provide evidence-based health information on benefits and risks of different types of female genital alterations and challenge misinformation promulgated through global anti-FGM propaganda.”
Among their key objectives is to promote respectful policies aimed at uplifting women and girls in the communities to empower them in such a way that they would make their own choices and lead fulfilling lives. This is achieved through networking with circumcised women worldwide to expand understanding on the various cultures, religious beliefs and shared history.
“In male initiation rituals, the prepuce or foreskin of the penis symbolizes femininity and is associated with female sexual organs, this removal of the foreskin represents the masculinization of the boy,” Dr Ahmadu says in a journal published by the University of Chicago where she was interviewed by Professor Richard Shweder with respect to the initiation beliefs of the Kono people of Sierra Leone.
“In parallel and complementary form, the exposed clitoris represents the male sexual organs or penis and thus it’s removal symbolizes the feminization of the girl and marks her adult status.
“In […] initiation ceremonies, men identify and celebrate their differences from women; similarly women’s ceremonies elaborate, exaggerate and celebrate their differences from men.”
The bitter truth is that as the world awaits for the hearing of Dr Kamau’s petition on 5 and 17 December, this is a landmark case that has lifted the confidence of hitherto muzzled voices to now rise and speak boldly about their right to consent which is denied by the current legislation in Kenya and many other African countries.
Proponents of the case aver that the same way western women are allowed to consent to medical alterations of their genitalia, so must they be left to themselves to decide whether or not to respect their traditional rites of passage that include trimming or reshaping of external genitalia.
One sure certainty is that with organisations such as AWAFC now finding their way on the table of this interesting contest for access to fundamental freedoms, the terrain will only attract more participants as each side bids to make sense over the other.
The kitchen will get hotter when long-held assertions that a cut on the female genitalia has far-reaching negative effects on the sexual and reproductive health of those who undergo it are being challenged.Circumcised women have increasingly become vocal in their dismissal of the perception that female circumcision denies them sexual pleasure.
“These images of FGM […] do not remotely reflect personal experiences of the vast majority of us affected (circumcised) women or the deeply matriarchal aspects of our societies that recognize the inherent right and capacity of women to sexual pleasure and orgasm… Most circumcised women enjoy sex and have orgasms as much, if not more, than our compassionate sisters outside of our traditions,” Dr Ahmadu writes in the www.gofundme.com portal where they are raising funds in support of Dr Kamau’s petition.
“We know that the odds are stacked against Dr Kamau, anti-FGM campaigning is a lucrative, multi-million dollar global aid industry but we believe in the struggle for bodily autonomy, self-determination, religious freedom and gender quality on our terms as African or Muslim women.”
The battle resumes on 5 December and millions, perhaps billions, across the globe will be waiting with bated breathe to see how the contest of semantics and freedom of choice or consent pans out but whether or not the law is repealed; the pro-circumcision group would have been more emboldened to go against the grain.