Amidst a surge of renewed interest in the debate of whether to eliminate female circumcision globally, Sierra Leonean-American medical anthropologist Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, PhD was recently invited by SBS-TV, Insight Program to discuss the complex and challenging issues of the practice in the Australian context.
In this interview conducted via email two days prior to International Day for zero-tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), she comments on the religious implications of female circumcision and challenges stereotypical views of these operations as inimical to women’s sexual experience, sensitivity, desire and capacity for orgasm.
First for clarity sake, are you a staunch advocate of Female Circumcision or are you just an advocate for choice – the right of a woman to choose?
I am a western liberal to boot and believe very much in the principles of personal liberty and equality so, in answer to your question, I am also a staunch advocate of a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body – from abortion to bodily adornments to cosmetic surgeries and definitely to traditional circumcision operations. I may not personally agree with abortions, wearing of burkas, clinically based genital cosmetic surgeries, tattoos, and other such practices that women may opt for but I strongly support the idea of women’s autonomy – freedom and equality – and believe that we must respect, at times even celebrate, our individual and cultural differences.
You are currently in Sydney Australia. What are you doing in Australia, is the trip related to your work on female circumcision?
I traveled to Australia at the invitation of SBS-TV, Insight Program, as one of several guests in a broad discussion on female circumcision and specifically as it relates to the Australian context of African as well as Asian immigrants who uphold the practice. The show will be aired on February 19th from 8:30pm to 9:30pm (AEDT) and I will be participating from the US as a guest twitter on that evening to answer any viewer questions or concerns. I recommend anyone who wants any information on this show or any of my other seminars, lectures, events and writings concerning female circumcision to have a look at my website which will be formally launched on February 6th, 2013. See video below: http://www.sbs.com.au/insight/episode/watchonline/514/Clear-Cut
Since you’re in Australia, interestingly, in December, a Sydney based Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development founder and president, Imam Afroz Ali argued that “Islamic law permits by definition, by prophetic statement and by practice female circumcision,” Do you agree with Imam Ali’s argument?
I am not familiar with this Imam and I am no expert on Muslim law, so I don’t feel equipped to answer this. What I do know is that both male and female circumcision predate Islam, Christianity and Judaism. These were traditional African practices that relate to beliefs about creation including the creation of male and female sexes. Those with a deeper interest on the cultural or symbolic meanings and origins of African male and female initiation can find more ethnographic material, references and links as I update my website.
Where in the Quran can you find this Islamic law?
Those who are experts on Qu’ranic law (and I am not one), including other guests at the Insight Program on SBS-TV I mentioned above, state clearly that female circumcision is not Sharia or Islamic law and that the practice is not in the Qu’ran itself but is alluded to in one of the Hadiths. There are many interpretations of this Hadith – those who support female circumcision say that the passage is justification for the practice and calls for milder forms that will not affect a woman’s sexuality and health; however, activists who are opposed to female circumcision say that the Hadith does not condone female circumcision in any form.
What do you make of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists vice-president Ajay Rane’s condemnation of all legal labiaplasty or cultural female circumcision because of what he calls lack of scientific evidence behind the procedures to support enhancement of sexual performance or feelings, and that they can cause horrific complications?
I am not familiar with this pronouncement. But I would like to call attention to the African Female Genital Surgery Advisory Network, a group of experts – medical practitioners and research scholars from a broad range of disciplines – who refute the stereotyped view of these operations as inimical to women’s sexual experience, sensitivity, desire and capacity for orgasm. The group published a public policy advisory in the Hastings Center Report, a leading US bioethics journal last November/December 2012, which can be accessed from their website. I also provide a link to the journal article on my own website www.fuambaisiaahmadu.com. The signatories to this public policy advisory (including myself) hold varying and even opposing views on the practice of female circumcision but collectively published this important advisory as a step towards opening up the debate to include different voices and experiences of African women and to counter negative, often harmful media stereotypes and stigmatization of African women and girls.
There is a renewed interest and surge in the conversation of Female Circumcision among Sierra Leoneans on social networking forums on the internet including Facebook. Are you familiar with Mr. John Lahai who claims he has a formula to end Female circumcision by revealing the secrets of the ritual? And, isn’t the rituals of the initiation in anthropological literature?
I have heard of John Lahai but perhaps you need to interview him directly about his formula to end female circumcision. Yes, all there is to know and can be known has already been written about in some form or another within anthropology. I am not sure what else there is to “reveal” that he and only he would be privy to. But then again, sounds like an interesting book marketing strategy among other things.
During your special presentation at the commencement of the 111th Annual AAA Meeting held at the San Francisco Hilton last November, you took to task Western public health officials, global health institutions and feminist organizations. Basically, calling them hypocrites for condemning FGM as human rights violation while, at the same time turning a blind eye to more invasive female genital surgeries.” Explain what you were referring to at that AAA meeting?
I never used the term “hypocrites” and would never do so in reference to anyone or any institution. What I did point out then and other observers have also noted (this is also discussed in the upcoming Insight Program) are the double standards that exist with regard to female genital surgeries practiced globally – it seems the term “mutilation” is referred to African and non-white women while “cosmetic surgery” is reserved for educated, affluent, predominantly white western women who opt for very similar, and often much more invasive procedures than many of the so-called mutilating procedures. The WHO definition does not distinguish between female genital surgeries conducted for cosmetic or so-called cultural reasons or those done in a plastic surgeon’s office versus those conducted in the “bush”. According to WHO, FGM “comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Practitioners of both FGCS and African traditional female circumcision would locate their procedures in the first part of this definition, which stands independent of the negative connotation in the second half of the definition, but legally FGCS is permitted for western women with the money to pay for it while what many of us African women refer to as female circumcision is considered by WHO as FGM and is banned.
Prior to the 111th AAA meeting, the Hastings Center Public Policy Advisory Network on FSG in Africa released a policy statement in which they called Western media coverage of FGC/FGM hyperbolic and one sided. Can you expound on the significance of that policy statement by the Hastings Center?
The intention of the public policy advisory on African female genital surgeries is to encourage the media, policymakers and other stakeholders to engage in fact-finding when reporting on these practices and formulating policies. I discussed some of this above and would refer any readers who want to know more to have a look at my website www.fuambaisiaahmadu.comwhere they can find a full version of the public policy advisory.
What is your reaction to the unanimous resolution passed by the 194 member state UN General Assembly in December of last year to ban the practice of FGM outright?
I’ve been in this field long enough to understand the politics. Clearly, there are lots of problems with this ban. Besides enforceability – especially in areas where 80% to 90% of women are circumcised and overwhelmingly in favor of the practice – what are we calling FGM? Basically, a white girl living in Britain or Australia as young as 14 or even 11 (as one of the doctors on the Insight Program observed was the case in her hospital) can ask for and receive virtually the same procedure that Bondo girls undergo but has been renamed “labiaplasty” and “clitoroplexy” or “clitoral reduction”. Wealthy Beverly Hills women can privately skip over to their plastic surgeons for “vaginal rejuvenation” or tightening of their vaginas and even request that their hymens to be restored yet a woman from Sudan is prohibited from “refibulation” to reseal her labia after giving birth, in accordance with her cultural preferences. Consent is also an issue. A 14 or 11 year old British or Australian girl can consent to female genital surgery but an African girl the same age or even as an adult is said to be coerced? We need to level the playing field for everyone – male or female, white or black, from Malaysia and Africa or Britain and the US – and not play with semantics. Global policies, whatever they end up as, need to be applied across the board irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, geographic origin and so on.
What role can the medical community play to eradicate or eliminate the physical, sexual and psychosexual health implications that they say is prevalent in FGC/FGM?
Good question. They can start by acquainting themselves with the published reviews of existing medical studies – the public policy advisory lists several of these. The signatories that comprise the African Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries include several medical practitioners who work within immigrant communities and see female patients from countries where female circumcision is practiced and highly valued. They deal with problems circumcised women present within the same way as doctors who treat uncircumcised women, in a nonjudgmental and culturally sensitive way. There are few obgyn issues that are unique to circumcised women and, as far as I am aware, in these rare instances, care can be administered without unnecessary moral judgment.
Though, African countries have increasingly begun to outlaw the practice, FGC is legal in Sierra Leone and the chances of it being outlawed in the near future seems unlikely. What do you think is the prevailing factor?
Sierra Leonean women are uniquely situated, given the power they wield in local and national politics, to challenge international norms that discriminate against them because of their race, ethnicity, cultural beliefs and gender. The issue of consent (which I believe is important to individual freedom and autonomy) must be considered alongside other genital surgeries on children and adolescents (including those sanctioned in the west – male circumcision, corrective surgery on children with ambiguous genitalia, female genital cosmetic surgeries and so on) to ensure that African girls and women are not being singled out and stigmatized (which is important to our sense of equality with other women and men in the world). I believe Sierra Leonean women are uniquely endowed to lead global health policies on this issue and to ensure that all women share the same freedom and equality to choose what to do with their own bodies – whether for cosmetic reasons or in order to preserve valued cultural traditions. In Sierra Leone, ethnic groups that practice female circumcision have been living side by side with minority groups that do not, even intermarrying, and have not found it necessary to impose cultural views and practices on one another. This is an excellent model for the rest of the world to emulate.
Finally, FGC/FGM and FGS are considered taboo topics specifically in Sierra Leone. And the discussion certainly always entails vivid description and disclosures of women’s most private parts. But you don’t seem to have any qualms talking about it, why?
Women who have experienced Bondo have a very deep-felt code of honor. Bondo has been a great source of cultural pride, especially in the not-so-distant past. For most of us it is an experience that binds us in solidarity. So yes, it is taboo for us to speak openly on something so deeply entwined with our identity as women. However, our silence has also been mistaken for agreement that we in fact experience ourselves as mutilated (rather than as a sign of respect for ourselves, our culture and our privacy). Sadly, the tactics used by anti-FGM activists – the flagrantly racist portrayals of our bodies and our cultures – has succeeded in shaming even the most ardent supporters into silence. It is this shaming, above all, that I hope to challenge. Circumcised African women need to join the conversation at the global level to win our bodies and genitals back from the gaze and control of others into the privacy and autonomy of our individual lives. If I have to be the first to step out of the closet then so be it. Hopefully, others will feel encouraged or inspired to take the same risks.