In a process of transformation, there is always a latent need for the phoenix of humanity to rise from the ashes. Barry Goldwater once said that “Social and cultural change, however desirable, should not be effected by the engines of national power. Let us, through persuasion and education, seek to improve institutions we deem defective. But in doing so; let us, respect the orderly processes of the law. Any other course enthrones tyrants and dooms freedom.” We know that the world has a penchant for modernity. However, modernity should be seen as a kind of tradition; which is not a rulebook in itself; but a dialogue and a dialectical process. There is no doubt that tradition affects us and we too affect tradition and culture. And we can change it. But in changing it, or in striving for what many people consider as modernisation, any country which ignores its culture is bound to fail. In order for changes in culture to succeed, they should be evolutionary, not revolutionary.
This brings to mind the debate about Female circumcision. I deliberately refer to it as CIRCUMCISION, rather than what is seen as the emotive and derogatory description; MUTILATION. Some see “mutilation” as intentional to evoke grist for outrage, a simplistic denunciation aimed at electrifying a cry for support for reforms and urgent change. Irrespective of where you stand, knowing the facts alone are not enough to arrive at a philosophic position for or against. The human experience and social context may be worth considering here. Until recently, the term “circumcision” has always been used. Today, activists have tried to change the discourse, using “mutilation”; which gives credence to the adage that “until lions have their own storyteller, the hunter will always be victorious”. While some see female circumcision as a rite of passage, others deem it as a violation of human rights.
There is no doubt that the issue of female circumcision has polarised many and especially the female folk. While some believe that it is a redundant and barbaric practice, others feel that it is part of their culture that resides in the heart and soul of their people. Cultures don’t exist in vacuums. In Sierra Leone, female circumcision was known to have been popularised by the “Queen of Senehun”, Madam Yoko. Shrouded against the backdrop of various urban myths, our history tells us that the Sande or Bondo society was primarily used to groom young girls into adulthood. It was seen as a formal process, where young girls were kept in secluded parts of the village, and spent months learning the art of woman and motherhood. While in seclusion, they learnt everything from childbearing to being the model wife and custodian of the family, among others. It also involved cutting and removal of genitalia.
But this practice has come under intense scrutiny recently; thanks largely to Western counterparts who see it as barbaric, inhuman, dangerous and out-dated. The practice has generated concerns around safety, medical and human rights. From a medical and safety view point, those who call for its ban highlight the disadvantages which include, include severe pain, excessive bleeding (haemorrhage) genital tissue swelling, fever, infections (tetanus), urinary problems, wound healing problems and injury to surrounding genital tissue. They also say that it can lead to problems in later life, like difficult birth leading to multiple tears during child birth/ lack of elasticity of the birth canal due to the scar; leading to multiple tears. They believe that it causes painful sexual intercourse due to tightened muscles. The risk of HIV as a result of sharing cutting instruments is also highlighted. The fact that this practice largely involves children less than 18 years, many see them as victims and as a violation of their human rights. This is also because, these children are seen as involved in this practice without their consent. Even where such consent is supposed to have been given, it is considered suspect, as they do not qualify as “informed consent”; hence unethical. This is one of the arguments promoted against the practice by human rights and women’s’ right activists.
In the blue corner, some in favour of the practice have given it a religious flavour, and especially in Islam. Some believe that Circumcision is one of the Sunnah of the fitrah, as is indicated by the words of the Prophet ( SAW), which also include shaving the pubes, plucking the armpit hairs, cutting the nails, and trimming the moustache.” narrated by al-Bukhaari (5889) and Muslim (257). In an article entitled “Khitaan al-Banaat Ru’yah Sihhiyyah” (Female circumcision from a health point of view), the female gynaecologist Sitt al- Banaat Khalid mentioned some of the health benefits of female circumcision and said: It takes away excessive libido from women. It prevents unpleasant odours which result from foul secretions beneath the prepuce. It reduces the incidence of urinary tract infections. It reduces the incidence of infections of the reproductive system.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that FGM (circumcision) is a critical public health issue that serves no medical purposes for its victims, because of its harmful physical and mental effects”. But in the book on Traditions that affect the health of women and children, which was published by the World Health Organization in 1979 it, says: “With regard to the type of female circumcision which involves removal of the prepuce of the clitoris, which is similar to male circumcision, no harmful health effects have been noted. Some will argue that times have changed and the field of medicine and science has evolved.
In layman’s terms, some see the supposed reduction of women’s libido as beneficial in reducing the risk of promiscuity; which in itself can be seen as an insult to those that have not undergone the surgery. But with both sides’ fervent and emotionally charged views, it is easy to see the sensitivities attached to what is becoming a hot potato. Nevertheless, we cannot deny the drawbacks associated with female circumcision. Others will argue that just like female circumcision, and even with the most advanced medical input, casualties occur. We see people die on theatre tables; die from operations involving appendicitis, boils, cancer, and even childbirth. But is anyone running to ban childbirth, they ask? People die from receiving chemotherapy to treat cancer. Is anyone running to ban chemotherapy?
Instead, efforts are made to improve on them. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to recognise the shortfalls associated with female circumcision. So if such a practice is considered abhorrent, barbaric, and inhuman in all its forms, chiefly because of its physical and psychological implications, others may question whether efforts should be made to consider utilising modern day medical techniques to improve on such” barbaric” and “abhorrent” practices, and reduce the risks, rather than call for its total ban?. Many may see the call for a ban as an affront and assault on their culture. Some see it as a display of cultural superiority on the part of those calling for its ban. It is an open secret that western media and agents don’t seem to find a midpoint for this argument. And this is why many in the blue corner find the campaign to ban female circumcision emotively aggressive. Others see it as an effort by Western countries trying to aggressively impose their own values on others’ culture; borne out of an adulterated notion of cultural superiority. Even the term “mutilation” has been criticised as derogatory in terms, not forgetting the connotative imagery it conjures. So is this a battle of cultures or one of human rights and medical considerations? Take your pick.
There are women folk who have undergone female circumcision, and with more information today, they do not only regret it but also oppose it. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for these women to champion to call for a ban. In most cases, they suffer from being ostracised by their very communities or being branded as turncoats. Many will agree that there is a need for a culture shift. No culture can resist the shifting sands of time. “Social and cultural change, however desirable, should not be effected by the engines of national power. Let us, through persuasion and education, seek to improve institutions we deem defective. There is no doubt that tradition affects us and we too affect tradition and culture. And we can change it.
But if there should be a culture shift in this case, maybe, maybe the language, the manner and approach needs to be toned down. The relationship between culture and development should be clarified and deepened in constructive and practical ways. We should take into cognisance that culture is the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or a group. It includes creative expressions, community practices and material or built forms.
In reproductive health, there are no sensitive issues, but there can be insensitive approaches to reproductive issues. Every country, society, state or family practises and preserves their traditions, which they pass onto future generations in the hope of keeping the traditions alive. However, traditions can also serve as shackles to the happiness, human rights and freedom of loved ones. However, it is one thing to highlight the short comings of one traditional practice, but can be an entirely different thing to take an aggressive approach to change it. What this does is create a sense cultural superiority over another culture, which can be suggestive of immaturity. But as we all know, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
It is a common cliché that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. There are many cultural practices in other countries that don’t sit well with others. Let us take for example homosexuality. The majority of African, Islamic and other countries consider this practice as abhorrent and unreligious. In western countries today, it is criminal to discriminate against homosexuals. Homosexuality is rapidly becoming on par with heterosexuality, and many countries are increasingly recognising the rights of homosexuals to marry. But we should remember that this was not the case in the last 3 decades. It was considered criminal to be homosexual in those days. People were tarred, feathered and jailed for such practice.
This is not the case today. We know too well how some Western governments had tried to force other nations to accept homosexuality in terms. Some even went to the extent of measuring their financial aid; that it will be dependent on their acceptance and promotion of it. Our former Minister of Social Affairs Sylvia Blyden was in part, one of the casualties because of her stance on the issue. It reportedly marked the beginning of the end of her love affair with the APC party. Other African leaders told the West where to take their aid, in response to the threat. Just like homosexuality, smoking cannabis is fast becoming decriminalised in most countries; even though Peter tosh had advised not to criticise but legalise it. Irrespective of its psychogenic properties, advances in medicine have discovered some benefits to marijuana.
These cultural changes were not achieved by aggressive language, or by the barrel of the gun. You cannot have these changes by ramming it down the throats of people. So what are the biggest drivers to these changes? It’s Dialogue, education and dissemination of information. Perhaps, those in the red corner would consider highlighting the shortcomings of female circumcision and generate a dialogue. By so doing, this could lead to further enlightenment; if you call it that, for better outcomes. There are an increasing number of women having vaginal reconstructive surgeries today; especially in the Western world. They include labia reduction, urethral reconstruction, vaginal vault inversion, bilateral sacrospinous vault suspension and paravaginal repair etc. Although many do so for medical reasons, there is a significant number that does so for cosmetic reasons. Studies have shown that in spite of medical advances, there have been cases of bladder perforations, voiding difficulties and retro pubic bleeding requiring surgery. But no one is calling for these to be BANNED. Is it time to change the narrative; some may ask? Thankfully, it is no longer a secret and the discussion has already begun. Let the dialogue continue, and may be, we can get a consensus one day.
Perhaps, the way forward is dialogue.