African Awakening

Senegal turns against the tyranny of female genital mutilation.

Published June 3, 1998 9:02AM (EDT)

For months, Dousu Konate resisted her adopted
daughter's pleas until finally, she says, she couldn't bear the girl's
anguish anymore. Left to Konate's care by her relatives from another town, the
girl, Buya Ba, arrived in the minuscule Senegalese village of Ker Simbara last year at 14 and
immediately became the object of derision to other teenagers. Isolated in this
community deep in the countryside, she begged Konate to let her undergo the
one thing that would win her instant acceptance: having her clitoris and
vaginal lips cut off.

"The girls mocked her," Konate recalls. "The boys said, 'You'll never find a husband.'" Buya had come from a village that didn't practice female
circumcision, and Konate, who had begun to have serious doubts about the
operation, hoped the girl could avoid it entirely. But it was too high a price
to pay, to rebel against a tradition that had lasted hundreds of years.
Buya was regarded with repulsion, shunned from casual friendships and sometimes
even conversation, and suspected of being too unclean to cook food or wash

Finally, late last year, Konate woke Buya before dawn, wrapped a
traditional cord around her waist -- "to protect her from pain" -- and led her
to the village circumcision hut. There three old women held Buya down while
the traditional cutter sliced off Buya's genitals with a razor blade. They
told her not to scream or cry, since her cowardice would embarrass the family.

Then they laid her down to heal, using herbal powders and coagulating blood to help
seal the open wound. The men slaughtered a goat in celebration. Everyone
turned out to dance, sing and rattle calabashes strung with cowrie shells.
Four months later, Buya, just 15, was married.

But in February, shortly after Buya's wedding, something happened that could have eliminated the young woman's anguish and pain. Ker Simbara's 100 inhabitants gathered at a meeting and decided
they would never again circumcise their girls. After centuries of cutting off
the female genitals, Ker Simbara declared the practice forever dead.

This wasn't the first attempt to eradicate female circumcision in Africa, of course. Starting in the '70s, development officials, the World Health Organization, various United Nations
agencies, Western feminists and, more recently, several African
governments have railed against it -- all with little impact. Even a couple of
years ago, rebellion would have seemed impossible, confronting as it did
sensitive taboos that have endured since the Pharaohs. But this time the revolution began from within, by women who no longer wanted to hand down the ritual to their daughters.

And the results have been remarkable. During the last year, 13
Senegalese villages have declared an end to female circumcision -- and on Tuesday 15 more villages signed declarations banning it.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 130 million African women
are circumcised, in roughly 28 countries. About 20 percent of Senegalese women are circumcised at some point between infancy and puberty, either by clitoridectomy, the removal of the clitoris, or, in most cases, the more radical infibulation. With this method, the inner and outer lips of the vagina and the
clitoris are all removed. The wound is often sealed, leaving just a small hole for urine and blood to
pass through. Then, on a girl's wedding night, circumcisers are called in to
cut the girl open again so her groom can penetrate her.

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Female circumcision has gained increasing condemnation worldwide. In the United States Fauziya Kassin-dja's struggle for asylum to escape genital cutting in her native Togo received widespread press and was recently recounted in the book "Do They Hear You When You Cry?" But in Senegal, the practice has gone virtually unquestioned. Even to discuss it in public
was rare. Last month, a woman in Diabougou village told me, "We didn't talk to the men about this; this was secret."

Yet in several villages, countless men and women, speaking through
interpreters, described an astonishing awakening during the past two
years. It began in part, they said, when a Senegalese organization called
Tostan arrived to start a community education program. Financed partially by UNICEF, Tostan's mission was to promote literacy and lifelong learning, and to engage women more fully in the economy. The program provided men and women with practical and informal training in
subjects alien to most African schools, such as management skills and independent
problem solving, and then slowly moved on to touchier subjects such as
women's health.

Female circumcision was in fact rarely mentioned. But it finally
became unavoidable as Tostan discussions began tackling topics such as infection,
stillbirth, deaths in childbirth and sexual pain. Eventually, men and women began to acknowledge the devastation their own traditions might be causing.

To Americans, these truths are so obvious they don't warrant discussion. But
in Senegal, that revelation has meant peeling away lifetimes of discretion and
secrecy. "We noticed there were a lot of health problems, with girls bleeding,
and when they got married. But we didn't associate this with circumcision,"
said Maimouna Troare, 60, who heads the women's organization in Malicounda, a
village about 55 miles southeast of the capital, Dakar. Local women's groups such as Troare's have been essential to expanding the program to educate people about the practice.

In the past, American feminists and other outsiders seeking to liberate African women from a barbaric practice have been shocked to find that their outrage was often met with indifference and even
defiance from the women. Molly Melching, an American who began Tostan's program in 1988 and is now the
only non-Senegalese in the organization, says she understands why. A tall, charismatic woman who dresses in bright caftans made by Senegalese tailors in Dakar,
Melching has the trust of locals, who regard her -- as one woman said -- "like a
sister." From Africans' standpoint, Melching says, angry posters depicting
girls with their legs splayed and blood spattered alienated parents, who
believed they were protecting their beloved daughters from harm.

"Western feminists came in 20 years ago and approached female genital
mutilation talking about orgasms," says Melching, who moved to Senegal 23
years ago as an exchange student from the University of Illinois and never
left. She remembers her own revulsion when she first heard about circumcision rites from her fellow students at the University of Dakar. In
Tostan's program, she says, "We say nothing about orgasms. Women don't want to
talk about that. It's irrelevant. All we speak about is health."

But sexual pleasure, of course, is not only relevant, it's often the crux of
the matter. As the girls' mothers, themselves circumcised, know, cutting a woman open on her wedding night makes sex agonizing. But the culture's overriding concern was to try to stop girls from having sex before marriage.
"Marrying a virgin is very, very important," Troare says. "You can see: If she
isn't a virgin, there is no wedding feast."

Having reported on female circumcision from various countries in Africa, I'd
heard the old arguments before. Ask why circumcision is
practiced, and the most common answer refers obliquely to sexual pleasure --
that uncircumcised girls might have sex before marriage, and that, in the
past, girls were circumcised to keep them faithful while their husbands
migrated to jobs or went to war. Recently, a family deep in Ethiopia told me of
almost identical convictions, including that the clitoris was unclean and grew
too big for women's comfort.

It's not only rural Africans who hold such beliefs. In a bustling urban neighborhood of
Cairo a few years ago, I witnessed a fierce argument over female circumcision between a taxi driver, who thought his wife's sexual interest might be greater
if she had a clitoris, and a waiter, who worked mainly in five-star hotels in
the Arabian Gulf and who believed uncircumcised women were sexually reckless and
often lesbians.

The ritual is so integral to community traditions that it had to be universally applied or scrapped completely. Leaving
people to decide for themselves was bound to fail since, for one thing,
marriage depends on it. It would take men as well as women to make it work -- a major undertaking, considering that men had been mostly hidden from circumcision rites and rarely talked to their wives about health problems. What's more, the village clansmen were scattered throughout
the area, and everyone had to be involved in the decision.

A critical figure in the campaign in Ker Simbara was Demba Diawara, one of the imams, or Islamic
priests. At the age of 64, Diawara had enrolled in Tostan's classes to learn to read and write, and finished them convinced that circumcision was ruinous to girls' health. Diawara was the perfect emissary: a forceful raconteur with a crackling wit who
speaks in complex proverbs. Most important, he was a man, and a
religious imam. In a country that's 90 percent Muslim, the imams' opinion
about female circumcision was crucial to whether the village decided to
end the practice.

For three months, Diawara walked from village to village in the searing heat,
dressed in his green rubber thongs and weathered white robe, pleading with all
Ker Simbara's relatives to abandon female circumcision. "We went back and
forth, back and forth, until everyone agreed," said Diawara. "Even if you learn something is bad, if it's your tradition, you can't just
get up and stop it."

Ironically, the decision to free girls from genital cutting has not been without its cost to women. In one village, Aissa Tou
Sarr sat under a big tree with two of her former assistants and described how
she had lost one of the few reliable sources of income for Senegalese women -- circumcising girls. In a
green and white robe with matching headdress, Sarr told me how she had
learned her skill from her grandmother, who had circumcised her at 15, and in
turn she had circumcised her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters. She recalls being horrified when Diawara walked into her village of Samba Dia to try to persuade the people to join the decision. "I was really angry. I couldn't
stop thinking, 'How am I going to take care of my family?'"

With her assistants, Sarr had cut about 200 girls each year during the rainy months, Senegal's
circumcision season, when children are home from school for the harvest. For each operation, the parents paid her a free lunch, a
bar of soap and 5,000 francs (about $8.60). There was plenty left over after
she'd paid her overhead: bandages, rubbing alcohol and razor blades.

It was a job that gave Sarr an integral role in the community, one that was
transformed with cruel suddenness into vilification. In educational plays the villagers created, the circumcisers are now portrayed as money-grubbing butchers. It
was a painful thing for her to witness at first, but under some pressure Sarr came to
believe that circumcision is truly hazardous. "I decided to stop when I
learned that this might cause infections and sterility. I didn't want to be a
cause of that."

Although circumcisers have become scapegoats, they were simply upholding the cultural norm. In fact, while some women have spearheaded the movement against female circumcision, others have been among its staunchest defenders. Time and again, women told me about
having seen someone bleed uncontrollably or lose a baby. Yet their
insistence that circumcision would protect their daughters from wantonness,
and the fact that uncircumcised girls might not marry, kept the illusions

Leaving aside discretion, it's difficult to ask circumcised women about sexual
pleasure. As one woman said, "I feel I have full sexual pleasure with my
husband, but then I wouldn't know what it is to be uncircumcised." Then
she added, "I cried when we made the decision to renounce this. It was the end
of a very long tradition."

Just as Tostan's two-year education program began meeting success, its grant from UNICEF expired, and Melching is planning
to try to raise funds in the United States next month. Yet even if Tostan's consciousness-raising sessions catch on across the country,
it's not clear whether it can ripple through enough villages and towns to make
a significant dent in female circumcision in Senegal, let alone across Africa.
Egypt and Burkina Faso both have laws against female circumcision, yet most
women are still circumcised in those countries.

In a visit to a neighborhood outside the seaside town of M'Bour, just a few miles from
the village of Malicounda, it became clear how difficult the battle for the rest of Africa will be. In the courtyard of a housing complex, three women and a man sat in the late afternoon sun under a clothesline hung with freshly washed robes. When Melching
broached the subject, they erupted with anger, shouting at her in Wolof, Senegal's national language. "This is like stomping on our tradition," yelled Mame Fatou Diatta, 33, her eyes
blazing. "I'll hold to my traditions until the end of time."

Next to her, Cherifo Daffe, 64, backed up her rage with his homespun Muslim
beliefs. "Our religion says the smell isn't good," he says, referring to the
clitoris. "It must be cut out. We abhor anything that's dirty about the body."

Over the next quarter-hour, the argument became increasingly vociferous until
suddenly Fatou Diatta challenged Melching to bring her Tostan classes to the
neighborhood. For Melching, it was a triumphant moment. "You'll see," she said
quietly in English. "In a few months, they'll be saying something different."

In the meantime, in villages across Africa, girls continue to be mutilated -- a point that was painfully obvious as I watched several young women act out a play in which a circumcised girl bleeds to death. Among the players was Buya Ba, the 15-year-old who was circumcised just before the Ker Simbara repeal. Before the performance began, Buya told me she was resigned to her decision. "I felt I was obliged to
do this," she told me. "The important thing is, nobody makes fun of me now." Yet a few minutes later, she jumped up to take her part -- and with
gusto, the girl who last year begged for a circumcision lashed out at the fictitious circumciser for putting girls' lives in danger.

By Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Africa Female Mutilation United Nations