In the Name of Ritual
An unprecedented legal case focuses on genital politics
Perhaps the operation took place in the dusty streets of her village of Ilobo, or in a neighbor's back yard, or on a balcony. Lydia Oluloro cannot remember precisely. All she knows is that one day, when she was about 4 years old, she was held down by women of her own family while part of her external genitalia were cut away, a ritual euphemistically termed "female circumcision." On one point, however, the college-educated Oluloro is absolutely clear: She does not want the same excruciating procedure performed on her daughters, ages 6 and 4, a fate that will almost certainly befall them if she is deported back to her native Nigeria.
On February 7, a judge in Portland, Ore., will hear Oluloro's plea to suspend her pending deportation, the first case of its kind in this country. The 32-year-old has been here illegally since 1987, shortly after marrying her Nigerian husband, from whom she is now divorced. She and her lawyer will argue that her daughters, who are American citizens, face extreme hardship if they return to Nigeria, where Oluloro's sister has threatened to kidnap the girls and circumcise them. "I don't want this to happen to my children, ever," says Oluloro. "I will never let them be cut." If Oluloro wins her case, it could set a precedent for other immigrants seeking asylum, says Tilman Hasche, Oluloro's lawyer. Whether she wins or not, the case should raise Western consciousness about this widespread practice. "If I told the average American that we were sending young boys back to Africa to have their penises cut off," asserts Hasche, "I think they'd agree that the claims for asylum are clear."
Female circumcision or, more accurately, female genital mutilation (FGM) may seem barbaric to the few Americans who have even heard of it, but it is commonplace to women in more than half of African countries and in parts of the Middle East. The practice has recently gained international notoriety with the release of Warrior Marks, co-authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker, who also produced a film by the same title. Walker and other abolitionists have labeled FGM an atrocity against women.
Cultural imperialism? But others feel just as strongly that Westerners should stay out of other people's cultural practices. Indeed, some activists worry that focusing too much Western attention on the custom could hinder grass-roots efforts already underway in Africa to stamp it out. No law specifically forbids FGM in this country, although two congresswomen have introduced legislation that would ban it. Meanwhile, mutilations are almost certainly occurring among refugees here. Insists Soraya Mire, a Somalia-born filmmaker, "It is happening on American soil."
The details of FGM vary somewhat from region to region and culture to culture, but the basics are the same. Some time between infancy and adulthood, all or part of a girl's external genitalia is cut away with a knife or razor blade, usually with no anesthetic. In most cases, the clitoris and the labia minora are removed. In the most extreme form, known as infibulation, the external labia are also scraped and stitched together with thread or long thorns, leaving only a tiny opening for urine and menstrual blood. The opening must be widened on the woman's wedding night.