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.
The pain lasts far longer than the operation. Many of the 85 million to 110 million women who have endured FGM suffer ill effects ranging from reduced or lost sexual sensation to infections, persistent pain, painful intercourse, infertility and dangerous childbirth. The purpose is to diminish sexual appetite, in order to maintain a girl's virginity--and thus her marriageability.
Health care workers in the United States are seeing an increasing number of immigrants who have been circumcised. Women who have been infibulated must be cut open to give birth, and many ask their doctors to sew them up again afterward. Filmmaker Mire reports that some Somali refugees have offered to pay doctors as much as $3,000 to perform circumcisions on their daughters, while others rely on Somali midwives. In 1986, the district attorney in Atlanta charged an Africa-born nurse with child abuse when she botched a clitoridectomy on her 3-year-old niece.
The mutilations are not likely to stop in the near future. Last October two House Democrats, Pat Schroeder of Colorado and Barbara-Rose Collins of Michigan, introduced legislation forbidding the practice on girls younger than 18. If the bill passes into law, says Schroeder, immigrants will have to be educated as they enter the country about the operation's illegality and its dangers.
Eradicating FGM in the United States will be a simple matter compared with halting it in Africa. The ritual dates back to the time of the Pharaohs, and it cuts a wide swath across sub-Saharan Africa, without regard for religious or cultural boundaries. Many Muslims believe it is dictated by the Koran, but no religion prescribes it. Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, tribalists and one sect of Jews practice FGM in at least 25 African nations. It is the most significant rite of passage in certain communities in Kenya, according to Maendeleo ya Wanawake, the nation's largest women's group opposing FGM. For more than a decade, such grass-roots organizations, along with a handful of international agencies, have decried the mutilations. They have been banned in at least four African nations, but the rituals continue.
Source of esteem. Oddly enough, it is African women who are its most vehement proponents. "Women are the guardians, the custodians of culture," says Seble Dawit, an Ethiopia-born human rights lawyer in New York City. Circumcisions are often carried out by select older women, whose profession provides them with a degree of public esteem rarely enjoyed by women in male-dominated societies. In some West African cultures, mutilation is a secret component of elaborate rites of passage, which prepare young girls for being women and wives. In other regions, such as parts of Nigeria, girls are circumcised in the street with no more ceremony than Americans devote to piercing a child's ears.
But in all societies where it is practiced, genital mutilation is governed by a deeply held cultural mythology. Michael Scott, a physician writing a book on the topic, says both female and male circumcision are supported by the widespread belief that the human body is androgynous at birth. To enter adulthood, girls must be relieved of their male part, the clitoris, while boys lose their female part, the foreskin. Girls who have not undergone the procedure are shunned as unclean, oversexed and unmarriageable. Kambura Ciobaitaru, 31, a member of the Meru tribe of Kenya, recalls that she looked forward to her own circumcision "as if it was something sweet. I proved that I was a woman in my community."
Though men remain backstage during these ritual ceremonies, economics and male psychology are central to the practice. Most of the societies practicing FGM are patrilineal; property and social rank are handed down from father to son. Anthropologists surmise that the first clitoridectomies, like chastity belts, were a means for husbands to ensure that their sons were truly their own. Genital mutilation reduces a woman's interest in sex--and the chances she'll be tempted to stray. In its most extreme form, it demonstrates that the bride is a virgin on her wedding night.
Mothers enforce the mutilations because they want good marriages for their daughters, says Mildred Dickemann, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University in California. A prospective groom knows that a girl who has undergone mutilation has also been instructed to be a faithful, modest wife. "It's cruel in the short term," says Dickemann, "but in terms of the social system, it's logical."
Whatever its origins, opponents see only the ritual's cruelty. At the center of the recent debate is Walker, whose film is scheduled for television viewing next fall. Both her book and the movie call for the eradication of FGM, which Walker denounces as "torture." Her best-selling novel Possessing the Secret of Joy made a similar point.
But even critics who abhor FGM say Walker's approach smacks of cultural imperialism. FGM opponent Dawit calls the film "extremely sensationalistic. [Walker] paints a horrific picture, a colonialist picture. If she had been employed by the British government 100 years ago, she couldn't have done a better job." In a New York Times op-ed piece, Dawit and others wrote recently of "the Western feminist tendency to see female genital mutilation as the gender oppression to end all oppressions." She argues that Westerners ought to help African groups fight the practice, instead of bending it to their feminist agenda.
International human rights organizations have been slow to act againstthe practice. Amnesty International, a renowned champion of human rights, has no policy concerning the genital mutilation of girls and women. "There is an ongoing debate on this issue," says Suzanne Roach, a spokeswoman for the organization. The U.S. State Department monitors FGM but does not tie foreign aid to efforts to eradicate it. Sexism is the simple explanation, according to Schroeder: "If it happens to you for racial reasons, it's a human rights violation. If it happens to you for political reasons, it's a human rights violation. If it happens to a woman, it's cultural."
While the quarrel in the West continues, African women face daunting obstacles to raising their gender's status. "In Nigeria, women don't have any rights," says Oluloro. "They live only to serve their husbands' happiness." For all its apparent cruelty, FGM is just one of many burdens borne by African women, who may worry more about finding clean water than fighting traditions passed down from mother to daughter. "It's not enough for Westerners to say it's an undesirable custom," says Gordon Wallace, director of African health projects at Population Action International, which is assisting African organizations trying to eradicate FGM. "The way to help ... is to help Africans. You can't decide for them."
This story appears in the February 7, 1994 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.