This year marks a hundred years of official campaigning against female genital mutilation, a movement which began with an international conference in Egypt in 1920. Yet the practice is still going strong: according to Unicef, 200 million women alive today are affected by it and it is still practised in almost 30 African countries. After so much campaigning, we have to ask: why is FGM not eradicated?
Over the last century there have been numerous global resolutions, and FGM is now acknowledged internationally as a human rights violation. It has been criminalised in several western nations, including the UK, and in 19 African countries, FGM carries some sort of penalty. Media campaigns have helped, including the Guardian’s. And grassroots organisations in the west, in Africa and in other affected countries are fighting the practice incessantly.
But as an archaeologist I’ve been researching the history of FGM, and I’ve found it to be far more deep-rooted in cultural traditions than most campaigners – not to mention many who practise it – realise. These roots are long forgotten, even within the north-eastern African societies where it began. And this lack of knowledge has hampered efforts to tackle the issue.
Campaigners often claim the tradition is mainly about virginity, chastity, paternity confidence or control of women’s sexuality. I’ve found that FGM began instead as an act of sacrifice to the divine. In other words, the initial intention was not about relations between humans but rather between humans and the gods: an act of self-preservation related to sacred blood, existence itself, and reproduction.
In many east African societies there is a cycle of rituals that male and female children go through, from birth to childhood to adulthood and death. The history of these rituals can be uncovered in archaeological sites and fertility stones. Some stones are carved with symbols; landscape features include sacred trees, wells, springs and mountains. In studying them I discovered that FGM was just one part of this cycle, some of whose rituals still continue. There is the child-naming ritual, where a sheep is slaughtered; the scarification the child is subjected to by cutting or burning parts of the torso, seen as promoting fertility and healing childhood illnesses; the tradition of lip-plates; the dangerous men’s stick fights and ritual hunts; and other harmful rituals, such as when women insert plant extract in their cervix, or burn their abdomen to become pregnant.
Hence, far from being an isolated practice, FGM was part of a collection of sacrificial rituals. The issues of sexual control, virginity and virtue are secondary, more recent additions.
Although I am a survivor of the practice, having spent the early part of my life in Somalia, FGM was not uppermost in my mind when I began surveying archaeological sites in Somaliland. I had just one main question: why do certain cultural beliefs continue? By studying rituals, sacred landscapes and associated material at a pilgrimage centre in the ancient city of Aw-Barkhadle, I learned how the notion of sacred fertility was critical to the social order of not only this site but most of north-east Africa, past and present.
FGM is part of this indigenous cultural system. It is not an oddity against women: men have also been harmed through the rituals that take place ahead of a hunt. An animal killed during a ritual hunt, which takes weeks of preparation and seclusion, is considered a pure divine sacrifice.
As with all these rituals, FGM was most likely originally meant as a collective human sacrifice to the gods to avoid a curse from the ancestors. This is why many who would themselves like FGM to be abolished still infibulate their daughters: they do not want to be the ones who bring “shame” and dishonour, they tell me.
Though often long-forgotten, the tradition of communal sacrifice still leads people to believe an ancestors’ curse will materialise in a lack of rain, failed crops, droughts, dead livestock and illness. Who wants to risk that? So cutting a girl is thought to be worth it, much like it was thought worth risking losing a son to a beast in a ritual hunt or the stick fights. Many people in north-east Africa still blame droughts on those who have abandoned their beliefs.
These beliefs were strong and deep-rooted enough to survive first Christianity and then Islam – religions which, though right to disown the practice, acknowledged its “cultural” value and simply aligned it with their own concepts of chastity and virginity. Abrahamic religions still practise male circumcision.
Although my own mother, a midwife, was one of the first people to fight the practice in the 1960s, she was pressurised by female elders and feared something horrible might happen to her child if the tradition was not maintained. In thinking about this, and the history I’ve uncovered, I now understand that my ancestors were not “savage” people who just mutilated their girls to maintain patriarchal dominance, but that actually there was a much more collective existential ideology behind it (albeit outdated and forgotten). And the fear of not being blessed helps continue the practice.
Given this, it’s also clear that a way to end the cutting – alongside continued efforts to educate girls and their communities in the affected countries – could be by creating new rituals that maintain the blessing element without requiring FGM. We have seen some introduced recently: alternative rites of passage in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Burkina Faso are having a positive impact. The benefit of this is that it acknowledges the genuine fears that keep the practice going but also shows that, with a proper understanding of the history, it need not take another century to finally eradicate this global problem.