The unkindest cut: We glorify the cultural beliefs that gave us such horrors as FGM

Thursday October 13 2016


By Tee Ngugi

Kenyan women parliamentarians have come together in a renewed effort to fight female genital mutilation (FGM). This practice leaves millions of African women with lifelong physical and emotional scars. Quite often, many women die due to its severity as well as the unhygienic conditions under which it is carried out. Others have complications during birth or suffer crippling conditions such as fistula.

The renewed effort comes as a consequence of reports showing that FGM, despite its being illegal, is still widespread in Kenya. The women MPs argue that the laws against FGM should be more robustly implemented as well as strengthened. But how, we may ask, has such a barbaric practice survived into the 21st century?

One reason is that large populations in Africa have remained trapped in traditional practices that are not just simply outdated but also violate the rights and values contained in our constitutions.

In these regions, formal education only has a tentative foothold, and even where its presence is a little more settled, it has failed to penetrate in ways that could change the worldviews of its recipients. In these places, culture, even bad culture, is seen as an essential part of the community’s identity, a loss of which, they feel, could lead to cultural extinction.

This situation has not been helped by a nationalist intellectual and ideological expression which, in its fight against what it sees as mental colonialism, has tended to romanticise and idealise traditional African culture.

Take, for instance, Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino, hailed, mistakenly and tragically, as an African ideological and artistic masterpiece. The poem is a celebration of Acholi traditional practices, including practices that limit and denigrate women and other sections of society. Other creative works have tended to show FGM as an expression of cultural autonomy from a hegemonic Western culture.

This flawed conceptual framework has shaped artistic and intellectual life in Africa for the past 50 years, and it is within its limiting parameters that we have attempted to debate important questions such as nationhood and identity. The result could only be idealised theories about the past and its traditions, and mystification of the black race.

It is almost as if black magic, a practice prevalent in pre-colonial societies, had continued to influence our intellectual expression.

We have thus failed to debate matters that can have a positive objective bearing on our society, like, for instance, how can we reinvent our cultural beliefs and practices so as not to conflict with or undermine our new constitutions?

Instead, those who choose to speak out against traditional customs and beliefs that are detrimental to our intellectual, social and physical health, are referred to in pejorative terms, especially if they are from the West. So there is a real sense in which African intellectual expression can be said to have provided the intellectual and ideological justification for continuation of practices such as FGM.

The other reason why FGM has persisted is a lack of political will from African leadership. Politicians in Africa, more concerned with retaining power than transforming their societies, are reluctant to rock the boat lest they lose political support.

There is also a more Machiavellian reason. Politicians in Africa like to keep their communities trapped in traditional ways of thinking because they are much easier to manipulate. This is not a cynical assertion. Two commissions of inquiry into ethnic violence in Kenya (Akiwumi and Waki) have established that tribal hatred is deliberately fanned by politicians.

The final reason is that the international community, through the UN General Assembly, has failed to forcefully tackle matters of cultural bondage. Yes, there are UN conventions advocating for the rights of various groups, including women and children. But there is no convention specific to FGM.

Activism by prominent African and global citizens could help in making FGM a matter of urgent international concern. One such person is already setting an example. Fatoumata Diawara, the famous Malian blues singer, is using her stage to urge the world to eliminate the practice.

The international community now considers destruction of World Heritage Sites a crime against humanity. Recently, the ICC sentenced a Mali jihadist to nine years in jail for destruction of several Timbuktu monuments.

If destruction of cultural artefacts is now treated as a crime against humanity, then, surely, destruction of women’s bodies is even more so. People like Diawara, with the support of all of us, must urge the global community to declare FGM a crime against humanity.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based social and political commentator. E-mail: [email protected]