By Stephen Murema
Published February 12, 2018
A female medical doctor has filed a case in court to challenge the law that makes female circumcision illegal.
Dr Tatu Kamau challenges the Female Genital Mutilation Act (FGM Law) which was enacted by Parliament in 2011, making this rite of passage illegal in the East African country where many communities still practise it. For instance, a report released by Kenya’s policy and information on FGM in July 2017 shows that girls aged between 12 and 18 years went through circumcision in spite of the FGM Act being in place since 2011. The practice, the report shows, is more common among the Somali (94%), Maasai 78%), Samburu (86%) and Kisii (84%) communities. Regionally, North Eastern has the highest percentage of 98, Rift Valley 27, Eastern 26 and Western Kenya has 1%.
Saying the FGM Act should be examined as it is likely to kill the cultures of many African communities, Dr Kamau says the law is a bad precedent in allowing the government ‘to micro-manage our cultures’.
“If we allow Parliament to abolish an important aspect of culture today, tomorrow it will abolish religion or something else,” Kamau argues.
Though Dr Kamau—she termed female circumcision a ‘misnomer’, saying the West practices it under the guise of ‘female genital surgery’—has faced condemnation and ridicule from all over the country for the stand she has taken, she is hardly the first one to defend cultural and traditional beliefs that are perceived to be harmful.
During the colonial era, Protestant Christian missionaries in Kenya who campaigned against FGM were met with opposition from local communities, especially the Kikuyu. Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, who was then the general secretary of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), wrote in 1938 that the institution of FGM was the “conditio sine qua non of the whole teaching of tribal law, religion and morality.”
According to the teachings, no proper Kikuyu man or woman would marry or have sexual relations with someone who was not circumcised. A woman’s responsibilities toward the tribe began with her initiation. Her age and place within tribal history was traced to that day, and the group of girls with whom she was cut was named according to current events, an oral tradition that allowed the Kikuyu track people and events going back hundreds of years.
The banning of female circumcision by Njuri Ncheke, the council of largely male elders of the Meru in 1956 is reported to have led to thousands of girls cutting one another’s genitals with razor blades as a symbol of defiance. Ngaitana –I will circumcise myself—that’s what the movement came to be known as. According to Lynn Thomas, a historian, the episode was significant in the history of FGM because it became clear that its perceived ‘victims’ were also its ‘perpetrators’.
Kenyans who practise female circumcision recognise it a vital part of a young girl’s social development to womanhood, learning her duties and the desirable characteristics of a good wife and mother.
The origin of female circumcision is unclear but it is believed to have predated the rise of Christianity and Islam. In the fifth century BC, the Phoenicians, the Hittites and the Ethiopians were practicing it according to historians such as Herodoctus.
And as recent as the 1950s, clitoridectomy was being practiced in Western Europe and the United States of America to treat perceived ailments such as hysteria, epilepsy, mental disorders, masturbation, nymphomania and melancholia.
Africans who oppose FGM today also risk appearing to defend it.
According to Feminist theorist Obioma Nnaemeka who herself is also strongly opposed to female circumcision, renaming it female genital mutilation introduced “a subtext of barbaric African and Muslim cultures and the West’s relevance (even indispensability) in purging it.”
Early Western opposition to female circumcision stemmed from a Judeo-Christian judgment that African sexual and family practices – including dry sex, polygyny, bride price and levirate marriage –required correction according to Sylvia Tamale, a Ugandan law professor.
Anthropologist Christine Walley thinks a common position within anti-FGM literature has been to present African women as victims of false consciousness participating in their own oppression, a position promoted by feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, including Hanny Lightfoot, Fran Hosken and Mary Daly. This made the French Association of Anthropologists to issue a statement in 1982, at the height of the early debates, that “a certain feminism resuscitates (today) the moralistic arrogance of yesterday’s colonialism.”
We’ve been made to see FGM to a very bad thing, Dr Kamau contends. Yet, she argues, those elite nations fighting against it practices it as ‘female genital surgery’.
People like Kamau argue that the definition of FGM by the World Health Organisation of the United Nations does not include procedures such as labiaplasty and clitoral hood reduction as FGM to avoid loopholes, so several elective practices fall within it. In the US and Canada the law only covers minors thus distinguishes between Western and African genitals, and deems only African women unfit to make their own decisions.
According to WHO, FGM is “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or non-therapeutic reasons.
The UN, whose General Assembly adopted a resolution of the elimination of female circumcision in 2012, estimates that one in five women and girls between 15 and 49 years in Kenya has undergone the cut.