Somali Women: Reconciling FGM with Human Rights

When asked what she was hoping for in her marriage, the young Amina replies shyly that she is seeking happiness.  As is common in Somali culture, Amina has chosen the road of marital elopement with an older man. Kim Longinotto’s documentary The Day I will Never Forget addresses the topic of female circumcision in Kenya. Amina’s story is a part of Longinotto’s depiction of Somali heritage and cultural practices..

Image courtesy of Amnon Shavit, © 2004, some rights reserved.

Female circumcision is often regarded as a violation of human rights and has been more commonly referred to as “Female Genital Mutilation”. The prevalence of female circumcision in Somali culture is high and has been concerning Kenyan authorities. In 2001, Kenya adopted the Children’s Act, which made Female Genital Mutilation illegal for girls under 18.

Female circumcision is often simply defined as a barbaric act by human rights activists, but a real and in-depth cultural analysis of the practice is often lacking. According to the report “Female Genital Cutting among the Somali of Kenya and Management of its Complications”, three-quarters of Somali girls were said to actually feel proud after their circumcision, which puts into question the so-called barbaric nature of the cultural practice.

Like many Somali women, Amina had been circumcised as a child. She is seen on the day of her wedding, which is important for a Somali woman since it is her symbolic passage into womanhood. Beauty in Somali culture is indeed linked to sexuality. Female circumcision is part of a tradition to control a woman’s sexuality. It supposedly purifies the body since girls are expected not to engage in any kind of sexual behavior before they are married. The origins of female circumcision in the Somali culture are uncertain but legendary folklore says that it was thought to have been started by a female ruler named Arawelo who carried out punishments by castrating men and sewing up women in order to suppress their sexual desires.

In this case, the preservation of virginity and the suppression of sexual desires are seen as measures taken to help avoid promiscuity before marriage. Several types of female circumcisions can be identified, but all are defined by the total or partial removal of external female genitalia. When asked about the reason for this procedure, Somali women associated the clitoris with dirty genitalia, describing the vagina as ‘cleaner’ and aesthetically more beautiful when the former is absent.

“Your clitoris erects when you start talking to men,” adds Fatima, one of the Somali women, who fervently supports female circumcision. She further expresses the idea that sexual desires are said to be much stronger in women than men and are perceived as sinful. Marital commitment is sacred in the Somali community and women are supposed to engage in sexual intercourse only once they are married.

Amidst this patriarchal society, Amina’s elopement lies in her desire to settle down. However, she is warned not to let the man penetrate her on the first night. Girls are usually checked before their wedding night to make sure they are still virgins. The symbolic removal of their virginity on the wedding night opens the stitches. Amina is advised against “the symbolic removal” by the medical practitioner who offers to perform the procedure in a controlled medical setting, to avoid pain and complications.

It is common for female cutting to result in physical complications which range from excessive bleeding, to difficulty in passing urine, to infection and genital swelling, as well as painful menstruation and sexual intercourse. According to a report on Female Genital Cutting, one-third of women interviewed experienced problems with penetration, often leading to a fear of sexual penetration. This fear is seen in Amina’s eyes when she follows the medical practitioner’s advice to consecrate the marriage on the first night. “The first night will be painful. Marriage is tough for us Somali women,” she said.

Somali women accept the concept of genital purity but do not reject sexual desires of married women. “When a man desires a girl, that’s when she’s opened up. That’s the key for us Somali women. It doesn’t mean that having been circumcised, you won’t enjoy sex,” says Fardhosa. Somali women in the documentary do not deny their sexuality but embrace it. A married woman without any sexual desires for her husband is seen as “abnormal”, as described by one Somali woman seated next to Fardhosa. Although virginity is highly valued, upon marriage, Somali women such as Fardhosa, fully recognize their womanhood and sexuality. She states, “We’ve all been circumcised and stitched and when a man touches us, we are aroused. And that’s normal to everybody”.

Female circumcision is therefore not perceived as a way to strip sexuality from women, but as a way to purify the body of girls as a part of the traditional preservation of virginity in the hopes of advantageous marital prospects. Infibulation is a guarantee for girls to stay virgins until they are married. In a way, female circumcision is a part of the valued sanctity of marriage.

Female circumcision is embedded in Somali cultural heritage and is a sensitive issue to tackle. The banning of this practice often results in the circumcisions taking place in secrecy, usually resulting in a lack of proper medical conditions, thereby increasing the risk of complications. However, the true abandonment of the practice is unrealistic since it is rooted within the Somali identity. Female circumcision is a rite of passage to Somali women. Indeed, uncircumcised girls are often viewed as impure and are usually evicted out of the community. Most women have their children undergo the procedure to perpetuate the tradition in the family.

In recent years, the overall prevalence of this cultural practice has decreased in Kenya. With Somali culture exposed to the modern world, mentalities are changing, but the prevalence of female circumcision still remains high within small ethnic groups like the Somali community. Reconciling cultural practices and human rights is an impossible issue as it touches upon the freedom of expression. Promoting awareness on the health-related risks is the only real efficient action that can be undertaken by human rights associations. Even with legal measures, the tradition will persist and continue to be passed from one generation to the next.