Questioning the motivations behind FGM

Jean RaffertyJean Rafferty is a writer whose first two works of fiction have both been nominated for literary prizes. The Four Marys, published by Saraband Books, is a collection of novellas dealing with motherhood and identity through Scottish myth and history. It was longlisted in the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered awards. Rafferty’s first novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, takes the premise that Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley, did not really die but was given a new life and identity. It was published by Wild Wolf Publishing and was shortlisted for the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize.

Rafferty was formerly a journalist who worked for both broadsheets and tabloids, from the Sunday Times Magazine to the Sunday People. She has twice been shortlisted in the British Press Awards and has won awards for medical writing, travel writing and comment. In 2003 she won a Joseph Rowntree Foundation journalist’s fellowship for her work on prostitution.


2003, a hot classroom in Sierra Leone, after the end of the civil war. The local newspaper has an article about the secret societies who inflict female genital mutilation (FGM) on young women, sometimes forcibly holding them down as they sew up the entrance to their vaginas in the name of tradition.

‘How would we research this?’ I ask the group.

You couldn’t,’ says one. ’They might do this to you.’

My blood runs cold, despite the heat of the day. There’s a sly humour in the way it’s said but the malice of a whole culture’s attitude to women is behind it. I may be the teacher here in this Thomson Foundation project for the training of Sierra Leone’s journalists, but I’m also a woman and the object of some curiosity for the mostly male group.

The secret societies who carry out this practice, who maim their own daughters and nieces and granddaughters, are, it turns out, all women. They believe that the rituals of FGM or Bondo mark a girl’s passage into womanhood and drive away evil spirits from the community – a strangely surreal notion, as if the spirits become trapped in the profound depths of a woman’s vagina so must not gain entrance.

We discuss the journalistic elements we’d need for telling this story more fully and then I ask the basic question. ‘Why would you do this to women?’ The young man who answers is stunningly handsome, not someone you’d expect to be threatened by women’s power. ‘To tame them,’ he says.

‘More fool you,’ I say. ‘You’d have much more fun if you didn’t.’

We all laugh and the tension in the room is broken, but the question remains.

Why? Why would you condemn the women you love to a lifetime of pain and discomfort?

In infibulation, the entrance to the vagina is almost completely sewn up, leaving the narrowest of passages for urine and menstrual blood. It causes infection, pain, an inability to enjoy lovemaking – and in extreme cases, death. Similar problems arise with other forms of FGM, such as type 2, where the inner labia are cut; they often fuse together during the healing process. With both methods, the whole process may have to be reversed when a woman gives birth, which can lead to fistula, and faeces and urine leaking into the vagina. The woman loses her baby, is left incontinent and then is shunned because not only has she failed as a woman by not delivering a healthy child, but she stinks of excrement.

If you’re shivering reading this you’re probably female and deeply aware of your own physical vulnerability. You’re right to shiver. There is no mercy for women who oppose the prevailing norms. In 2009, four women journalists were marched naked through the streets of a Sierra Leone city because they’d criticised FGM in radio broadcasts.

But it’s not just Sierra Leone. In 2011 American broadcast journalist Lara Logan was stripped, beaten and sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square during Arab Spring celebrations at the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

An aberration? High spirits gone wrong? Not exactly. Logan was simply the most famous victim – British, French and Dutch journalists have been attacked as well as hundreds of Egyptian women. And as we now know, in Cologne and other cities across Europe there have been mass rapes by groups of men when crowds gather for what should be joyous celebrations. Closer to home, 126 women a year were killed by male partners in England and Wales last year, according to the Office of National Statistics. That’s two women every week.

Yet it is our physicality that so disturbs men. Women mostly think of themselves as powerless, but to men all women are dangerous.

From the very beginning of life a woman, his mother, is the most powerful figure in a man’s world. But when he reaches adulthood another form of female power has him in thrall. Desire takes away men’s power, their image of themselves as being in control, which is why they go to such extreme lengths to contain women’s sexuality.

But at least in Muslim and Eastern culture the drive to ‘tame’ your partner is an acceptance that sexuality is central to women’s lives. Ancient Tantric thought said that a woman, once awakened, has higher levels of eroticism than a man. Hence the need to control her by mutilating her body – her nature is so wildly wanton she’ll be off sleeping with your best mate if you can’t satisfy her, or you could end up bringing up his child without even knowing.

In Judaeo-Christian culture, female sexuality is regarded as aberrant, a sin, something only bad women do. A woman is a receptacle for men’s desire but has none of her own. She’s empty, a hollow doll, but as terrifying as Chucky if she suddenly starts moving and feeling. No wonder almost military tactics are needed to curb her – women are brainwashed into believing they should be chaste, and then battered when they prove not to be. Their children are taken away from them or they’re exposed to public shame or they’re just plain battered.

We’ve been fighting inequality in the West for over 150 years but now, in our supposedly equal times, modern refinements have been added – slut-shaming, top-sharking (where a woman‘s top is pulled up in public to reveal her breasts), and inevitably, the recording of such events on mobile phones. I was shocked in 2010 when a class of journalism students referred to someone as a ‘slut.’

‘I suppose you mean sexually active?’ I said, but they looked at me like I was a dinosaur. It was accepted by both the young men and the young women in the group that it was acceptable to label women sluts. The women had internalised the deeply misogynistic idea that their sexuality was shameful. Not surprisingly – they’re always being told that what they wear is immodest and incendiary and it’s their own fault if they get raped.

Like the soweis in Sierra Leone, who carry out FGM, like most of us, my students found it hard to break free of the attitudes of the society around them. Even if we believe fervently in our own equality we might not feel it, are often not sure of ourselves sexually or physically – because women’s bodies are the battleground. If you want to win hearts and minds first subdue the body.

In the last fifty years of feminism since women started burning their bras and seeking freedom from the stultifying standards imposed upon them, body fascism has exploded to the extent that, according to the Social Issues Research Centre of Oxford, 80 percent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies. As ordinary women have become taller and heavier, the images they’re surrounded with have become ever leaner. Only two percent of American women are as thin as the models they see but probably zero percent of the models are as thin as their own pictures, thanks to the ubiquitous photoshopping and airbrushing that goes on in the media. You don’t have to have an eating disorder to be undermined by it, you just have to be around. Call me fat, do I not bleed?

It’s another form of taming women, a way to rob them of the power that men know and many women doubt they have. The soweis in Sierra Leone too have power, not the power of sex but political and economic power. They’re trusted with the training of the next generation of women and are paid in cash and food for their services. It’s no coincidence that the training they offer is in domestic skills, women’s traditional area of control, though pity the poor girls recovering from such a procedure and having to stay in the forest, learning bloody housework.

‘We teach the girls that when you marry you need to do the laundry, sweep and cook. You must get on with the new mother-in-law and the father-in-law; all the small brothers, you need to treat them properly. So that is why we put them in Bondo,’ village sowei Baromie Kamara told Lisa O’Carroll of The Guardian last year. ‘If the girls come back into town and can’t do these things it will cause the sowei problems. They will always curse us.’

It’s easy to demonise the soweis as women who collude with male oppression. They do, but why? Women I discussed it with at the recent IASHScottish PEN ‘Dangerous Women’ writers’ symposium thought they were either venal or jealous of the younger generation of women. I wonder if perhaps it started out as a kindness, protection for their girls as otherwise the male elders of the village would perform the cutting. Can you imagine the sense of violation in young women if men inflicted such a mutilation on them?

Whatever the truth, it’s unlikely that this practice will disappear any time soon. Women are too poor, too disadvantaged in Sierra Leone (where the latest figures by Unicef show 90 percent of women are cut) and other African and Middle Eastern countries for the soweis willingly to give up the power of the knife.

We can all imagine what FGM does to women, the terror and humiliation of the ceremony, the lifelong pain that follows, the sense of having had part of you taken away.

But I also think about that handsome young man in the journalism group and wonder what has it done to his life. Can his wife welcome his lovemaking if she dreads the discomfort it will cause her? Can she love a man who wants to restrain and rule over her? Can there be any warmth in their lives together?

Dangerous women, the soweis, damaging their daughters and granddaughters, brutalising themselves in the name of power. But dangerous too to the lives of men, taking away the freedom and fun of a truly equal relationship with women.


More information about female genital cutting can be found at The Orchid Project.