The exciser: muted protagonist in FGM memoirs

On 15 October 2020, King’s College, University London, hosted the first in our 10-part webinar series devoted to Patriarchal Inscriptions on Women’s Bodies, especially FGM. In the first session you find here, clockwise from upper left, Dr Comfort Momoh MBE, Dr Maria Jaschok, Dr Leyla Hussein OBE, and Dr. Ghada Khan. Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen and Dr Maria Jaschok moderated. Also presenting were Chiara Cosentino and Mariya Taher.

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Visiting Professors at King’s College London before the COVID-19 pandemic, we — Dr Jaschok, Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen with FGM Specialist Midwife Comfort Momoh MBE — would have preferred an in-person event but, impossible given the lethal virus, technology permitted our meeting nonetheless, and our fruitful encounters, available on YouTube, inspired a call for papers. Thus a book is taking shape, one of whose chapters I was editing yesterday. It examines a muted, undertheorized protagonist, the perpetrator of FGM, a concept — perpetration — borrowed with both trepidation and hope from studies of women’s complicity in harming fellow women as, for instance, camp guards in the Holocaust, or in the Rwandan genocide. As Dr. Daniela Hrzán explains, sustained analyses of perpetrators are rare and understandably so, with most attention devoted to the wounded given the serious sequelae of knives in the vicinity of vulvas. Still, focusing on perpetrators reveals motives for amputating genitalia and reasons for the custom’s tenacity today. Razors, moreoever, supply the demand from co-conspirators, thus making agents of anyone who promotes and abets excision – mothers, aunties, neighbors. (Nor are ‘circumcisers’ exclusively female.) 

     “Because feminist theorists and FGM scholars tend to shy away from thematizing this complicity,” Daniela notes, she confronts a paradox at its root. Clearly within the genre of women’s penchant toward disruption (Eve) — in masculinist legends brilliantly inventoried by H.R. Hays in The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil (1964) — the exciser is viewed by many cuttees as a ‘witch’. But mainly she is not. Witches were individuals who defied cultural dictates, rebels who dispensed with gender rules, and the phallocracy murdered them as a result. (Some estimates mount to 9 million over 6 millennia in Europe.) In constrast, excision, infibulation, or clitoridectomy — defined by Leyla Hussen OBE in our webinar as criminal violence – reproduce the status quo. “The offending women are therefore not those who violate social norms, but those who perpetuate them, subjecting minors to structural violence often despite anti-FGM laws.” Thus, women demand, carry out and refuse to stop the cut although (because?) they have been cut themselves. Yes, patriarchy rewards subservience but the “token torturers” (Mary Daly 163) remain agents in their own right. In sum, to dismantle the social norm, the gain from cutting must become the prize for stopping.

In Taboo edited by Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe, we find one of the rare instances in which an exciser — who has indeed stopped — details her motives, feelings, pride, and regrets. The following is a short excerpt from Betty Kituyi’s oral history, “Do Not Count on Me.” In Taboo she describes how her early ambivalence — should she or shouldn’t she follow in her grandmother’s footsteps? — turned into torment and hallucinations that only subsided once she began, with great reluctance, to brandish the knife.

“Amina Buraimu is a tall, sixty-something-looking woman with a stoop and a wrinkled face that seem to cover her past. She abandoned her culturally revered role as a circumciser of girls in 1996 when the REACH (Reproductive, Educative and Community Health) programme identified her as the most dangerous person (“Amina Atare”) in the district and talked her out of it. She was considered dangerous because, as the most experienced circumciser in Kapchorwa, she was as swift as Moses Kipsiro, the Kapchorwa-born Olympic athlete, scampering from village to village, and from hill to hill in her red ‘circumcision’ dress, as if possessed, cutting an average of 100 girls in each village. According to what they said in the villages, if ‘circumcision’ is harmful, then she was the one who harmed the greatest number of girls.

“’When our own women ministers from Sipi Sub-county, Kuka and Chokomondosi, stand up and speak against the cutting, who is Amina Braimu to continue doing it? They must be right when they say it is wrong because they have the experience’, she reflects. The ministers said that the tradition of cutting girls to make them fully women is no longer acceptable or honourable. Amina was told that times have changed and, with them, so have a lot of the things once considered culturally important. New diseases like ‘slim’ (HIV/AIDS) are killing the young before the old. The knife no longer makes girls ‘clean’ as believed in the past but frequently transfers the AIDS virus. If one girl in the line has the virus and the same knife is used to cut all who follow her, the disease may be passed to everyone.  

“In Amina’s time, girls were virgins when they were cut. Today, modern habits and practices lead many of them into having sex before marriage. It was also uncommon years ago to circumcise married women – they had all been cut before marriage – but now it is the trend. This is very risky, because in the Kapchorwa region the infection rates for sexually transmitted diseases are higher among married couples than among single people since many married people are not faithful to each other. The young women no longer keep the tribal secrets. Some circumcised women are now admitting they feel pain when they have sex with their husbands. When Amina was still a thin girl with a flat chest and her mother was breast-feeding her younger siblings, it was taboo to reveal what was going on in the bedroom. But now that people are talking, she acknowledged it could be true that ‘circumcision’ of girls is harmful. 

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“Still, Amina relishes the memory of the days when she was the most skilful and powerful cutter in the land. She had a lot of money to spend and was able to afford almost anything she wanted. Circumcising girls earned her a lot of money and gifts from the girls’ families. In fact, Amina was one of the richest women in her community. In a single ‘circumcision’ season, she would collect close to ten million shillings (about $5,000) as payment for her services. Her current circumstances, however, give no hint of her former wealth. As she talks, her sunken eyes and dry, cracked lips confirm her ill health, which she blames on the poverty that has attacked her like locusts on a cassava garden since she stopped excising girls. She tells me that she cannot afford any medicine and that her granaries have long been empty of maize and millet because she is too weak to tend the gardens and too poor to hire people to lend her a hand in cultivating them. 

“’Are you one of those government officials who always come to ask me about my experience?’ Amina asks, patting my hand lightly. She continues, ‘Over the past few years, strange people from government have come here, driving their big vehicles, condemning the ‘circumcision’ of girls. They have tried to persuade me and my four colleagues to stop doing it. But only two of us have quit. Others still do it, deep in places like Bukwo. They are still circumcising — for the money, especially. Look at me! I have nothing now! Those government people make promises that they never fulfil. Some people visited my home two years ago and promised to give me money to start a chicken-rearing project. They said they would build me a mabati, an iron-roofed house. But they have not honoured their promises, even though I told them that I did not have any other means of making a living’.

“As if her poverty had choked out any logical thought, Amina’s sentiments seem to contradict the reasons she has earlier given for stopping her ‘circumcision’ of girls. She seems to say that she was forced to stop circumcising, and that if she does not get any other means of livelihood, she can very easily slip back into the practice of cutting girls.” 

You can purchase the book on Amazon.

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