80 Million Women Maimed

The Crime of Female Genital Mutilation

reprinted from Women And Revolution No. 41, Summer/Autumn 1992.

One early morning in an African village not far from Nairobi, Kenya, young girls are roused from sleep and taken to a nearby river. The waters are cold, helping to arrest the bleeding from a first menstrual cycle, making their genitalia stand out and slightly numb. Soon an elder village midwife takes the children one by one and with a rusty razor, scissors or shard of glass cuts out the clitoris, slices off the labia and applies ashes, herbs or cow dung to staunch the flow of blood. As the girl writhes in pain, other women hold her arms down, her legs apart, her mouth shut tight so that she cannot run away or alarm the other unsuspecting children waiting in their cool bath.

Over 80 million women in the world today have been subjected to similar barbaric mutilation, a traditional practice that continues unabated in at least 28 African countries. According to the Minority Rights Group International, 90 percent of women in northern Sudan, Ethiopia and Mali, and nearly 100 percent in Somalia and Djibouti, undergo ritualistic genital excision. In these countries women are also infibulated, the two sides of the vulva sewn together with catgut or held with thorns, a match stick shoved in place to ensure an opening the size of a pinhole. Lesser mutilations are performed on women in parts of the Middle East and Pakistan, and among some Muslims in Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka.

Typically the mutilations occur at puberty. But in many countries the procedure is performed on infants and in many others on girls between the ages of 7 and 10. Increasingly girls are excised at a younger age with none of the traditional ceremony associated with ritual initiation into womanhood. These young women are deprived of the organs of sexual pleasure, subjected to hideous pain in urination, menstruation and intercourse, and suffer multiple medical complications throughout their adult lives.

These practices have gone on for centuries, yet most of the world remained ignorant of them. In 1976 the British liberal humanist Jill Tweedie wrote in her column for the London Guardian:

“Those who do it, those to whom it is done, those in whose countries it is done and those outside who know it is done all too often collude in a conspiracy of silence engendered by an odd but very potent combination of ignorance, custom, shame, poverty, and academic aloofness.”

In the late 1970s a number of Western feminists, together with several outspoken African women, drew attention to these barbaric acts against women and forced reluctant United Nations agencies to take up the issue.

A wave of emigration from the desperate poverty and social upheavals in Africa during the ’80s has made the question a concrete reality in Europe as African immigrants and refugees continue to excise their children, either by importing a native midwife or by sending their girls home to have the operation performed. Recently the refusal of the French state to grant asylum to a 22-year-old Malian women fleeing ritual genital mutilation in her native village has received worldwide coverage. And liberal black feminist Alice Walker has just come out with Possessing the Secret of Joy, a powerful novel (surprisingly muted in male-hating bourgeois feminism) depicting the attempt of an African woman to grapple with life after being genitally mutilated. While some of the international reaction to the practice of female genital mutilation is clearly motivated by racist and hypocritical moralism, the practice is a heinous barbarity which must be categorically and unconditionally opposed.

Inhuman Savagery

Three forms of mutilation are generally found in a triangular band stretching from Egypt south to Tanzania in the east and across to Senegal in the west. Although often referred to as “female circumcision,” there is no equation with the removal of the penile foreskin that is practiced among all males in Muslim and Jewish societies and in the U.S. Only the most modified version, Sunna (“tradition”), can correctly be called circumcision. It affects only a small proportion of women, largely in non-African countries. Sunna can entail a simple pinprick of the clitoris; more often the hood of the clitoris is removed.

The Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, author of The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World, wrote about the terrifying experience of her own circumcision at the age of six. She also described her work as a doctor in rural Egypt in the 1950s:

“There I very often had to treat young girls who had come to the out-patients clinic bleeding profusely after a circumcision. Many of them used to lose their lives as a result of the inhuman and primitive way in which the operation, savage enough in itself, was performed. Others were afflicted with acute or chronic infections from which they sometimes suffered for the rest of their days.”

Excision, the most common practice in Africa, entails the cutting of the clitoris, sometimes its removal, and slicing of some or all parts of the labia minora and majora. An inexperienced hand or poor eyesight can lead to puncturing of the urethra, the bladder, the anal sphincter and/or the vaginal walls. Heavy keloid scarring can impair walking; the development of dermoid cysts is not uncommon. A ritual frequently justified as a guarantor of fertility can lead to sterility.

Most women in the Horn of Africa are also infibulated. In addition to clitoridectomy, the reduced labia majora are sewn together, leaving a trivial opening. After the operation, the girl’s legs are bound together from hip to ankle for up to 40 days to permit the formation of scar tissue. Urination and menstruation are excruciating ordeals: it can take up to 30 minutes to empty the bladder; the retention of urine and menstrual blood guarantees infection.

For infibulated women, sexual intercourse becomes a practically unbearable burden, especially on the wedding night. Consummation may take weeks, beginning with the husband having to open his wife’s infibulation with fingers or a knife or ceremonial sword. The woman must lie still with legs spread through repeated, bloody penetrations until a large enough opening becomes permanent. Many women see pregnancy as an escape from these painful and pleasureless sexual encounters, yet childbirth itself is traumatic. Scar tissue is often ripped up as the baby pushes out. Those who have access to hospitals need both anterior and posterior episiotomies. Many infants die or suffer brain damage in the second phase of delivery because thick scarring prevents sufficient dilation of the cervix. In many countries custom demands reinfibulation after each pregnancy to ensure women remain “tight as a virgin.” Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, a social psychologist who spent six years studying female genital mutilation in Sudan, notes that women without reinfibulation fear their husbands will leave them. Some claim to prefer it; in her 1989 book Prisoners of Ritual, she writes: “A tight fit makes the most of what is left after an extreme excision.”

The practice transcends all class, national and religious bounds. In areas where it is the norm, it is so not just for the women of the bush but for those from the elite petty bourgeoisie, professional government bureaucracy and intelligentsia as well. All women in northern Sudan are infibulated, yet the practice has been anathema among the southern peoples. Among every religion on the continent—Coptic Christians, Muslims, animists, the “Black Jews” of Ethiopia, both Catholic and Protestant converts in Nigeria—there are peoples that persist in female mutilations. Moreover, it is practiced in Burkina Faso among tribes with both patriarchal and matriarchal cultures.

Prisoners of Ritual

Various, often contradictory explanations exist for the tradition. In the main, rationales reflect prevalent mythology, ignorance of biological and medical facts, and religious obscurantism. Almost every reference links the custom to the family’s fear that their daughter won’t be “marriageable.” Unmutilated young girls are ostracized, labeled as “unclean” or branded as whores; children born to unexcised women are considered bastards in many societies, and unscarred genitals are associated with prostitution. Often unmutilated women are considered illegitimate; they cannot inherit money, cattle or land, nor do they fetch an adequate bride price. One Somalian woman defended her granddaughter’s wish to be infibulated, saying it “takes away nothing that she needs. If she does not have this done, she will become a harlot.” The girl’s father, a college-educated businessman, expressed his uncertainty: “Yes, I know it is bad for the health of girls. But I don’t want my daughter to blame me later on because she could not find a husband.”

Different religious and social groupings see genital mutilation as the only way to protect women from unbridled sexual passion and promiscuity. Sir Richard Burton, a 19th century British adventurer/ethnologist who spent many years studying the culture, language and sexuality of eastern Africa, wrote that “all consider sexual desire in woman to be ten times greater than in man. (They cut off the clitoris because, as Aristotle warns, that organ is the seat and spring of sexual desire.)” Unfortunately, a good portion of Burton’s research was destroyed by his devoted, but Roman Catholic, wife.

Overwhelmingly the practice is linked to virginity before marriage and fidelity afterward. Among almost every one of the peoples where the practice exists, polygamy is the norm. One argument for female excision is that no man can satisfy all of his wives, so it helps to have women who don’t desire sex. While the truth is that most men in these societies are too poor to afford more than one wife, the social reality of male dominance in every sphere of day-to-day existence is the backdrop to the ritual mutilation of women.

The origins of this grotesque practice are not known. While often found in Islamic countries, the procedure is not prescribed in the Koran. In 742 AD the prophet Mohammed was said to have proposed a reform of genital mutilation; his call to “reduce but not destroy” has been taken as an instruction to perform only Sunna, the norm today in Egypt. While Muslim fundamentalism enforces brutally medieval conditions on women, including confinement to the home and the stifling veil, only one-fifth of the world’s 600 million Muslims practice female genital mutilation.

It is clear that genital mutilations date back to ancient times. The Greek historian Herodotus noted in the fifth century BC that female circumcision was practiced by the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Hittites and Ethiopians. The Sudanese refer to infibulation as “Pharaonic circumcision”; the murky origins of the practice, however, may be inferred from the fact that in Egypt it’s called “Sudanese circumcision.”

Ritual genital mutilation has been found to have existed at one time in various forms among different peoples on every continent. Quite independently of the tradition in sub-Saharan Africa, infibulation was performed by the Conibo people of Peru. The Australian aboriginals used to practice introcision, an enlargement of the vaginal opening. Anthropologists agree that female mutilation has only occurred in societies which also practice male circumcision, generally in cultures where the sexes are strongly differentiated in childhood. Thus some believe that the practice originated to highlight the difference between male and female at puberty. The Bambara in Mali, for example, believe that all people are born with both male and female characteristics; excision rids the girl of her “male element” while circumcision removes the “female element” from boys.

The ritual is the norm in an area south of the Sahara and north of the forest line; this corresponds generally with the area of Africa where, with no shortage of land, women and children (and slaves) were once needed to cultivate the fields and tend domestic animals and were easily absorbed into polygamous households. While the nature of the means of production does not determine how humans live in a social/sexual sense, it does set elastic limits. Thus it seems reasonable to assume that female genital mutilation has its roots in agricultural society which enabled the development of a social surplus and then private property. It is only when the determination of paternity for the purpose of inheritance becomes relevant that society puts a premium on virginity and marital fidelity on the part of women.

Female mutilations continue to occur in the rural areas which maintain a subsistence agrarian economy based on a tribal structure. What’s at stake are traditional property rights in societies where women are sold like cattle, based largely on their ability to reproduce. The practice is only somewhat less prevalent today in the cities. Over the centuries it has become an unquestioned, ingrained custom. In Prisoners of Ritual Lightfoot-Klein reflects on these woman-hating practices as merely “a fact of her life, just as tremendous hardship, poverty, scarce water and little food, back-breaking labor, overwhelming heat, dust storms, crippling disease, unalleviated pain, and early death are facts of her life.” Whatever the rationale for the mutilation of millions of young girls, whatever its origins centuries ago, female genital mutilation is today a burning symbol of the all-sided sexual, social and economic oppression of women.

Colonialism, Nationalism and Social Reality

Attempts to eradicate female genital mutilation in Africa go back a long time, at least to the 16th century, when missionaries first came to the continent. Both British colonial governments and some of the independent African states passed laws against the practice. In the past decade, efforts have intensified, particularly following the United Nations’ proclaimed support to the many non-governmental organizations that have been fighting against ritual mutilations within the different African countries. Presently 20 countries out of the 28 where the practice exists have outlawed it; educational programs, particularly in the medical field, have been established in some areas.

But by and large these efforts have been unsuccessful. To begin with, the entire process is bound up with the question of sexuality. Sexual customs and taboos touch at the very heart of a person’s being; discussion about them, not to mention challenge, engenders the darkest anxiety and fear. Moreover, the ritual plays a significant role in family lineage and tribal relations within the village. Ironically, the practice has been defended most jealously by the women themselves. The elder midwives, a powerful stratum in the village social structure, depend for their livelihood on the income generated by these operations. In a society where there are no rights and few privileges, ancient traditions considered in the “women’s sphere” are often the only means of power that a woman can attain. Above all, female genital mutilation is so integrally linked with the economic and social realities of everyday life that its eradication requires a fundamental transformation of the societies where it exists.

In the 16th century when Jesuit missionaries came to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), they tried to stop ritual mutilation among converts. But the men refused to marry women who were not excised and conversions stopped. At the urgent advice of the Pope, the Church, “preferring souls to sexual organs” (as Benoîte Groult so graphically put it in her book Ainsi Soit-Elles), sanctioned the practice as “medically necessary.” Fran Hosken, a U.S. feminist who helped initiate international concern over female mutilation, reports that since then all Catholic missions have permitted the procedure on daughters of converts. Today medical missionaries actually perform the operation in African hospitals.

Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in Kenya in the late 1930s tried to refuse admission to the Church to any girl who had been excised. In response, Kikuyu tribalists set up independent churches and schools that survive today. After the wife of one white missionary was abducted and mutilated, the Church of Scotland called off the campaign to abolish the ritual. Jomo Kenyatta, the darling of Pan-Africanist liberals, endorsed genital mutilation as a form of nationalist resistance to European colonial domination (and had it done to his own daughters, in a hospital). In 1938 he wrote in Facing Mount Kenya: “No proper Kikuyu would dream of marrying a girl who has not been circumcised—this operation is regarded as a conditio sine qua non for the whole teaching of tribal law, religion and morality.” Although the current president, Daniel Arap Moi, banned the practice in 1982, health care workers have noted an upsurge in mutilations in urban centers among educated women—a phenomenon linked to growing economic chaos and reaction against increasing independence for women.

Under joint British/Egyptian rule, Sudan banned genital mutilations in 1946. The law simply drove the practice underground, with more women circumcising their daughters at an earlier age, leading to considerable fatalities. Lightfoot-Klein writes that a political backlash was instigated by Muslim fundamentalists against colonial control in response to the law. Riots against the government followed the prosecution of a traditional practitioner whose client had died. There have been no prosecutions under the law since. In 1974, 18 years after independence, Sudan passed its own law, forbidding infibulation but allowing clitoridectomy. The most noticeable result has been the refusal of women to take their daughters to a hospital when complications result from the procedure.

Given the widespread acceptance of genital mutilations, very few African rulers have attempted to enforce legislation even where such laws do exist. In recognition that legal action alone won’t stop the practice, the focus of international groups and non-governmental agencies has been to beg the UN and World Health Organization for more educational programs that concentrate on health consequences of mutilations.

All things being equal, it is probably better to have the United Nations spend its resources on education and diffusion of medical knowledge among the peoples of the Third World than to pursue the goal for which it exists, which is to promote the economic and military interests of the imperialist powers across the globe. But to expect these agencies to effect a change in the condition of women in Africa is worse than a pipe dream: The UN has just completed fronting for the United States’ bloody slaughter of 100,000 Iraqi men, women and children as the U.S. demonstrated that it had the military power and ruthlessness to destroy a Soviet client state in the Middle East, a region whose oil wealth makes it valuable for American imperialism. In passing, the war ensured the preservation of the Saudi royal sheiks who consider women chattel, too degraded to mix with men in public and not even permitted to drive a car. In any case UN organizations have already made their intentions on female mutilation abundantly clear. In 1958 a subcommittee of the UN asked the World Health Organization to take up the question; it refused, claiming that the “cultural” nature of these ritual operations placed them outside its competence. Neither body did anything at all for 20 years. Then, pushed by dedicated humanists in Africa and the West, they set about to organize...conferences.

Without question education is desperately needed in Africa on all levels; certainly it is one of the first things that a victorious social revolution would try to implement. But under the conditions of poverty and backwardness, a legacy of imperialist rule, reinforced by African despots and exacerbated by tribal divisions, the ability to provide even rudimentary instruction is remote. It is not simply hedging for government officials to claim that they cannot deal with female mutilation when much of the population is starving to death. For much of the last decade the countries of central Africa have seen rates of infant mortality increase while the nutrition, health and literacy of its peoples declined, aggravated by the rapidly spreading AIDS epidemic. According to the World Bank, the average income in African countries has dropped by 25 percent in the last ten years. The value of Africa’s exports fell by 45 percent from 1980 to 1987, but $1 billion had to be sent to the IMF in 1986-87 alone. With the end of the Cold War, what little aid Africa received from the imperialist West is being cut off.

A graphic example is Somalia. As the 1992 edition of the Minority Rights Group pamphlet “Female Genital Mutilation: Proposals for Change” indicates, the Somali Women’s Democratic Organization had pioneered an educational project and begun to train religious and paramedical personnel in an anti-mutilation campaign in the Somali language (which has only had a script for 20 years). They had won both the technical support of an Italian human rights organization and at least moral approval from the Somalian government. By the end of 1991 tribal upheaval had overthrown the ruling party and the technical underpinnings for the project had been destroyed.

The Sudan for many years has been torn apart in a war between the ruling Muslim north and the Christian/animist tribes in the south. Recently the London Independent reported on a split between the two factions of the southern opposition: “The surviving population of Bor and Kangor—the total was estimated in a 1983 census as 33,000—fled east into a swamp but hundreds of women and children have been abducted on the way. Women are a valuable commodity here: a stolen woman is a cheap wife and can save the abductor the 30 or 40 head of cattle he would have to pay in bride-price.” This is not an atmosphere conducive to incremental educational endeavors on women’s rights. Efua Dorkenoo, co-author of the Minority Rights Group report and director of FORWARD (an African women’s support group in Britain), reports that as a result of the civil war and the imposition by the Islamic fundamentalists of their traditions on the non-Muslim peoples in the south, female mutilation is occurring among the Nuer and Dinka tribes who have never before practiced it.

Eritrean Struggle Brings Social Advances to Women

It is a striking fact that the one area in Africa where there seems to have been some success in combatting female genital mutilation is Eritrea, a strip of land on the Red Sea which had a small but indigenous working class until it was destroyed in 1958 by U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces. Eritrea’s 28-year war of national liberation against Ethiopia shattered cultural traditions, ripped up the fabric of normal village existence, and impelled the integration of women into social life. Lel Ghebreab, chairman of the National Union of Eritrean Women, explained the effects on the status of women under these conditions: “When a woman proved herself a successful fighter at the front, she could go back to her village with authority. Men had to listen to her. She could influence other women.”

Eritrea is an area in the Horn of Africa where in the past 90 percent of women were infibulated. Approximately 20 percent die in childbirth, often as a result of birth-canal obstruction from scar tissue. Before the civil war, women were not allowed to own land or attend school. Child marriages and polygamy were common. A man could divorce his wife simply by throwing her out; a woman’s request for divorce was rarely granted since it required her family returning the bride price. Women were excluded from village politics. Those who worked outside the home did so in Israeli- and Italian-owned textile and food processing factories at less than half the wages of men.

Women began fighting in 1973. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front is now 30 percent female; half of them served on the front lines. These fighters incorporated women’s rights into the constitution of the EPLF, including “progressive marriage and family laws” and “full rights and equality with men in politics.” Women in the EPLF are barred from entering into polygamous marriages and from allowing their daughters to be mutilated. Muslim-Christian marriages, unthinkable traditionally, are now fairly common. The National Union of Eritrean Women has focused on educating women about the health dangers of infibulation. Nonetheless, as one birth attendant trained by the guerrillas admitted, “it is a difficult job” to convince women to abandon the tradition; if women insist, she will do the procedure “hygienically.” Nor has the recent collapse of the military dictatorship in Ethiopia aided the cause of Eritrean liberation. The new “democratic” regime in Addis Ababa has already backtracked on support to Eritrean independence, while the guerrilla fighters in the neighboring province of Tigre are viscerally hostile to a separate Eritrean state. With all-sided ethnic strife, whole regions have been depopulated and the survivors pushed past the brink of starvation, threatening devastation that cannot be described by statistics.

But even if successful, national liberation is not sufficient to ensure real or lasting rights for women. This was graphically demonstrated in Algeria in its eight-year war for independence from French colonial rule. Many women had fought, both as auxiliaries and commandos, in the FLN, and the manifesto of the Algerian “revolution” had vaguely promised formal equality. In 1962 the mainly peasant fighters won their liberation from France, but they did not destroy capitalism. Colonial rule was replaced by a native bourgeoisie which kept women out of politics and denied them higher education. The FLN cynically used the veil as a symbol of resistance to French imperialism. They declared in the official government newspaper, “Our socialism rests on the pillars of Islam and not on the emancipation of women with their make-up, hairdressers and cosmetics, from which arise unchained passions harmful to humanity.”

The Politics of Culture

It has become an accepted policy among liberals that in discussing Africa one must approach the subject from the standpoint of “cultural relativism,” and female genital mutilation has not escaped that framework. An African doctor addressing a World Health Organization seminar in 1979, in an attack on Western women who have focused on the brutal infibulations in the Sudan, called the practice “a Sudanese problemþa problem of which we are aware and which must be solved by us.” UNICEF found it necessary to add a footnote to its 1981 field manual (prepared to exhort its staff to pay some attention to the issue): “This statement has since been modified to reflect the following position: female circumcision, excision and infibulation should always be taken within the context of cultural realities....”

For several centuries Africa has been subjected to colonial rule and the forced imposition of a Western, racist moral code. National Geographic, magazine of the “enlightened” bourgeois establishment in the U.S., is famous for its depictions of the idiosyncracies of village life among the natives (much to the titillation of many youngsters in America where puritanical righteousness prohibited any other view of a naked female breast). This grotesque patronizing of the “primitive peoples” of the Third World was probably the least offensive form of imperialist ethnocentricity.

It has become a popular academic stance not to impose Western cultural standards on the rest of the world—surely a better way to study and understand the human condition. But often those who speak in the name of “cultural relativism” condone some of the most brutally inhumane practices. At its extreme are the liberal American anthropologists of the ’70s who, in an effort not to appear racist, denied the existence of cannibalism among dark-skinned peoples. Cannibalism of course has existed in a variety of forms, among many different peoples and until fairly recently. (The Maoris kept European colonizers out of New Zealand for a hundred years: as soon as whites were seen, natives killed and ate them.)

The truth of the matter is that humans have engaged in some pretty brutal practices over the millennia. As Karl Marx said in “The India Revolt” (1857), “Cruelty, like every other thing, has its fashion, changing according to time and place.” Nor are such practices all traditional customs held over from a dark and primitive past. Castration, for example, was practiced in such centers of civilization as Byzantium and China. The Roman castrati were the result of the biblical proscription against female voices in church; castrated males sang in Italian choirs until the Pope abolished the custom in 1878. Less than a century ago, Victorian moralism fueled an anti-masturbation frenzy in Europe and the U.S. Young women deemed “oversexed” were excised by their doctors. A 19th century London physician, Isaac Baker Brown, justified cutting off the clitoris as a cure for insomnia, sterility and “unhappy marriages.” Some mental hospitals in the U.S. performed excision as a cure for psychological disorders as late as 1935. And of course male circumcision, a procedure that is vastly less deforming but has no proven medical value, is performed on one-half the men in the world today.

People do vary in their habits. The Chinese eat dogs and the French “garden pests,” practices that many others find appalling. There are a multitude of customs that different peoples have adopted for aesthetic purposes that the rest of the world thinks of as positively unattractive. Purposeful elongation of the neck, lip plugs and penis bars have been used in societies ranging from the highlands of New Guinea to sub-Saharan Africa. In stark contrast to some African peoples who consider women’s genitalia disgusting, the Bushwomen of the Kalahari Desert pull constantly at their labia majora so that they will be longer (missionaries called it “the Hottentot apron”). Thousands of women in the U.S. have undergone silicone implants to enlarge their breasts. Women on the Indian subcontinent pierce their noses, and some young people in North America these days seem to pierce almost every bodily protrusion. Scarification, dying out now among the peoples in Africa, is used as decoration as well as tribal identification, much as the dueling scars so sought after by German youth in the 19th century bonded them with the elite military establishment. Elaborate tattoos are a tradition among some Micronesians and at one time became popular among young Japanese men and women, mimicking the practice of the yakuza underworld.

Most of these customs fall within the realm of accepted cultural diversity. One could say that ritual mutilation in the pursuit of sexual enhancement forms a continuum, from the very benign like the use of cosmetics, to the horribly degrading and permanently crippling like the binding of women’s feet in China before the revolution. But clitoridectomy and infibulation have nothing to do with aesthetics.

There are standards in the evolution of human culture. Americans fought a civil war over the “quaint cultural tradition” of its Southern states; while the Confederacy argued that it had a right to self-determination, few today condone the practice of slavery. Similarly, female genital mutilation is not a relative cultural trait but a violent act of savagery. Those who have over the years covered the systematic mutilation of young girls in a shroud of silence because it is “an African tradition” are in fact promoting a kind of racism and are sacrificing women on the altar of liberal guilt.

There is a story from the time of British colonial rule in India that captures an element of the situation here. A British officer, trying to stop an act of suttee, was told by an Indian man, “It is our custom to burn a woman on the funeral pyre of her husband.” The Englishman replied, “And it is our custom to execute murderers.” As with the British subjugation of India, Marx initially regarded the intervention of the capitalist states into the backward regions of the world as historically progressive; he thought that their advanced economic and social institutions would inevitably accompany the Western colonization. But, as later became clear to Marx, this did not happen. The British Empire colonized India in order to reap profits and had very little interest in the lives or well-being of the people who lived there; indeed enhancing communal frictions was a conscious policy of the Raj. Nonetheless, the 1829 British law against suttee and the attempts to suppress the ritual in practice were supportable.

Britain had had a bourgeois revolution and the resulting capitalist state represented in some aspects an advance for mankind which the warring feudal princedoms and empires in India had not provided. Industrial capitalism destroyed the agrarian economies upon which female servitude was based, and bourgeois revolutions legally and formally wiped out the more abhorrent aspects of women’s oppression. But the Western “democracies” did not bring these bourgeois-democratic reforms with them into the colonial countries. As in Africa, the penetration of decaying capitalism into the Third World has fostered the most reactionary aspects of degenerated tribalism. The imperialists today perpetuate general impoverishment the better to reap profits themselves.

The bourgeois revolutions in the advanced industrial countries were carried out by radical Enlightenment thinkers who attacked Western cultural standards defended by Christianity and the feudal order. They believed that society’s control over nature could liberate all people from the centuries-old stranglehold of religion, superstition and barbaric rituals. In the epoch of imperialism, the nationalist, neocolonial politicians, like Jomo Kenyatta or Algeria’s Ben Bella, might mumble rhetoric about “African socialism” but they cannot provide economic independence or even the most basic democratic rights avowed by the bourgeois revolutions in the last two centuries. In order to mobilize sufficient support to establish themselves as the ruling class in their own countries, bourgeois nationalists must rely on backward-looking “cultural traditions.”

Either the “national principle” or the principles of communism will have a defining character in the Third World. This is no abstract question. An imperialist-dependent ruling class, subcontractor for plundering “its own” impoverished workers and peasants for the benefit of the IMF and the capitalist world market, merely offers the masses a new flag; its “anti-imperialism” consists of embracing the “glorious past” and “protecting” the dominant nationality at the expense of minority peoples. Hindu chauvinists in India take “revenge” on former Mogul emperors by trashing impoverished Muslims; blacks in eastern Africa were promised self-determination by the expulsion of Asians brought to Africa under the old British Empire and abandoned.

In “independent” India, such atrocities as suttee, dowry murder and female infanticide are actually on the rise; in the name of cultural self-defense, urban Iranian women and Palestinian émigrées in the West have been forced back into the veil. Only the victory of communism, which looks toward a fundamental reshaping of society on new lines, can guarantee equality for all peoples and free women from the “traditional” degradation prescribed by religious obscurantism and precapitalist cultural practices.

The question of female genital mutilation is intrinsically bound up with the social oppression of women. Emancipation is a material act; without a fight for social liberation, the masses must remain ground down by poverty and subjugated by imperialist exploitation. In order to uproot prefeudal autocracy and imperialist domination, the working class must play the central role and fight for a social transformation through proletarian revolution. This requires a party which can wage such an international struggle, a party led by Marxist revolutionaries who alone today apply the universal values of freedom and equality of Enlightenment humanism.

The banner of revolutionary socialism seems an empty reference in sub-Saharan Africa, where the Marxist conception of “combined and uneven development” would only encompass marginal pockets of industrialization. There are oil workers in Nigeria, dock and rail workers in Kenya, miners in Zambia. They are presently isolated and politically subordinate to demagogic nationalist regimes, but they represent a strategic industrial workforce. It is the challenge of an international revolutionary party to transform this sector into a human link to the workers movements of the Near East and the industrial proletariat of South Africa. Mobilized against their capitalist exploiters, these vanguard layers can launch a struggle to emancipate the cruelly oppressed men and women throughout Africa.

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France: Racial Segregation Perpetuates Ritual Mutilation

There are now widespread reports of female genital mutilation throughout Europe as economic devastation and ethnic strife in Africa force thousands of people, most of whom have not broken from their native customs, to flee north. Most notable in France and Britain, cases have also been reported in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Italy. Often a number of immigrant families will pool their resources to pay for a “circumciser” from their homeland to come and perform the ritual on all of their female children at once. Those who can afford it send their daughters back to their countries of origin to ensure that the mutilations are done. There have also been numerous tragic stories of immigrant parents, who oppose the practice themselves, going back to visit relatives who secretly seize the daughters and have them excised.

According to the July 1992 FORWARD Conference on Female Genital Mutilation in Western Countries, thousands of infibulated women are now living in North America. In the U.S., where the practice is ignored by both government and health workers, many are afraid to seek care from physicians who lack any knowledge of the medical complications. Nor is it always a furtive process: until a law against mutilation was passed in 1985, the more affluent immigrants in England had the procedure done by Harley Street doctors, who charged £800-1700 per operation. There is now a movement to legalize Sunna circumcision in Holland.

However, when immigrants from Africa come to the U.S. and Europe, they are no longer eking out a subsistence living in the countryside but become wage workers in an industrial economy, albeit horribly oppressed and superexploited. Genital excision thus loses its principal socio-economic function. Moreover, while the ruling classes in these countries are hardly champions of women’s liberation (as the current attack on abortion rights testifies), women in bourgeois society do have certain formal legal rights, like voting and marrying whom they choose. And contrary to the most sacred traditions of all patriarchal agrarian societies, bourgeois law stipulates that parents have no right of life and death over their children, nor the right to do with them as they please. These social values are pervasive in all classes in bourgeois society, and female genital mutilation is not likely to be tolerated very long.

This sets the stage for rooting out the practice of female mutilation outside the African continent. It is not, however, an automatic process. Racial prejudices have been whipped up in every country as capitalists seek to derail working-class struggle against increased exploitation to counter worldwide recession. The resulting racist backlash works against the necessary social integration of African immigrants. Laws against performing the procedure, on paper nothing more than a simple assertion of the integrity of a human being’s sexual organs, are enforced in a completely racist and undemocratic manner. Thus what ought to be a straightforward process of integration becomes a question fraught with implications for civil liberties and racial equality.

“Circumcision on Trial”?

The question is posed particularly clearly in France, where there is a large and established immigrant population, lured from the former French colonial holdings by the prospect of higher wages. At the same time, there is a French fascist movement that finds increasing support in the context of a historically combative working class which has been prevented from waging a successful fight against capitalism by the popular front of social-democratic president François Mitterrand.

The French have no law against female mutilation, but in 1980 the state prosecuted Foussayni Doukara, a Malian sanitation worker living in a Parisian suburb, under Article 312 of the penal code for “assault and battery to a child of under 15 years by a legal guardian.” Doukara had been turned in by a doctor to whom he had brought his three-month-old daughter after she started to hemorrhage from an excision he’d performed himself. The case was delayed for 27 months while the courts searched for “medical expertise.” The bourgeois press sensationalized it as “Circumcision on Trial,” but Doukara was given a suspended sentence of one year by the court. In doing so it established a phony hierarchy of mutilation: because he did not infibulate his daughter, Doukara’s act was put in the category of a harsh spanking. The proceedings were a show trial of hypocritical posturing, with the courts pretending that genital mutilations had never been heard of in France and that African immigrants were tainting a pristine culture. The case became a spectacle of French chauvinism, with a heavy dose of voyeuristic titillation over African “sexuality.”

Five years later the courts brought similar charges against Sory and Semite Coulibaly, a Malian couple, and Aramata Keita, the midwife whom they had brought in to excise their six daughters. It took two years for a magistrates court to claim it wasn’t qualified to handle the matter. By 1990 when the case was brought before the assize court (roughly equivalent to a jury trial in the U.S.), the misdemeanor of which they’d been accused had been made into a felony and the Coulibalys were accordingly retroactively tried. The parents spoke through an interpreter in the Bambara language and the midwife in Soninke, but the rest of the proceedings rambled on in French; in true chauvinist fashion, no one bothered to translate for the defendants. Like Doukara (who had testified that “in our country it is done, it’s a custom...all Africans who have a daughter do it”), the Coulibalys had no conception that they were doing anything wrong and no knowledge that it was a crime in France. Claude Meillassoux, an ethnologist who had visited the Coulibaly home and testified at the trial, gave an explanation: “Their place was very clean. But they were camping there. They were still in Africa.” The jury came down with a verdict of five years suspended sentence plus two years probation for the parents; the practitioner, who had profited from the procedure, was sentenced to five years in prison.

The French state’s professions of concern for the well-being of immigrant children are very shallow. Just a few months before the verdict in the Coulibaly trial, a 22-year-old Malian woman was denied political asylum in France. Aminata Diop had escaped genital mutilation because she’d been living in the Malian capital with an aunt. Upon her arranged marriage to her lover, a son of her father’s friend, she was to be excised. But Diop had seen a friend die three days after the procedure and refused to undergo it herself. Her father beat her savagely when she appealed to him. She fled to France and applied for refugee status under the terms of the Geneva Convention. She was called a liar because her economic status (she owned a motorized bicycle!) made her claim of subjugation “unbelievable” and because the French Women’s Group for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilations had come to her aid. The panel that turned down her application informed her that genital mutilations were not a violation of the accords. In 1991 the refugee appeals board relented and recognized genital mutilation as a form of persecution. Diop however was denied refugee status; she was told instead to seek protection from the Malian government!

Diop’s lawyer, Linda Weil-Curiel, told our comrades in the Ligue Trotskyste de France that excisions were seen by the French government as a “cultural problem” rather than a crime. This is nothing more than a cover; the scandalous rejection of Diop’s plea for asylum is an anti-woman and grossly racist statement that the French government doesn’t want to open its door to more African immigrants. The same hypocritical smokescreen was used in Italy. In 1988 Secretary of Health Elena Marinucci, a Socialist who’d made her name in politics as a feminist in the ’70s, said: “We try to explain to them that this custom is absurd. But it’s extremely necessary to be tolerant and understanding.” Marinucci was defending the Italian state against an international human rights group exposé that the National Health system had for years been performing clitoridectomy and infibulation on girls of African origin.

Efforts by the bourgeois state to eradicate female genital mutilation are tainted with imperialist “white man’s burden” nostalgia for colonial rule. In fact it’s unlikely that any law would be enforced if it weren’t for the anti-immigrant frenzy that has swept the European continent. Nonetheless, we are in favor of laws against the hideous mutilation of women despite the fact that they are promulgated by our class enemies and casually applied in a racist and hypocritical manner.

For Multiracial, Class-Struggle Workers Parties!

The imperialist bourgeoisies have a tendency to import a reformed version of the colonial system into their metropolitan centers. Their policies of racial segregation most effectively promote the continued mutilation of African immigrant children. For immigrant workers there are two contradictory social pressures: on the one hand those of the society where they live and of the class to which they belong, even though they are relegated to its lowest rungs; on the other hand those of the tribal society from which they come and to which they are attached by strong family ties. Race discrimination and prejudice isolate immigrant workers and their families from the rest of the working class, reducing integrationist tendencies and reinforcing pressure from the culture of origin.

In France the failure to integrate the postwar ex-colonial immigrants into the rest of the French working class must be laid squarely at the door of the union misleaders. Foussayni Doukara held a unionized job in a country where the unions are run by the Communist (PCF) and Socialist (PS) parties. Yet he was so isolated from social life in France that he had no idea that the excision of his daughter was illegal. Several years ago a comrade of the LTF, noticing that few Arab workers at the Billancourt factory could read our paper, Le Bolchévik, asked a bureaucrat from the Communist-led union why they didn’t have reading classes for its immigrant members. His reply: “We don’t want them to be able to read; they’re easier to control like this.” This appalling bigotry toward the foreign workers from the former colonies is a result of decades of support and sometimes administration of France’s colonial policies by the PCF and PS. In 1981 the Stalinists cemented their role as shock troops of anti-immigrant racism when the PCF mayor of Vitry led a raid to destroy a housing project where 300 black Africans were living. The PS has run the country for over ten years on a policy of austerity, strikebreaking and racist terror. These rotten workers parties don’t want integrated class struggle, but class peace in the service of a popular front with imperialism.

The eradication of the barbarous practice of female genital mutilation demands a conscious fight against racist segregation and for the integration of immigrant workers and their families into the Western proletariat through class struggle. Over the past decade immigrant workers have shown themselves to be the most combative layer of the European proletariat. What is required is a revolutionary party which can break the current sway of the reformist workers parties and lead a struggle against capitalism. Effectively integrated into the organizations of the working class and also into its vanguard party, immigrant workers will be in the forefront of revolution in the industrial West. They will also create a human bridge toward social revolution in their home countries; as such they are a strategic factor in finishing, once and for all, the abomination of female genital mutilation.

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