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United Nations International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM

6th February

Literacy circle members discussing maternal and child health and their own, often traumatic experiences of childbirth.

This week’s post marks today’s UNICEF’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM. This article does not include detailed descriptions of FGM but links to these are provided with sensitivity warnings for those interested.

Although legislation introduced by colonial and successive post-independence Sudanese governments – often backed by rival religious and cultural authorities – (see legislation summary below) has sought to restrict the practice, FGM remains an intractable challenge for Sudanese social and health reformers. In 2020, Sudan criminalized FGM, imposing a three-year jail term for those carrying out the practice, in a move heralded by many as a giant step for girls’ and women’s rights, but not without caveats; PassBlue Independent Coverage of the UN

If you would like more context to FGM in Sudan, see the brief video presented by Unicef Sudan National Ambassador Maha Jaafar

Below, UNICEF overview of FGM in Sudan:

UNICEF aims to eliminate FGM throughout the world by 2030. “The theme of the 2023 commemorations is ‘Partnership with Men and Boys to Transform Social and Gender Norms to End Female Genital Mutilation. While the prevalence rate of Female Genital Mutilation among girls aged 0 to 14 years and social acceptance of the practice has fallen considerably, many more girls especially in remote areas, remain at risk.”

FGM among Girls in Sudan UNICEF

Complex Issues at Play

Colonial Intervention; Missteps or Colonial Arrogance?

Causes for Optimism

Complex Issues at Play

Although often assumed to be unique to Islamic societies today, FGM or “female circumcision” in its numerous forms predates Islam and is still practiced in both Islamic and non-Islamic cultures, its most extreme form, infibulation (warning; some may find the video link in this BBC report upsetting) , or “pharaonic circumcision”, still prevalent in the Horn of Africa. Although religious arguments are used to justify the practice in some Muslim communities, many contemporary Islamic scholars and activists contend that such justifications are misreadings of sacred text and right practice and contravene shariah’s guiding principle against doing harm. Only one of the four schools of Islamic law advocates female circumcision as a duty. (Liv Tønnessen, FGM in the Horn of Africa, SIHA Journal, Women in Islam, Issue 02 / 2015).

Many advocates of FGM have traditionally cited safeguarding a woman’s chastity, thus ensuring her marriageability, as well as protecting her from rape, as key motivators for the practice. My experience as an observer of FGM in a small northern Sudanese town thirty years ago bears out those beliefs, with Sudanese friends insisting that an uncircumcised girl was un-marriageable and that circumcision was freeing – enabling girls to enter and play in public spaces safely. Indeed, the only uncircumcised family of daughters I knew were far more constricted by vigilant parents in their movements outside the family home than their circumcised friends. FGM is also often discussed by both its advocates and detractors in terms of patriarchal control of women’s lives and bodies.

Perhaps as a corrective to these widely held and perhaps reductive understandings of the phenomenon, Marie Grace Brown, (Khartoum at Night, Stanford University Press 2017), drawing on detailed research by Janice Boddy in her chapter Enclosures, (Wombs and Alien Spirits, University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), identifies the ensuring of fertility and not control of a woman’s sexuality, as the primary aim of FGM, placing it firmly in the context of other protective, enclosing practices and beauty rituals, echoed in physical “circles of deceasing safety as one moved from the home outwards beyond the boundaries of the village; in the preference for close marriage with cousins from the paternal line and in the round, impervious symbols of fertility and purity such as ostrich eggs”. For Brown, FGM is a means to “construct fertile purity”- “Tahur”, one of the words for female circumcision is derived from the root for pure – a rite of preparation not destruction, enclosing the womb and guaranteeing “the birth of pure children,” thus confirming “women’s status as founders of lineages”.

While Brown’s analysis may, I fear, indirectly serve to downplay the widely reported enduring negative psychological impact of FGM, her acknowledgement of power dynamics where women are free to exercise control and status reflect my limited experience of the issue. Many of the incidences of female circumcision I was told of or witnessed were carried out at the insistence of mothers and grandmothers, often in the teeth of resistance or at least reluctance from husbands and fathers. Colonial reformers, Brown noted, often lamented the role of grandmothers in perpetuating the practice and cast about to recruit them to the anti-FGM cause.

See Sara Suliman’s Heroic Bodies (trailer, English subtitles) for Sudanese women’s testimonies on the impact of FGM on their lives, its patriarchal motivations and the 70-year olds who decide on re-infibulation so as to be right with God upon death.

Colonial Intervention; Missteps or Arrogance?

Brown traces the role of colonial educators and policy makers in shaping or attempting to shape Sudanese opinion on the practice; from the groundbreaking work of textile archeologist and midwife, Grace Mary Crowfoot, who reportedly raised the issue of pharaonic circumcision to the then governor general, Stack, who energetically embraced the case for eradication, chiefly motivated, Brown claims, by imperialist requirements for healthy labourers. A “gradualist”, filter down approach to eradication was adopted by many colonialists, hoping to garner popular support through girls’ education and the work of midwives trained in safe, hygienic procedures, replacing the traditional daya as “gatekeeper to women’s reproductive worlds”, the former being viewed as “minor missionaries” for the cause. Under Douglas Newbold, colonialist policy gained the support of leading religious authorities who spoke out against compulsory circumcision.

The ambiguously worded banning of pharaonic circumcision in 1948 however only served to drive the practice underground, with “mothers rushing to infibulate their daughters as young as three” (Brown). Nearly all subsequent legislation has faced similar criticism. The fuse for the nationalist riots of Rufaa, Brown relates, was lit when a mother was reported for having her daughter circumcised, thus bringing into sharp relief questions of the limits of colonial power and “the jurisdiction of Sudanese women’s bodies”. Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, the Islamic reformer “disapproved of the practice” but held the British had no authority over cultural rights which were “akin to political rights and national sovereignty.”

British colonialist failed, as Brown stresses, to recognize that “any reforms have to be constructed on women’s terms and in women’s language” – something Sudanese women’s leaders such as Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim would go on to do in the Sawt al-Mara (Women’s Voice) journal she founded in 1954, reshaping perceptions of community and what it meant to be progressive as women among the educated minority.

Causes for Optimism

I am Saleema

Child survival icon

Because I am strong in my decisions!

Because I am not afraid of change!

Because what we are learning now is more than what we knew before!

Because our whole society is changing for the better!

The Saleema Initiative

FGM and the issues surrounding it are now being spoken about more openly in Sudan and as this year’s UNICEF campaign shows, young men are being brought into the debate in support of their sisters’ stand against the practice. Brown rightly emphasizes that any campaign “requires a new definition of healthy and reproductively ready bodies” that resonates with Sudanese women and this has been put into practice with success by the Saleema caravan, fruit of a UN-Sudanese collaboration founded in 2008, with The Babiker Badri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies. See too I thought I was going to lose my daughter UNICEF Above left and below, the Saleema community caravan members with their distinctive, attractive head scarves and community spirit.

As God created her

“Every girl born saleema, let every girl grow saleema” – the saleema motto. “Linguistically, saleema denotes a girl being normal, complete and natural…as being created by God.”Dr. Widad Aidrose, in Women Biannual Magazine; Babiker Badri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies – Issue no.30, 2012.

While more young women and girls are rejecting FGM, powerful social sanctions still operate against them, with school girls rebuked or insulted if they tell others they are uncircumcised and more training needed for teachers so that they can support them. Those exploring the issue also face mixed or ambiguous religious messages. Many researchers also emphasize the need for intergenerational dialogue on the issue.

You can read more on the social challenges involved in:

UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Sudan: An In-Depth Analysis of the Social Dynamics of Abandonment of FGM/C

ISSUU Sudan Working Paper Improved Understanding of FGM /C Abandonment among Sudanese Families in Khartoum and Kassala States

AMNA FGM in Sudan – A Comprehensive exploration

Sudanese Brides under pressure

See too -“Al-Adal” Re-infibulation and the Obsession with Virginity in Sudan, Safia AlSeddig, SIHA Journal issue 3, 2017

Ultimately, communities working acting together can prove immensely successful and inspiring, as this moving short BBC video report shows us (stills from the film captured above):

A model echoed by Tutti Island, Khartoum:

AMNA FGM in Sudan – A Comprehensive exploration

Below, breakdown of FGM-related legislation from the same source:

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