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Female Genital Cutting in Context: The Example of Sierra Leone

Special Reports

by Jacqueline Knörr

Contextualizing Female Genital Cutting from an anthropological perspective

Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is a rather difficult topic to convey. It involves practices that seem bizarre, incomprehensible and cruel to outsiders. Yet, it is these circumstances that provide the opportunity to point to the specific character of a social anthropological perspective on ‘the other’, which involves highlighting the respective local (emic) context of phenomena, processes, and practices without ignoring their interaction with outside influences and their impact. In the following I will contextualize FGC using Sierra Leone as an example. It is not my intention to legitimize, judge or condemn FGC, but to show that outsiders might only reach an (approximate) understanding of this practice if they approach and analyze it considerate of its specific social, cultural, political and historical context (cf. Shweder 2002).

(Female) Genital Cutting as a dimension of the culture of secrecy

Genital Cutting is part of a cross-cultural and crossreligious initiation ritual which is practiced among most ethnic groups living in the Upper Guinea Coast region of West Africa. In Sierra Leone, both girls and boys are genitally cut to initiate them into gender-specific, so-called secret societies – Poro being the major such society for men and Bundu/Sande for women1. Sierra Leone – and much of the Upper Guinea Coast – is influenced by a culture of secrecy (Ferme 2001; Knörr and Trajano Filho 2010; Højbjerg 2007) that is sustained by secret societies and informed by specific ways of handling knowledge and information in general society. The ‘secret’ in secret societies does not allude to their existence or their members’ identity, it rather stipulates that the societies’ knowledge – which includes knowledge about initiation rituals – may only be known and imparted to initiates. Revealing such knowledge to persons outside the secret society is
considered a betrayal, punishment for which ranges from cleansing rituals to public humiliation, social exclusion, or even death.

Little is known about the historical origins of these secret societies. One explanation considers the societies a result of increasing migration and the ensuing violent conflicts and ethnic splintering and diversification in the Upper Guinea Cost region. In short, secret societies developed to facilitate affiliation across ethnic and subethnic boundaries by using coherent hierarchies and rules. Thereby, groups wanted to achieve cohesion against foreigners or effectively neutralize or integrate them with the vow to secrecy (Bledsoe 1984; Little 1960; D’Azevedo 1962). Secret societies served as a protection against betrayal from within as well as infiltration and attacks from without. They played important roles in connection with the slave trade and colonization, but also in relation to more recent conflicts.

The secret societies’ most important social task is the initiation of youth into the adult world. The initiation rites traditionally served to pass on social values, regulate sexual behavior, transfer spiritual and medical knowledge, impart strategies of political decision-making and conflict regulation as well as practice religious rites. Nowadays, initiations normally last between a few days and a number of weeks while the focus is on the genital cutting and the accompanying

Secret societies are organized in hierarchies. The ascent to higher levels is traditionally connected to growing older and thereby achieving increased proximity to the ancestors. The highest-ranking members of secret societies are ascribed spiritual powers, which they use together with their ritual and medicinal knowledge and their connection to the ancestors to control and sanction the social, ritual, and religious conduct of their contemporaries. Someone who violates the norms not only damages the social equilibrium of the community but also insults the ancestors, who might exact revenge in a number of unpredictable ways, not least by allying with their confederates in the secret societies.

To this day, secret societies also have considerable economic significance. The highest-ranking members who carry out the initiation rites are compensated   for their work in numerous ways. They are entitled to demand services from the initiates and ask considerable initiation fees of the parents. The village chiefs receive money and material services for allowing the use of the secret bushes where the initiation takes place. Membership in secret societies also plays an important role in urban-rural relations, particularly between Freetown and the other Sierra Leonean regions. Initiations often take place in an initiate’s (parents’/grandparents’) place of origin ‘upcountry’ and thereby serve to maintain links between urban migrants and their rural relatives.

The fact that secret societies are not organized along ethnic lines is of particular social significance, albeit rituals do display ethnic characteristics and secret societies in villages often coincide with the ethnic make-up of the population. Every member of Poro or Bundu is a member of Poro or Bundu everywhere and can participate in the society’s meetings and initiations regardless of ethnic belonging. Secret societies thus also function as bridges across ethnic and national boundaries.

Female Genital Cutting as a dimension of gendered socio-cosmologies

To understand the issues at stake here, it is also important to know that Sierra Leonean society has long been – and in many ways continues to be – characterized by the division into male and female spheres of influence, with gendered secret societies as their major representations (Knörr and Trajano Filho 2010; cf. D’Azevedo 1962). The organization in such gendered societies implies both male and female influence in social, ritual, and economic respect (Bledsoe 1984).

Bundu, the major female secret society, is organized in local sections that have a leader, called Sowei, who conducts the initiations and also carries out the genital cutting (Bledsoe 1984; Dubinskas 1976). In Sierra Leone, all females (except the Krio/Creoles) are expected to undergo FGC and almost 90 per cent of women are estimated to undergo FGC as part of their initiation into adulthood and the Bundu Society (UNICEF 2013). Although FGC is often associated with the religion of Islam, it is not a religious, but a social practice, that predates Islam and is spread among different religions (Hernlund 2000). As the majority among the Krio are Christians and refer to Christianity as one reason to reject FGC, Christianity is sometimes and erroneously seen as preventing girls/women from having to undergo FGC in Sierra Leone.

Particularly the social and sexual conduct between men and women is strictly regulated in more traditional society and is subject to many taboos whose violation
incur harsh punishment. A man breaking the taboo of sexual contact to a girl during her initiation has to pay large fines to the girl’s family and the female secret society and must endure painful cleansing rituals. Thus, the secret societies do not merely control conduct within their own gender’s sphere but (thereby) also impact the opposite gender’s social reality.

Initiation is conceptualized as the most momentous ritual both for the individual, the group of those initiated together, as well as for the community and society as a whole (MacCormack 1975; Ferme 2001). It takes place at specific times (often during school holidays) after a period of preparation. In many communities initiations are only organized every few years, depending on the number of potential initiates and socio-economic conditions.

Initiation is also perceived as being connected to a disambiguation of the biological and social gender. Following this view, uncut boys are still partly girl and uncut girls are still partly boy until the respective other gender’s genital parts are removed and enable a person to pass on to the – biological, social, religious, and ritual – unambiguous spheres of the female and male adult worlds (Ahmadu 2000; MacCormack 1975). Ambiguous genders are seen as bearing many risks, including infertility for women and impotence for men. Hence, genital cutting is regarded as a means of both genital and personal purification and cleansing (Ahmadu 2000; Gruenbaum 2008).

Other arguments for FGC include sexual control, easier delivery, preparation for the birth pain, and the creation of lasting and dependable female bonds based on the shared experience of initiation and intimate pain (MacCormack 1975). Initiation is a social event that is meant to strengthen group and gender identity. As men are initiated members of secret societies as well, it is believed that only a female counterpart can keep some balance between men and women. Being the most important part of the initiation into the powerful Bundu Society, FGC is – quite contrary to Western views – perceived as promoting rather than suppressing women’s interests as well as strengthening their solidarity vis-à-vis men and Poro (Dellenborg 2004; Day 2012; cf. Ahmadu 2000; Irele and Jeyifo 2010).

Non-initiates are – regardless of age – not considered real adults and therefore have no adult rights in the more traditional realm of life. They cannot participate in the rituals and celebrations connected to initiations and are largely excluded from social, political, religious, and economic life. They find it difficult to find a spouse and do not receive support during pregnancy or birth as the woman carrying out the cutting is also the midwife for the initiated women. They cannot benefit from the social, financial and economic networks that are largely established and controlled by Bundu women.

Girls or their parents, who want to avoid initiation and the associated FGC often suffer grave reprisals. They are threatened and humiliated in various ways and excluded from the village community. At the time an initiation is due, the entire village may gather in front of the girl’s house to insult her. Corporal punishment and the abduction of girls to enforce FGC against her and/or her parents’ will are quite common. In the face of such massive reprisals and the personal and social ramifications of refused initiation, many girls and parents give up their resistance. The police shies away from interfering in such conflicts, considering secret society ‘business’ to be beyond their jurisdiction and out of fear that their involvement in such ‘business’ would give cause to revenge and punishment by the secret society.

Initiation into Bundu as an act of emancipation, or: What colonial legacies have to do with FGC

Only the Krio, who live in and around Freetown, are not ethnically obliged to undergo initiation and FGC. Their descendants belonged to different groups of freed slaves, who had fought for the British during the American war for independence and were then freed as a reward, but also comprised rebellious Maroons as well as Africans who had been rescued from slave ships – the last group making up the vast majority of the settlers (Dixon-Fyle and Cole 2006; Wyse 1991; Cole 2013). The majority among these rather heterogeneous settlers underwent a process of creolization, in the course of which many indigenous persons were also included. Original identities lost their significance over the course of time and a new shared identity as Krio developed (Knörr 1995; Cohen 1981; Porter 1963). Next to the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, the settlement of freed slaves has been of major historical significance for Sierra Leone (and other West African countries) and continues to impact present-day society in various ways.

The motivations for the settlement of freed slaves in Sierra Leone were not merely philanthropic in nature, but involved missionary and economic interests as well. Save for a small Muslim minority, the Krio were members of Christian churches. Many had already had prior contact to the European ‘civilization’. Hence, they were considered suitable to bring education, civilization, and Christianity to the Sierra Leonean ‘pagans’ and were therefore fostered as an elite by the British colonizers. Besides being active church members and missionaries, the Krio also worked in the administration, the education sector, the judicial system, and as middlemen. After independence had been achieved, the Krio’s political and economic influence waned, but they continued to play important roles in the areas of education and jurisdiction and within the churches. As one result of this specific elite constellation a societal division between the Krio on one side and everyone else on the other as well as a social, economic, and cultural gulf between Freetown and the rest of the country continued to exist well beyond colonial times (Bledsoe 2005, Moran 1990). This gap is also reflected in the fact that in Sierra Leone being modern and educated has long been associated not only with Westernization and Christianity – as is the case in many other formerly colonized parts of the world –, but also with the Krio as an ethnic group.

The Krio for the most part reject traditional female secret societies most and foremost because they practice FGC, which many also consider evidence of a lack of civilization among the ‘natives’. The discourse on female secret societies and FGC is thus connected to a discourse considered more significant than the latter in general Sierra Leonean society, namely the relationship between modernity and tradition, development and backwardness, conservatism and progress – a discourse that is, as pointed out earlier on, closely connected to the relationship between the Krio on the one hand and all other groups on the other.

There is, however, also significant resistance against this – more or less exclusive – link being made between modernity and Krio-ness. People want to be recognized as modern and educated while being (for example) Mende, Temne, or Limba. In this context, Bundu plays a quasi-emancipatory role, albeit not, as
might be expected from a Western perspective, in the context of a discourse centered on the liberation of women. It rather focuses on the relation between
traditional and modern life styles and the latter’s connection to the relationship between Krio and all other Sierra Leoneans. The Krio’s rejection of Bundu and
FGC – often couched in a more general discourse stating Krio superiority – lends both of them additional appeal in the eyes of many (non-Krio) Sierra Leoneans. Secret societies used to be powerful symbols of indigenous opposition to colonialism and foreign suppression and may nowadays serve as a means to distance oneself from the Krio and demonstrate that ‘Krio-dom’3 does not serve as a benchmark for everyone’s ways of seeing and doing things. Mende, Temne, Limba and others want to be accepted as modern, educated, and civilized without having to deny their ethnic identity and traditions, and Mende, Temne and Limba women want to be able to engage in Bundu activities according to their (ethnic) traditions and be recognized as modern and educated women at the same time. As a matter of fact, most (non-Krio) women in Freetown do not perceive Bundu membership (including FGC) being in contradiction to being educated, civilized, and modern – despite some anti-FGC activists voicing otherwise.

Initiation and Bundu membership traditionally signify the shift from childhood to female adulthood and go along with having access to knowledge, connections and mutual support systems only shared among initiated women. In a more modern context – and in Freetown most notably – initiation and Bundu membership may also function to demonstrate that being modern is not ultimately tied to being (or becoming) Krio. Many Krio like to think that the ‘natives’ strive towards becoming Krio once in Freetown. Many ‘natives’ like to think that they can be ‘native’ (even in Freetown) and modern at the same time. Through initiation a link may be created between indigenous tradition and (non-Krio) modernity, whereby the latter is indigenized and liberated from the Krio bias and exclusivism. ‘Living the link’ by combining indigenous tradition and a modern lifestyle serves as a non-Krio alternative to the elitist Krio notion of modernity, which is situated outside and in opposition to indigenous traditions. Bundu membership may serve as a symbol of (transethnic) connectivity among initiated women in Freetown, as proof that modernity does not preclude the practice of indigenous traditions and does not need to come in Krio disguise.

Among initiated women in Freetown Bundu membership often implies the situational dissociation from non-initiated, more specifically, Krio women. Not being members of Bundu, Krio women experience social exclusion, even in institutional contexts not characterized by traditionalism. Young Krio women studying at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone’s largest university, told me that conversations including ‘secret society talk’ were often hushed when they joined a group of initiated female students and ‘society women’ among the students confessed that they enjoy “teaching these snobby Krio women a lesson” by excluding them from ‘society talk’.

Post-war society and the role of Bundu for reintegration

Between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leone was ruled by war, anarchy, and violence and millions of people were fleeing different military and rebel groups. During the war initiations rarely took place, but when a sense of normalcy and hope for a better future was established after the end of the war initiations greatly increased (Bosire 2013). Initiations were then also experienced as a means to normalize social relations which had often been interrupted and destroyed during the war.

Given the vastly increasing demand for initiations after the war, Sowei were in high demand and young  women and even girls were hastily trained as circumcisers in order to perform FGC. Performing FGC in the context of initiation into Bundu provided one of the very scarce options girls and young women had to make a living after the war (FGM in Sierra Leone. 2014). Furthermore, during the war the rebels and marauding bands also comprised young girls and women who had often been abducted. These women and girls often suffered forced initiation, performed by already initiated girls and young women, so that they could be considered adult women and become ‘bush wives’ (Coulter 2009). Due to the high demand for initiations after the war, many of them continued performing FGC to generate some income.

A member of a Freetown-based NGO providing reintegration measures to female ex-combatants reported that many young women, who were socially ostracized due to the atrocities they had committed during the war, aimed to be initiated into Bundu both as a measure of self-protection and a means to proof their proper social reintegration. As programs for young ex-combatants were offered mainly by NGOs that did not consider initiation an option for reintegration, many young women left these camps to seek reintegration through initiation instead.

On the national level of post-war politics as well it quickly became apparent how important Bundu and the associated initiation and FGC still were to the majority of Sierra Leoneans. Zainab Bangura, who in the early 1990s had been an important informant concerning my research on identity politics in Sierra Leone, was the only woman candidate in Sierra Leone’s presidential election in 2002. When rumors (were) spread during the campaign that she supposedly opposed FGC, she was chased out of a number of villages on her campaign trail and faced severe hostilities also in Freetown.

During the 2002 campaign many politicians (both men and women) spent significant funds on widespread female initiations in their electoral districts. The wife of President Kabbah, for example, sponsored the initiation of 1,500 girls. After a public speech by a well-known Sierra Leonean anti-FGC activist, mass demonstrations erupted in Freetown that were led by the then Foreign Minister Madame Gbujama, who went on to become Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Women’s Affairs. She concluded her speech with the following words directed at the president: “We will sew up the mouths of those preaching against Bundu. I urge you to stand firm for the secret society, and I remind you not to forget your roots” (cf. Bosire 2013). The incumbent president quickly announced that he supported Bundu as he himself also had a traditional background

The global Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) discourse, or: Nasty consequences of good intentions

Genital cutting is not an issue commonly discussed publically in Sierra Leone. It is part of the complex of secrecy and seen as a normal requirement of initiation that is in no need of justification. However, the work of a number of national and international NGOs fighting against FGC has turned it into an increasingly controversial topic, particularly in Freetown, but also beyond (see below). The phenomenon of traditional secret society organization is no longer only discussed in connection with local peculiarities such as Krio-native relations or in terms of the question whether it is compatible with Christianity and Islam, but also by referring to the global discourse on ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ (FGM) (cf. Shell-Duncan and Hernlund 2000; Boyle 2002). This FGM-focused discourse – due to a lack of knowledge, perhaps – often ignores the general societal context, where FGC is an important dimension of the initiation into secret societies or rejects its introduction into the debate as an explanatory framework, conceptualizing it as mocking legitimation, as an attempt to trivialize or euphemize FGC.

By listening to those who have experienced FGC it quickly becomes apparent that the majority among them feel discredited by the global FGM discourse and by the terminology and arguments it applies. They feel that the terminological denunciation of the practice of FGC and its interpretation as violent action against women retroactively stigmatizes those who have undergone the practice as mutilated, as having been robbed of their sexuality and femininity, as humiliated and degraded. As well as that the whole culture of those practicing FGC is portrayed as a culture of inhuman barbarism. The women themselves rarely view themselves and their culture in the same manner and do not want either to be publically referred to or perceived as such.

When I addressed the topic of FGC with initiated women – which was only possible after creating trust and affirming that I would not inquire about any secret Bundu knowledge – they were often surprised that FGC is of such interest to foreigners. Even young, formally educated women, e.g. students at Fourah Bay College, were astonished. One student told me: “It’s painful, terribly painful. But then came the gratification, the celebration. You are treated with respect, like a grown-up woman, not like a little girl. You quickly forget about the pain.” And regarding the global FGM discourse, another commented: “It’s okay to be completely against cutting, no problem. But please tell your people, I am not mutilated.”

The global anti-FGM discourse not only ignores the respective local contexts and rationalities, it also employs a rhetoric that many Sierra Leoneans consider an insult to their entire social and cultural ways of life. The global anti-FGM discourse rather than taking into consideration the social and cultural context in which FGC is practiced, deals with it solely in the framework of discourses on violence against women, human rights, bodily injury, and barbaric African customs. Within the female secret society’s rationality FGC is not understood as a deliberate act of violence and oppression against women and stigmatizing it as such in public discourse is perceived by many as declaring the majority of Sierra Leoneans violent and violence-advocating persons. To avoid such a misrepresentation, even staunch FGC opponents in Sierra Leone point out that any successful campaign against FGC must have knowledge of and most of all respect for the perspective of the proponents as well.

I hope my argument shows that significant differences and contradictions exist in judging social and cultural practices, depending on the context of meanings and the social and cultural logics as part of which they are observed, experienced, negotiated and classified. In the case of FGC as an important dimension of initiation into the secret society, judgments range from the completion to the mutilation of femininity, from violent oppression of women to ensuring their rights vis-à-vis men.

Social anthropology should, first and foremost, aim to understand and explain social practices within their own contexts of meaning before taking sides or joining forces. Regarding the FGC discourse social anthropology can do what it can always do, i.e. present the different perspectives and practices in the contexts of their (respective) local meanings to make them more comprehensible and negotiable – in the academic discourse, in (developmental) political practice, and in the public debate. Social anthropology can show that one’s ‘own’ perspective of the ‘other’ is not always the same as what the ‘other’ means in the ‘other’s’ own context. It can illustrate the social, cultural, political, and historic context in which, for example, FGC is practiced and attains its meanings for a society, a group of people, an individual. Social anthropology can help to understand why the current anti-FGM discourses and activities often fail to succeed and instead inflict further damage on those they want to support. If outsiders want to take a side – e.g. participate in eradicating FGC – they should make sure that the measures and rhetorics chosen to that end are informed by the local social and cultural contexts of meaning rather than solely by supposedly universal values and norms. They must keep the affected persons in mind at all times and refrain from engaging in rhetorics that the latter perceive as humiliating and degrading.


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