“I only had a little cut and it doesn’t bother me.”
Somalia used to be known for its radical, painful and unhealthy female circumcision practices. These involved cutting off a girl’s clitoris and labia and sewing up the vagina, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood. The closed vagina was then to be cut open again after marriage. But there has been a change in recent years: a ZAM investigation shows that a large majority of young women now report to have been circumcised ‘only a little’, and some predict that the custom is on its way out altogether.
Whilst traditional Somalis are concerned that this slacking of the old ways may encourage their daughters to become ‘prostitutes’, aid organisation UNICEF seems equally orthodox in refusing to recognise progress. “We are not going to say that one form of female genital mutilation is better than the other, and we continue to campaign against the practice altogether,” UNICEF states in a recent report. But is this a realistic strategy in a country where a daughter’s ‘bad reputation’ can still ruin a family? “Oh! I cry when I see that foreign culture of unbelievers, that corrupts our daughters and our ways”: ZAM Chronicle portrays a society torn between traditional social networks and middle-class modernity.
Anab Badi Osoble (20), mother of two daughters in Mogadishu, Somalia, thinks she is a lot better off than those women who have undergone the radical old style faraonic circumcision. “I only had a part of my clitoris removed and it doesn’t bother me much. Of course, other women who have not been cut at all are still more whole than I am. But I don’t complain.” Osoble’s form of circumcision, called sunnah, is a compromise solution for many in present-day Somalia where the old ‘sewing-up’ style of circumcision is increasingly considered barbaric, and people are more and more aware of health risks and pain caused by a mutilated vagina and birth canal. However, complete abolition of any form of female cutting, as campaigned for by activists and international development organisations, is still widely frowned upon, as it is seen as promoting premarital sex and promiscuity in girls and young women.
In Somalia – especially in the rural areas – a girl’s and her family’s security and future often depend on her virginity, marriage prospects and continued acceptance in vital social networks. ZAM’s survey in Puntland, northern Somalia, showed that a majority of young professional women who had undergone ‘light’ circumcision, and who were asked to choose between old-fashioned radical cutting, the light sunnah form and no cutting at all, said they would choose sunnah for their daughters.
These women probably know all too well how relatives, neighbours and many elders feel about uncircumcised women, and the foreigners who try to ‘undermine’ the cultural practice. Many would respond like Farhiyo Hassan (25), from central Somalia, who had her three daughters cut the old fashioned way – the same way she was cut. “I know that the activists say that it is bad for our health, but that’s just propaganda from foreigners who want to destroy our culture and civilisation. I never had any health problems, and my daughters don’t either.” According to Hassan, it is girls who are not cut who are exposed to risks. “An uncut girl will feel sexual arousal and will run after boys. Then the neighbours will start to gossip about her, saying that she is a bad girl and a bad Muslim; next, there is conflict at home and she will run away. There is only one end to this story: prostitution.” Hassan narrates the case of a girl from her town, rejected by her new husband the day after her marriage. “He found out that she was unclean. Now what is the family going to do with her?”
For those who are familiar with the social pressures, it was a surprise to read, in an earlier press statement by UNICEF, that (thanks to its own campaigning work, it said) most young women in Somalia nowadays are not circumcised at all. “Only 25% of young women are circumcised, whereas this used to be 99%,” boasted UNICEF on 16 April 2013, simultaneously taking credit for this achievement: “this (good result) follows conversations with 3,000 families.”
The first – probably premature – report, which was quickly hushed up, was followed by a new, widely published one in July, which stated, more accurately, that the 75% ‘uncircumcised’ young women were actually women who had undergone the sunnah form of light circumcision. It was in this report that UNICEF stated that it was to continue its campaign against all forms of FGM and that it did not want to be seen to ‘prefer’ one form of circumcision over the other.
But is this a realistic strategy? A data survey of 35 women in the rural Puntland area, carried out by the Nugal Female Journalists Club (see below), found that 29 still felt cutting girls was a good practice. However, 22 of them said the light sunnah form was their cut of choice now; that they themselves had undergone sunnah; and they would also have it done to their daughters. Only seven of the total of 35 said that they still preferred the old radical faraonic cut, whereby the vagina is sewed shut.
That only seven out of 35 would still advocate the faraonic practice, in a country where it used to be universal and unquestioned, could be seen as a victory for the anti-FGM campaigns conducted by healthworkers, church elders and NGO activists. Especially in view of the finding, reported by the Nugal Club, that almost as many, six out of 35, now rejected any form of circumcision altogether. That’s still a lot, in Puntland.
In its second report, UNICEF did note that opposition against female cutting is growing in all countries where the practice used to be a strong tradition. But this opposition is fuelled by more than campaigns alone. For example, both the Nugal Club’s data survey and the interviews conducted in Mogadishu show that young men are increasingly ‘anti-FGM’, not so much because of campaign arguments centring on girl's and women’s rights, but because ‘they like a women to be complete so that they can have a healthy love life’. A third of the 35 women surveyed in Puntland indicated that chances of a good marriage can improve if you are not sewed shut, and in the city of Mogadishu a majority of interviewees stated that, for a good marriage, you need your vagina and clitoris undamaged. “Otherwise your husband can leave you for a healthy woman.” Apparently, in Somalia in 2013, some believe that you need to be cut to find a husband, and some believe the exact opposite.
Progress and its drivers
Interestingly, a powerful force on the side of the anti-FGM campaigns consists of Islamic religious leaders. A majority of imams in Somalia has responded positively to requests by activists to explain that the Q’uran does not advocate female cutting: the practice hails from nomadic traditions and dates back from a time when it was of vital importance for a tribe to be able to ‘market’ its daughters and to avoid, at all cost, daughters losing their ‘value’ and bringing home babies that no one had the resources to care for. However, as with many old traditions, the cutting practice has become confused with religion and is now often seen as a duty for a ‘good Muslim’ in Somalia. Enter the imams, whose explanations, in and outside mosques, that this is really not the case, have convinced many to abandon the practice – at least the old radical one.
“Female genital mutilation amounts to handicapping the human body,” Sheikh Ibrahim Mahmud in Mogadishu said in an interview with ZAM Chronicle’s Muno Gedi. “The Q’uran advocates healthy bodies and a healthy married life between husband and wife. Whoever disables his daughter in Somalia today, must know that he invokes the wrath of Allah.” Strong language indeed, in a 100% Muslim country. The surveyed women in Puntland who had abandoned old style cutting indicated that, next to modern young men who would like to have healthy wives, the religious leaders’ sermons on the topic had been the most important factors in their decision.
As so often, the progressive forces are at their strongest in the city. Mogadishu is where there are education opportunities, jobs for women and family planning clinics. People are better educated here, and families depend less on traditional social networks. As a result, abandoning traditions and upsetting neighbours is a lot less risky in town than in the village. But Mogadishu’s women do want to explain that they are certainly not ‘slutty’, even if they haven’t been cut. “As soon as news got out that my parents were not going to cut me, the neighbours came to warn them,” says Safiyo Siyad (21), married and mother to an eight month old baby boy. “They told them that they were condemning me to prostitution. But our neighbours were wrong. I have never had illegal sexual contacts and I am happy with the legal sexual relationship with my husband.”
Anti-FGM activist Hamdi Ahmed Omar (27) calls herself ‘happily single’, but she, too, states that she has never engaged in ‘bad’ behaviour despite not having been cut at all. “I have protected myself from bad things. In life, what matters is how you conduct yourself. It doesn’t depend on a surgical procedure. There are cut girls who misbehave, and there are many decent uncut women.” Student Kadijo Abdulahi Hasan (19) emphasises her closeness with her traditionally-minded mother. “She wanted to have me cut, but thanks to my educated father, that did not happen. And now my mother is happy for me, because she sees that my life is a good life.”
Opposition and traditionalism
But not everybody in Somalia is happy. In the eyes of many in the rural areas, and other conservatives, Mogadishu, with its growing number of uncut (or ‘half’ cut) women, has become Sodom and Gomorra. And the (Western-supported) NGOs are to blame, they say. Muno Hashi (25), from the interior Shabelle area, shakes her head when narrating the ‘hateful things’ she has seen during her two-month stay in town. “I saw young women unashamedly saying they were uncut. Oh! I cry when I see that foreign culture of unbelievers that corrupts our daughters and our ways. And I am powerless; there is nothing I can do.”
Similarly, town-based conservative Hani Mahmud Gesey (30) blames the ‘foreign campaigners’. “They tell us that what we do is unhealthy, but that is a lie. They are paid by foreign NGOs, who give them jobs and projects, to sabotage our culture, which to me is the best culture in the world. I will fight them until I die. I cut my four daughters in the proper style, the old style, and they will thank me later, just like I thank my parents.”
But Gesey’s traditional views are definitely on their way out. Media, government, mosques and hospitals now regularly issue information and advice detailing the health risks of FGM, the risk of bacterial infection that comes with all non-sterilized cutting, the risks of fistula in child birth, of a sex life filled with pain. Aamino Ahmed (35) has lived with such problems: “I panicked every time my husband would call me to his bed. I secretly used to take injections to avoid getting pregnant. When I eventually did have a pregnancy anyway, I had to undergo a caesarean, because the natural way was impossible.” Like Aamino Ahmed, Safiyo Siyad’s cut friends all envy her, Siyad’s ‘natural state’. “They tell me they have problems urinating, and also that they don’t enjoy sleeping with their husbands. Me, I do enjoy,” she says, adding that her husband was married before, to a cut woman, whom he divorced because she was ‘not a complete woman’. And then she talks about her niece, who is cut, and whose family now finds it difficult to find her a good husband: “They now regret their decision to cut her.”
Anab Badi Osoble, who calls herself ‘only a little cut’, is, she says, ‘no activist’. “But I do think that my country will stop this practice of cutting. Those who still support it are traditional nomads, who are defending their old cultural habits, but those of us who are educated can see no point. It’s bad for health and it’s bad for girls. We just have to stop doing it and I think we will. I give it six, seven years at the most.”
This article is the result of a ZAM Chronicle investigation conducted in collaboration with the Nugal Female Journalists Club in Puntland, Somalia (data), and Mumo Mohamed Gedi (19) producer at Star FM radio in Mogadishu, Somalia