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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What made these women so mad at me? Arguing for a “soft” approach in addressing the issue of female circumcision

Photo Courtesy of Elena Butti
“You are abusing us” – this was only the last of the series of accusations which showered me when I tried to address the topic of female circumcision in a focus group with Maasai women during my work in the subvillage of Remiti, part of Mtakuja, in Northern Tanzania. “Why do you want to know all this? Are you a health trainer? If you want to hold your seminar, you should give us food, and also pay us. We are losing our time here.”
Being accused of abusing your own research represents the ultimate failure for a researcher. When the women started attacking me, while I was sure I was doing all I possibly could to be a sensitive researcher, discouragement took hold of me: I broke into tears in the middle of the focus group, and the women’s effort to dry my watering eyes with their clothes (not exactly what you would call soft cotton) did not really help.

I had done something wrong. But whatI knew in advance that the issue of female circumcision was sensitive, and I had taken all the precautions I could think of to address it properly. I had made sure to frame my questions in a non-normative, open-minded and non-leading way. I had made clear from the outset that I had absolutely no intention to claim that something was right or wrong, but that I was just a student eager to learn from them. But still, something in my questions made the women react on the defensive. What was it? 

The thought kept me thinking for days, until I realised that, perhaps, it was not so much my approach that was wrong – it was the issue itself, the very words “female circumcision” pronounced by a white NGO worker. No matter how open-minded my approach was: the very action of me addressing the issues triggered associations which were, apparently, deeply problematic. The whole issue puzzled me. What had happened for female circumcision to become so critical that it could not be addressed at all, even with a non-normative approach like mine?

In this blog article, I seek an answer to this question. I first provide an account of how female circumcision (henceforth: circumcision) has historically been addressed by the government and NGOs in Tanzania. I then elaborate on how the traditional “hard” approach to the eradication of circumcision has proven counter-effective, making it virtually impossible for any Westerner today to address the issue at all. This claim constitutes the central thesis of this paper, and provides a possible explanation to the reaction of the women in my focus group. After suggesting some alternative “soft” approaches, I reflect on the inadequacy of the sole legal prohibition in order to eradicate deeply embedded practices. I conclude with a few remarks on critical reflexivity.

Anti-circumcision campaigns in Tanzania

In Tanzania, approximately 15% of the women population aged 15-49 is circumcised. This number roughly corresponds to the percentage of the Maasai population, which has been targeted for decades by the Tanzanian government and local and international NGOs trying to eradicate the practice.During British colonialism, female circumcision was seen as part a barbaric tradition that white men had the burden to eradicate. After independence, Julius Neyerere’s unification policy contributed to the marginalization of minority groups and cultures, including the Maasai. Explicit anti-circumcision campaigns spread from the 1990s onwards. The government criminalized the practice through the 1998 Sexual Offence Special Provision Act – which, some literature suggests, is interpreted by some as a mere attempt to gain Western approval. At the same time, Western-funded NGOs undertook a battle against the practice that was often inherently political. Today, the moral fervour coming from international conditioned aid bears uncanny resemblance to earlier justifications of imperialism.

Academic research has shown that attempts to eradicate circumcision were framed in the past (and are still framed today) in a progress vs. culture dichotomy, which labels traditional practices like circumcision as unchanging, and thus as diametrically opposed to civilization, modernization and development efforts. These “hard” approach to the eradication of circumcision, which presents the practice as “barbaric”, illegal, and inherently wrong, is what characterized, according to the literature, the vast majority of anti-circumcision interventions that occurred in the past.

Photo Courtesy of Elena Butti
Ineffectiveness and counter-effectiveness

Such “hard” attempts to eradicate the practice have not only been extremely unsuccessful, but also, very often, counterproductive, as I have observed myself during my research with the Maasai women of Remiti. Three main reasons emerged for the ineffectiveness of a “hard” approach.

1) Using unappealing arguments
The first reason for the ineffectiveness of a “hard” approach is the fact that the arguments used in most anti-circumcision campaigns do not appeal to Maasai women. Shaping campaigns in terms of women’s individual rights over their bodies overlooks the essential role that family and community relationships play in defining a person’s social status in Maasai society, which has been widely documented by anthropological research. A female informant emphasized this when stating “circumcision is fundamental in the familial structure, because having a circumcised daughter enhances her parents’ social status from adults to elders.”

Campaigns formulated in terms of health often fail to distinguish between types of circumcision, naively transferring the harmful consequences of infibulation, involving the complete sewing of the woman’s vagina, to other less harmful forms of the practice, such as the one practiced by the Maasai, which involves the partial of total removal of the clitoris. Such generalizations only create confusion about the real health dangers that circumcision involves. Health campaigns also often completely ignore the traditional Maasai belief, highlighted also by several of my informants, that female circumcision cures certain diseases. As inaccurate as it may sound, it is truly vital to address this belief if the health argument is to sound convincing to Maasai women.

Feminist campaigns which see female circumcision as the evidence of male domination are based on a Western model of gender relations. This argument ignores the reality that, in Maasai communities, it is often the women, rather than the men, who are the strongest proponents of the practice. As an informant told me, “circumcision is an essential step from girlhood to womanhood”. This step is “essential” because, among the Maasai, personality development is not gradual, but, rather, it involves abrupt changes from one state to another, marked by clearly defined rites of passage well documented by anthropologists.
These interventions, formulated in terms of individual rights, health concerns, or women empowerment, claim to speak on behalf of Maasai women, and for these women’s benefit. In reality, however, they consistently fail to tackle these women’s real priorities.

2) Creating fear
A second reason why the “hard” is counter-effective is that it makes the issue a taboo one to address, because of the fear of being blamed. The Tanzanian government’s criminalization of the practice only created additional fear, making Maasai women reluctant to admit even the simple existence of the practice within their communities, for the fear of being punished. During a focus group, a man asked the women: “Why don’t you want to address circumcision, what is so secret about it?” A woman answered: “Circumcision exists, it would be stupid to deny it. But we don’t want to talk about it because we’re afraid of the law.”

 The legal prohibition is also contributing to undermine the significance of the ritual, turning it into a merely clandestine performance of excision. In many cases, circumcision today is performed secretly, undermining its significance as a rite of passage and its celebratory component, and ultimately driving the practice underground. To keep the practice hidden, girls are circumcised at an increasingly young age, and circumcised women do not seek healthcare when in need, because of the fear to be discovered.

3) Generating resistance
A third reason for the counter-effectiveness of the “hard” approach is the resistance effect generated in the local communities when people perceive that their rights to cultural self-determination are being infringed. Campaigns that frame circumcision as a static, barbarous, traditional practice may, paradoxically, politicize it as a fundamental element of Maasai cultural identity, to be defended at all costs as a way of resisting what is perceived as a new wave of ideological colonialism. My informants’ repeated and wholehearted remarks that circumcision “is just part of our culture, we have done it for years, there is no further explanation” seem to confirm their attachment to the ritual as part of a fight to preserve their culture under attack. The consequence is that cultural practices that were once fluid, changing and complex are now crystallized and used as weapons on what has been defined as a “symbolic battleground where ‘Maasai culture’ must be defended against the onslaught of development.”

The analysis above, which combines previous studies with by my personal observations, suggests that the “hard” approach so far adopted in attempting to eradicate female circumcision is not only ineffective, but also counterproductive, as it provokes a total closure to even “softer” attempts to address the issue. This conclusion might explain the aggressive reaction of the women in my focus group as soon as I mentioned the topic. Whether my approach was soft, hard, smooth, rough or bouncy, it did not matter. The problem was the issue itself, the fact that a white person was addressing it, and the heavy history that this association bears.

I later found out that the only time FT Kilimanjaro, the NGO I was working for, had addressed the issue before was through hiring the services of another NGO, NAFGEM (Network Against Female Genital Mutilation), whose official agenda is to “eradicate female genital mutilation” from the world. The method they used was that of showing shocking images of Somali infibulated girls to illustrate how dangerous circumcision can be. Needless to mention, the circumcision practiced by the Maasai has nothing to do with infibulation. In my view, and as the women’s reaction in my focus group shows, this earlier intervention did nothing to improve the situation – quite the contrary. I would strongly recommend to FT Kilimanjaro not to make use of NAFGEM’s services again.

Photo Courtesy of Elena Butti
Alternative approaches

I do not mean to argue, that female circumcision is not a problem at all. My point is that a “hard” approach to its eradication is only likely to perpetuate the practice and to make it harder to address it through “softer” means. Below, I suggest some alternative approaches that could be used instead, in order to generate bottom-up discussion and restore the fluidity and dynamicity of the practice, aiming at a gradual rather than abrupt, internally driven rather than externally imposed change.

An essential feature of this alternative “soft” approach is the centrality of the active participation of local women in deciding the form of the interventions, rather than them being the mere receivers of trainings that tell them what is right or wrong about their culture. Strategies should aim at generating a critical reflexion among these women on the reasons and consequences of circumcision, on which aspects of it are the most fundamental, and on which other are harmful and could be avoided. Theoretically, such interventions could draw upon the Maasai concept of enkisasai, that is, the idea that change occurs in society through the adaptation of tradition, rather than, as it is the case in “hard” approaches, through the fight of traditional culture

An example of a “soft” intervention could be the use of alternative ceremonies, which avoid excision but retain other aspects of generational initiation rites, such as the celebration, in an attempt to capture the cultural significance of the practice while avoiding its dangerous components.
Another (non mutually-exclusive) intervention is the use of community discussions on the issue. These should be shaped in a non-invasive, non-normative way, and possibly led by insiders from the community, or at least facilitators of Maasai ethnicity. Creative means, such as performing a theatre piece, drawing paintings, playing songs, could also be used to trigger discussion. Such discussions are to be organized in close collaboration with community members, so that they perceive them as coming from their input and running on their terms.

An indirect, more long-term way to tackle the problem is through increasing the school attendance of Maasai girls, which is today among the lowest in Tanzania. Research has found a positive correlation between school attendance and rejection of circumcision. Such intervention would at the same time tackle the problem of the marginalization of Maasai people, helping them to integrate with the rest of society.

The inadequacy of law

Female circumcision is certainly concerned with several basic human rights. However, this analysis shows how, in some cases, legal provisions are not the most effective mean to enhance human rights. While culture should not be an excuse for failing to respect even minimum human rights standards, the domestic application of such rights is an obligation of results and not of means. This means that the law is only one of the possible means through which human rights can be granted, and, in some contexts, it might not be the most appropriate. The legal criminalization of female circumcision, as this reflection has demonstrated, has had a reverse effect in Tanzania. An approach to human rights implementation like the receptor approach, an innovative approach designed by prof. Tom Zwart, which makes use of culturally embedded values and mechanisms to enhance human rights, might be more suitable to address the issue.

Critical reflexivity

My emotional reaction to this experience made me reflect on my positionality as a researcher. I realized that, no matter how much effort I made to try to be neutral in my words and approach, the colour of my skin and the history it bears inevitably have an (unwanted) influence on what I say. Westerners, including myself, often tend to believe that “people should be accountable only for what they say in words,” but communication is more complex than that. There was, in this case, a whole flow of unsaid meanings related to my skin colour and to the complicated history of the topic, which I did not initially realize, nor could I prevent from happening. These contextual elements did not reside in spoken words, but were nonetheless a fundamental part of the communication between be and the Maasai women.

Developing self-awareness, that is, reflecting one’s identity and on how it influences our surroundings, is an emotional process – as my tears during the focus group clearly showed. I learned that it might sometimes be unwelcomed, or even deeply embarrassing (during the focus group, at some point I was almost ashamed of being white). But I also learned that becoming self-aware was a necessary process, if I wanted to answer the puzzling question of why on Earth a group of women started yelling at me as soon as I pronounced what, to me, seemed only a harmless, innocent word.

Guest Post by Elena Butti (Elena is a UCU Student who majors in Law and Anthropology. She has conducted field research in the practice of FGM amongst a group of Maasai women, living in Tanzania)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article and advice on how to approach this sensitive issue within the Maasai communities. Our organization, Pastoralist Child Foundation is based in Kenya (Samburu and Maasai Mara) and our mission is to eradicate FGM and forced childhood marriages...replace with alternative rites of passage and sponsor girls education at the primary and secondary school levels. Please visit our site at