Tag Archives: Afro-Feminism

As it is, Genitals matter

In patriarchal heaven, a special award for total disregard and hatred of females is reserved for people who blather on about how genitals don’t matter and male circumcision is just as bad as female genital mutilation. You are more likely to encounter such drivel from those who are furthest removed from communities which enforce atrocious cultural practices like FGM. But while the temptation is to blank out their appropriative erasure of women’s struggles, there will be no silence in the face of this covert wave of misogynistic violence.

Perhaps in an ideal world, genitals would have as much importance as arms, or ears; vital but not weaponized as they are in sexist, male-centred, capitalist society. But wishing something were different doesn’t make it so. Here and now, genitals matter. And it is essential that those at the receiving end of oppression on the basis of the type they were born with understand exactly why and how this oppression is actualized. For us, this is a starting point toward liberation.

Undeniably, consent is a major issue in both female and male genital cutting. Consent  is compromised, often nonexistent, not only in the circumcision of male and female babies/children, but in cultures which provide no other option for their members except to endure it. And while tribal and religious women/men may proclaim agency and pride in having undergone the ritual, the fact that doing otherwise would have led to grave repercussions undermines the context of choice.

The absence of consent is one of the main arguments against male circumcision. But critique and comparisons between genital cutting of males vis-a-vis that of females must go further, beginning with acknowledging the fact that FGM and male circumcision, both of which center the penis (i.e ‘manhood’), are just two of several gender rituals which pay homage to and reify the belief in the superiority of maleness – even as their enforcement hurts boys/men too. This universal culture of phallocentric worship, and in turn, male domination and female oppression, is at the root of most, if not all, practices of genital cutting.

Consider Uganda where male circumcision is popularly practiced by the BaMasaba (or Bagisu) tribe. The upbeat imbalu festivities, held in the month of August in every even-numbered year, are recognized in our mainstream culture. During each season, teenage boys are initiated into manhood by the cutting off of the foreskin. This marks one as a man; giving boys unfettered access to the spoils of male privilege.

Of such importance is imbalu that adult males who aren’t circumcised are referred to derogatorily as boys. Wives are urged to report uncircumcised husbands. Males who escape from their villages/families in fear or defiance are hunted down and forced to undergo cutting. It is said that if a Mugisu man dies uncircumcised, his corpse ‘faces the knife’ before burial.

Male circumcision is also practiced within Uganda’s muslim community, in the belief that circumcised men are ‘cleaner’ than their uncircumcised counterparts. But the practice goes beyond Bagisu and Muslims. With the dawn of the new millenium, we have seen an increase in cases of child sacrifice, attributed to witch-doctors demanding offerings of human heads, blood, and genitals from wealth-seeking and/or wealth-protecting clients. The ideal ritual is said to be infants (preferably male, as indicated by a 2008 Uganda Police Annual Crime and Traffic/Road Safety report showing that of 25 cases of ritual murder of children, 6 victims were female and 19 of them male), specifically without any cuts on their bodies. Blemishes have been given as a reason as to why some children, supposedly kidnapped for sacrifice, have been dumped off by the perpetrators. Thus, as protection, many Ugandans now rush to circumcise their sons weeks after birth.

Some Ugandan men also opt for circumcision on the basis of the W.H.O finding that circumcised men have less chance of contracting HIV. In a country where despite massive efforts to drive awareness, infection rates are still high, this is not surprising.

Still within these borders, we have the Pokot, Sabiny, Kadama and Tepeth in and around the district of Kapchorwa – the only known indigenous Ugandan tribes which practice FGM. The procedure varies across cultures; here, it mainly constitutes clitoridectomy, that is, cutting off the clitoris. In some cases with partial cutting of the inner labia. While in others, infibulation whereby both labia are cut off and the resulting wound is sewn up, leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual blood. Upon marriage, this hole is raptured open by a penis, usually with the help of a knife. More cutting is often required to widen the opening during childbirth.

In excising the clitoris, female capacity for sexual pleasure, and thereby likelihood of sexual misconduct are curbed. This ‘purification’ ensures that men have control over the sexuality of ‘their’ girls/women, some of them pre-teen by the time of cutting. Whatever their age, girls with mutilated genitals are considered ripe for marriage, and are regarded highly in the community unlike their ‘incomplete’ counterparts.

Genital cutting poses a high risk of transmitting infections, including HIV, due to the sharing of instruments. But while this issue has been openly addressed by tribal and medical practitioners of male circumcision, this isn’t the case for FGM. Moreover, in Uganda at least, female genital mutilation is carried out underground, and not by medical professionals in specialized establishments. Therefore, naive equivalence simply works to sanitize the realities of an absolute tragedy, and accrue to it the surgical advantages in male circumcision.

But this is a fraction of what girls/women who undergo FGM face: excruciating pain from the moment of cutting (without anaesthesia, unlike in the modern practice of male circumcision), and a lifetime of painful urination, on/off urinary tract infections, inflammation of the bladder due to urine retention, painful menstruation due to blood retention in the uterus, severe pain during sexual intercourse, prolonged labour due to loss of elasticity of the vaginal canal, fistula due to rapturing of the vagina and/or uterus during childbirth, and even death. Incomparable to the healing process of circumcised males which generally takes couple of weeks, using local herbs and/or western medicine to numb the pain, hasten the process, and ward off infections.

This is why women world over continue fighting to end this inhumane, barbaric practice. We also recognize that the ultimate beneficiary of all genital cutting, particularly that which is culturally-mandated, is the class of men.

When male children are promoted into manhood through circumcision, continuing male subjugation of girls/women in the footsteps of their forefathers, it is men who benefit and women who pay the price.

When male children are valued over female children, so much so that they are prime offering for sacrifice – as done by biblical patriarchs – it is boys who pay  the price and men who benefit from it.

As they do when circumcised to reduce their chance of being infected with HIV, even as male violence places women at higher risk of infection, with females aged 15-24  (who, according to UNAIDS, account for 75% of infections in sub-Saharan Africa) three times more likely to be infected than boys/men of the same age.

Importantly, men enjoy benefits (real or imagined), whereas women lose whichever way you look at it, in the practice of female genital cutting. And yet even in this day, the subordination, dehumanization, and destruction of femaleness itself in FGM culture is continually defanged in relativism and equality rhetoric.

Enough with those spewing ‘genitals don’t matter’ and ‘just as bad as…’ foolishness while the genitals of our sisters across the globe are cut and diced to the whims and for the ego of men.

The oppression of female persons, girls and women, will not be queered out of existence by the language policing (clitoral amputation?!?) and derailing tactics of conservative idealists and men’s rights activists cloaked in liberalism. We must remain vigilant.

Missing: The Great Daughters of Afrika

The revolution and women’s liberation go together.

We don’t talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity,

or because of a surge of human compassion.

It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution.

Women hold up the other half of the sky. 

Thomas Sankara, Pan-Africanist

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Got into a small exchange the other day with the lovely person who handles the Steve Biko Foundation twitter account. Now, I greatly appreciate the work they do to keep the legacy of the South African anti-apartheid icon alive, and that of many others who have worked toward the liberation of black people in Africa and across the world. Biko reminds us of their ideas, contributions; and to be proud of being African. Encourages us to not tire from doing the work.

Last week was 27 years since the murder of Thomas Sankara, one-time President of Burkina Faso; ‘Africa’s Che Guevara’. The leader of the ’80s Burkinabe people-centred revolution not only challenged the global capitalist system, his feminist work is remarkable even for today; banning misogynistic practices like female genital mutilation and polygamy, which are still rampant world-over, improving conditions for women in the labour market, and boosting reproductive health options. His firm stand on how Africa’s progress is inextricably tied to women’s liberation is itself revolutionary. For that alone, he is worth celebrating.

And so on the morning of this anniversary, a Biko tweet flashed by:

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Curiosity forgot the man and his ‘uprightness’ for a moment, to ask:

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Fifty-two weeks a year, celebrations of one man then the next pop up. That day Fela Kuti was also filling my timeline. All the great men of Africa, great men of the American civil rights movement; Sons of the Soil. And I am grateful for what they did. But for Mother Africa’s sake, were there really no women involved in steering black consciousness forward?

To which they kindly responded:

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The response was refreshing. I was prepared for some defensive retort about derailing and stuff. And while I  agreed with their sentiment, couldn’t help noting “…Afrikan leaders were not alone…”; a Freudian slip in line with the idea that men are the default African revolutionaries. That said, except perhaps for those in the academe, tracing any of the wisdom and tales of the contributions of our foremothers who toiled alongside men like Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkurumah, and Patrice Lumumba is quite exhausting for the rest of us. One would love to learn more of the revolutionary work done by Africans like Graca Machel, not about her marriages. But it is not for Biko Foundation alone to collect and share this work.

This challenge isn’t unique to African women. Universally, women’s intellectual, activist, and work in diverse fields of endeavor is largely hidden from view. Western women have been ‘luckier’ in maintaining and retrieving writings and records. But the work of the Great Daughters of Afrika remains largely unknown; deceptively implying by erasure their historical absence in continental and global anti-colonialism, anti-racism and feminist movement.

As children, the ‘village’ of mothers who raised us often provided our earliest exposure to the power of sisterhood and all the good and great that a woman could be. There were also the TV women, whom my mother pointed out with pride – like close friends: Winnie Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and for not good reasons, Imelda Marcos. Quite oblivious to their politics. First-forward years later, away from home: Winnie and Margaret were considered top villains by all my peers. Indira was somewhat forgotten even if her legacy is still strong in India; powerfully carried forward by her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi.

Writing on women in power, Naomi Wolf discusses whether this is real power or the women are just figureheads; or if it is only a phase wherein men are temporarily handing over the reins of leadership for women to clean up the mess men created. After hailing the Merkels, Kirshners, Livnis, and Rousseffs of this world, Wolf segues to: “The last three decades have yielded a cadre of women leaders even where women otherwise lag far behind in terms of opportunity.” That murky corner is where you find Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, and Joyce Banda, recent ex-President of Malawi. She throws in Park Geun-hye, President of South Korea – a woman from the one continent where women have for decades held top office.

Evidently, the narrative persists that African (and Asian) women have only recently arrived at the table of leadership. This is intellectual dishonesty, in line with Audre Lorde’s critique of Mary Daly’s work – about how the voices of African women, their history and perspectives, are generally excluded from writings about women, and if at all included, focus on negatives and/or are fashioned to reinforce negative stereotypes about  Africans. Correcting this misrepresentation is a hell of work. Sadly, it is a reality that is pervasive.

Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela, who I still consider a great Daughter of Afrika, is now known in the west for the death of Stompie and for neck-lacing. I do not condone murder. And neither do I believe that her ex-husband was, in his life and activism, the saint that is portrayed in the mainstream; the image celebrated even in countries where he was once considered a terrorist.

But those who care for balance know that her work during the struggle was invaluable, know about the persecution she suffered at the hands of a racist government (which, as a matter of fact, was supported by Margaret and her bestie Reagan), and know that her husband’s legacy wouldn’t be what it is without her work whilst he was on Robben Island. Africans know this, and some South Africans consider her mother of their nation. You sense this in public reaction toward her. She isn’t perfect, but she matters. Thank goddess some people remember.

Similarly, popular representations of the American civil rights movement largely exclude women; overwhelming us with sanitized versions of men like Martin Luther King Jr., with little trace of the blemishes lurking in their shadows. Regardless, we hail them and gloss over the negatives. Which makes you wonder: how many women, Daughters of Afrika here and abroad, have been Winnie’d, so to speak? Even worse, how many have been totally purged from our collective memory? Which Pankhursts do little African girls grow up looking up to?

As we find our way through this abyss of male-celebrating and white-centered written history, we must also come to the acknowledgement that the idea that African men will, guns ablaze, deliver Africa to post-colonial glory is an experiment which has not only failed, but has evidently cost us lives and time. Colonialism is an excuse which has done its time.

It is fifty bloody years long-overdue.

With many African governments characterized by endless corruption scandals and poor service delivery, it is no wonder some are conceding that collaborating with women is a prerequisite for progress. In any society, worst still a corruption-filled one, the structural dominance of men in leadership isn’t only a factor in the high levels of poverty among women, but also means that we don’t have as much to lose when it comes to doing the right thing. African men are deeply entrenched in the gut of the system that has stunted the revolution.

It is about time women’s contributions toward moving the world, Africa forward, were recognised. We need a coalition of equals; beginning in our homes, stretching to the rural-most corners of the continent, and spreading outwards to the wider social and political structures.

As the revolutionary said, women hold up the other half of the sky, alas:

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There’s no Africa rising without the voices of the Daughters of Afrika.