Women, and increasingly men, practice body modification the world over. These are procedures performed on the body in order to alter physical appearance. When done voluntarily, they can be seen as expressions of personal agency. A woman’s autonomy over her own body and her ability to make free choices about her sexual and reproductive functions and her physical appearance are essential to the realisation of her sexual and reproductive health and rights. Feminisms affirm and claim the right for women’s bodily autonomy, sexual liberation and personal dignity.
In reality, modern and traditional societies’ view of women’s sexuality and feminine appearance is founded in patriarchy. The feminine form is an object of beauty, sexual attraction, reproduction, sustenance and prestige. Male status is often depicted through the female forms that surround him. The idealisation of masculine genital appearance and sexual power is evident in the aggressive internet advertising for penis enlargement – and of course the notion that this will guarantee his conquest of the most “beautiful” lady! Thus, prevalent definitions of beauty and sexual attractiveness heavily inform bodily modification practices. Take a good look around and you will realise that a great number of us have done some form of body modification: ear and facial piercings, tattoos, tongue splitting, body sculpting, breast augmentation and other subtle or extreme forms of cosmetic surgery. In traditional cultures, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, genital cutting and mutilation of girls and women continues to be practised and is the subject of human rights debates.
Body modification is thus practiced in noisy environments that define and construct what is viewed as beautiful and ideal. For instance, in traditional African societies that are yoked to patriarchy – that is, autocratic rule by fathers or men and the subjugation of women and girls – female agency and women’s bodily autonomy is difficult. In the same breath, the influence of popular media and modern culture exerts pressure on girls and women to attain a certain standard of beauty and sexual attractiveness. The idealised female body used in advertising suggests that it attracts male power, wealth and status.
Motivations for body modification vary. In some cultures, social status, group affiliation, peer influence and wealth carry significant influence; in others, body modification is associated with sentimental ideals and religious, personal or political meanings. This article will delve into female genital mutilations (FGM) and labia elongation (LE) practices in traditional African societies, and explore the undercurrents that perpetuate these practices.
FGM and LE express the social beliefs and cultural norms of the communities that practice them, such as the aesthetics, adornment and beautification of the female genital area and feminine “readiness” for reproduction. Practiced over centuries, it has been a girl’s rite of passage into womanhood, but the actual act of genital mutilation is contrary to various human rights principles. The practice is considered to be discriminatory, as it propagates violence against women. It is classified as a harmful cultural practice that negates the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and is against the best interests of the child. It denies girls and women individual autonomy over their own bodies, with negative physical, psychological and sexual consequences. In the wake of the human rights push, there was a realisation that cultural tolerance does not apply to harmful forms of cultural practices. Thus a number of international, regional and national laws and policies exist to prohibit FGM. For example, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action provides principles of the right to reproductive health. At the regional level, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) calls on state parties to prohibit FGM. Some countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, UK, Ireland, France and Burkina Faso, have national laws enacted for prohibition of
FGM is practiced in at least 28 African countries. There are different types of FGM, ranging from the least severe, where the prepuce, clitoris and labia minora are damaged or removed, to the most severe, where, in addition to the above, the external genitalia are stitched together to leave a tiny vaginal opening. This process is known as infibulation.
Various reasons are given to justify this practice. Some communities believe that a woman must be a virgin and have undergone FGM to be eligible for marriage. The association between virginity and FGM is so strong that a girl who is not infibulated or excised has virtually no chance of marriage, regardless of her virginity. Due to marital patrilocality – the custom of the wife residing with the husband’s family or tribe – a woman’s access to resources and thus her very survival are dependent on her having undergone FGM. In some communities, such as the Somalis, the vaginal opening of a young girl is “sewn up” to protect her virginity for marriage and thus her chance for a “secure” future as a wife and mother.
Marriage in these communities is not only a union of two people but also an alliance of two lineages that strengthens clans and inter-clan relationships. FGM is considered vital proof of a bride’s virginity, virtue and faithfulness to the husband and also to her family. A woman who has not undergone FGM brings great shame and dishonour to her father’s lineage. Likewise, in some communities in Kenya, such as the Kipsigis, Maasai and Kisii, men are convinced that the traditional FGM practice is done for their benefit. A virtuous wife is one who is a virgin at marriage and has been cut to suppress her interest to “stray”. Uncut women are viewed as out of control and promiscuous: not of marriage quality.
LE is practiced in some ethnic communities in central and southern African countries. The process takes several years and begins when the girl is six or seven years old or around menarche, the onset of menstruation. LE is introduced through a sexual socialisation process in which the girl’s mother, grandmother, caregivers or sisters impart the knowledge and skill of manually manipulating the genital organs. This involves stretching the inner labia minora and often also the clitoris. Coerced to comply with the ritual by being (mis)informed that it will benefit their reproductive capacities, these girls may not understand the sexual significance and dangers of this procedure. In most communities, herbal substances and oils, which are not scientifically certified, are used to help stretch and retain the labia in position. Girls experience discomfort, irritation, oedema and secondary infections. Often the pain is excruciating!
LE is mandatory for girls and women in these communities; anyone who fails or refuses to comply is stigmatised and ridiculed for being “less of a woman”. She is considered to be incapable of satisfying a man sexually and thus unmarriageable, or, if married, she is held responsible for her husband’s infidelity. A study in Zimbabwe found a pervasive belief among men that these practices are done in their favour and that sex with women who have LE is better than with those who have not. The men said that if they do not get sexual satisfaction from a woman who has not undergone LE, they will look for another woman who has. The same study found that, for Zimbabwean women, the practice of LE is accompanied by the insertion of herbal substances into the vagina to tighten it for the enhancement of male sexual pleasure. This may result in serious medical consequences such as irritation of the vaginal wall, causing painful intercourse and infections. It is also not evident that LE assures marital success, as married women with LE experience the usual sexual and relational problems, often because of their male partners’ infidelity. The burden of marital sexual success is purely, and unfairly, placed on the woman.
The practice of LE among the Baganda people in Uganda is accompanied by another interesting phenomenon called “squirting” or female ejaculation. Aunties known as “senga” teach the art of sexual seduction and pleasure to brides-in-waiting. This means that the girls have a very open way of understanding their sexuality but, like elsewhere, the ultimate goal is to manipulate women’s sexuality for male pleasure and the preservation of patriarchal structures.
It is noteworthy that no specific laws yet prohibit LE, perhaps because its medical and human rights consequences have not been fully understood. The proponents of this practice promote the virtue and value of enhancing female pleasure in the act of sex. However, my clinical practice and study show that this could not be further from the truth. The disfigurement of female genitals results in some cases in lesions, the formation of keloids, and extensive destruction of nerve endings due to continual manipulation of the clitoris. This curtails libido and sexual pleasure, the exact opposite of the desired effect. Within the human rights framework, the mandatory nature of LE and its patriarchal roots deny girls and women autonomy over their own bodies and bonds them to early marriage and premature parenthood.
Victims or Influencers?
Although women in patriarchal communities may appear to outsiders as hapless victims, the women themselves do not consider this to be the case. Indeed, they play a significant role in sustaining the patriarchal structures. That FGM practices are performed by women themselves seems to suggest that the “cutters” express a form of agency as custodians of tradition, influencers of culture and social leaders in their own right. While outsiders perceive the women as perpetuating a cruel and harmful traditional practice, those living in these communities begin the socialisation process very early in life. The recognition that this is an important rite of passage is ingrained into the psyche of girls and women as well as men and boys. Therefore, careful consideration must be given to the opportunity to harness women’s collective influence and feminist agency in these communities to reconfigure rites of passage outside of the mutilation of their own bodies and to appreciate shifting cultural contexts.
Autonomy and free will are washed away when patriarchal systems dictate feminine identity and belonging, whether in traditional or modern contexts, and reproduction and sexuality are the easiest “tools” for men and women to negotiate and preserve male privilege. A woman’s virtue and sexuality are defined by her culture and her future is “secured” by her compliance with norms and regulations that legitimise her femininity, identity, marriageability, sexuality and inclusion in a social or family class. Her womb is the vehicle for the growth of the community and her reproductive choices are scrutinised and ordained by men.
While our culture defines our identity and provides us a sense of belonging, culture in turn is ever morphing. It gains new meaning with new interpretations of norms and values. In traditional Africa, religion, legislation and education continue to reshape culture, along with fervent efforts to re-examine, unlearn and relearn traditional rites of passage and belonging. For instance, unhygienic practices such as shared male circumcision, FGM, teeth cutting/removal and face laceration are slowly fading away because of education and HIV/AIDS awareness efforts. Legal measures have also been used to accelerate the abandonment of FGM. In Kenya, medical practitioners are prohibited from performing FGM for nonmedical reasons and are liable for punishment and sanction if they do.
I would like to conclude by exploring what real agency and autonomy could look like in the general context of body modification. True agency will be experienced when a woman is able to articulate her desires regardless of the loud noise of societal expectations and prescriptions of who she ought to be. More so when girls and women refuse to be yoked to such practices and begin to see themselves as independent individuals who can make choices that benefit their personal health and wellbeing. Feminist agency will be experienced when girls and women stop accepting the status of chattels, when they demand rights to education, empowerment and access to opportunities completely independent of their sexual and reproductive functions and physical appearance, or when they otherwise gain recognition and reward for their care functions. Women’s agency will be experienced when women reject the notion that their own body modifications are for the benefit of men and begin to see them for their own personal gratification. Subsequently, this will mean that women who seek genital modification, whether for traditional or cosmetic purposes, would experience complete autonomy if they were motivated by their own innate desires. Women in traditional communities could see themselves as able to determine their own destinies and could champion delayed rites of passage for young girls, to protect them and maximise their chance for holistic development. With space for autonomy and agency, women can reshape discourses and redefine themselves, whether through flipping the rhetoric of body modifications or through political decision-making, with an agenda to push the boundaries of social acceptance in various contexts.
Realising the social meaning of body inscriptions helps us to understand that conventions of gender and sexuality are culturally invented, celebrated and sanctioned. They provide a harsh environment when a woman cannot define who she is or wants to be, particularly when her failure to conform would invite real or perceived stigmatisation, ridicule and low self worth, as well as punishment and lost opportunities. Cosmetic beauty surgery and fashionable bodily modifications are not dissimilar to traditional social constructs of bodily modifications. They also ought to be inspected through feminist eyes.
This article was first published by Heinrich Böll Foundation and is republished here with their permission.