Sunday - May 25, 2003

Circumcision 101

The peculiarities of Sudan
Le B.A.-BA de la circoncision - Les bizarreries du Soudan

Pierre and I have developed many skills with which to communicate, as English is quite unreliable. Even so, secondary forms of communication can be precarious as well. Sometimes gestures work, other times no way, you must physically show what you would like. Sometimes vocal inflection works, but sometimes it doesn't, as intonations can mean entirely different things in different languages. Overall, the people always genuinely want to help. Here as throughout most of the Africa we've visited, people seem extremely resistant to the answer "I don't know". Perhaps they feel ashamed. So although you may not always get the right answer, it is sure you will always get an answer.


Tonight we had dinner on the Nile, and afterwards while walking saw a huge convention hall and so we ask what is inside. "Oh, shopping. They have wonderful things, you should go" says a young woman. We pay to get in and find booths lined up and down the walls, florescent lights wall-paper the ceiling, and it's packed with families. Many of the women have on full-face veils. Nothing odd about this, except that 50% of the stalls were selling sexy-sexy lingerie. The oxymoron of the Muslim world. What really goes on?? wow! I ask Pierre to speed up the honeymoon. The other 20% of the booths sell pirated video and music tapes, 5% sell wedding dresses, and my favorite booth of all, Japanese men speaking broken English (Sudan's secondary language) through head-microphones while demo-ing and selling kitchen mops. Everything i need under one roof except the Valium! Afterwards, we hail a taxi. If you don't like to bargain, don't bother coming. At first, bargaining for everything from water to hotel rooms annoyed me, but eventually I came to love it. It is like a game, and a verbal dance. Sometimes you make good, and sometimes someone makes good on you. How will you call bluffs, how will you play, and, the best, learning to read people, their body language and the psychology of language itself. "How much?", we ask the driver. "No problem, get in". "Oh yes, its a big problem, tell us how much?". "No problem, I take you anywhere". "Ok, If its no problem, then you will take us for free?". "No problem, get in". "No, give us your price". "Ok, How much do you want to pay me?". "Noooo, we don't work like that, how much?" "Uhhh, how about 50?". "hahahaha". "Ok, 30". "hahahaha". ok 20". "Hmmmm, 20??". "15, no problem, get in".... and off we go. A dream school in bargaining, patience and psychological give. Observing the different realities that the human mind creates, perceives and processes is the greatest study ever.

In contrast, something that is incredibly disturbing to discover is the pervading practice of Female Genital Mutilation, aka, circumcision. I have been reading and learning all I can, and hopefully during my stay here, I will be able to donate some time to the programs that are trying to educate people on its insanity. Infibulation is practiced in 30 countries worldwide and is quite common in both Sudan and Ethiopia. In Djibouti, Ethiopia's neighbor, 95% of the women are circumcised. On average, it is believed 6000 women are circumcised every day throughout the world. The most common type is called 'Excision' which involves the removal of all or some of the clitoris and all or part of the inner genitalia. If you want to read more about it, I posted text from Lonely Planet's Ethiopia, Eritrea, & Djibouti guide November 2000 entitled, "A Scream So Strong It Would Shake The Earth".

It's a fascinating read, so please....(scroll to the end of the french text)


Pierre et moi avons développé plein de techniques pour communiquer parce que l'anglais n'est pas très fiable. Même avec ça, les formes de communication secondaires peut aussi être précaires. Quelquefois les gestes marchent, d'autres fois pas moyen, tu dois physiquement montrer ce que tu veux. Quelquefois les intonations vocales marchent, mais quelquefois pas, parce que les intonations peuvent avoir des sens complètement différents selon les langages. En général, les gens veulent sincèrement aider. Ici, comme dans la plupart des pays africains que nous avons visité, les gens semblent être extrêmement résistants à dire "Je ne sais pas". Peut-être qu'ils se sentent honteux. Donc, bien que tu n'aies pas toujours la bonne réponse, tu es certain de toujours en avoir une.


Ce soir, après avoir dîné au bord du Nil, nous passons devant un énorme hall de conférence et nous demandons ce qu'il y a dedans. "Oh, du shopping: ils ont des trucs super, vous devriez y aller", nous dit une jeune femme. Nous payons pour rentrer et nous trouvons des stands alignés le long des murs, des néons partout au plafond et c'est rempli de familles. La plupart des femmes ont des voiles qui leur recouvrent tout le visage. Rien de bizarre à ça, sauf que 50% des stands vendent de la lingerie sexy-sexy. L'oxymoron du monde musulman. Qu'est-ce qui se passe ici?? Wow! Je demande à Pierre d'accélérer la lune de miel. Les autres 20% des stands vendent des cassettes et des vidéos piratées, 5% vendent des robes de mariage et mon stand préféré, des Japonais parlant un anglais approximatif à travers des microphones mains-libres tout en démontrant des serpillières de cuisine. Tout ce dont j'ai besoin sous le même toit, sauf le Valium!

Ensuite nous appelons un taxi. Si tu n'aimes pas marchander, pas la peine de venir. Au début, marchander pour tout, de l'eau minérale jusqu'au chambres d'hôtel, m'ennuyait - puis j'ai fini par aimer. C'est comme un jeu et une danse verbale. Quelques fois tu en profites bien, quelques fois quelqu'un profite bien de toi. Comment bluffer, comment jouer et, le meilleur, apprendre à lire les gens, leur langage corporel et la psychologie du langage lui-même. "Combien?", nous demandons au chauffeur. "Pas de problème, montez". "Oh oui, c'est un gros problème, dîtes-nous combien?". "Pas de problème, je vous emmène où vous voulez". "Ok, si ce n'est pas un problème, vous nous emmenez gratuit?". "Pas de problème, montez". "Non, dîtes-nous votre prix". "Ok, combien vous voulez me payer?". "Nonnn, nous ne marchons pas comme ça, combien?". "Euuh, 50?". "Hahaha". "Ok, 30". "Hahaha". "Ok, 20". "Hmmm, 20??". "15, pas de problème, montez"... et nous y allons. Un école rêvée pour le marchandage, la patience et la psychologie. Observer les différentes réalités que l'âme humaine crée, perçoit et traite est la plus vaste étude qui soit.

Par contre, quelque chose qui est incroyablement dérangeant à découvrir, c'est la pratique assez répandue de la Mutilation Génitale Féminine, c'est-à-dire la circoncision. J'ai lu et appris tout ce que j'ai pu et j'espère pouvoir donner un peu de temps au programmes qui essaient d'éduquer les gens sur son ineptie. L'infibulation est pratiquée dans 30 pays dans le monde et elle est courante au Soudan et en Ethiopie. A Djibouti, un pays voisin de l'Ethiopie, 95% des femmes sont circoncises. En moyenne, 6000 femmes seraient circoncises par jour à travers le monde. La forme la plus courante est appelée "excision" et implique l'amputation de tout ou partie du clitoris et des lèvres internes. Si vous voulez en savoir plus, j'ai recopié un texte du guide Lonely Planet sur l'Ethiopie, l'Eritrée et Djibouti de novembre 2000 sous le titre "Un cri si fort qu'il pourrait remuer la Terre". C'est une lecture fascinante, donc s'il vous plaît...

(Vous pouvez traduire le texte avec Babelfish: copiez l'adresse de cette page et entrez-la dans le champ prévu à cet effet, puis sélectionnez "English to French" et Babelfish fera le reste)



The practice of female genital manipulation (FGM), is practiced in 30 countries worldwide. In Africa and parts of Asia, it is believed that 2 million women are circumcised each year; in other words, 6000 women every day. In the west and other cultures unfamiliar with the practice, the custom is seen as outrageous and barbaric. But FGM is neither a modern phenomenon nor one restricted to Africa and Asia. According to modern sociology, the practice is just a 'natural continuation of the ancient patriarchal repression of female sexuality'. The Romans kept tabs on their slave girls by inserting genital rings. The Crusaders in the 12th century introduced the chastity belt to Europe in order to keep their wives under lock and key, while they campaigned abroad.

In 19th century Europe and America, doctors counseled operations on female genitalia to treat a variety of anti-social conditions, including nymphomania (Hey, why isn't there isn't a word for over-sexed males?), insanity, hysteria, and depression. A London practitioner by the name of Dr. Isaac Baker Brown advocated genital manipulation with a pair of scissors in order to treat 'insomnia' and 'unhappy marriages'. In New York in the 1950s, a young girl underwent a clitoridectomy (the removal of the clitoris) because her family suspected her of masturbating. Prostitutes were encouraged to undergo similar operations by church evangelists to rehabilitate them. In no other continent though, does it have such a strong hold as Africa. The type and severity of the mutilation depends on the particular traditions of the different groups.

There are three types of manipulation. 'Circumcision' involves the removal of the prepuce of hood of the clitoris; it is the least severe, but also the least practiced. 'Excision' involves the removal of all or some of the clitoris and all or part of the inner genitalia. it is the commonest form of mutilation, and accounts for 80% of the cases. 'Infibulation' is the severest form and requires the removal of the clitoris, the inner genitals and most or all of the outer genitals (labia major). The 2 sides of the vulva are then stitched together with catgut, thread, reed or thorns. A tiny opening is preserved by the insertion of a twig, allowing for the passing of urine. The girl's legs are then bound for 40 days to allow the formation of scar tissue.

Operations are carried out with a variety of instruments including knives, glass, scissors, pieces of glass, or as they become more available, razor blades. Sometimes sharp stones have been used, or in Ethiopia, cauterization (burning). Usually girls between the ages of 4 and 14 undergo the operation, though sometimes it is performed after a woman delivers her first child. The operation is usually the responsibility of one woman in the group. Except for very rich families in the hospitals of big cities, no anaesthesia is ever employed. The area of the Horn, encompassing Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia is home to a particular rampant tradition of female circumcision. In Djiobouti, 95% of women are estimated to Infibulated (the severest form).

Westerners are quick to express outrage, however, these traditions are deeply entrenched and are inextricably tied up in the religious, cultural, and social lives of the inhabitants. One reason given for the practice is hygiene. In hot climates where water for washing is not readily available, the removal of the genitals is thought to promote cleanliness. Aesthetics is another consideration. Genitals are considered ugly and dirty: a flat smooth area of skin is considered pleasing to the sight and touch.

Superstition plays a part as well. In Ethiopia, some groups believe if the female genitalia isn't removed, they will continue to grow as a man's do, into puberty. Some believe the uncircumcised woman can't conceive; others believe that if she does, the unexcised clitoris will kill the first born child just by coming into contact with it.

The sense of belonging and identification plays an extremely important part in most African's lives (and the issue least understood by non-Africans). Just as male circumcision is seen as crucial to Jewish tradition, so is female circumcision seen to some African traditions.

Another common defense for FGM is the claim that it prevents female promiscuity. After genital manipulation, the female is said to have her libido lessened for life. In some Muslim countries, where polygamy is permitted, circumcision is said to lessen the demands that wives put on a single husband.

Circumcision is also a means to guaranty the virginity of a future bride. In some countries it is a young girl's duty to attend to the herds, obliging her to spend long hours alone. Circumcision is designed to 'protect' her and discourage the roving eye os nomadic men (if a girl was raped, it would be obvious and a perpetrator would be found) virginity in all traditional African societies is a prerequisite for marriage. It reflects the prestige of the girl's family and assures a good 'market-value' for the bride.

There is no doubt female genital mutilation brings enormous physical and psychological pain and suffering. Postoperative complications involve hemorrhage, damage to other organs or bones from badly performed operations or struggling patients, and septicemia as a result of using unsterilized instruments. Doctors estimate that 15% os all girls die post-operatively of infections or bleeding.

Those who survive often suffer ongoing complications such as infections or abbesses, or even, after infibulation, an inability to empty the bladder fully because of the narrowness of the opening after the operation. The next chapter in a girl's life, the marriage night and childbirth, bring repeat experiences of unbearable pain and sometimes life-threatening danger.

Though little studied to date, the psychological damage of the operation is considered no less serious. Cases of severe depression, frigidity, anxiety and very low self-worth have often been reported. As one doctor put it, "These girls are holding back a scream so strong, it would shake the earth".

Most of the arguments for FGM as outlined above are based in superstitions, myth or perpetual tradition. However, if elimination of the practice is to be brought about, it will not be through the edicts of government proclaiming, "this is illegal", nor the lectures claiming, "this is barbaric". A grassroots campaign is required to that seeks to understand as well as confront the deeply ingrained traditions of the local people. Above all it will depend on the courage of the victims themselves. As Capt. Thomas Sankara, the late pres. of Burkino Faso, put it:

...the liberation of women in our country, the women of Africa, of women as a whole, will not come about as an act of charity. It will depend on their will and their determination to struggle..."

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