Makau Mutua: The politics of clitoridectomy

In November 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the National Policy on Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation which kicked off the campaign to eradicate FGM in the country by 2022. Photo | Courtesy

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • We are inherently fascinated and seduced by sex and sexuality.
  • Scientists agree the clitoris has one basic function.

Some tightwad may think the subject of this column is X-rated, or taboo. It’s neither. Rather, it’s about knowledge, and the politics of knowledge. Specifically, it’s about the fight over women’s rights and cultural norms.

It’s about sex education, the de-stigmatisation of public discourse on sexuality, and women’s autonomy over their bodies and reproductive rights. Ignorance about any subject creates a stupid society. So, let’s not “do stupid”.

That’s why I was buoyed to see MPs openly discussing “female genital cutting”, popularly referred to as “female genital mutilation” or FGM. Others call it “female genital surgeries,” or “female circumcision”.

There are complicated politics about lexicon – what to call “it”. That’s because there’s a lot – sometimes everything – in a name.

We are inherently fascinated and seduced by sex and sexuality. This area of human anatomy, thought, deed, and emotion is the most intriguing to the human mind. Most of the time, we explore our bodies in silence and ignorance. It can drive us to destructive and irrational behaviour, or make us into the tenderest of beings.

Human anatomy

But it’s akin to a grenade. Ignorance of our bodies is imposed on us by culture and the norms of the so-called “polite society”. Parents and figures of authority rarely talk to their children and young people about human anatomy and sexuality. Then we wonder why so many of our youth make tragic choices about their bodies. We must end this deliberate stupidity.

The word on which there’s little controversy is “clitoridectomy”. The reason is not many people dare pronounce the word. Clitoridectomy is the excision of all or part of the clitoris on girls who legally have no choice and can’t consent. The clitoris is, of course, the most sensitive female sexual organ common to all mammals, including human beings.

 It’s equivalent in males is the penis. Scientists agree the clitoris has one basic function. It’s an erogenous organ capable of erection and sexual stimulation. Simply put, it’s the “lady button” whose purpose is sexual pleasure often leading to the female orgasm. There’s agreement a woman is unlikely to reach, or develop, her full sexual potential without a clitoris.

You are hopeless if I don’t have your full attention now. It’s clear that the excision – in part or whole – of the clitoris visits great violence and deprivation to the girl, or woman. It’s a frontal, total assault on the sexuality and the humanity of a girl, or woman. That’s the science of the matter – period. There are no two ways about it.

Egregious violation

Cutting off female genitalia, especially the clitoris, is unquestionably the most heinous and egregious violation of the female body, womanhood, and personhood. Culture aside, it’s a gross human rights violation. There can be only one purpose for such an offensive practice – to control women’s bodies and rob them of the pleasures of sexuality. End of story.

I am aware of the raging arguments about clitoridectomy because I teach human rights. Initially, it was perceived that white women in Europe and America were more concerned with clitoridectomy than Africans, Arabs, and Muslims – the three demographics where the practice has been concentrated.

These White “foreign” activists coined the term FGM, or female genital mutilation. We don’t of course expect the cultures where it’s practiced to describe it as “mutilating” women. It was generally called “circumcision”. The entry of the White women into the debate led to charges of cultural imperialism. They were accused of appropriating – silencing – the voices of women subjected to the practice and depicting them as horizontally prone helpless dupes and victims of patriarchy.

Forgotten in this international debate was the internal resistance to clitoridectomy by women in the communities where it’s practised. These women have led the fight against the practice. In Kenya, the practice has been criminalised, as in most other states.

Cultural and religious justifications do not – and cannot – hold any water. We can argue about the terminology and refuse to accept that one culture is superior to another, but we cannot justify the practice.

Thus, dominantly White Western cultures shouldn’t point accusing fingers at Africans, Arabs, or Muslims – accusing them of being “primitive” and “barbaric”. After all, in the West, women are subjected to standards of beauty that lead to bodily mutilations, self-hate, suicide, and eating disorders.

 I was pleased to hear Mavoko MP Patrick Makau [no relation] call out men who advocate clitoridectomy for women in their communities while lusting after “uncut” women from other groups. The MP confessed that the Akamba now advocate the “elongation” of the clitoris to “increase” pleasure.

This frank public conversation among the elite debunks any cultural arguments for clitoridectomy. It’s clear banning the odious and violent practice can only inure to the benefit of both sexes. His point is that we are all the better for it when we “spread the pleasure”. As they say, apigiwe makofi [clap for him].



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