Defining Clitoridectomy

Essay submission for my Gender, Sexuality, and Politics course at the University of Cape Town located in South Africa.

As a young, gay Black man from the United States’ ‘Deep South,’ I find writing about a woman’s genitalia both a tricky and an extremely sensitive task. It is not often that a fine young gentleman like myself would even think about a woman’s clitoris; however, the topic at hand is not only extremely interesting one, but also one that kept me drunken with questions desperately seeking to find a stance on the matter at hand. Clitoridectomy as defined by Kanogo is the practice of female circumcision (Kanogo, 2005). Whereas people in the United States or other countries may describe this act or surgery as female mutilation, clitoridectomy has taken on a plethora of meanings and definitions that extend far outside of just its practice or act, but that include its cultural and controversial past. Beginning with the practice and significance of clitoridectomy, I then wish to move to the colonial perspective of the practice, ultimately looking to highlight its impact on young women and how these same young Kenyan women challenged their biased colonial authorities as well as gender and generational authority.

While clitoridectomy has been exercised in various parts of the world, Kanogo in her writing specifically focuses on the practice of clitoridectomy in Kenya. In it she describes two types of circumcision, the first including the partial removal of the clitoris and the latter consisting of the removal of clitoris, labia minora, and part of the labia majora. Clitoridectomy during the pre-colonial era served as a right of passage for young Kikuya, Embu, and Meru women. Though clitoridectomy was a large part of the journey for the young women involved, the process was preceded with tests, a strict diet to account for the loss of blood, and also a ceremonial dance. This ritualistic order of events marked the becoming of a woman to the people of these tribes and held significance to various factors in a young woman’s life. The practice contributed to the belongingness and/or solidarity a young woman felt with her tribe and allowed her to pay respects to both her family and ancestors. Beyond these, clitoridectomy impacted a woman’s ability to marry, bear children, pass on her lineage, her pureness, and her access to land and other assets. A woman who did not partake in female circumcision would be considered socially dead and looked at as someone who willingly decided to breakaway from her tribal roots and heritage. Therefore, a young woman who participated in female circumcision or clitoridectomy got to embrace her tribal culture and keep her ethnic identity intact (Kanogo, 2005).

A less holistic view of clitoridectomy stemmed from the colonial individuals whose views on the practice encroached on the ways of the Kenyan people and cause a divide amongst the people. Their ethnocentric lenses blinded them from the practice of clitoridectomy and allowed for their crafting of opinions that were insensitive and carried a superiority complex. According to Konogo’s piece, the missionaries and Europeans felt as though they were ‘saving’ these young women from their barbaric, self-harming, and ‘uncivilized’ ways. They allowed their bias and power to affect a body of women and drive them away from their culture base in order ‘save them.’ In defense of their policies used to control clitoridectomy and the laws in which they used to try and abolish clitoridectomy, they included the medical mishaps and the potential harmful effects of such an act. Digging deeper into accusatory and misdiagnosed statements was the claim that if a woman had undergone clitoridectomy, then first birth would be to a stillborn child or that she would bear a weaker child. In every way, these colonial beings attempted to strip women of their ethnic identity and instill in them a new set of beliefs that they best saw fit (Kanogo, 2005).

According to Kanogo’s piece, the young women in Kenya were being impacted in many ways, including societal ramifications as well as the rights to school. The variations on the practice of clitoridectomy were taken out of the hands of the young women and soon became something that was forced upon them. Families and ethnic groups wanted their daughters and kinship to partake in ceremonies that validated their transition to womanhood and solidified their place in their tribal group. On the other hand, these young women were being forced by colonial forces to not take part in the act of clitoridectomy if they wanted to attend colonial schools or later be employed. An invisible line was laid down requiring these youth to pick a side, yet for many in these situations, the choice was not so clear. In the reading, we are told the complex story of Agnes Wairimu. Agnes, when faced with both decisions, decided to rebel against the colonial powers and chose to be circumcised despite her not undergoing the pre-ritual ceremonies and test. She defied both orders to do what she felt in her heart to be her ‘right.’ Agnes in that moment of defiance became a woman, seeking both education as well as a genuine connection to her roots (Kanogo, 2005).

From the late 1920s to the 1950s, the policies to regulate and control clitoridectomy mimicked the actions of a seesaw, going up and down due to confusion and compromise before finally coming to a standstill. The young women chose to fight these changing policies by refusing to oblige and take matters into their own hands, sometimes literally (Kanogo, 2005). Young women were noncompliant by doing the major circumcision when allowed to only do the minor, and even threatened that they would undergo circumcision at the fate of their own hand. Neither surveillance, policies, nor the medicalization of clitoridectomy could stop these young women from taking charge of their womanhood.

To conclude, with the practice of clitoridectomy, we saw the outcry of a people who wanted to maintain their ethnic identity as well as those who wanted to completely remove themselves from it. When colonial forces and missionaries wanted to decide the fate of clitoridectomy or when family ties got in the way, young Kenyan women stood up for themselves despite gender and generational authorities. These young women sought to take back their female genitalia and make significant moves to challenge gender, generational, and colonial authorities. Agnes and the other young women laid a foundation of change to a system they felt divided them. And while clitoridectomy and its practices are still up for debate, young women are still on the forefront making the decisions that are pivotal to their very being.

Works Cited

Kanogo, Thabitha. “Becoming Kavirondo: Clitoridectomy, Ethnicity, & Womanhood.” African Womanhood in Colonial Kenya 1920 – 1950. Oxford and Nairobi, 2005. Print.

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