Vanguard (Lagos)

20 February 2001

Nigeria: HB 22 Bill And Genital Mutilation

opinion

Lagos — For the National Assembly to legislate on female circumcision is to criminalise our custom, writes Nowa Omoigui.

I want to state unequivocally that I do not support the proposed HB22 Bill sponsored by Janet Adeyemi and aimed at outlawing "Female Genital Mutilation Practice in the Federal Republic of Nigeria."

There is a huge difference between Circumcision and Mutilation. To group all forms of age old religious circumcision into one large category under the guise of medical enlightenment and "civilization" is very unfortunate.

The term "female genital mutilation" is mischievous and hypocritical. Why are we not campaigning to ban"Male Genital Mutilation"? Afterall, there is a movement of sophisticated gentile physicians led by Dr.

George C. Denniston in the US who want male circumcision banned too [Doctors Opposing Circumcision (D.O.C.)]. Let us see who will sponsor that bill in Nigeria - to ban male circumcision - the main indication for which is cultural preference.

The classification system of Types I, II, III, and IV being used for "female genital mutilation" is the same as was used in the US congress when Pat Schroeder was sponsoring that country's bill. It is not true that every type of genital ritual has the same implication or is practiced consistently across Nigeria or Africa. I am not aware of any Edo woman - for example - who has been properly circumcised whose clitoris or labia was amputated. What is removed is the prepuce - a small piece of the sheath that extends from the clitoris. That sheath has no sexual function. It is the same sheath that is removed in males. In fact in many cases the "removal" is symbolic - and is part of a traditional marriage ceremony.

Our Constitution recognizes religious secularity as a principle of state policy - but accepts Common law, Islamic law and Customary law as a reality. It must be tolerant and also respect cultural secularity in a multicultural nation. There are ethnic clans in Nigeria - like Ijebus and Itsekiris - that do not routinely circumcize their women. I respect their right to exercise that prerogative and expect them to respect mine too.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that maternal and child mortality in Nigeria is increased because of properly performed circumcision. I challenge anyone to come out with randomized data that even remotely proves such a cause and effect relationship. This is only the latest of a series of frivolous rationalizations that have been offered.

First the Women's liberation movement in the West said it was a male custom done to "control" women.

Then they discovered that female circumcision was done for women by women to women. Next they said it limited sexual enjoyment - a fundamental right. But it is evident that most women who do not enjoy sex are not even circumcized. There are numerous reasons why a woman may not enjoy sex - including the competence of her male partner. Many post menopausal women suffer such problems. Pessaries widely used for reasons other than circumcision cause plenty of genital damage to women in Nigeria and Africa (including gynaetresia) - but I haven't seen any legislation to ban use of pessaries. Now maternal and child mortality is being blamed on circumcision. It is just another case of intellectual fraud.

Is this not the same Nigeria where the government sanctions cutting of hands (ie mutilation of the limbs) based on religious codes of law in certain states? As "civilized" as the US is, one of their closest foreign allies is Saudi Arabia - a country where cutting of limbs and heads is standard operating procedure. Why are US organizations not leading the charge against the inimical health effects of amputation? Is oil greater than human rights?

Who advised the World Health Organization to coin the phrase "mutilation"? Whoever did was cynically manipulating language. We "mutilate" the umbilical cord by cutting it off at birth and arbitrarily deciding how long the navel should be. We "mutilate" our bodies with ear rings, tongue rings, tatoos, nose jobs etc... We "keep" biologically excretory products like nails and hair - and use them for beautification - and do so differently, I might add, depending on the cultural environment. Some western women (in the US) begin to shave their leg hair at age 10. Has anyone else in the world attacked them for mutilating what God put there for a reason? We use traditional marks for medicinal and symbolic purposes.... Why is that not 'mutilation' of the skin? Why not ban it?

Jehovah's witnesses all over the world do not accept blood transfusions and organ transplants inspite of "health data" which suggest that those medical interventions could be life saving.

Should we ban Jehovah's witnesses in Nigeria?

In response to malnutrition in India is the World Health Organization going to propose that Hinduism - observed by almost a quarter of the world's population - be banned since its adherents do not eat cow meat which they consider sacred? Try getting that bill passed in the Indian parliament - and give me a call if you succeed.

Acupuncture was once derided in the West - because the "biologic basis" was not explainable using western models of physiology. But once they realized that China was not going to change its ways anytime soon - and a few westerners actually went there and came to appreciate its efficacy, acupuncture centres sprang up in every corner of the West.

Talking more about the politics of nomenclature, I want us to imagine for one second what it would be like to change the way we describe and use the phrase "abortion" - which is performed left, right and centre in Nigeria (inspite of laws against it). Rather than "abortion" or "termination of pregnancy" - as my colleagues like to say - let us call it "fetal mutilation" (FM). Many of the so called advocates against circumcision who cry out against the loss of a small piece of tissue - and call it mutilation - have no qualms with the "right" to have abortions involving the barbaric crushing and scooping of body parts of an unborn fetus. Neither do I hear a world wide campaign against episiotomy - the slashing (or shall I say mutilation) of a woman's perineum to widen the passage for child birth - sometimes necessary, but more often not. The scar is permanent and the functional characteristics of the vault as a sexual organ may be altered forever.

Since we were children, how many doctors and women have we seen (or heard) charged to court for abortion in Nigeria - as unhealthy as it can turn out to be and as dangerous as it could be whether in the hands of quacks or specialists? And many women have become infertile or even died from sepsis. But it rides on in broad daylight while we are worrying about circumcision. How many Nigerian Gynecologists - including those who propound safe motherhood in public - can look you straight in the eye and say they have not been making money from D & Cs including partial birth abortions (i.e. fetal mutilation)?

The cultural war against female circumcision is led by the same western human rights crowd that classifies same-sex marriages as okay (in some parts of the US) and puts pictures (of same sex couples) in books for little children to read and learn from. I have the right to invoke my ancient customs and look askance at such a policy - and protect my kids from it - at the risk of being called conservative. Even the Pope in his wisdom, saw fit to apologize to traditional African religions recently for the value judgements that led to the destruction of their systems.

If inimical health outcomes of female circumcision are the concern of those who oppose it, let them tell us how to make it safer - just as male circumcision these days is often accomplished using a special device.

The number of neonates with neonatal tetanus from unhygienic cutting of cords in Nigeria has generally been addressed by measures to prevent tetanus - not to ban cord cutting. This point highlights one of the biases in female circumcision discussions - the fact that female circumcision was never taught to 'modern' Nigerian doctors and not offered in hospital when a child is born. Therefore, the alleged relative safety and low risk of complications that attends male circumcision performed by trained physicians (not to mention the new technology for doing it) creates an unfair yardstick for comparison. And many of the best original experts in the villages are dying. Only recently, I accidentally discovered the analgesic effects of snail juice - used during circumcisions - from an old villager.

What the Health Ministries in Nigeria should be doing in respectful consultation with traditional leaders - is restricting themselves to improving the safe performance of circumcision, or conducting randomized controlled studies to evaluate various traditional approaches to the matter, not dabbling into making juandiced value judgements (through an arbitrary western prism) about an ancient blood ritual. That decision is for villages and clans to make, not the country as a whole.

Our children do not speak our language, do not wear our clothes, do not practice our religion, and our ancient customs are under assault. In 50 - 100 years we will be unrecognizable as a distinct cultural entity - all under the guise of globalization. Is this beneficial? To who? This rush to western judgement will have to be slowed down at some point.

In conclusion, criminalizing our customs is a dangerous and unwise undertaking. The National Assembly should stay out of legislating.

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