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What draws the line between a rite of passage and a violation of human rights? Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a well-known ritual within the continent of Africa (Leonard, 1996). It has been stated that more than two hundred million African women have undergone this cultural rite of passage. There are a number of regions in Africa that participate in this female ritual ceremony ranging all the way from Tanzania to Somalia. This topic has had a great debate over FGM being ethical and individuals wanting to abolish the practice completely. Consequently, what is holding them back from discontinuing this ritual in cultural settings? I will be describing and analyzing the female circumcision ritual ceremony of the Sara people; they are a group of individuals who live in Chad, Africa. I will also discuss the current implications with FGM and alternative rites of passage in reference to the Kuria people of Kenya.

Before we discuss how female circumcision is a rite of passage in the Sara culture, I will explain the four different types of circumcisions. Horowitz and Jackson (1997) state that there are various labels for this process which can also be described as genital mutilation, and more recently, “traditional or ritual female genital surgery” (p. 492). The researchers agree that the two most widely used types of circumcision are type two which is excision and type three which is infibulation; the distinction between the two are based on whether the labial ends are stitched together at the completion of the process. Excision is where part or all of the clitoris is removed and this can be done including the removal of any of the labial areas, but it is not a necessity; what this means is that some females might only have “the clitoral prepuce removed” (p. 492). Infibulation is the process of excision along with the stitching up of the labial areas afterwards; the whole labial area is stitched together besides a small cavity which is left behind for only urine and menstrual blood to pass through. There are two less commonly used methods of female genital mutilation (FGM) as classified by the World Health Organization, type one is called a clitoridectomy which entails “the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/ or pupice” (Momoh, Olufade, & Redman-Pinard, 2016, p. S30). Type four is the last, which consists of any other types of destructive techniques done to “female genitalia for non-medical reasons” (p. S30).

All of the various types of FGM are done with instruments ranging from shards of glass to any type of blade that are frequently unsterilized (Momoh, Olufade, & Redman-Pinard, 2016; Kouba & Muasher, 1985). These rituals are often done by women in the community who have no medical training and without the use of any anesthetic. Kouba and Muasher (1985) make the point that the bulk of African practitioners are community women who use the rituals to make a living as well as to gain social ranking within their villages.

To understand why the Sara use FGM as an important part of their ritual, I want to take a look at the cultural history of how it came to be an important rite of passage. Individuals who are part of the Sara culture believe female circumcision to be an essential part of the shift from childhood to womanhood (Leonard, 1996). In modern day, circumcision and the shift to adulthood are integrally connected, but this was not always an important ritual in the past; this ritual most likely originated in the mid 19th century. Since there were no historical records pertaining to the Sara people, the researcher asked the elders and they found that they did not remember female circumcision to be an essential part of any female initiation rituals in the past. This represents the fact that FGM is a fairly newer development in female initiations within the Sara culture.

Concurring with local myth, female circumcision started in Boy, where it was performed by only one woman; she was known to have a comprehensive understanding of the procedure. There was a traditional song that was sung by elderly women which expressed that in the past, women from other villages would come to Boy in order to get the ritual circumcision done. This development for the female initiation ceremony within the Sara has now become more wide-spread and essential for each girl’s transition to womanhood. When referring back to the article written by Turner, Harris, and Park (1983) they write about not seeing symbols as terms, but as “social and cultural dynamic systems” (p. 125). In this example, the Sara women have a song that has been passed down through generations about how the ritual of female circumcision came to be; this song can be seen as a symbol of their cultural origins. The authors go on to say that symbols take on part of what is seen as a social norm, this is something that becomes regular and normative in a social context. The symbol is something that develops into a social process, thus this is why these individuals are taking the historical song into consideration when making the decision to perform the ritual circumcision; this is how it may be influenced to become a normative custom for their culture. The song may be a singular influential factor in what the Sara’s current or modern culture values are; the authors state that it is a dynamic force when it comes to cultural values and rituals. What this means is, symbols are not just for the image, they have the power to influence decisions.

Female initiation is the Sara’s main ritual ceremony, which often occurs in a girl’s adolescence (Leonard, 1996). This ritual is supposed to remind their adolescents what is needed in order to become responsible Sara adults; it is also used to commemorate the Sara’s ancestors and what their customs were in the past. Underlying the ritual, is the principle that people are born with two singular essences. One is named the “koy” which is known to be youthful and unwanted as soon as adolescence comes into play. There is also an adult-like essence that is called the “ndil ke mdji” which starts to grow and encompass the body at the same time. The ritual transition aims to lose the child-like spirit and commend the more mature adult-like spirit for encircling the body. If relating Turner, Harris, and Park’s (1983) term called inversion back to this concept in the Sara’s culture, it seems that the participants are reversing what they know to be normalized. They have been acting child-like up until this point and are expected to abandon that set of characteristics and trade in for a more adult-like manner. This inversion of norms helps to make the separation very distinct between who is undergoing the ritual soon in order to transition. This is also a part of the shedding process as well, leaving behind anything to do with their prior lives where they were known to be childish.

In the ethnography written by Leonard (1996) on the Sara, she was able to understand the process of the female initiation ritual. The first stage is initiation, this is where the girl leaves the hut that she used to live in with her mother and one is built for her to live in at the time that the ritual is completed. This is due to a physical representation of separation from her pre-ritual life and her new life after she has gone through the ceremony and become a woman. (Turner, Harris, & Park, 1983). Anything and everything that has to do with her previous existence is thrown away such as her garments and any belongings. If a girl has been chosen for initiation, she also receives a list of rules that she has to follow, such as not being permitted to consume specific kinds of foods. The girls should no longer behave the way children do and act in a sort of reserved manner in order to make themselves distinct from the koy. The Sara people decide to use the bush area near their community for the ritual as they deem it to be full of their essence; this helps to keep the dead with the dead and the living with the living. The Sara consider initiation to be “a secret and exclusively feminine event” (p. 259) and that is correspondingly another reason for it being held outside of the community; they also do not allow any females to watch who have not experienced this ceremony themselves.

This part of the ceremony can also be called separation as explained by van Gennep (1909) in the article by Turner, Harris, and Park (1983) where the initiate is removed from her typical home in the community and taken into a sacred place. This is not just the relocation of the initiate, but it is an area that is going to be used in order to develop the cultural realm in which sacred processes (circumcision) take place. What the researchers are saying is that, it is not enough to just go to the bush alone, there has to be some sort of different cultural zone that takes place where the individual is involved; the events that happen need to be outside of the everyday life they experience. As stated earlier, initiates leave behind anything to do with their past lives before going into the sacred place for the ceremony and this is a symbol of shedding their old selves (Turner, Harris, & Park, 1983). They move to the area outside of their village because it is known to hold the community’s dead spirits, so it only makes sense to go to that place in order to symbolically die. What is meant by “symbolical death” is that they need to “die” in order to move onto the next phase of their lives. This can be linked back to the theory by Graeburn (1989) in that he states that symbolic deaths happen when we leave for trips, as well as when a trip’s experiences change the people we are. He goes onto say that when we come back from a trip, we are new people and that we should feel re-energized stepping back into ordinary daily life. This can be applied to the Sara’s rite of passage for girls transforming into women where they step back into their lives, but in a new body.

Leonard (1996) goes on to describe the second part of the ritual – the transition period. The circumcision is done on the first day of the ritual which means that all of the girls who have been initiated take part in a shared bath. The girls are required to shave their heads and rest on rombe leaves in order to prepare; the leaves are used due to the therapeutic properties that they possess. The way they decide which of the girls is going to go first is based off of their fathers’ ages; the girls with the oldest fathers usually go first. There are these women who help to hold down the initiate that is being circumcised, they are called “koondos”. The woman who is responsible for conducting the circumcision is called the “noy”. Her responsibility is to cut the female’s clitoris with a sharp object while reciting a blessing and expelling water from her mouth onto the wound she created. The whole time that this process is happening, the koondos duty is to tell the initiate to be courageous and set a good example for the rest of the girls waiting to be circumcised. Leonard (1996) describes the healing time after the circumcision to be of great learning for the girls. In order to heal the wounds from circumcision, it has to be cleaned every morning and night with hot water infused with leaves; this is done by the koondos. When doing the cleansing, the koondos look for any signs of pain from the initiates and if they detect any, it results in a severe penalty; they do this in order for the girls to be reminiscent of any of their former flaws or mistakes that they have made. Referring back to this segment being the most educational, it is because elderly relatives come and visit the initiates to give them advice on areas such as children and household standards; they also tell the girls more about their culture and things their ancestors would do. The most important thing they learn from the elders is probably that they need to keep their cultural traditions flowing. Along with the circumcision, the girls are marked with scars on their faces to be distinct when compared to those who have not undergone circumcision.

Turner, Harris, and Park (1983) have another name for the phase of transition, they call it liminality. They discuss how when individuals are in this phase, they are not required to follow any of their society’s rules because they are now outside of that realm. As they are in this phase, they are transitioning into adulthood but are not quite there yet, which means that they are in an unfamiliar place where they do not have an identity. For example, once the girls leave their village and go out into the bush to initiate the ceremony, they’ve left mainly everything to do with who they were behind, and now they are waiting for their new identities to emerge. The authors talk about a concept called “anti-structure” that could be applied to this stage of the rite of passage; this is a place where social norms and rules are no longer required. The author really exaggerates that this liminal period of time always has to come to an end as there are no social rules or society; if the individuals did stay, this would prompt that sacred place to now have some social rules. Graeburn (1989) makes the comparison between ordinary and non-ordinary and this can be related to the whole process of the female initiation ceremony. The Sara girls are taken from their ordinary lives where they have to leave their things and selves behind, and introduced to this non-ordinary world where they have to develop a new sense of self with different values.  

The final stage that is described by Leonard (1996) is called reincorporation or being put back into society. After the wounds have healed, the participants are then renamed by their mothers or koondos. Within the Sara people, names are especially important as they convey meaning, therefore the new names are frequently associated to the ceremony the girls just went through; it may have to do with how the mother was feeling about referring her daughter to undergo the ritual. When the participants return to living within their community, they are required to take a shared bath and shave their heads as they did on the first day of the ceremony. Afterwards, they are covered in oils and given “brightly-coloured beads” (p. 259) to be sported around their necks as well as masks made out of these beads to cover their faces. Their homecoming is characterized by festivity where the participants visit family and show off their newly acquired knowledge as well as songs and dances they’ve learned. Over a period of time, sometimes months, the participants reveal their latest appearances and leave behind their clothing that they were required to wear during the ceremony. The reintegration process is complete as soon as the participants are granted rights to speak to the village again.

Turner, Harris, and Park (1983) cite von Gennep when they describe this stage where the participants obtain an elevated level of status in society and this is usually the case when the rite of passage is part of a life change. They also discuss the cultural differences in life change rituals compared to rituals that happen every season or year. I wanted to bring up the point of this ceremony being both a life changing rite of passage as well as a ceremony that happens more than once for others. What I am referring to, is that this ceremony is life altering for the girl who is being circumcised and transitioning into womanhood; this is a one-time event that occurs in her life that has major significance as it means she is moving further along in her path of life. It happens more than once for the koondos and noy, as they are an integral part to every ceremony in their village, so it is seen as more of a seasonal celebration. These women are culturally prepared for the ceremony as they are experienced because of their long-term commitment from previous years. The individuals who had the circumcision done also received a scar on their face as a symbol of undergoing the ritual. According to Graeburn, (1989) this could be seen as some sort of souvenir from the experience that the participant just went through; it shows that the girl went through it all and the scar that was given to her is a memory or reminder of the learning experience she endured.

Why is circumcision essential to Sara women? Do they not understand that the practice is unsafe and outdated? These are the types of questions that people ask when it comes to this topic. There is such a debate out there on FGM and whether it should be accepted or not, of course these are individuals’ thoughts which are based on culture versus rights. When it comes to the Sara, the people of this culture value what circumcision does for them as it is much more than a wound; it is the way that the girls in their culture are educated (Leonard, 1996). From what the ethnographer has experienced and seen, the circumcision ceremony is a way of transferring the culture’s top values about their way of life. Although, it is not obvious that the reason they conduct the circumcision is to prevent sexuality, it has a larger goal: educating the young females of the Sara culture. This is very evident throughout Leonard’s research as the ethnographer researched this topic intensively.  This is the way that the Sara culture looks at female circumcision, but it is probably the least common way that others who do not come from similar cultures look at it.

The topic of FGM has conflicting views where most people do not agree that it is ethical. These disagreements are made from not only others from outside the cultures that perform it, but also individuals who are part of those cultures. Now that we’ve looked at the cultural reasoning behind female circumcision with the Sara people, let’s take a look at what others think, specifically in Kenya. Prazak (2007) examines the current practice of FGM within the Kuria women. The boys and girls are grouped together during the ceremony as they await circumcision. She found that the initiation rituals with this culture did not explicitly educate the children during any of their time before, during, or after the ceremony. Moreso, this education took form in an invisible manner, for example, where the children learned to live with other individuals and learned how to approach the other sex. The liminality phase allowed both girls and boys to get to know each other, without the matter of gender roles. This is another example of an inverted social atmosphere, where due to the initiation, these individuals don’t have to align with society’s rules for that period of time (Turner, Harris, & Park, 1983). This period of liminality usually lasts up to two weeks. After being circumcised, the initiates aren’t allowed to talk to others besides their fellow participants so they pass time with each other doing things such as talking and dancing.

The NGOs wanted and worked towards change for the current practice of FGM with the Kuria women, thus they were able to finally organize a new and revised rite of passage (Prazak, 2007). In the winter season of 2004, 289 girls were lucky enough to go through an alternative rite of passage where they were educated by a few clans from the area and others, such as doctors. The workshop consisted of discussions about “culture, FGM, empowerment, adolescence, legal rights, youth peer counseling, effects of FGM, myths and misconceptions, religion, communication, problem handling, [the] reproductive system, peer pressure, STD/HIV, and gender” (p. 24). All of the girls who completed this anti-FGM rite of passage were awarded a certificate. Although after the girls went home, almost a third of them were pressured into receiving the circumcision as a result of their relatives’ and friends’ attitudes. Hence, what are the requirements for change to occur within a culture? Who decides what practices stay and what goes? Oboler (2001) states that in order for there to be change in a culture, there has to be an overall agreement on what aspects should be preserved and which can be released (Prazak, 2007). She also expresses that the change needs to come from within the culture itself, it will not be as successful if an outside group is trying to change its traditions; the most effective way is to develop a group of individuals rooting for FGM change within the Kuria culture.

Prazak (2007) recognizes that there is a dispute to do with the ethics of FGM and most of it has to do with attitudes from Western society. She refers to Parker (1995) when discussing that it is much easier for outsiders to say that female circumcision is unnecessary and brutal; in addition, she states that much of this is to do with the emotions of the outsiders. People just don’t see it in the same way as others do. This brings up the disagreement between the elders and the government as well as NGOs; Western society may have had an influence on how the leadership needs to make a change as current practices may be violating human rights. When looking at the elders’ point of view, that is all they have ever known and they hold some power this way in playing key roles in the current initiation ceremonies. The elders were taught that the circumcision ceremony was essential in that it taught young people of their culture certain values and how to prepare for later life events, such as having children of their own. The interesting thing here is that the people who want to change the FGM ritual are educated members of the Kuria as well as the younger crowd of Kuria. This may say something as the difference in thought here is mainly between the educated and the uneducated.

Taking a look at what the parents’ thoughts are on this topic, Prazak (2007) investigates the real reasons behind their hesitancies. For the most part, the biggest reason that the parents do not want to support anti-FGM is because it still continues to be the norm in their culture. As stated by parents, they don’t want their daughters to look corrupt and unattractive which would result in a high likeliness of not being married, at least not within their own village; this brings on another fear of their daughters having to move a far distance from them. They discuss that there is no “good” associated with uncircumcised women and that they are solely seen in a bad light. No wonder parents aren’t necessarily agreeing with the abolishment of the female circumcision ritual, it looks like they do not want to create problems for their daughters and instead, just continue doing what is normal. In order to have a social change within a culture, the normative values associated with circumcision procedures on women need to be changed from the inside-out.

It seems like this debate of whether to abolish FGM is going to be continued for a while. In this paper, I discussed the Sara culture and the various steps involved with the female initiation ceremony. I incorporated and applied the ideas of Turner, Harris, and Park (1983) along with the theories of Graeburn (1989). The culture of the Kuria was discussed and how they perform circumcision as a rite of passage, where they group both sexes in liminality. The current status of what individuals think of FGM within the Kuria culture was additionally examined. One of the main points in changing cultural attitudes towards FGM as a ritual, would be to target the elderly population as they are likely the main reason for the continuance of FGM in rituals. I believe that in order to advocate for change in old standing traditions, there has to be more education on FGM, human rights, and the implications of FGM. The thoughts I have are, what is going to happen to this culture once the elders have passed away? Who is going to decide if FGM is still going to continue to be an integral part of their culture? If making an educated guess, the people who are part of that culture and are educated are going to step in and decide. For now, FGM is most likely going to remain a hot topic of debate as cultural change has to come from within.

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