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A Cruel Custom in Somalia

In response to:

In the Heart of Somalia from the January 14, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

In Edward R. F. Sheehan’s report “In the Heart of Somalia” [NYR, January 14] he mentions seeing, among the injured victims of civil violence and anarchy in a Mogadishu hospital, an adolescent boy who had lost a testicle.

I wonder if during Mr. Sheehan’s time in Somalia anyone ever alluded to the fact that if he had chanced to see the naked body of any Somali girl or woman over the age of six to ten (for example the one who appeared on CNN being stripped and beaten by a mob of men), he would have observed that she had no external genital parts at all; just an area of scar tissue. This would not be the result of a terrible war injury, out of the routine Somali (and Sudanese) version of the genital mutilations practised in Egypt and a wide range of sub-Saharan African countries, often lumped together under the euphemistic term “female circumcision.”

Here is how a Somali feminist, Raquiya Haji Dualeh Abdalla, describes the custom in her country, in her book Sisters in Affliction (Zed Press, London, 1982).

The little girl is made to sit on a very low stool; then the woman ‘operator’ sits in front of the child with her special razor blade, or knife in some cases. The child’s legs are drawn apart and each one is held by one or two strong women relatives or friends. Two or more women hold the little girl’s arms and shoulders and one holds her head pinning her back to the ground. The girl is held tightly in order to stop her from struggling and to expose her vulva for the operation. The operator is then able to manipulate the vulva with her razor blade and first excises the clitoris. At that stage, the operator as well as the other woman around the girl shout out an ululating chorus of chants of victory and encouragement, because this is thought to be an act of purification and it also helps to quieten and drown the cries and screams of the child. The operator then starts to excise the labia minora and various parts of the labia majora. All this is done without any anaesthetic or antiseptic precautions. The women continue ululating and giving advice and encouragement to the girl until the operation is complete.

To sew up or fasten together the raw edges of the labia majora, the traditional midwife uses vegetable thorns which she prepares beforehand and brings with her. She inserts them on opposite sides, usually about 4–6 of them on each side, leaving an outlet for urine and the later menstrual flow so small as to admit not more than a fingertip.

After the thorns are inserted, the midwife winds a string or thread around them to hold them in position (the same way that shoes are laced). The raw area is then covered with cloth soaked in special oil and local herbs such as ‘malmal’ (a paste mixture made from sugar and gum). This dressing adheres to the wound to control hemorrhage.

When the operation has been completed the girl’s legs are tied together from the waist to the toes; she is then carried into an isolated place already prepared for her…. ” I will spare your readers the recuperation period; the first times the child has to urinate, etc.

The list of immediate dangers from this procedure and of common later health and childbirth complications is impressive. Even when all goes as intended, every woman’s sexual life, sanctioned by payment of a bride price and by marriage, must be initiated as an agonizing rape as she is battered or cut open, and will all her life be a pleasureless duty. One can only speculate about what the full psychological effects would be, other than impelling women to repeat the trauma generation after generation on their daughters and other little girls.

Previous to the civil war in Somalia, there had already begun a women’s campaign to end this practice. In 1988 there was a public inter-African conference about it in Mogadishu, sponsored by the “Somali Women’s Democratic Organization” which was allowed to function under Siad Barre. While these women’s efforts had as yet had almost no effect on the prevalence of the custom and the belief that no man would marry a woman not “closed” in this way, at least some discussion had begun.

When and if Somalia emerges from the present chaos, it seems all too expectable that there will be a regression to the situation that has been in place for millennia. The practice will continue as “part of their culture.” Everyone (including journalists and even dispensers of aid funds for health services) will still find it too nasty, intimate and anxiety-provoking to mention, and also “not relevant” to more immediate issues such as war, murder, famine, and “real” health problems. Governments and officials, in Somalia, Sudan and the other African countries afflicted with this custom, may continue never even to be pressured by aid donors to mount genuine campaigns against the sexual mutilation of their women.

As a psychologist, I cannot believe that this is just a minor peripheral issue. Surely such a spectacularly cruel and destructive custom must make an important contribution to weakening the social fabric and brutalizing and harming both men and women. There seem to be all too many ways in the world of achieving this dubious result, but surely this one deserves a place high on the list.

Barbara Fulford
Ontario, Canada

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