Hannah Overton, The Amnesty’s Health and Women contributor sheds light on this dark practise, as she accounts the testimony of survivor and activist Sarian…
Sande. Bundu. Zadegi. All the same society. All the same rituals. All the same horror. This society exists in the Western region of Africa, namely in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. The first accounts of it were written in 1628. It still exists today. On one level, it shows the extraordinary amount of power women hold in these developing countries given that the Sande, composed entirely of females, is awarded so much authority. On another, it shows how far women still have to come given the terror they are subjected to. My introduction to it first came from a woman called Sarian. She was from Sierra Leone and described the Bundu society in shocking detail. By the end of her talk, the class was in tears.
Girls uninitiated into the Bundu society were kept deliberately ignorant of its practices. They longed to join it, would do almost anything to be a part of the society and be a “real woman”. The initiated women, and the men in the comparable society Poro, would wear special clothing, to signify their importance. The initiation was carried out on groups of girls, some as young as two, others as old as 20. It all depended on how long it had taken for the families to save up enough money for the ceremony, and, crudely, the more girls that were initiated at once, the cheaper it was. Sarian described how the majo (mende), the head of the Bundu society was required to be drunk during the initiations. Women from all over the town or village came and clapped and sang and danced outside the house in the “bush” in which the initiation was taking place. Sarian thought this was because it was a celebration, a party. It was in fact to drown out the screams of the girls during the initiation. Sarian described how she danced her way into the house, excited to finally become a woman. She had been kept ignorant of what was inside. She says she cannot describe her anger towards her mother for keeping that knowledge from her.
“The pain. I still remember the pain.” – Sarian
Inside the house, Sarian was sat on by a strong woman. Cloth was forced into her mouth. Then, the drunk majo took a sharp stone and excised her labia and clitoris, a grade 2 female genital mutilation. Sarian says that the pain is the worst she has ever experienced, even after several children. It was believed that this practice purified girls, ensured their fertility and prevented promiscuity. After it was performed, the girls could be educated about “womanhood”. About men, farming and the skills needed to run a home. After she was cut, Sarian’s legs were bound with cloth, and she was forbidden to wash for several days. After the cloth was removed, Sarian began to gush blood from her genitals. They thought she would die. She was examined and a conclusion was arrived at: a portion of her clitoris remained. It would have to be excised. Again, Sarian was forced through the process of cutting. This time, it was complete. She was now initiated.
Sarian would suffer many complications to come, in sex and in childbirth (she required an episiotomy during each birth, a cruel irony given that proponents of cutting claim it ensures healthy childbirth). An abusive marriage was in her future. As was another, happier one, with many beautiful children. She now educates women and healthcare professionals in London on the abuse that is FGM. Her life has not been without the most appalling struggles but she is happy now and she is no longer ashamed. She told her story without wavering, without tears. She believed it needed to be told and to be heard. We listened gratefully, and vowed to follow her advice: “Never be afraid to talk about this”.
That the members of the Bundu Society, and therefore the perpetuators of this practice, are women is, at first, confounding. Why would they continue this practice when it caused them so much suffering? The answer, Sarian said, is that they are given an impossible choice: subject their daughters to this practice or they will be ostracised, labelled as unmarriable, immoral, not fit for society. The Sande Society, outwardly so powerful, is governed by the same misogyny that polices women worldwide.
More than 200 million women worldwide and girls alive today have undergone FGM . 3 million more are at risk of the procedure every year. Unicef has labelled it “a global concern”. Yet it the horrendous practises of the Sande society are not done in isolation. As I write this now FGM is being practised in regions of Russia, the Middle East and even here in Britain.
There can be no moral relativism: Just action. Action against the practice and action against those who carry it out. In Sierra Leone, members of the Bundu society are in government. The president is a member of the Poro. He refuses to “interfere” with the work of the Bundu. A global response is needed, one made up of both women and men.
There are advocates of the practice that claim that FGM liberates women, freeing them from the shackles of sexual drives. This co-opting of the language of women’s rights shows the cynicism that drives many of these proponents; they cannot justify their position using misogyny so they pretend to care about women instead. There are those that hide behind a claim of tradition, too. They claim that opponents of FGM are racist, cultural imperialists, attempting to posit their norms on the developing world and erase histories. Although the West has an inexcusable history of wiping out cultural practices in the developing world, we should not be afraid to stand up against practices that actively oppress the vulnerable. We should not allow those that violate the human rights of women to hide behind legitimate fears of imperialism. Opposing FGM is not an act of colonialism but a genuine concern for at risk women. We are privileged enough to know that this practice is indefensible. We must use that privilege to aid those who are not as fortunate.
In the sexualised society of the West, we cannot imagine our sexual freedom being curtailed. As women, we have fought to express our sexuality on our own terms. This right is denied to those who suffer cutting. The idea that women’s sexual pleasure is something that has to be prevented is rooted in cultural ideals that see women as lesser beings, objects to be used by men. That it is allowed to happen in the UK, that the government neglected to get involved until pushed by the left leaning press, shows the callous disregard that British society has for women and girls of colour. The women’s rights movement must not begin and end with middle class white women. It must centre, and encompass, all women. To fight FGM, we must heed Sarian’s words: we must condemn, we must educate and, above all, we must talk.
For more information about FGM, visit Daughters of Eve at dofeve.org or Forward at forward.org.uk.
With endless thanks to Sarian for her courage in sharing her story.