Activists Battle Religion, Tradition in Gambia's Female Genital Mutilation Fight

Anti-FGM activists marching in the Gambia. Photo released under Creative Commons by Gamtrop

Anti-FGM activists marching in the Gambia. Photo released under Creative Commons by GAMCOTRAP

Aja Babung Sidibeh followed cultural tradition and became a female genital mutilation (FGM) practitioner after the death of her parents years ago in her native Janjangbureh in the Central River Region of The Gambia. But she has since “dropped the knife” and taken up the fight against the practice.

“What I know today, if I had known that before, I would never have circumcised any woman,” she explained in an April 23 story in the Standard Newspaper. “We have caused lots of suffering to our women. That's why I told you that what I know today, if my grandparents knew that, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem.”

Her comments were in response to the declaration by Imam of Gambia's State House Mosque Alhaji Abdoulie Fatty in the same newspaper weeks earlier that there is no FGM in The Gambia. “What we have here is female circumcision. If you know what FGM means, you know that we do not practice that here. We do not mutilate our children. What we have here is circumcision and that is our religion. We do not mutilate our people. FGM is part of our religion.”

Over 90 percent of The Gambia's population is Muslim, but Islamic clerics are divided on FGM according to Unicef report. Whereas some see it as something cultural, others believe that it is a fundamental practice (sunnah). There is no law in the country that prohibits the practice.

The imam's comments prompted website What's On – Gambia to ask its followers on Facebook, “Are we about to see the end of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in The Gambia?”

Isatou Jobis responded, calling on women to unite because they are they know the pain of the practice:

We women have to unite and kick FGM out of our country. Remember all the cutters are women and the victims are also women. How do you expect these selfish men to understand the pain we undergo. 1. They don't follow us when we deliver their children. They stay at home drinking attaye [Chinese green tea popular in low income neighborhoods and at social functions] and talking rubbish /// 2. When it comes to romance, they are zero. Do they even care whether we enjoy sex or not? /// 3. They will do anything to suppress us. NO TO FGM

Mansur Sowe knocked down arguments that FGM is a religious requirement, promotes hygiene and is part of tradition:

IT IS BELIEVED THAT….it is a religious obligation BUT the quran does not mention female genital mutilation nor circumcision. is more hygienic but fgm may cause urinary and gynaecological infections,tetanus,AIDS,severe anaemia and even death. is part of customs and traditions BUT the tradition have to change when undermine human rights and endanger the lives and health of people
4.its protects virginity BUT virginity canbe protected without girl's mutilation
5.girls will be able to have more babies BUT fgm may prevent a wowan from havin children and may cause complications during childbirth and some times even the baby and mother's dealth.

If FGM was important in Islam, argued Aisha E. Suso, there would have been a verse about it in the Koran:

Dont mix tradition/ culture with religion. Women should decide wether they want to practice fgm or not. You men who are in for it dont know what we go through in the name of culture/tradition or as some of yous say…sunnah [sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad]. If fgm was that important to our honour, then there would have been a clear verse in the Holy book.

Aja Babung Sidibeh, the ex-FGM practitioner, is certainly not alone in the fight against FGM. The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP) is one of the leading organisations fighting against the practice throughout the country. The organisation works to create awareness on traditions for the preservation of beneficial practices as well as the elimination of all forms of harmful ones, including FGM. 

The YouTube video below published on February 14, 2013 by GAMCOTRAP shows a call to end violence against women in the Gambia:

But there are those who still support the cutting, such as Fabakary Jammeh who wrote on What's On – Gambia's Facebook page:

FGM is healthy and Islamic. Those whose clitoris is no cut tend grow which then can attract females to catch diseases. There's no genuine scientific basis for its vilification. Is just that the West wanted to robb Africans of their precious value that are so fundamental that any derogation might mislead and cause us generation gap and mental colonialism.

Arguments such as those are swiftly debunked when victims tell of their own experiences. A post on youth organization Activista's Facebook page detailed the barbaric reality of FGM:

I would have never believed FGM really has its health implications, if not for the reason that i was an eye witness to the heart touching story of the very bold victim of not just FGM but the process called sealing. The young activist was brave enough to share her personal experience with everyone present at the [Kanifing Municipal Council] hall. Few of her words were “Mutilated at a very tender age 3 and forced to marry at 13. My rights were violated for i was mutilated and sealed all in the name of protecting me from teenage pregnancy. The marriage could not be consummated and the only option was to take me back ‘ngansing baa’ open my vaginal orifice. Could you imagine waiting your whole life to have sex with the right person just to realise you end up in pain with no feelings during sex? The worst part was during my child birth, i wanted to save a life, just to realize i may lose my precious life. Beware! the most harmful thing that could happen to a girl child is Female Genital Mutilation. #UpwithJustice and #DownWithFGM


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