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The dilemma of Gambian women and FGM/C practice: Response to Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu

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By Fatou Janneh

Listening to Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, an anthropologist and researcher, and also the founder of “Gambian Women Are Free to Choose,” speak on Kerr Fatou Brunch Time has prompted deep reflection on my part. I find myself questioning what I truly desire from my degree, the kind of knowledge I seek, how I want to serve my community, and how I want to be remembered. Dr. Ahmadu spoke passionately about protecting something she has little or no personal experience with, reducing everything to propaganda and gaslighting. This issue is not about activists or feminist agendas; rather, her stance consolidates a patriarchal system that promotes harm.

The debate around female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM) is not about gender inclusivity or racism. It is fundamentally about the severe consequences of the practice. Her argument on FGM is weak and baseless, attempting to diminish the severity of the practice and the suffering it causes. FGM is internationally recognized as a violation of human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls. It leads to severe physical and psychological harm, including chronic pain, infections, complications in childbirth, trauma, anxiety, and depression. Organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) have documented these significant health risks extensively.

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 I traveled to Chad in 2015 where I had the opportunity to see some women who were abandoned by their spouses’ families because of vesicovaginal fistula (VVF), a condition resulting from prolonged, obstructed labor that causes a hole to form between the bladder and the vagina, leading to continuous urinary incontinence. I was told that it was due to FGM. In fact, I listened to their Health Minister at the time who appealed to religious leaders, especially to the Muslim community, to add their voices in the promotion of the well-being of women and children. My Malian friend told me what she went through during her first birth, and when we traveled together from Bamako to Njuno, I saw her elder sister, whose childbirth experience almost deformed her walking. The worst I ever heard was listening to a Sudanese colleague narrate her family ordeal just because of this harmful practice. Mind you Dr., these journeys weren’t “FGM adventures.” Some were coincidental, while others, one conversation led to another. Likewise, in The Gambia, I went through the process myself and I know how my body looks. Unlike my sisters, I was a little over 10 years old when I was initiated in Busumbala because there was constant postponement of all the selected holidays. So, that year, it was during Christmas, and it was my worst nightmare. When we finished high school, my childhood friend got married soon after. Her family claimed they forgot that she was sealed because, according to her mother, she was circumcised when she was a toddler. Her husband couldn’t penetrate her, and both of them couldn’t say anything because they were embarrassed, and her husband’s culture does not practice such customs. It was over a month before she could get some help.

Dr. Ahmadu claimed this practice is an attack on our culture, but that’s not true. Our culture is empowering, but we cannot adhere to harmful practices. She also argues it is a religious practice, but refraining from this practice does not make one more Muslim than others, as it is not obligatory in Islam. Cultural practices are evolving, and we must prioritize the health and wellbeing of our communities above all else. So, who is brainwashed here, Dr. Ahmadu? Are you defending something that wasn’t there or trying to get back at those who may have discriminated against you? This isn’t about the West versus Africa or white against black—it’s about the health and rights of women and girls.

The notion of consent in the context of FGM is deeply problematic, given the societal pressures and misinformation that surround the practice. Advocating for gender equality in bodily practices and the decriminalization of FGM overlooks the power dynamics and coercive environments in which many women and girls live. True gender equality and empowerment come from ensuring that all women and girls can live free from practices that endanger their health and violate their rights. Instead of perpetuating a practice that has been widely condemned for its harmful consequences, we should focus on uplifting and empowering women through education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. Preserving cultural identity and respecting traditions can and should be done in ways that do not cause harm.

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Moreover, it is crucial to address the comparison made between FGM and labiaplasty. Dr. Ahmadu accuses the WHO of bias for not considering labiaplasty as mutilation and claims this stance is rooted in racism and discrimination against African women. However, there are fundamental differences between the two practices. FGM is typically performed on minors without their consent, often as a rite of passage or for cultural reasons, leading to lifelong health issues. In contrast, labiaplasty is generally performed on consenting adults for cosmetic or medical reasons, often within a regulated medical environment with anesthesia and proper aftercare. Regarding health risks, FGM involves the removal or damage of healthy genital tissue, leading to severe pain, infections, complications in childbirth, and psychological trauma. Interestingly, FGM often involves coercion, with young girls unable to make an informed decision. In my case, I was deceived, although I suspected what it was going to be. I would have never undergone it if given the chance, and I experienced significant pain, especially during menstruation after the procedure. If I was left intact, perhaps I wouldn’t have experienced such severe menstrual pain every month which always scared the hell out of me. How many women in The Gambia would have openly discussed their sex life with you considering the culture of silence? Are you using one case study to generalize? We both know that would be unethical, and I’m unsure if you really want to tread that path. Considering you as a hero of custodian of African culture and heritage with such a practice would not put your good name on the right side of history. In contrast, labiaplasty is performed on individuals who choose the procedure, typically after reaching adulthood and being fully informed of the risks and benefits.

Na una kind dey influence di First Lady of Salone. She don dey talk say na dignity of Salone women she dey protect just for get their sympathy because e husband na di president. Dat no be propaganda?

So, there’s propaganda everywhere…. There’ll be lobbyist groups, of course, but nobody should trade the dignity and self-worth of your people because of temporary benefits if there’s any, whether it’s financial, cheap popularity, or fake influence at the international scene. Let us learn to be everyday heroes, whether we are seen and heard or not.

On a specific note, I like her comportment during the interview, her diction, and how she tends to persuasively argue her points, but they are baseless. Don’t be carried away by the euphoria, Dr. Use your knowledge, skill, and experience on the right cause and on the right side of history, Dr. Ahmadu! Accusations of racism and discrimination should not overshadow the primary concern: the protection of women and girls from practices that cause harm. The focus must remain on the health, rights, and well-being of those affected. I urge Dr. Ahmadu and her associates to reconsider their stance on FGM and join the global movement towards protecting the health and rights of Gambian women and girls. Let us work together to honor our cultural heritage without compromising the well-being and future of our communities.  

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