Tradition and the New Liberia: Rite of Passage or Rightful Passage?
By Jackie Sayegh*
Traditional secret societies in Liberia have come under intense scrutiny in recent months especially when the discussion centers on female genital circumcision (FGC). On foreign newsfeed and media outlets, Liberia has become the main course in this flavor-of-the- month buffet thanks to journalist Mae Azango and more recently, Montserrado County Superintendent Grace Kpan. Kpan has gone further to label traditional secret societies in Liberia as “evil and demonizing.” Such societies, she claims, pose “threats” to national security and she called on the United Nations Security Council to assist in abolishing the Sande, claiming that she has already set up “59 camps for Sande prostitutes.” (Liberian Observer July 4, 2012).
Every society possesses cultural norms which, in times of social upheaval or civil conflict, become all the more necessary for continuity and order. As a post-conflict people, Liberians draw on these norms as “memory reservoirs” to pilot their place, regulate their behavior, and guide the young. Recently, Comfort M. Gray, founder of the Liberian Association of Female Sociologists warned that “immorality amongst post-conflict Liberian youths is becoming an endemic phenomenon that may place the country`s future at a perpetual risk . . . the traditional moral code and guardian of children has been overthrown”(The New Republic, August 7, 2012).
There are those who believe that Africa’s societal ills can be neatly packaged under the heading of tradition = wrong. “The gap between first and third world countries has become increasingly more obvious in today's world. While the economically advanced countries continue to change and develop, many of the under-developed countries remain true to their ancient cultures, and rooted in their century-old traditions.”(Adele, (2002, May 24 ) Female Genital Mutilation: Does the West Have the Right to Intervene? TakingITGlobal online publication / Retrieved on August 5, 2012 from http://www.tigweb.org/youth-media/panorama/article.html?ContentID=185). Reinforcing this belief, comments in Liberian newspapers by Liberians have termed traditional customs (this view is mainly associated with African traditions) primitive and barbaric. Such societies may seem backward to some but to advocate for the destruction of indigenous traditional institutions as Superintendent Kpan and others have done merely to pander to new-fangled notion of progressiveness or because of a single harmful practice is foolhardy.
Dr. Elwood Dunn in his July 26 Independence Day oration warned of imbibing unrestrainedly on these new and foreign norms: Consider the challenge at hand! Consider what we are experiencing, and its impact on us! Seemingly two competing streams invite our attention: The first is from abroad where we uncritically receive a deluge of books, magazines, films, DVDs, videos, CDs, . . . Whether intentional or not, this stream has the cumulative effect of reinforcing our national sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the societies from which such products emanate. Have you considered the effects on us of drinking so deep into other people’s culture and relegating our own to the margins?
African traditions are much too varied and complex to be labeled backward or to be neatly packaged. Like the continent itself, they defy any concise or trite definition. As not all cultures have only elements of goodness, there is no culture that is totally bad. Yet as Africans we are constantly confronted with the choice between tradition, and therefore viewed as backward, or embracing Western norms and seen as progressive. Tradition and modernization are not mutually exclusively. Both are parallel conduits for development, at times crossing over, influencing the other and together fashioning a new path for the nation. There are many non-African cultures that preserve traditional elements in their society and are all the better for it. Asian cultures are among the most traditional, retaining many of their cultural norms, abandoning aspects that are seen as harmful while enhancing those that strengthen cultural cohesion and permanence.
In Liberia, the traditional secret societies are necessary for national development. The education its members receive and the breadth of values is extensive and expansive for they have . . .in their curriculum social and political knowledge of oral history, communal work, appropriate conduct of sexual deportment,. . . . . . the cardinal ideas or curricula on which the institutions prevail are justice, harmony, balance, respect, and human dignity for all. . . . the Poro and the Sande is the fulcrum of a people’s way of life . . . the totality of socially transmitted values (Somah, Syrulwa. The Role of the Poro and Sande Universities (PSU) in Contemporary Liberia. Retrieved on July 14, 2012 from http://www.concern-liberians.org/chat_room/view_topic.php?id=63183&forum_id=1
Focusing specifically now on the issue of female genital circumcision, from recent postings and comments in newspapers and commentaries it is evident that many see traditional secret societies as a synonym for FGC. Nothing could be further from the truth. FGC was practiced in Australia in the early 1900s and in Britain in the late 1800s as preventive measures to curb masturbation, mental disorders, and nymphomania in women. (Estabrooks, Elizabeth A. Female Genital Mutilation, Retrieved from http://www.munfw.org/archive/50th/who2.htm on August 4, 2012). FGC exists in places where there are no secret societies, places such as Somalia (97%) an Egypt (95%) two countries that have the highest rate of FGC. (blatantworld.com). FGC has generated strong and differing views. There are those who see the practice as primitive and torturous while others see it as an important part of their culture. If the goal is the eradication of FGC, then the solution must resolve both views for although FGC is a private practice, its implications are widespread.
The act itself symbolizes more than just a cut. Members believe that the practice is a sacred rite of passage into womanhood, a prerequisite for a good marriage, and evidence of a woman’s purity and a family’s honor. While the concept of honor in the West is linked to the individual, in Africa honor is linked to the community, clan, and family. Thus, the act of FGC as an instrument of marriage and purity brings honor to the group. FGC is also believed to be necessary for sexual cleanliness and for the control of women’s sex drive. Primarily, social acceptance undergirds FGC and is a symbolic blueprint of what it means to be a woman and part of a society, it defines belonging. Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, returned to her homeland of Sierra Leone to undergo FGC explaining that FGC was a “critical aspect of becoming a woman in accordance with our unique and powerful cultural heritage." (Tierney, John. November 30, 2007, A New Debate on Female Circumcision. Retrieved on August 3, 2012 from http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/30/a-new-debate-on-female-circumcision/)
There is also the other side to FGC, that of the harmful health implications on women and the violation of their human rights. Undoubtedly, FGC is an impediment to the health and well-being of women who undergo such procedure and poses considerable health risks and even death.
The dilemma is how do we eradicate FGC and still retain the cultural integrity of the traditional societies? Many international conventions exist to combat cultural practices that are deemed harmful: the Convention against Torture, Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights; and, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women are just a few. There are some that exposit ways to preserve cultural integrity and diversity such as the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities; the Declaration on the Right to Development; and the ILO Convention No. 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.
In June this year, a regional court in Germany ruled that male circumcision amounted to causing criminal bodily harm even with the parents’ consent. Jews and Muslims led an outcry claiming that “"circumcision has a central religious significance” in their religion. While circumscion for men may not be on par with FGC (and evidence shows that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men) the issue of cultural or religious practices coming into conflict with human rights laws is a vexing issue.
Legislation and other legal means alone will not end FGC. Mis-readings of the power interplay of African culture and the imposition of outside beliefs may have the opposite effect, making members of traditional societies hold their traditional customs even more tightly in the face of perceived threats from the outside.
Unarguably, the practice of female genital circumcision is a painful and traumatic one. As the mother of two daughters, the practice horrifies me and I am not an advocate for its continuation in any form. But its eradication should be done in the proper context by those most affected by it and not by patronizing and judgmental outsiders who lack the cultural and social context nor by Liberians eager to appease foreign donors.
There are numerous sexual claims and consequences of FGC. Many who undergo such practice are left traumatized and scarred, experiencing painful childbirth, infection, and at times, death. Claims that women are unable to experience sexual pleasure once they undergo FGC has been examined by some like Obermeyer who concluded that concerning sexuality, most of the existing studies suffer from conceptual and methodological shortcomings, and the available evidence does not support the hypotheses that circumcision destroys sexual function or precludes enjoyment of sexual relations.” (Obermeyer CM. The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable, Source Department of Population and International
Health, Harvard University, Boston, MA) Given the fact that African women are by nature modest and not comfortable talking about their sexuality (some cannot even bring themselves to tell others, especially outsiders, if they have had FGC or not) the question then is who informs such research about circumcised women’s sexual satisfaction? How are their findings supported? How does Superintendent Kpan know that her “59 camps” for Sande “prostitutes” houses only those that have undergone the procedure? Or whether these women are indeed members of the Sande (for Sande focuses on sexual decorum and fidelity)? Or even if they are prostitutes or merely homeless young women?
Demonizing the practice will not help in its eradication. What is needed is education and empowerment. One of the most successful educational programs helping to eradicate FGC is Tostan. In Senegal this program provides training in personal skills, health, human rights, and hygiene, but never decrees to the villagers what they should or should not do. The founder of Tostan, Molly Melching explained: We didn't set out to end FGC. This is a holistic program. The goal was simply to empower communities to make their own decisions about everything, including the things they've always taken for granted. Villagers have come to the decision to abandon FGM/C on their own after learning some basic facts about the harm the practice inflicts on women and their children and, just as important, coming to the realization that people have the right to abandon a pervasive, deep-rooted, centuries-old tradition if that tradition is contrary to their best interests. (Retrieved on August 5th , 2012 from http://www.unfpa.org/public/news/pid/5181)
Equipped with what they have learned, the villagers hold public deliberations to decide on the continuation or abandonment of FGC. On July 31, 1997, women in a Senegalese village declared their intent to abandon FGC. This was not because of any order or edict from their government but as a result of dialogue brought about through education. The former president of Senegal, Abdou Diof, supported the women’s decision and the Tostan approach of education and discussion became integrated in Senegal’s National Action Plan for FGC Abandonment 2010-2015. Currently, over 5,000 communities in Senegal have made the decision to abandon FGC. Maimouna Traoré, the late leader of the first Senegalese group that made the decision eloquently asserted their position: Today we are more in harmony with our traditions and culture. We are Bambara more than ever. We strengthened our positive traditions and abandoned those that are harmful to our wellbeing. We changed because we are now more responsible and caring and proud of what unites us. (http://www.tostan.org/)
The eradication of FGC is a process. Cultural practices like foot binding in China was not eradicated overnight. Education was the key as the society learned about the health advantages of unbound feet, bringing about the social acceptance of young women who did not undergo such practice. Human rights framework alone, separate from a health-based approach, will not eradicate FGC or vice versa. To reduce women’s fear of being unmarriageable if they reject FGC, it is critical that men support the eradication of FGC as well. Culturally appropriate discussions focusing on changing attitudes and beliefs about women’s bodies and their role in society is critical. Education should not revolve around preaching that FGC is wrong; rather, education should focus on the benefits of providing future generations the opportunity to live a life free of pain and free of fear that their genitalia is linked to a social status and role in the community. It is only through patience, African support, modesty, and non-judgmental attitudes on both sides of the debate that the cultural practice will evolve into one that maintains its celebration, but abandons its physical and emotional pain. (Cassman, Rachelle. Fighting to Make the Cut. 6 Nw. U. J. Int'l Hum. Rts. 128).
Changes in traditional societies must be seen as evolutionary modifications of culture and not as outside interference. Transformation is more likely to take place when the members of the society are given an opportunity to decide for themselves their course of action. Education and questions from the outside can serve as catalysts but the change must come from within and mirror an understanding of cultural context and influences. In the words of Toni Morisson, When you know better, you do better. Harmful practices like FGC must be abolished but traditional societies have a place in the new Liberia and these societies need to encouraged, modified and mobilized as we navigate our way in rebuilding our country.
Jackie Sayegh is Program Manager of the Institute for African Development, Cornell University. She is an alum of the University of Liberia and Cornell University. The responsibility for views expressed in this article rests solely with the author who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.