By Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, PhD, Editor in-Chief and Publisher, SiA Magazine – A couple of weeks or so ago Reverend Kabs Kanu’s Cocorioko published a cover picture of some random, recycled internet image of a presumably African woman, her arms flailing and she is screaming in either horrific pain or terror or both. Her bottom half is cut off from sight so we don’t know what is going on – is she giving birth? No. The sensational headlines invite the spectator to conclude that she is a victim of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), allegedly the greatest crime against girls and women in Africa and beyond. While Cocorioko, a Sierra Leonean owned pro-government online newspaper, was busy publically and globally humiliating the vast majority of Sierra Leonean adult women as well as our mothers and grandmothers through this demeaning representation of Bondo society, the American upscale women’s lifestyle magazine Vanity Fair stole the show last week with a front cover outing of Caitlyn Jenner, the newly transformed white Bondo woman.
So, what do I mean by this? How can I equate Bruce Jenner’s turning into Caitlyn with Bondo or FGM in Sierra Leone? First of all, as a proud and sexually confident Bondo woman I reject the term “mutilation”. This little exercise is meant to force us to question why some of us continue to refer to ourselves as “mutilated” when it is clear that the very white women who invented that term to define us would never use this language or concept to describe their own genital modifications, whether on girls or adult women. But this article does more than that. I want us to consider something more insidious that is happening here. Not only have we been invited by white women (and many of us have accepted) to denigrate our vaginas as mutilated and to accuse our mothers for complicity in an African patriarchal conspiracy to deprive us of sexual pleasure and womanhood but we have allowed these same women to appropriate, that is to steal and make as their own, the very genital operations and ideologies behind them that our mothers, grandmothers, and female ancestors handed down to us.
I have argued that this is what is going on in the increasing popularity and demand for Female Genital Cosmetic Surgeries by mainly white western women and underage girls. Although many FGCS procedures have the same anatomical and aesthetic effects as so-called FGM, the latter term is reserved for only non-white women and girls, especially those of us from Africa. But the highest form of cultural appropriation goes beyond the things, objects or practices that are stolen (i.e. the different types of female genital surgeries); it is the theft of the ideologies behind them that really matter.
There’s no need for me to get too academic here. It’s a simple process that can be described in another every day example: You’re in the office. You submit a proposal to your boss. She tells you that it’s poorly written, it doesn’t make much sense and is only going to take the company backward. Believing that your boss clearly knows best and lacking the confidence to assert yourself, you chuck the proposal in the dust bin. One month later you’re at a departmental staff meeting. Your boss clears her throat and presents “her” new proposal that will take the company to new and greater heights. You recognize your ideas, even your style of writing; but your boss changed the title. She has misused her position and power and appropriated your proposal, meaning she stole your work and ideas and made it her own.
Introducing Caitlyn Jenner: Western feminists and the liberal media celebrate the radical sex and gender transformation of Bruce Jenner, a sexually ambiguous manchild, into Caitlyn Jenner and advertise her global “coming out” ceremoniously on the cover of Vanity Fair as a psychosexually complete and biologically constructed adult female. Uh hello? Can we revisit the launching of the new SiA Magazine in March of last year where I devoted several articles to discussing how female and male circumcision in Africa are concerned with the transformation of androgynous “children” into adult females or adult males respectively?
So I say to Khadija Gbla, Jahar Dukureh, and so many other FGM poster children, this ceremonial coming out of a sexually transformed Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair is downright cultural appropriation, the theft and modern remarketing of your mothers’ and grandmothers’ ancestral knowledge, ideologies and ritual initiation practices… their proposal that was for your eyes only. How long are we educated, westernized, circumcised African women going to remain stuck on the label they gave us back in the office, “mutilation” – the idea that we are deficient, not good enough, half-woman and a victim of male oppression. They asked us to throw away our culture, our history and our knowledge in the dust bin. And some of us did just that. After all, the white woman’s the boss; she knows better. And heck, some of us are even lucky to be where we are with her help and mentorship. With our African cultural ideas about androgyny, sex and gender ridiculed, dismissed and forgotten, we are now sold a newly repackaged, manufactured, modern version of the Bondo masquerade…she says, call her Caitlyn.
Ok Caitlyn, did you know that “becoming female” and “becoming male” rituals existed thousands of years before modern transgender rituals of transformation? For example, the Mande speaking peoples of West Africa – that comprise the Bambara, Mandinka, Mende, Su-Su, Kono, Vai, Kpelle and so on – have for hundreds if not thousands of years consciously transformed sexually ambiguous “children” into culturally and biologically constructed adult women and men who are then celebrated in public coming out ceremonies? They are even given a new name to mark their transition and new adult sex/gender social status. Western feminists and anti-FGM activists have refused to acknowledge these more compelling interpretations of female and male initiation and circumcision in African countries claiming instead that culture is no excuse for torture. These practices, notably female circumcision, are demonized as barbaric and misogynistic.
But the renamed Caitlyn and her multimillion dollar global coming out ceremony on Vanity Fair as a white, western female is applauded as a global feminist victory? The question now being asked once again by western feminists is who or what is a woman? In the western politically correct view, it’s apparently perfectly okay for a white male to literally or metaphorically remove his penis to become a white woman but it’s anti-feminist for an African woman to remove her relatively smaller external clitoral hood and glans, her literal or symbolic penis, in the same name of womanhood. And, to be certain, this is not about children – the general global permissibility of infant male circumcision and now FGCS performed on underage white girls in western countries are cases in point.
To bring the analogy a little closer to home: Take someone like me, born as a western defined biological female of African descent in the good old USA. As an adult woman at the age of 21, I chose to journey back to Sierra Leone with my mother, aunts and grandmother to be initiated into the community of adult women, also known as Bondo or Sande, in accordance with my Kono ancestral traditions. My unique experience and clear exercise of autonomy has been dismissed by well-known western feminists like journalist Michelle Goldberg and scholar Chantal Zabus; I am not seen as making a choice but simply and blindly following my African patriarchal tradition. According to these women who know more about myself than I do, I wanted to belong and be accepted. Any other psychological reason is cool; just don’t call it choice. African women and girls don’t have choices.
Fast forward some twenty odd years later, someone named Bruce Jenner, born as a western defined biological male in this same USA decides that he is really a woman (and admits he’s known of his sexual ambiguity since childhood) and wants to enter the world of western womanhood. As an adult man at the age of 65, this formerly definitive man’s man and Olympic athlete, chooses to undergo western female initiation in accordance with the modern, ritual protocols of western medicine or gender reassignment surgeries. Caitlyn Jenner is hailed by the western liberal media, feminists and much of the western world as a true “woman”. She is even awarded a medal of courage (the same courage that is valued and celebrated in our traditional African female initiation rituals) and is congratulated by her famous Kardashian daughters, other family and close friends. She has paid the price of womanhood with her heart, soul, body and importantly, her blood. She has achieved what no Sierra Leonean man can ever lay claim to in our country – entering Bondo or the sacred world of circumcised adult women.
Make no mistake, the world of western womanhood that Caitlyn has gained privileged entry into is all about surgical transformations – face, neck, breast and body lifts; lip, cheek, breast, butt implants; botox injections, laser surgeries and yes all kinds of minor to severe genital cosmetic surgeries (clitoral hood removals, clitoral reductions, labia trimming, vaginal tightening etc.) and the creation of the vagina itself. My own choice to experience a relatively minor physical transformation in accordance with my African traditions and in the hands of African women is dismissed by western feminists yet Caitlyn’s medicalized female initiation and radical gender transformation is celebrated? This, I offer, is the ultimate expression and global affirmation of white male privilege – aided and abetted by the very western feminists who have the audacity to judge my own ancestral privilege to become an initiated, circumcised Bondo woman.
With the public celebration of their androgynous Bondo debul, Caitlyn Jenner, the community of western feminist powers that be still wants to define women like me as “mutilated” and criminalize our mothers. They turn around and declare that Caitlyn is “beautiful” and empowered. Caitlyn’s mother in particular is regarded as a hero for accepting her biological son’s radical castration and psychosexual initiation into western womanhood. Seriously??? Ah taya sef!
The disturbing part of this is that some of my educated Sierra Leonean sisters who have never been to Bondo (and even a few who have) are ready to bring the anti-FGM campaign to Sierra Leone to enlighten and civilize our mothers and grandmothers. Ah beg boh! As for Kabs-Kanu and Cocorioko, you will surely answer to the Bondo and Sande women of Sierra Leone come 2017.
Oh yes, call me SiA.