Resistance to notions of gender equality
Throughout history, subgroups of the African population have renounced the practice of female genital mutilation for one reason or the other: be it the death of a whole cohort of circumcised girls or a prolonged contact with non-practising societies. In Mali, efforts to fight this practice started in the late fifties, evolving into the current strong forces that combine governmental, NGO, and private initiatives and resources. However, external attempts to stop the practice date from early encounters with the Western world, before and during the colonisation of the continent. Recently, the whole world seems to have joined the Western feminists in their decades long advocacy against female genital mutilation. However, their long and strong dissuasive campaigns, often in collaboration with local forces, have only achieved limited impact on popular adherence to this practice. The feminists’ call for an end to female genital mutilation through appeals for gender equality or women’s rights seems to have created more problems than it has induced changes.
Promoting any form of equality in the context of a highly stratified society is an overt attack to its foundation. Indeed, the quest for more freedom, control and autonomy of decision to benefit women is often viewed as a goal greater than fighting female genital mutilation. Voices have been raised against the quest for
Paradoxes of Female Sexuality in Mali
gender equality, which is believed to bring along the rejection of feminine identity and roles, as they currently are. This expresses a fear about the destruction of morality in Malian society. In contrast, there is a claim that a genuine and better alternative to gender equality would be complementarities in differences. This would allow relative power among all social groups based on gender, age or socioeconomic status. The difference between these standpoints has to do with the dichotomy that is often linked to social change: individual versus collective decisions and actions. Similarly, advocating women’s rights has often been viewed as promoting individual decision-making to overrule the existing social order of interdependency and primacy of the elderly.
The fight against female genital mutilation in a feminist perspective is understood as women’s intention to break away and ‘own themselves’. Indeed, the emphasis on privacy and personal interests is discouraged among both men and women, because it is perceived as a threat to families in conformity with the social norms. In the Malian context, each family member is seen as a representative in his/her own right: honour or disgrace for one person is respectively a boost or a problem for the entire extended family. This strong sense of individual accountability remains, despite increasing individualism regarding economic welfare among family members. With regard to excision/female genital mutilation, it is frequent to hear that someone is or is not from a ‘practising family’. A relative’s self-given right to circumcise a girl without even asking for her parents’ permission or those parents’ incapacity to bring that person to court is all related to the primacy of family bonds over individual welfare. Thus, resistance to campaigns against female genital mutilation come down to being anxious about social identifiers, such as kinship affiliation and gender identity. In many ways, the widespread conformity to this practice subscribes to the strong fear of losing oneself. The tenacity in holding on to the status quo, for the sake of a code of conduct, may then be perceived as a mechanism for self-preservation and an indication of a strong hold on social identity.
The threat of losing one’s identity has been dealt with, for some time now, by a few African NGOs who have tried to discover and diffuse existing positive traditions, to convince their target population of their good intention. Recent involvement of the bolokoli-kelaw in the fight against female genital mutilation, through NGOs’ initiatives, is also an effort toward finding better strategies to communicate, convince and change attitudes and behaviours among the population concerned. To the best of my knowledge, no attempts have been made, so far, to use the magnonmakanWs knowledge, experiences and products in fighting this practice. Sisterhood, between bolokoli-kelaw and magnomakanw in fighting female genital mutilation, is likely to be seen as an agenda for collective welfare, contrary to those agendas perceived as individualistic means of social change. Their combined efforts would be an original way of addressing this particular legacy of African sexuality. It would be a good test of the ‘women’s asset approach’,
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so praised lately in development projects, to achieve a paradigm shift in the struggle against female genital mutilation.