“We found strong opposition to female circumcision in my interviews with Somalis in various places around Norway. This also corresponds well with other studies of Somalis in exile and also with studies from Somalia,” states Aud Talle, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo.
Published in autumn 2010, Talle’s book entitled Kulturens makt – kvinnelig omskjæring som tradisjon og tabu (“The Power of Culture: Female Circumcision as Tradition and Taboo”) provides an introduction to the facts, history and extent of female circumcision. The book is based on her research from Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania and from among communities of Somalis in exile in Norway and Great Britain. It also describes the various types of female circumcision that are practiced.
The book is targeted at health-care workers, employees of the child protection service, the police and other professionals who encounter issues related to female circumcision in their daily work.
Listen to the women!
Female circumcision is prohibited under Norwegian law, and Talle emphasizes that all of us have a responsibility to ensure that it does not occur. But the researcher believes that the best strategy for putting a stop to the practice relies on information, persuasion and acknowledgement rather than on punishment and condemnation.
For this reason, Talle believes it is crucial to listen to the women’s own stories and views about female circumcision.
“It is the women and men involved who have the arguments and experience that can persuade others and change attitudes,” she says.
“In a society where everyone is circumcised, as in parts of Somalia, it can be difficult to oppose such a deeply ingrained cultural practice. For example, if a girl is not circumcised, this might mean she cannot marry, and many women depend on marriage for their survival,” the researcher explains.
Many of the Somalis interviewed by Talle say that their situation in exile has allowed them to adopt a new perspective and reflect on the practice of female circumcision.
“They realize that the practice is not mandatory nor is it required by their religion. There is strong opposition to female circumcision among Somalis in exile.”
As part of a research project, Talle conducted in-depth interviews of 33 Somali women in five different locations in Norway in 2007. All of the Somali women whom Talle interviewed were against female circumcision.
Opposition arising from experience
In one of her books, the super model Waris Dirie from Somalia writes that her opposition to female circumcision arose at the precise moment that she herself was circumcised, Talle recounts.
“Countless women I have interviewed tell me something similar. I think a latent opposition lies in their own experiences, and this serves as a driving force behind the efforts to oppose the practice in exile.”
“The point is that change can occur rapidly, as has been the case among Somalis in Norway. The change from one generation to the next has been enormous,” she continues.
Talle says that this is also confirmed by professionals throughout Norway who work in the first-line services such as general practitioners, gynaecologists and nurses. They see very few cases of children who have been circumcised.
In Talle’s study, religion was an important argument for all of the Somali women who opposed female circumcision. The practice is not prescribed by Islam; it is not a religious duty. There was especially strong opposition to the traditional method of circumcision known as infibulation.
Infibulation, also called Pharaonic circumcision or Sudanese circumcision, involves the removal of all or parts of the labia minora and removal of parts of the clitoris and the labia majora. The sides of the vulva are then sewn together, leaving only a small opening. Clitoridectomy is the most common form of circumcision on a worldwide basis and entails the removal of all or parts of the clitoris. In so-called Sunna circumcision, the mildest form of the practice, the hood of the clitoris is removed.
A few of the religious women interviewed by Talle believe that Sunna circumcision is permissible under Islam, but that it is voluntary.
Talle says that several of the women who opposed female circumcision stressed that infibulation is not a religious practice, but rather a primitive, pre-Islamic tradition.
In addition to the religious arguments against female circumcision, the women also emphasized that the medical consequences of the procedure and the pain it inflicts were key reasons that they opposed the practice.
Talle and other researchers have found that these same arguments are also heard in Somalia and Kenya, where the practice of female circumcision is undergoing fundamental change.
“There is now stronger opposition to infibulation, and circumcision is being practiced less than before in both Kenya and Somalia. By the same token, we are seeing a move away from infibulation and over to Sunna circumcision,” Talle explains. She is currently involved in a research project that is investigating this change in Somaliland.
Circumcised in Somalia?
In cooperation with researchers in Somaliland, Talle also conducted a study of circumcisers in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, and in the second largest city of Burao. The aim of the study was to learn more about how the circumcisers worked and to find out whether Norwegian-Somali girls had been circumcised there.
In this study, the researchers interviewed 78 circumcisers in Hargeisa. Thirty-four of them had performed circumcisions on girls living in exile who were visiting their country of origin. Several of the circumcisers had performed the procedure on girls in exile only once, and most of them said it occurred very seldom. The circumcisers were often uncertain which countries these girls came from. In four cases Norway was named specifically in connection with Sunna circumcision, but there could have been more Norwegian-Somalis who fell into the group of girls not specified by country.
“Our study shows that some Norwegian-Somali girls have been circumcised in their country of origin, but that this probably happens very rarely,” says Talle.
“You have been criticized for applying cultural relativism too much in your understanding of female circumcision. How do you respond to this criticism?”
“I believe that understanding is the best means of changing the practice. We need to speak with the people involved and listen to their stories. In the appropriate setting, these women are not afraid to talk about the issue. But the media debate is often so polarized that it is difficult to counter this and ensure that other perspectives are heard,” Talle says.
According to Norway’s largest encyclopaedia Store norske leksikon, cultural relativism is the view that all cultures or cultural patterns are equal, which means that different societies must be understood on their own terms. This perspective is often criticized for taking a too neutral position on culture, resulting in a moral inability to take action against controversial practices.
Talle points out that cultural relativism is not a moral position, but rather an important tool in her work as a researcher and a scientific method for gaining insight into a phenomenon which takes its history, environment and culture as the point of departure.
“But even though I apply this method to conduct research on female circumcision, and I try to let ‘the Other’ be heard and allow for an inside perspective, this doesn’t mean that I condone the practice. For instance, I have never tried to hide my opposition to female circumcision in my interviews with women in Africa or in the exile communities.”
In Talle’s view, it is important that the research is not only problem oriented – in other words, that it does not focus solely on the worst cases.
“It is also important that we learn more about the people who have stopped engaging in the practice. Why have they done it, how did this change occur?”
“This also applies to the trend towards less intrusive forms of the practice that we are seeing in Somalia and Kenya. Why is this happening? If we have better insight into these change processes, we can also do a better job of putting an end to female circumcision.”
Translated by Connie Stultz.
Aud Talle is a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo.
Talle’s book entitled Kulturens makt – kvinnelig omskjæring som tradisjon og tabu (“The Power of Culture: Female Circumcision as Tradition and Taboo”) was published in autumn 2010 by Høyskoleforlaget, a Norwegian publisher of academic material.