In 1993, I was born in Lansing, and raised in the state of Michigan my whole life. Although being of an American nationality, my family hails from the great country of Nigeria. I have been privileged enough to be raised with Nigerian and American traditions, but I felt there was much more to learn about my country Nigeria. For this reason, I decided to choose the “Giant of Africa” as my country of focus during this class. Patriarchal beliefs are strong within this country. This idea and way of thinking has shaped women’s behaviors, life choices, and health for centuries; for example, this way of thinking has had a great effect on the issue of female genital mutilization (FGM), which will be the topic of discussion in this post. This procedure has affected many women around the world. There are social determinants, however, that influence the experiences that individuals within the same community encounter. The determinants I will focus on are education, peer groups, and religion. I will also be addressing the issue of female genital mutilization from the feminist theory standpoint.
Female genital mutilization is a strong social and cultural practice among many civilizations in the world today. Although not as common among the Western world anymore, countries within Africa and the Middle East still heavily practice this, despite the many negative effects the operation can have on a woman’s body and health. Among Africa, 26 countries actively participate in female genital mutilization, with one of the countries being Nigeria (Toubia, 1994). What are the different reasons that women choose to proceed with the operation? One study mentions that out of a total of 500 Nigerian women, 95% said that female genital mutilization is for cultural and traditional reasons, 49% believe it helps to prevent promiscuity, 18% thought that a vulva that doesn’t undergo female genital mutilization is ugly, 11% believed that the operation prevents the death of male newborns, 9% received pressure from relatives to pursue the operation, and 6% mentioned religious reasons (Utz-Billing & Kentenich, 2008).
Female genital mutilization holds many dangers to a woman and her body, psychologically and physically. Chronic irritability and nightmares have been reported, and these women are at higher risk for psychological diseases such as depression, psychosis, and others (Utz-Billing & Kentenich, 2008). In communities where female circumcision is of high focus and value, girls face societal peer pressure, depression, and the fear, trauma, and after-effects of the operation (Toubia, 1994). Also, due to frequent lack of information on the operation being passed to girls and women, this can cause a lack of confidence in the person to whom the individual relates to the most. Physically, female genital mutilization has been connected to pregnancy and delivery complications (Utz-Billing & Kentenich, 2008), hemorrhage or the excessive loss of blood, severe pain, anemia, and infections around the wound (Toubia, 1994). Some common long-term complications are pelvic and back pain, infertility, urinary stones, kidney damage, and especially the formation of dermoid cysts. These occur along the line of the scar and can vary in size. The presence of dermoid cysts also brings heightened anxiety to women, due to the fear that it may be an indicator of cancer. Interference with sexual intercourse also comes into play, which plays a main role in reproduction (Toubia, 1994). Another danger that is being studied is the increased risk of HIV transmission with female genital mutilization. In one study, it was revealed that 97% of the time, the same equipment can be used on 15-20 different girls undergoing female genital mutilization, which can aid in the spread of HIV (Brady, 1999). Additionally, another study indicated other ways that HIV can be spread. Increased need for blood transfusions due to hemorrhage from FGM is one way. Another is the fact that girls who have the FGM procedure are much desired, so dowry demands for the girls may be high. Because of this, girls are married off to older men who can meet the demand, and these men may already be infected with HIV, which is then spread during intercourse (Brady, 1999). HIV/AIDS is increasingly becoming even more of a public health issue in Nigeria, with reported AIDS cases more than doubling each year (Isiugo-Abanihe, 1994). With such intense dangers, why is proceeding with female genital mutilization so important to some women in Nigeria?
To start off, I would like to go into a little bit of the history behind feminist anthropology and theory. Feminist anthropology can be separated into three categories. The first division lasted between the years of 1850 to 1920. Up until this point in time, most research was conducted by men for men, and the general idea was that one’s biological sex gave the basis of their roles within society. This served as a time for feminists to introduce their perspectives on experiences to the male population, since these male researchers never were able to know things from a woman’s point of view. From 1920 to 1980, we get the next division of feminist anthropology. Here, the meanings of and differences between “sex” and “gender” are created and starting to be acknowledged. While the sex of an individual is determined by biology, gender is defined as a cultural basis. The last division of feminist anthropology started from 1980 and goes to the present time. In this period, sex is starting to be considered as a social category, just like gender. Also, anthropologists begin to look at other characteristics that create diversity in the topic of “women”, such as race, socioeconomic status, religion, and others (Bratton, 1998). These three divisions have made great contributions to the feminist theory studied today, and are important to consider while researching.
As stated in the lecture video from week one, the feminist theory asks two big questions. One is how does gender impact the situation? The other question the theory asks is if there is inequality present specifically due to gender. These two questions can be addressed by the topic I have decided to research for my country, and this will be apparent as I go deeper into the topic of patriarchy and anti-feminism in Nigeria.
One should acknowledge the strong patriarchal views within Nigerian society that have put men on an extreme pedestal compared to women. For example, men are expected to be more sexually aggressive, so many times their actions are excused. Premarital sex is excused for men due to them having a “sexual nature”, while a woman is shamed for participating in such an act (Izugbara, 2004). Careers are another example; they are selected based on what is appropriate for each gender. Engineers, workers in finance, and lawyers are seen to be career choices well suited for a man. While times have changed and women are able to have their own careers as well, one of the key purposes of a woman in Nigeria is to be able to raise a family and create future generations. When women are in the process of creating offspring, most families are looking for the birth of a boy, which places a lot of pressure on women (Izugbara, 2004). Boys are seen to be the future leaders of the household and the ones who carry the family name. The strong pressure to bear male babies has placed a great influence on a Nigerian woman’s decision to proceed with female genital mutilization, when in actuality this procedure brings more harm than good. It brings forth more complications with carrying a pregnancy and having a baby. Some women are aware of the harm and decide not to speak up for multiple reasons. One reason is the fact that the patriarchal nature of Nigeria has instilled fear in women on future violence or other punishments that their husbands or male figures in their lives can direct towards them (Abama & Chris, 2009). Another reason is because society has convinced women to believe that this is “the way things are supposed to be”, maybe they are the ones that are wrong or “sick” for feeling otherwise, and that no one would ever be able to understand how they are feeling (Friedan, 1963).
Although patriarchy affects many Nigerian families and female genital mutilization as an issue in the country of Nigeria has been decreasing, the prevalence of female genital mutilization is much higher among certain groups of people compared to others of the same community, and there are factors to better suggest some reasons why. A person’s or family’s education level is one major social determinant of health. A lot of the families that traditionally practice female genital mutilization are in general less educated, and are from the rural areas of Nigeria. According to a study I read about, over two thirds of female genital mutilization within the study was found among women with the least amount of formal education (Snow et. al., 2002), and this is consistent with many other studies that have been conducted on this topic. A lot of what the less educated families practice and believe is based off of ideas that have been passed by through the family for many years, so it has become a lifestyle; this is their own knowledge. Formal education is not the only type of education that can serve as a social determinant of health. Many times, people lack health education and are unaware of the negative effects that undergoing female genital mutilization can have on a woman. They overlook the severity of the matter. One study I looked into included women in a specific Nigerian community who all refused to continue the practice of female genital mutilization within their families. Although majority of the participating mothers have at least secondary education, 50% of them were ignorant about the dangers that female genital mutilization brings (Igwegbe & Egbuonu, 2000). Another study I read fostered a health education intervention program to a sample of the participants of the study, and it was observed that after being trained on the dangers of female genital mutilization, there was a statistically significant increase in the proportion of respondents who had no intention of making their future child have the operation (Asekun-Olarinmoye & Amusan, 2008). This sheds light on the importance of receiving a health education and not just a formal one. The study I just mentioned also brought up the fact that many of the women who acquired knowledge on the dangers of female genital mutilization received it from their friends and fellow women in the community, which suggests the importance of peer groups as well. The presence of positive peer groups in an individual’s life could also be considered a social determinant of health.
Snow et. al. brings up religion as a major social determinant of health within their study. Over 85% of the participants that had the operation reported themselves as an affiliate of a Christian faith, such as Catholicism, Pentecostal, or Protestant (Snow et. al., 2002). As mentioned earlier, many families have the women go through with the female genital mutilization procedure as an attempt to prevent promiscuity and sex before marriage. Because the Christian faith, for example, many times encourages waiting until marriage for sexual intercourse, it makes sense that individuals who practice certain religions would have higher rates of female genital mutilization compared to others.
From this post, you can see how heavily affected the way a Nigerian woman lives her life is by the patriarchal customs and anti-feminist views of her environment. Addressing the issue of gender inequality within Nigerian culture and helping others see the dangers that have stemmed from this could be the first step in decreasing the rates of female genital mutilization. For a society that really places importance on women fulfilling their duties by upbringing families and managing the home, it is important that everyone understands the risks that female genital mutilization brings forth. Further education on the risks of the dangerous operation and programs to help people of the community appreciate the actual worth of a woman could bring great change to the life of a Nigerian woman.
- Marmot, Michael. “Social determinants of health inequalities.” The Lancet 365 (2005): 1099-1104.
- Snow, R.C., Slanger, T.E., Okonofua, F.E., Oronsaye, F. & Wacker, J. “Female genital cutting in southern urban and peri-urban Nigeria: self-reported validity, social determinants and secular decline.” Tropical Medicine & International Health 7.1 (2002): 91-100.
- Igwegbe, A.O. & Egbuonu, Ifeoma. “The prevalence and practice of female genital mutilation in Nnewi, Nigeria: The impact of female education.” Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 20.5 (2000): 520-522.
- Asekun-Olarinmoye, E.O. & Amusan, O.A. “The impact of health education on attitudes towards female genital mutilation (FGM) in a rural Nigerian community.” The European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care 13.3 (2008): 289-297.
- Bratton, Angela. “Feminist Anthropology.” (1998). http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/fem.htm
- Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. (1963).
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- Brady, Margaret. “Female genital mutilization: complications and risk of HIV transmission.” AIDS PATIENT CARE and STDs 13.12 (1999): 709-716.
- Utz-Billing, I. & Kentenich, H. “Female genital mutilation: an injury, physical and mental harm.” Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology 29.4 (2008): 225-229.
- Isiugo-Abanihe, Uche C. “Extramarital relations and perceptions of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria.” Health Transition Review 4 (1994): 111-125.
- Mandara, M.U. “Female genital mutilation in Nigeria.” International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 84 (2004): 291–298.
- Abama, Elizabeth & Chris, M. A. Kwaja. “Violence against women in Nigeria: how the millennium development goals addresses the challenge.” Journal of Pan African Studies 3.3 (2009): 24-34.
- Izugbara, C. O. “Patriarchal ideology and discourses of sexuality in Nigeria.” Understanding Human Sexuality Seminar Series 2 (2004): 2-34.