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Female Circumcision – The Worst Tradition Still Practiced
Interview with Hannah Edemikpong

[To German version!]

I think the first time that I heard/read about female circumcision was somewhere in 1987 in the German edition of the book "Women In The World. An International Atlas" by Joni Seager and Ann Olson. Actually, female circumcision is a rather neutral – or should I say euphemistic – expression for what is in my opinion the worst tradition which is still practiced (in many Middle and Northern African and some Near East countries, as well as – illegally – in Western European countries by some immigrants from those countries): female genital mutilation. It means the cutting-off of the clitoris as well as the entire inner labia or parts of them, sometimes also parts of the outer labia. Apart from the physical pain caused by the practice itself as well as infections often following afterwards, one can imagine that this practice also has a seriously traumatizing effect on its victims.

In 1990, I got into written contact with Hannah Edemikpong, a woman in Nigeria who is fighting against female genital mutilation. I had read her address in a book by the German singer Nina Hagen and decided to write to her and also to – occasionally – send her a little financial support. (I don´t remember the title of the book, because it wasn´t mine, but belonged to a former penfriend of mine.)

I don´t know what it´s like in other European countries, but I think that thanks to some reports on TV and in other media, female genital mutilation is – at least in Germany – not as unknown anymore as it probably was some 10 or 15 years ago. As it´s still an important subject, I decided to do a written interview with Hannah, mainly focussing on her work, its conditions from the past until now and the origins of female genital mutilation.

Burkhard: When did you first get the idea to do something against the practice of female genital mutilation? Were you encouraged by relatives, friends or other people or was your idea (mostly) met with resistance?

Hannah: Female genital mutilation is a traditional or cultural practices amongst women in this part of the world. At the age of 10 when I was about to be circumcised as they call it, my mother hinted me about the plan and indeed helped me to escape to a border town with Cameroun Republic where catholic nuns were stationing. There I was sheltered and the proposed circumcision was aborted. I therefore vowed that I would use the remaining part of my life to fight against the practices. Since started the campaign I have been much encouraged by my friends and relatives.

Burkhard: When you started your work, were there any other people working together with you or was it some kind of "one-woman" project? How and when did you actually start?

Hannah: It is not a one woman project, there are other women and some friends and relatives who are a part of the project. We started this project in 1985 by mobilizing women in meetings and seminars through which some of them volunteered to join in the campaign which we tagged as: educational campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation. We printed handbills which contained the dangers of female genital mutilation and distributed them at market places, and anywhere women could be found. We stopped women on the road and talk. We visit homes and visited remote villages, using loudspeakers to talk to women.

Burkhard: Has the focus of your work changed over the years? What is your work like right now? I know from your letters that you´ve already travelled to other African countries where FGM (female genital mutilation) is practised to speak to women about all the negative aspects of this practice to prevent them from doing to their daughters what has been done to them. This kind of preventive work is possibly the most important part of your work, but are there also ways you can offer help to those who have already become a victim of FGM?

Hannah: Our focus has in fact changed over the years as we have introduced other issues that are dangerous to the lives of our women. The spread of HIV/AIDS is indeed associated with the practices of female genital mutilation so we also campaign against the spread of AIDS. Yes, we offer help to known victims of FGM by assisting them get emergency medical treatment and provide emergency shelter for those who escape from the practices. In the meantime we are carrying the campaign to neighboring African contries in Central Africa.

Burkhard: How are the conditions for your work right now? What were they like in the past? (I could imagine that they were probably most restrictive during the years of dictator Abacha´s regime, weren´t they?)

Hannah: Our work is difficult, difficult, risky and dangerous. Only those who volunteer to give their lives for services of humanity can do it. Because it is not simple to change an age-long tradition or cultures which has relationship with the peoples religion. So our lives are always in danger when we go out to campaign. Our menfolk are not happy with us either, they see us as agents of colonialism who come to destroy their culture. In other African countries we have visited it has not been easy to talk to women freely, once the traditional Chiefs know our mission they do everything to frustrate it even as far as to colluding with the security agents to get us detained and repatriate us. During Abacha´s military regime in Nigeria when he was isolated by western nations he bared his fangs on us and labeled us as western agents and earmarked us for prosecution. I earned detention and torture for writing an article on Nigerian women in a British Women´s Magazine in 1996. However since the return to democracy in 1999 there is the rule of law.

Burkhard: Do you have contact to women/organisations in other parts of Nigeria/other countries who also fight against the practice of FGM? (Is there already some kind of network or at least the prospect of establishing one in the future? How important is the internet for you and your work?)

Hannah: Yes we do have contacts with other groups in Nigeria and Western Africa sub-region that are fighting against the practice. We do not have a kind of network though there may be a hope of establishing it in future. We do not have internet and we do not even have a single computer for now. We can only hire the service of a computer when such need arises and if and when we have funds.

Burkhard: What is known about the origin of and the reasons for FGM? According to a map in the book "Women In The World. An International Atlas" by Joni Seager and Ann Olson, FGM is widely spread in the states of Central Africa (from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east) and in some Arabian countries (Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates), so one might get the idea that FGM is perhaps some kind of traditional practice in these countries, but when and by whom was it invented? Do you know any studies/books on this subject?

Hannah: There are no written historic accounts by Africans on the so-called female circumcision but archaeologists, through the excavation of graves, have found mummies of women in ancient Egypt and Sudan that were excised. Herodotus, the Roman historian (486-424 B.C.) found the Egyptians practicing male and female circumcision when he visited their country around the middle of the fifth century B.C., and he reported on it. Strabo, the famous Greek geographer, alse reported finding excision of girls a custom whe he visited Egypt 25 B.C. Thus circumcision of both girls and boys came into fashion long before Islam and Christianity was practiced in many different areas of Africa. Carsten Niebuhr, the German traveler and sole survivor of the first European scientific expedition to Arabia, Egypt and Syria reported on the practice of excision in 1767 A.D., and stated that in Oman, on the shores of the Persian Gulf among the Christians of Abyssinia and in Egypt among Arabs and Copts.

We know and study books on this subject and one of us has contributed to such books which had been published both in the USA and Canada; so we know several books on this subject.

Burkhard: As far as I know, FGM ist usually executed by women on girls, which is very hard to understand, because one should think that women should know best all the pain and suffering that this terrible practice causes to its victims. Do you happen to know in how far men are involved in keeping up this practice? Does, to put it provocatively, the majority of men in those countries where FGM is commonly practised consist of sadists who like it if their wifes feel nothing but pain when they have sex with them? Or is it that men simply don´t care, because they think they are not involved when a girl is circumcised by a woman? Are there (in Nigeria) also men who speak up against FGM in the media or at least in private?

Hannah: Men on their part encourage and condone the practice because Africa´s traditional society is a polygamous society whereby the marriage of many wives is their customary right. They believe that the clitoris is an aggressive sexual organ which if not removed will give much sexual urge to their wives and since they are too many for them to satisfy at a time may lead to extramarital sex and prostitution. A traditional mid-wife who was once asked about the real reason why genital mutilation continues to be practiced in some parts of Africa said: "because men require it. Some men refuse to marry girls who are not operated upon. They regard an infibulated girl as one whose virginity has not been broken." However, there are many men who have spoken against the pracitce and have joined the crusade to condemn the practice.

Burkhard: I had found your address in 1990 by accident in a book of the German singer Nina Hagen. How did you get into contact with each other? Did you know who she was? I mean, did she tell you that she was a well-known German singer who had started her musical career in the seventies in a German punk rock band? Did you ever meet her in person and do you still have contact to her?

Hannah: The German singer Nina Hagen read my article in the German Woman´s Magazine "Emma" and contacted me and decided to send me some financial assistance. She told me that she would write a book in which she would include my name and address so that people who wish could contact me and send support. Unfortunately she did not send me the book but somebody in London wrote to me that she saw my address in Nina Hagen´s book when she came to London. However, since I do not understand German I imagine how I could use the book when there is no one to translate it to me. Since then I lost contact with Nina. Can you help me to re-establish my contact with Nina? I shall be very grateful.

Burkhard: Do you know of any other (popular) artists/musicians – in Nigeria or other countries – who openly support the fight against FGM in general or your cause in particular?

Hannah: I don´t know of any musicians popular or unpopular who openly support the fight against FGM and to us in particular.

Burkhard: How do politicians/political parties in Nigeria deal with the subject of FGM? Do they mostly treat it like some kind of taboo an try to ignore it as if it didn´t really exist? Since you have started your work, have there been any legislative or other political measures in Nigeria to put an end to the practice of FGM? If yes, have they brought any improvement or is the tradition of FGM rooted so deeply in people´s minds that legislative measures have hardly any practical effect at all?

Hannah: Many politicians and political parties in Nigeria have started condemning this practice because of the condemnation of this pracitce in international levels and in international conventions but they do not make it as an official policy of their parties. Yes, discussion of sex and sexuality is a taboo in African traditional society but we and other women´s groups that engaged on stopping the practice are breaking the jinx and with many women who are educated have exerted a lot of pressures on members of legislative assemblies and indeed there is a break-through in many states in Nigeria in which legislations are passed making genital mutilations unlawful but the problem is how to enforce this legislation. Even in the USA, UK and France where FGM is prohibited Africans and Asians still secretly genitally mutilate their female children.

Burkhard: After the re-establishment of democracy in Nigeria a few years ago there seemed to be hope for a better and peaceful future in Nigeria. Now it seems that this hope is seriously shattered and menaced by growing political/religious conflicts between the northern part of Nigeria, which is under growing strong Islamic influences, and the predominantly Christian southern part. Especially the introduction of Sharia law in several regions in Northern Nigeria has caused a lot of uproar. There´s been international press coverage on the cases of two young women who have been sentenced to death by stoning by Sharia courts for having extramarital intercourse. As far as I remember, both women have been accused because they had given birth to a child after they had been divorced or widowed for more than a year. (I think at least one of them had been raped by one of her relatives, which proves how "unjust" Sharia law is, because – at least in this case – it punishes the victim, while the criminal goes free.) In the first case, the death sentence was overruled by the court of appeal, whereas in the second case it was not. Having a look at the current political situation in Nigeria, would you say that there´s a serious threat to the democratic development in this country because of religious and/or political conflicts between the north and the south, and that these conflicts might – in the worst case – lead to a civil war-like situation as e.g. the one in Sudan, which has already been going on for many, many years (mostly without the "first world" countries taking notice of – probably because there´s no oil involved)?

Hannah: Concerning the second woman Amina Lawal that was sentenced to death by stoning by the Sharia Court, the Count of Appeal has a few weeks ago overturned the death sentence and quashed the decision of the Sharia Court; so in the two instances no one has been killed. However, there is a threat to peaceful co-existence in the country because of religious intolerance, sometimes sensitive international events or conflicts such as the Miss World contest 2002 and Iraq/USA conflict are always given religious interpretation culminating in religious riot. During the Miss World 2002 contest in Nigeria, a female journalist wrote an article in the newspaper which the Muslims claimed to have been blasphemous of their prophet which resulted in a riot. Many Christians and non-Muslims were killed and several churches and Christian institutions were burnt. The invasion of Iraq by allied forces was interpreted to mean invasion of the Muslim state by the Christian west and several churches and Christians in the Muslim north were destroyed or killed. So if the country must be united it should be a secular state. For it is always difficult to find a solution to religious conflicts. The examples are Northern Ireland conflict and the Sudan conflict.

Burkhard: Do you think the conflicts between northern and southern Nigeria are genuinely religious ones or could it be that some regional "clan leaders" use religion just as a means to disguise their political interests (which actually are rather private interests, namely to play some kind of local dictator)?

Hannah: Some conflicts are not genuinely religious but politically motivated by political leaders, otherwise what should the USA/Iraq conflict have to do with Nigeria that should provoke the Nigerians kill fellow Nigerians and burn churches?

Burkhard: I can imagine that your work is very hard and tiring, sometimes dangerous, and costs a lot of energy. What helps you to – metaphorically speaking – "recharge the batteries"?

Hannah: Yes the work is hard, tedious, dangerous and exerts a lot of energy. Sometimes I am forced by my doctors to have a rest.

Burkhard: Do you have any kind of hobbies? Do you like reading or listening to music? Are there any books or artists/bands (from Nigeria, Africa or elsewhere) you would like to recommend?

Hannah: Yes, I read, write, travel and listen to music, but I do not have any musical book. There are some musical artists in Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere in Africa. One Nigerian artist his music I used to love was that of Fela Anikulapo Kuti who died a few years ago, because he used music to fight the ills of the society.

Burkhard: During all the years that you´ve been fighting against FGM, what has been the worst/most frustrating and what has been the most positive/encouraging experience?

Hannah: During the years of campaign against FGM the years of Abacha´s dictatorial military rule were the most frustrating ones for us and the positive and encouraging ones were from 1999 hitherto when some states in Nigeria began to pass legislations against FGM.

Burkhard: If someone wants to support you/your work, what kind of support would be the most important to you? How can people get into contact with you?

Hannah: We need moral, material and financial support, we urgently need a computer and a copier, stationery, books on various subjects including law and human rights. We need clothing, materials, shoes, stockings and scarfs. Above all we need money for the care and assistance to FGM victims. Our contact address is: Hannah Edemikpong, Box 185, Eket, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, West Africa.

Burkhard: Any last words? Anything you would like to tell the readers of this interview?

Hannah: My last words


Call it Sunna
Call it Excision
Call it Infibulation
Call it Pharaonic Circumcision
Call it Tradition
Call it Anti colonialism
Call it Their culture
Call it None of our business

African Women call it monkey de work baboon de chop and it means men steal our sex as they steal our labour.

African women are organizing to stop the cutting the way women have always organized, home to home in the market place, one woman stopping another alng the road to talk.

Call it – tell a woman

African women don´t need this poem

They could use financial aid to pay the operational cost of radio/TV and newspaper advertising

They could use material aid a computer, copier, projector, loudspeakers

They could use a video camera

They need a kind word. Like your friend who works the rape hotline (In case Hannah should be addressing me here, there´s obviously a misunderstanding: In one of my letters some years ago, I mentioned that one of my favourite singers, Tori Amos, founded an organization called RAINN which offers help to rape victims. However, Tori Amos is not a friend of mine – unfortunately! – Burkhard)

Need a kind word. They need a sister to notice.

Call it our business.

Thank you

Burkhard: I would like to thank you very much for taking the time to answer all my questions.

Interview: Burkhard; Autumn 2003
Link suggestions for further reading: - Martin - 01/04