Tradition, Religion, and Culture: The Plight of Women’s Problems

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When I came to Djibouti, I came to study religion’s intersection of policy. But what I forget is the cross-section between religion, tradition, and culture. Tradition predicates action. No matter the amount of education, education is restricted by those who govern it. People learn what others tell them to learn. In essence, tradition continues to promulgated and accepted as the norm.

I outline these relationships exclusively because this is required to be known otherwise, if diplomats fail to consider these unique relationships, their actions and work will be unwelcomed and its implementation stunted.

This past week, I was reminded of my first year class titled, “Women and Children First”. I remember watching Half the Sky in utter disgust as I discovered an uncommon, ill-comprehended, and alien issue of most western nations. I grew up in a strong, woman- led household where equality of men and women is the norm. When I learned millions of girls suffer from the epitome of ignorance, tradition invoked sexism, I was aghast.

FGM- Female Genital Mutilation.

Female Genital Mutilation is exactly what you are envisioning. 200 million girls are taken between the ages of 1- 15 and their genitals are cut. Unfortunately, 30 countries currently document this performance. FGM varies from Africa, Middle East, Asia, and parts of South America. However, 80% of FGM is reported in eight countries.

For basic understanding of this post, there are three types of FGM (90% of cases fall under these three categories):

The complete typology with sub-divisions is described below:

  • Type I — Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce (clitoridectomy). When it is important to distinguish between the major variations of Type I mutilation, the following subdivisions are proposed:
    • Type Ia, removal of the clitoral hood or prepuce only;
    • Type Ib, removal of the clitoris with the prepuce.
  • Type II — Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (excision). When it is important to distinguish between the major variations that have been documented, the following subdivisions are proposed:
    • Type IIa, removal of the labia minora only;
    • Type IIb, partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora;
    • Type IIc, partial or total removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and the labia majora.
  • Type III — Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris (infibulation). When it is important to distinguish between variations in infibulations, the following subdivisions are proposed:
    • Type IIIa, removal and apposition of the labia minora;
    • Type IIIb, removal and apposition of the labia majora.
  • Type IV — All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.

*(Taken from WHO: Human Reproduction Program:

Type III is the most severe and painful form of FGM. It is most commonly found in the northeast region of Africa: most common in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. Due to unsanitary conditions in rural villages and lack of midwives, tools used to perform such cuts are used with broken glass, knives, and un-sanitized old razors. Unless a family lives in an urban area or has the means to access doctors for an operation, which is very unlikely due to poverty levels, operations tend to be done by mothers and sisters untrained or ignorant of the female body. Reasoning for cutting is due to maintain purity of the girl which continues a lack of discussion of female bodies. This leads to many female’s genitalia ill cut. Often times birth canals are cut or torn, sides of the labia major are sutured together causing holes where urine and menstrual discharge passes. Inadvertently, many women develop painful diseases, fistulas, and tearing during birth. This often causes pre-mature death, mental, physical, and emotional effects.

When I sat in my first year seminar watching these films, I never envisioned myself meeting or talking with any person who might undergo FGM. The concept was foreign to me, alien, out of this world. It seemed barbaric.

Sitting at my desk this week, I felt like I was hit with a brick. I retrieved an article this past week outlining FGM awareness in Somalia. Although Somalia recently banned FGM and the Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke joined 1 million supporters to campaign an end to FGM in Somalia, due to its traditional foundation, it continues to be performed.

Djibouti and Somalia share a border, so I thought I would ask my desk mate of Djibouti’s opinion of the issue. For some reason, I expected her to tell me the issue has long been forgotten or at least, it is only performed in rural villages near the towns.

To my utter surprise, Djibouti implemented the Maputo Protocol only in 2005- outlawing FGM 11 years ago. If any person is found performing the operation, they are sentenced to a 5-year prison term and a fine of one million Djibouti francs or $5,600 American dollars.

My friend, I work every day with, share a cubicle with, and talk about deep and enriching issues, is what I might consider of higher Djibouti social class. She is highly educated, speaks 5 languages, visited most continent of the world, and is married to a Djibouti Professor. I asked her, “Do you know anyone that has undergone FGM?”

Without thinking twice, she responded, “I had FGM done to me.”

My jaw dropped.

Djibouti is the world’s second highest rate of Type III FGM. Currently, 2/3 of Djiboutian girls undergo FGM every year. However, UNICEF reports 93- 98% of Djiboutian women experienced FGM in 2010. Their support is perpetuated by their religion.

Figure 1-Percentage of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years who have undergone FGM, by country

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Once she realized my exasperation, she walked over and sat down next to me. She proceeded to tell me,

“I luckily only was a baby. I don’t remember it, but I know plenty of women who remember those days.”

I must have turned white because she responded with, “Djibouti at least has banned it. The government sends out campaigns against FGM. The government is working hard to decrease its prevalence. However, due to tradition, it is still common… But, I for one have three little girls and they will never have to endure the pain I went through.”

As I sat aghast with her honesty and matter-of-fact attitude, I walked to my French class realizing the bubble I continue to exist in.

Every woman I passed, I realized endured similar if not worse operations as my friend. I was determined to find someone who did not. I then started right in; I asked my French teacher, “Did you undergo FGM?” With little hesitation, she responded with yes. I started to realize, there is no stigma. FGM was and continues to be accepted.

Besides the obvious physical pain undergone by these women, I am enraged by the foundational mindset that allows these operations to be perpetuated.

Figure 2- Percentage distribution of ages at which girls have undergone FGM (as reported by their mothers)

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Women are expected to be pure, not sexual human beings. They are expected to remain a virgin until marriage. Then, they ought to be healthy enough to at least have 5 children, just in case three of them die.

These expectations clearly do not align. Their health is at the expense of their purity. Never mind that sex is and will continue to be painful for these women, but so will birth. Many children may not live due to diseases and bodily complications caused by these operations.

But most of all, women are expected to be pure, for men. This inequality is reflected throughout much of East-African culture.

Once a week we host Djiboutian Teens to discuss prevalent Teen issues today. It is always interesting to hear the sorts of questions they decide to prompt me with, many of them surrounding my romantic relationships. “What age do you want to get married? Are you in a relationship? Will you marry a white man or a black man? You should marry a Djiboutian.”

The other day I seemed to create some waves. One of the ladies asked me, “What sort of qualities do you look for in a man?”

I responded with, “Someone tall and can cook.”

They all gasped.

I said, “I can only cook eggs.”

One boy said, “But women stay in the home.”

I said, “Not in my life.”

One girl responded, “But what will happen when you get married? How will he eat?”

I said, “That will be his job- to feed him and myself. If a woman can do it, so can a man.”

I understand cultural norms, but these expectations for women’s roles to exclusively be to serve men is what conflates these children’s minds. If we are going to preach equality, then it cannot remain in school systems. It must be preached in the kitchen, in the bedroom, and on the streets. Men and women must integrate at all facets of daily life.

Because unless men and women believe they are equal in all aspects, women’s confidence, emotional, mental, and physical health will continue to be LITERALLY cut.

My plea is for you to be cognizant. Educate yourself on these issues. Although FGM may not occur in many western countries, it is happening around the world. Support petitions. Spread education to others whether it is in conversation, retweeting, or just educating your family and friends at the dinner table. FGM can be stopped and it will if has support world-wide. When we all support anti-FGM campaigns, those experiencing FGM will be empowered to take action.

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Consider watching Desert Flower, a film of a Somalian escapes her 13 year old marriage in the United Kingdom where she is discovered as a phenomenal model. Once she discovers FGM is not common in the west, she becomes an international advocate against FGM.



One thought on “Tradition, Religion, and Culture: The Plight of Women’s Problems

  1. I remember watching Oprah years ago and was so disgusted that FGM was happening. Who would have thought that my little neighbor girl would be right where it happened and/or is still happening? You are so amazing, MacKenzie! It takes a person like you to educate the world about such issues. Now with all of your talents, how did you not learn to cook like your wonderful mother? (I’m not a cook, either!) Hugs, hugs, and more hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

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