More on Who Fears Death

I originally started talking about this in my review/rambling about Who Fears Death, but  the result was far longer than I intended it to be, so here it is, published separately.

Among the many difficult subjects the book deals with, one of the most difficult is that of clitoridectomy, otherwise known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Circumcision. In the book, many villages, including Jwahir, the village Onyesonwu grows up in, still perform the procedure when girls turn eleven in a ceremony called the Eleventh Rite. Although the rite is optional, the villagers believe that those who choose not to take part will bring bad luck to their families. When Onyesonwu turns eleven, she decides to undergo the Eleventh Rite as well, even though her mother, who grew up in a different village, never had one and thinks the custom is barbaric.

I had a lot of trouble parsing out my feelings on the matter. A lot of it is because I can’t support that practice for any reason. It is a cruel, painful, and vindictive practice that has its basis in fear of female sexuality and so seeks to remove the danger by cutting off the very part that makes sex so enjoyable for females.  This is emphasized even more in the book when Onyesonwu learns that Aro, the town sorcerer, spelled the scalpel used in the Eleventh Rite to make any female who underwent the rite to experience excruciating pain if she gets too aroused. This is a preventative measure to keep women from sleeping with anyone until they are married, when the juju is then removed.

And yet… I was caught. I abhor the practice and I was raging on Onyesonwu’s behalf as she underwent the rite, but at the same time, I identified with her and understood why she did it in the first place.

A couple of weeks ago in my anthropology class on Sex and Gender, we were reading passages from Politics and Piety by Saba Mahmood, and one of the things she discusses in great detail is the concept of agency and how it isn’t necessarily the Western conception of agency, which is that of possessing rights as an individual and using them to break free of oppression. Agency can also be an individual’s choice to take action by fitting in and conforming to societal standards, recognizing that they understand the responses and repercussions that occur when they go against societal norms, but that because they know how the society works, they can still perform agentive acts, just not the ones that the Western world is used to calling as such. Mahmood was using this concept of agency to discuss women’s decisions to wear the hijab and follow Muslim standards of feminine piety, not FGM, and yet, I cannot help but apply the same argument here when it comes to Onyesonwu.

Onyesonwu wasn’t obligated to undergo the Eleventh Rite; her mother didn’t want her to do so, and she was furious when she discovered what her daughter had done. Still, Onyesonwu had been living in Jwahir for five years and had grown up with their cultural and religious customs. She was already an outcast for being an Ewu and didn’t want to give the villagers any more reason to dislike her and think she’s unnatural.  Although it’s hard to swallow, the reasons she had – the desire to fit in and gain further protection – are what everyone wants as they’re growing up, and if one is already an outcast, one would probably be more likely to take part in something in the hopes of being made at least a little more normal.

Throughout the entire process, it was always Onyesonwu’s decision. She had to navigate Jwahir’s expectations, her mother’s, and her own, and so she made the decision she did. She later regretted it and (thankfully) was able to fix the results later on, but even so, it was her decision, and hers alone.

This is a really hard topic to figure out, and I’ll probably be thinking about it for a while. Over the past couple years, I’ve become really interested in the ideas and concepts behind choice and agency, why we do what we do based on the culture or society we grew up in, our childhood, all of our experiences, and the given situations that make us who we are and help us decide our paths. What acts are we responsible for and what is the result of our upbringing and the world we grew up in, and are we just as responsible for the acts we commit and decisions we make that are influenced by those factors?

Complicated stuff.

So yeah. There are no clear answers, but there is definitely a lot of food for thought. And I could be completely wrong about everything I just said, but it’s still worth thinking about and discussing.

Published in: on April 19, 2011 at 6:43 PM  Leave a Comment  

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