Somali culture and female circumcision: a powerful connection

Culturally, not being circumcised in Somalia represents promiscuity and lack of cleanliness

By Roda Osman

Acceptable careers for men and women in most Somali homes differ widely. This certainly rings true in my family’s household. For men: doctor, lawyer, teacher — the possibilities are endless. For women: wife, mother — or, possibly, family disgrace.

Innocence doesn’t last very long when you grow up in a Somali household, especially for women. In the Somali family dynamic, men are treated like royalty while women are treated like cattle that are waiting to be sold. Purity is not a priority. Although I was able to avoid many of the traditional pitfalls, my sisters were not. It’s something I think about every day.

At age 15, I watched my sisters board a plane from the U.S. to Somalia. There, they were to be put into arranged marriages. But first they would have to be circumcised. My eldest sister remained at home with me in the U.S. She had already been circumcised, as her arranged marriage occurred years ago. Now, my other sisters would follow her footsteps, starting by meeting all of their family members on my mother’s side, who would help scold them into conformity. They returned to America circumcised, wearing different attire, with husbands chosen for them, and new lives as wife and mother.

I was curious how it all happened. I asked my sisters, did they hold you down and force you? I closed my eyes as I waited for an unbearable answer. What I heard was certainly shocking, but not the hideous story I expected. They told me they weren’t forced. They told me they looked forward to circumcision, that it was a highlight of their stay in Somalia.

I started asking other women about their experience. Collectively what I gathered was this: women are shamed in Somalia for not having a circumcision. A woman who is not circumcised surely will not get married. She will disgrace the family and be ridiculed often by other women.

Culturally, not being circumcised in Somalia represents promiscuity and lack of cleanliness. In that culture, a woman who is not circumcised will act out sexually and cannot maintain dignity. Or at least, so goes the cultural belief. And that cultural public opinion helps persuade women to volunteer and even look forward to a circumcision, because for them it means marriage and regality. And marriage and regality for a woman in Somalia means survival.

To further persuade women, they are celebrated on the day of the circumcision. Most of the time, Somali women are called on to wait on men and children hand and foot. But not on their circumcision day. They are surrounded by “supportive” women, and there is a feast after the procedure. The victim is given a special garment to wrap around her legs and she is served for the next few days. She is the center of attention for a change.

I could see how that could be appealing to women who are far too often deprived of praise and attention.

My sisters today are adults with children, living in America. Now that they are not so heavily influenced by mother or the sturdy, high handed Somali community, their feelings about circumcision have changed. They seem to have solace with their experience, and I am relieved that they will not be carrying on the tradition to the next generation of our family, their daughters.

Roda Osman is studying journalism at Columbia University. She was born in Kenya, where her family had fled to a refugee camp after civil war broke out in Somalia. She and her family later resettled in San Diego as refugees.

Roda Hassan
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