Is FGC a marker of ethnic identity? No because surrounding groups also perform the practise.
Like many FGC practising groups, the most common justification given for FGC amongst the Afar is 'tradition'. Although such an explanation might initially appear of limited analytical depth, such assertions can be reworked as, 'this is our practise, which distinguishes us from others' to reveal the role of tradition in defining ethnic boundaries and asserting ethnic identity (Boyle, 2002, Mackie 1996). Structural-functionalists, such as political leader and anthropologist Jomo Kenyatta (in Mackie 1996) have drawn on such assertions to posit a relationship between tradition and identity, arguing that FGC functions to promote collective identity and solidarity. Schneider (1971) argues that pastoralist societies tend to be highly socially fragmented and unsolidary. In the case of the Afar, shared 'tradition' might serve an important role in shoring up ethnic solidarities across a vast geographical area. The Afar place national identities are secondary to ethnic identities. The division of previously contiguous Afar sultanates, pasturelands and migratory paths between the states of Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia has resulted in a perception that Afar identity, culture and political autonomy is under threat and need to be defended (Yasin 2008, Tesfay 2004); as evidenced by Afar irredentist aspirations manifest in widespread support for several ethnicity based nationalist movements, such as the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO) and the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Union Front (ARDUF), amongst others (ICG 2009, MRG 2008). The construction of a malevolent 'Other' is central to Afar ethnic identity. Informants frequently defined themselves in relation to other ethnic groups and the perceived threat they represent to Afar culture as demonstrated below.
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"Unlike the 'highlanders', we Afar are pastoralists and Muslims. The Afar share everything because all Afar are brothers and you must always help your brother... The highlanders are Christians, but they don't have a good culture... They are not sharing and they only think of themselves. If their brother has no food they don't help... they (highlanders) don't respect our traditions and our way of life ... Every day there are more and more highlanders coming to Afar and the Afar culture is disappearing... Many Afar especially the young, are learning bad things from the highlander... You must be careful with your things, because there are thieves here ... Before the Afar didn't steal or chew (chat), but now even some of our people are thieves. They are learning this from the highlanders ... The young people in the towns don't know our culture. Some of them prefer to speak Amharic than Qafar-Af (Afar language)... We must struggle to preserve our culture. We must teach it to our children..."
For the Afar tradition serves as an important identity marker. By distinguishing between Afar culture as good and the culture of the 'Other' as bad, a normative framework is established which ties Afar identity to cultural traditions. However infibulation is practised by the adjacent Muslim Somali-Issa and clitoridectomy by the remaining Christian Argobba, Kereryu and Tigray ethnic groups which inhabit their direct vicinity. Therefore the extent to which FGC is a critical element to the repertoire of practices defining Afar culture and identity is limited. If FGC doesn't serve as a marker for inter-ethnic identity differentiation, an analysis of intra-ethnic identities is called for. Inevitably the relationship between gender identity and FGC appears as primary axis for analysis. The following section explores Afar notions of gender identity and embodiment which may underpin FGC.Afar Female Embodiments, Morality and Pollution.
The attenuation of women's sexual desire frequently appears in the literature as the principal motivation behind FGC by both men and women (Assaad 1980). Amongst the Afar women are seen as having a proclivity to sexual promiscuity and "haram" (forbidden) behaviour generally. Haram behaviour of a family member such as begging, theft or adultery are said to bring "qaybi" (shame) upon one's entire family, clan and ancestors. Female genitalia are seen as the point of the physical body in which the proclivity to immorality resides. Many informants described uncut women as dirty, unhygienic, immoral and shameful. Women's' genitals and blood are considered dirty, malodorous and potentially harmful. Social deviance is seen as embodied in the female genitalia and blood; thus the removal of the clitoris and external genitals serves to rid women of their proclivity to deviance and immorality. For the Afar moral impurity and dirtiness frequently appear as parallels. To pray without having first washed is extremely taboo, on the grounds that dirtiness is believed to be sinful to Allah. Thorough washing takes place after any kind of sexual activity and even sexual thoughts. Men and women are seen as vulnerable to polluting forces during intercourse. During sexual activity women will burn incense to purify the deboita and deter evil spirits. During my fieldwork I observed that a lot more incense was burned when it had rained and water was more abundant. I was informed by my interpreter that there is always more sex in the rainy season as people are happy and know that they can go to the mosque clean. Women's blood, especially menstrual blood or that lost during FGC is perceived as potentially dangerous in that it may attract evil spirits. During menstruation women are forbidden from entering the mosque and in some cases it is even considered inappropriate for women to pray. During menstruation women will be secluded in a small area of the deboita, separated from the rest of the family by a sheet or mat. Women are also considered as more vulnerable to immoral behaviour during this period, thus reinforcing the need for their isolation. Although women are considered as naturally more prone to immoral behaviour, the presence of evil spirits is said to augment this. The Afar notion of women as potentially polluting and immoral is used as justification for FGC.
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Little public ceremony accompanies the practise of FGC amongst the Afar, instead the practise takes place in relative secrecy. After FGC girls will remain inside a deboita, only visited by immediate female kin who attend to them for between fifteen and thirty days. A traditional birth attendant interviewed, stated that during the procedure and healing girls are vulnerable to malevolent spirits or infection, attracted by the blood. The girl's legs are bound and incense burnt to mask the "bad odour" in order to prevent evil spirits or infection from entering the body or polluting the home. But why should such notions of pollution and purity attach themselves to women and not men? What is it about women's identity and social roles which makes them subject to such a discourse? Drawing on Ortner (1972, 1978) and Douglas (1966) the next section attempts to interpret Afar notions of pollution which underpin the Practise of FGC.Women in the Middle. Dichotomies of Control. Nature/Nurture Order/Disorder.
Afar women occupy an ambiguous space between two very important cultural categories; the first being the nature/culture dichotomy as set out by Ortner (1972). In her seminal paper, "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?", Ortner argues that the universality of female subordination is underpinned by the association of women with reproductive and domestic roles such as child nurturance, which means that they are more closely associated with "nature" as opposed to men who are more closely linked with culture. As a result, women occupy an ambiguous, intermediary position between nature and culture, while men signify the highest form of culture.
The second is the order/disorder dichotomy. (DEFINE) (EVIDENCE).
"The Virgin and the State" links the emergence of the state with the development of female purity as an ideological prerequisite for family honor and status.
in which men and male groups are identified with structure, order, social organization itself. Insofar as woman are moved around in marriage, in a social exchange system controlled by, and culturally seen as composed of, structured groups of men, women appear interstitial within the fundamental kinship architecture of society. Further, the ambiguity of women would derive not only from a marriage perspective; insofar as there is descent ideology, whether patrilineal or matrilineal, women are seen as "in between" in these sorts of systems as well, for descent groups (such as clans) see themselves as groups of males, with women as their reproductive agents. With respect to either or both of these oppositions-nature/ culture, structure/antistructure-women may appear ambiguous, and hence potentially polluting and dangerous. And although none of the simplest hunting/gathering societies manifest the pbia about female pollution and danger that appears among, forexample, New Guinea horticulturalists, most have a variety ofPatriarchy, promiscuity and the threat of Women to the Patriliny.
The next section explores For the Afar, women occupy an ambiguous status between nature/culture and order/disorder as evident in the concept of women as polluting. FGC serves to 'tame' this ambiguity - Foucault extension of power to things outside of discourse - deviance subordinated.
Whilst at risk of appearing overly functionalist, discourses of women as polluting and the strengthening of patriarchy allow for the extension of biopower, the legitimate regulation of women's bodies for both their own and societies good.Patriarchy and Threat of Women to the Patriliny.
Some commentators have argued that FGC derives from the implicit or explicit goal of patriarchy to oppress women (Slack 1988, Hayes 1972, Hosken 1993). Such an argument gains credence in that in the societies in which it is practised males appear to possess greater social power; as exemplified in Afar clan courts, where the testimony of a man is considered to be worth that of two women (Tafere 2006). Further evidence of a patriarchal social order can be found in the emphasis placed upon Patrilneal descent in maintaining family honour. This is demonstrated in the Afar practise of children usually being given the names of their father and grandfather, as demonstrated in the interview excerpt and diagram below. (The structure of the names is consistent with the interview, though the names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of the informant).
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"My name is Mohammad Ibrahim Saad ... after the prophet and because my father's name was Ibrahim Saad Hakim, and my grandfather was Saad Hakim Dadaar. Before we were married my wife was Fatima Ali Saad. When I became married she takes my name and is now Fatima Mohammed Ibrahim. My son is Doud ... Doud Mohammad Ibrahim to honour my father".
In Afar society preserving the honour of the patriliny and clan is frequently stated as justification for the subordination of women's economic, sexual and reproductive autonomy to male control. The attenuation of women's sexual desire frequently appears in the literature as the principal motivation behind FGC by both men and women (Assaad 1980). Women are seen as having a proclivity to sexual promiscuity and "haram" (forbidden) behaviour generally. Haram behaviour of a family member such as begging, theft or adultery are said to bring "qaybi" (shame) upon one's entire family, clan and ancestors. Women's potential for sexual promiscuity threatens family honour, as the 'purity' of the patriliny can no longer be guaranteed. Sexual promiscuity is also linked to other haram activities such as theft and drinking alcohol. Therefore male control of women is perceived as imperative to maintaining the honour of the patriliny as demonstrated in the excerpt below from an interview with a recently married man.
"...it is haram, (forbidden) for a woman to sleep with a man that is not her husband. It will be great qaybi (shame) if she does this. This kind of woman is selfish and cannot be trusted ... It is not only her who will suffer, but the whole family. People will say that the she is a prostitute, that she is a bad Moslem and think bad things of the family.... they will say that you are a bad husband and treating her badly, or that she has not been cut (FGC) and that is why she wants other men. If your wife sleeps with another man, she cannot be trusted. Maybe she is drinking alcohol ... or stealing. Your sons might be from another man. How will you know."
Women's potential for sexual promiscuity threatens family honour, as the 'purity' of the patriliny can no longer be guaranteed. Sexual promiscuity is also linked to other haram activities such as theft and drinking alcohol. Therefore male control of women is perceived as imperative to maintaining the honour of the patriliny as demonstrated in the excerpt below from an interview with a recently married man. The security of the patriliny appears as a recurrent concern amongst informants, as demonstrated in the last sentence of the above interview.
People's whose descent is ambiguous occupy a marginal space within Afar society.
One Afar woman interviewed had given birth to a girl, but been unable to have anymore children. In Afar society the continuation of the patriliny and thus number of male children is an important signifier of masculinity and confers status upon men. An Afar woman who doesn't give birth to sons is aware that her husband might seek another wife, with or without her knowledge. The interviewed woman had convinced her husband, a clan elder, to adopt an orphan. Whilst the husband saw it as his clan responsibility to adopt the child and agreed, he nonetheless sought another wife through fear that his patriliny would not be recognised in the adopted son. The man has had six girls with his second wife and no boys. He is currently hoping to marry a third wife.
In a society where political status, access and control of territory and property rights are defined according to paternal kinship, the patriliny underpins the entire social order. Drawing on Douglas () we might argue that women present a threat, in that Afar social order depends upon their reproduction of the patriliny. By directly controlling women's sexuality, FGC guarantees the security of the patriliny and corresponding social order.Sexuality and Gender Ascription.
Whilst FGC serves to tame characteristics defined as feminine and polluting, it also serves to enhance gender difference. Women's genitals and behaviour seen as naturally masculine. But what underpins these discourses?Women's Advocacy FGC. Strategies for Survival.
So why would women advocate a practise which is so apparently bad for them and arguably reduces their capabilities? Is it a case of false consciousness? No, women have agency. They are aware of their subordinate position. The endorsement of FGC is an important bargaining strategy which opens up other perhaps more valuable sites of autonomy. The trade of between FGC may be worth it in the context of the day to day battle for survival. Short term gains may take precedence over long term gender equality.