Sexuality & Motherhood

May 10th, 2013

Erin Boyer and Caitlyn Malone

Female Circumcision and Motherhood


In societies across the world, the physical and social transformation of becoming a  woman and later a mother is an extremely important part of the life of a female. In Western culture through the appearance of a monthly period, girls are coached by their mothers in order to understand their body and position as a woman. This monthly ‘gift’ physically allows women to give birth and after choosing a sexual partner she will have the physical and/or social ability to begin a family. She will then be responsible for her own children and will be able to guide her own daughters into womanhood and motherhood. Similar to Western culture, girls within African society go through a similar transformation. However, the rituals surrounding womanhood and motherhood reflex different cultural norms and practices. In many African cultures, like the Senegalese and Hofriyati, female circumcision is used as a way to initiate girls into womanhood. This practices allows them to be eligible for marriage and motherhood. Motherhood is not honored or congratulated by others; instead, it is seen as a type of duty the woman must perform. The duty is not solely becoming a mother and having children, but it is also the correct upbringing practices of the baby in order for it to grow in the community.

Female circumcision and motherhood practices are determined through social pressures, biological and ritual practices, sexual and gender identities and western influence. Through these social, biological and ritual pressures, female circumcision is used as a right of passage in order to transform a girl into a woman. Female circumcision allows women to be accepted within the society, marry and have children. Within the African culture motherhood is seen as something a woman is born to do for her society. Women are vital for their community based on their biological capability to reproduce and the actions performed for their children after they are born. The ability for women to be circumcised and reproduce not only separates women from men physically and socially but also gives women a sense of power and feminine unity. Throughout this essay we will combine the cultural aspects surrounding female circumcision as a rite of passage as well as Motherhood and childbirth rituals. By discussing the social pressures, rituals and feminine unity of female circumcision and motherhood/childbirth we plan to express the physiological and social role of women within African society.

Key Terms

In order to fully understand the content of this essay, there are a few terms that need to be identified within the context we will be discussing. Because the main focus of this essay is to discuss female circumcision and motherhood in the context of social pressure, rituals, unity and a physical and social aspects, we will identify these terms. Due to the controversy surrounding female circumcision, it is a difficult term to define. There are many different medical terms defining the different female circumcision procedures, however in the context of this essay we refer to the symbolism of female circumcision practices. According to Courtney Smith’s, Who Defines “Mutilation”? Challenging Imperialism in the Discourse of Female Genital Cutting, she describes what she calls “female genital cutting” (FGC) after interviewing Senegalese women, “FGC enhances this woman-as-mother identity and can be seen as inscribing these social norms upon women; FGC physically and symbolically protects the body from premarital sex by presumably reducing sexual sensation in the case of excision, and by creating a physical barrier to penetration in the case of infibulation” (Smith, 35). This quote not only defines the social implications and symbolism behind women in Senegal but also relates it to the female-mother identity.

Within the many African cultures, ideas of motherhood and child rearing practices vary greatly and are not universal which makes them difficult to define. There are too many cultures throughout Africa to explore and research. In terms of the motherhood portion of this paper, we will explore the practices of the Beng people, located on the Ivory Coast. When defining motherhood for this community a large part is due to their religious culture. Religion is the core to motherhood and child rearing practices in the African culture; guiding not only the actions the mother should perform but also identifying a child before that child has grown to identify itself. A key part of motherhood for the Beng’s is their belief in the afterlife. The afterlife is not only believed to be where a soul goes after a death, but also where a baby’s soul has originated from. Specifically, this “place” is called the wrugbe, “a spirit village” (Gottlieb, 80). The wrugbe is not solely the belief of the Beng’s but also throughout Africa, including the Nigerians. As described in a novel by Ben Okri (1993), “The Famished Road”, the idea of wrugbe are very common within  Nigerian cities. Although the novel is a fictitious story, Okri studied the beliefs of African people on the wrugbe and the spirit children who emerge from it:

In that land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living. They had returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn’t redeemed, all that they hadn’t understood, and for all that they barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land of origins. (Okri, 3)

As seen in female circumcision and the various practices of motherhood, the actions are performed in social and religious contexts.

The definitions of social pressure, rituals, social and physical can be understood much easier than the terms discussed above. Social pressure can be understood as, the pressure to behave in a manner or participate in certain social rituals that are seen to be ‘socially acceptable’. According to the dictionary, rituals can be defined as “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order”. Though this definition of rituals is a little stiff, it defines the general idea of what we mean by rituals, however we are able to expand within the subtopic. And finally, social is defined as, of or pertaining to human society; seeking or enjoying the companionship of others, while physical can be defined as “of or pertaining to the body”. These definitions are also very stiff, however within each subtopic we are able to expand on the relationship that each term has within each subtopic.

Social Pressure

In Christine Walley’s article, Searching for “Voices”: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations, Walley states that “As a consequence, women infibulated their daughters to protect them from the supposedly wanton sexuality believed intrinsic to women and which, if uncontrolled, could lead to rape, illegitimate children, social disgrace, and, potentially, retributive death” (Walley, 28). Similar to the Senegalese women studied by Smith whose definition of female genital cutting in a Senegalese context was used above, women infibulated their daughters in order to protect them from social humiliation and the temptations of sexual promiscuity. If a woman were to remain uncircumcised, she will assumedly fall into unacceptable social patterns, leading to the possibility of an illegitimate child. If a girl or woman is unwilling to receive the procedure she may be deemed as an outcast in the society and will be unable to marry respectably and properly, in the context of the society. According to an interview of a Senegalese woman by Smith, “A woman in Dakar stated: “If women have money, and have everything, they are still nobody without a husband and children. To be a real woman, you have to bear children” (Smith, 35). This becomes an issue within the society because women experience large social pressures surrounding marriage and childbirth to go through with the procedure. Though not every woman fears the ritual, some may only go through with it because of fear of social exile. Economically it is also necessary for woman to go through with procedure so that may marry and create an economic and social bond between two families.

Many women across cultures are taught, from a young age, that girl’s should be appealing to men and fear rape. These two characteristics are the backbone to why men are seen as more powerful than women. Women are taught to be appealing in order to find a man to marry and have children with, and they are taught to fear rape in order for their society to keep them in line with virginity standards and fear what men are capable to do to them. With this idea of men, women must complete their responsibilities in order to keep the men in their lives satisfied. These social pressures put on women cause them to act a certain way, receive circumcisions, and reproduce as much to their capability. Social pressures put on women is the leading cause to why they take part in different traditions, regardless of whether they wholeheartedly wish to or not. A woman’s role greatly overlaps with the religious belief in the community, for a women must not only keep their child alive in terms of religion but also because it is their duty. This duty is greatly in part of biology. This is due to a woman being a woman based on the body she was given at birth. Although a man may take on the gender roles of a woman, or a woman may take on the gender roles of a man, a woman is biologically a woman based on the characteristics of her body. It is the characteristics of her body that put her into the role of a mother, not the gender role she may or may not have in the community. A man is not seen as the one to keep the child healthy and happy, in fact, a man is never seen as a caretaker for a child at all. If a mother were to die before their child were to grow, the role of caretaker is usually passed to the child’s grandmother or another elder woman in the community. The term motherhood is usually linked with a woman; this is because a woman is the one who gives birth to the child. (Gottlieb, 79)

Birth Rituals, Right of Passage

Throughout a woman’s life there are two distinct times when rituals are performed that separate them from men, these tend to occur after birth and around puberty, when they are circumcised. Depending on the sex of the infant, a celebration takes place soon after their birth that consists of two or three bodily acts on the infant by the Beng mother (Gottlieb, 83). First, an infant, regardless of sex, receives an enema called gbele fale. This action is usually performed by the child’s mother or grandmother. The second ritual that is performed on all infants is for the child’s grandmother to make them a necklace form savannah grass, which is to be worn around the clock until it falls off. The necklace is believed to promote good health and growth. The third ritual is only performed on infant girls, when a mother pierces her ears. Piercing an infant girl’s ears signifies she has entered into the female world of beautification. Also, there are various rituals associated with an umbilical cord that are significant. These umbilical cord rituals show a great deal about motherhood rituals, childrearing and beliefs of infants, as well as gender roles. Beng adults believe that a child has not fully emerged from wrugbe until the umbilical cord stump falls off, usually three or four days after birth (Gottlieb, 2004). If an infant were to die before being considered a full person, there is not a funeral for the child and the death is not announced. Actions are not taken to remember the child because Beng adults do not see it as a death, instead the infant is returning to the spirit world. Motherhood practices in terms of the umbilical cord require an herbal lotion to be applied to the stump in order to dry it out faster which leads to it falling off sooner. Beng mothers take the action of applying the lotion to the stump very seriously, for it helps the infant to fully leave wrugbe and the day is celebrated; Gottlieb reported a mother applying the herbal lotion to her child every few minutes. An infant girl, the day her umbilical stump falls off (three or four days after birth) she is then immediately differentiated from males due to the ear piercing. For a mother to pierce her daughter’s ears she is sending the message that a girl must be beautiful. The idea of a girl to be appealing to men is immediately taught at a very young age.

Procedures surrounding female circumcision depend on religion, region and the ethnic culture. In the context of Senegalese women, female circumcision acts as a purification of the body through the removal of outside genital sources and allows a girl to become a woman (Smith). This social and physical transition to becoming a woman marks the ability for a girl to marry and have children. Both female circumcision and birth rituals go hand-in-hand in separating females from males. It is during the birth rituals when an infant girl undergoes a third ritual, ear piercing, versus a boy who undergoes two. These actions separate infant boys from infant girls based on gender. A girl is then identified by an addition to her body, whereas a boy would not have this addition. In terms of female circumcision a separation is once again seen between males and females but in a sexual manner.

Unity (Feminine Power)

In Christine Walley’s article, Searching for “Voices”: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations, Walley also discusses Janice Boddy’s work who says “She concluded that infibulation is actually an assertive symbolic act for Hfriyati women that serves to emphasize a type of femininity that focuses on fertility while deemphasizing their sexuality” (Walley, 28). Walley continues to describe that in many African societies female genital operations are used as a symbolic form of feminine power. To these African societies, the removal of the “external genitalia” of boys and girls translates as the removal of masculinity in girls and femininity in boys (Walley, 29). This understanding of female circumcision represents the positive unity gained by women through a pursuit of connecting with their femininity. Because women are generally the ones who conduct the procedure, women may feel empowered through the female circumcision rituals and begin to understand themselves as a woman or female being.

In Lynn Thomas’s,  “Ngaitana (I Will Circumcise Myself)”: The Gender and Generational Politics of the 1956 Ban on Clitoridectomy in Meru, Kenya, Thomas discusses the response of many young Meru woman to the ban. Thomas says, “Caroline Kirote remembers that, in Mitunguu, girls purchased razor blades and went to the bush to ‘circumcise each other’ while their parents sat listening to the Headman announce the band. Though women of the Ngaitana age group recollect, in vivid detail, their defiance of the ban, few can recount the official reasons given for the passage of the ban…” (Thomas, 25). The ban of female circumcision by men in the Meru community took away one of the most important ways that Meru women were able to come together and unite as females. This defiance of the ban was a way to replace this lost connection amongst the women and led to a new form of empowerment and unity that proved the importance of the practice within the Meru culture.

Reproduction is one of the most important part of a womans role in society. However, it is not common for her to be the sole caregiver for all her children. Due to the tendency to have large families, a mother will bring in other family members to help her take care of her children. Grandmother, aunts, or other women in the community will gather together to assist the mother with her children while she may need to do other tasks or focus on a single child. One of the case studies we looked at was of the people of the Ivory Coast, the Beng people. The Beng’s believe that a child is not fully in this world until a certain point in their life and must be kept happy so they do not return to where they were born from, the wrugbe. In order for a child to not give in to the wrugbe it is a mother’s duty to keep her child happy and make their life as pleasant and appealing as possible. This task is often too difficult for a mother to handle alone that she must consult the child’s grandmother and older women in the community to help in keeping the child happy. The action of the women coming together signifies female unity. As seen with female circumcision, the idea of female unity can be a crucial part to women’s role in society; for without this unity a woman’s job could not be completed and her responsibilities would not be met. Western View

Due to the social recognition and cultural contexts surrounding the different forms and uses of female circumcision, it is difficult for many Western cultures to understand why women and young girls go through with the operation, or ritual. In Frances Althaus’s article, Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage or Violation of Rights? Althaus explains that “Efforts to eliminate female circumcision have often been unsuccessful because opponents of the practice ignored its social and economic context. In some cases, external intervention has strengthened the resolve of communities to continue their genital cutting rituals as a way of resisting what they perceive as cultural imperialism” (Althaus, 123). Althaus explains that in order for Westerners to help decrease the numbers of girls and women ‘subjected’ to the practice of female circumcision, the meaning behind the practiced must be understood. Because of the social and economic factors surrounding a female circumcision within many cultures, it is difficult to understand the cultural desire to have the procedure done.  To Western society, ‘female genital mutilation’ is the results of a patriarchal dominated society exerting male dominance on women. What many Westerners fail to understand is that most operations and rituals surrounding female circumcision are performed by females.

The views between the Western world and the African world seem to clash when looking at reproduction and female circumcision. In terms of fertility and care for the child, a biological outlook is taken when seen through western eyes; whereas a spiritual, more religious, outlook is seen through african eyes. As Alma Gottlieb points out in her book “The Afterlife is Where We Come From”, a large part of caretaking in  western culture focuses on biological and bodily needs of the child. In the western eye, if a child is crying they are believed to be hungry, tired, or soiled; these are all bodily needs. If a child is hungry the caretaker will feed them, if a child is tired the caretaker will put them down for a nap, and if a child needs to be changed the caretaker will clean them. These actions comes from the western biological focus of pregnancy; where a child is created from the fertilization of a mother’s egg which then develops into zygote and continues to biologically develop until an infant is born. In general, westerners do not believe infants had any social or religious life before birth. In terms of the Beng culture, they believe a child to be reincarnated from a previous life or have had a spiritual life previous to their present one, the wrugbe. They do not view pregnancy in biological context but instead in a spiritual context that is more powerful than they are. On the Ivory Coast the belief is that the younger an infant is “the more thoroughly spiritual their existence is said to be” (Gottlieb, 79). This is due to the idea that Beng babies are reincarnations of someone from the past; the closer an infant is to their day of birth, the closer they still are to a spiritual world. When comparing the western view of fertility and motherhood with the African view, westerners do not see their children as much more than a biological creation which is reflected in their parenting styles. It is the African communities who see their children as a higher-being a  use this belief when caring for their children, more than just meeting their needs but instead honoring and respecting them.


Conclusion: physical and social

Both female circumcision and reproduction are seen in two “overlapping but distinct” parts within a community: physiological and social (Sered, 80). Firstly, the psychological aspects are the biological parts. In terms of motherhood this can be seen as conception, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and maternal mortality.  However these characteristics are not paid attention to or honored as much as the second aspect of motherhood are in West African communities. Second is the social aspect of motherhood, which consists of activities, rights, responsibilities, relationships, and social status of the mother within the culture. In a sense, the first aspect of motherhood relates to a woman’s role in the community more than the second. This is due to a woman being a woman based on the body she was given at birth. Although a man may take on the gender roles of a woman, or a woman may take on the gender roles of a man, a woman is biologically a woman based on the characteristics of her body. It is the physical capabilities of her body that allow her to give birth, and the following social norms that place her into the role of a mother. The social aspect is often linked to the religious practices of the community, and both are linked to motherhood and female circumcision. In terms of female circumcision the procedure can be seen as a physical operation that removes the external genital piece of the vagina, psychologically through the ritual girls alter their sexuality to fit cultural norms in order to become a woman and accept their femininity and physical ability to give birth. In Western society, female circumcision is seen as a dangerous biological operation, however to many African cultures it is used in order to prepare girls entering into womanhood.

These psychological and biological lenses examining African culture allow us to understand the social and ritual pressures behind certain practices. It also allows us to experience the religious practices through looking at the biological and the social interpretations of different traditions. Though motherhood and female circumcision may not be connected together normally, these cultural trends connect femininity in Africa. Not only must a girl have a genital operation done in order to be married, but through this procedure she is able to gain a sense of feminine power within the society and raise a family. Unlike many Western cultures, this feminine power is necessary for women to be accepted socially and gain power within society.


1.      Althaus, Frances. “Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage or Violation of Rights?” Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage Or Violation of Rights? N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2013.

2.      Chronicle of a Savannah Marriage. Dir. Stig Holmqvist. SVT, 1998. Documentary.

3.      Gottlieb, Alma. The Afterlife Is Where We Come From. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Print.

4.      Hodgson, Dorothy L. “Engendered Encounters: Men of the Church and the “Church of Women” in Maasailand, Tanzania, 1950-1993.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41.4 (1999): 758-83. Print.

5.      Okri, Ben. The Famished Road. 1st ed. New York: Anchor Books, 1993. Print.

6.      Sered, Susan. Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women. 1st. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.

7.   Smith, Courtney. “Who Defines “Mutilation”? Challenging Imperialism in the Discourse of Female Genital Cutting.” Feminist Formations 23.1 (2010): Print.

8.   Thomas, Lynn M. “”Ngaitana (I Will Circumcise Myself)”: The Gender and Generational Politics of the 1956 Ban on Clitoridectomy in Meru, Kenya.” Gender & History 8.3 (1996): 338-63. Print.

9.      Walley, Christine J. 2002. “Searching for ‘Voices’: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations.” In Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood: Disputing U.S. Polemics, ed. Stanlie James and Claire C. Robertson, 17–53. Urbana: University of Illinois Press

Comments are closed.
Skip to toolbar