Female circumcision controversy (Kenya, 1929–32)

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The female circumcision controversy is the term given to a period in Kenyan historiography, ca. 1929–1932, during which British Protestant missionaries campaigned against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and were met with resistance by the Kikuyu people, Kenya's largest tribe.

A ritual practised in Africa for thousands of years, FGM is a central part of an initiation ceremony intended as a rite of passage for girls. It usually involves removal of the clitoris, and may also involve removal of the inner and outer labia, and the suturing of the entire vulva, leaving only a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood.[1] Lynn M. Thomas, an American historian, writes that during the female circumcision controversy, the issue of FGM became a focal point of the independence movement against British colonial rule, and a test of loyalty—either to the Christian churches of the missionaries, or to the Kikuyu Central Association, the association of the Kikuyu people.[2]

The Kikuyu regarded female circumcision, performed at puberty and accompanied by much singing and dancing, as an important rite of passage between childhood and adulthood, and between an asexual and sexual life. Uncircumcised women were viewed as non-adults, and the idea of abandoning the practice was unthinkable.[3] Jomo Kenyatta, who became Kenya's first prime minister in 1963, wrote in 1930:

The real argument lies not in the defense of the general surgical operation or its details, but in the understanding of a very important fact in the tribal psychology of the Kikuyu—namely, that this operation is still regarded as the essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications, quite apart from the operation itself. For the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridoctomy [sic]. Therefore the ... abolition of the surgical element in this custom means ... the abolition of the whole institution.[4]

For the missionaries, the practice was an abhorrent mutilation that was medically inadvisable, and spiritually dangerous because of the apparent celebration of sexuality during the rituals. The campaign against it was led by the Church of Scotland in Kenya, which by the 1920s had introduced a rule that church members who underwent the procedure or allowed their daughters to do so, would be suspended. In March 1928, the issue came to a head when the Kikuyu Central Association announced that it would contest elections to the Local Native Council, with the defence of Kikuyu culture—including female circumcision—as its main platform. The next month, the church at Tumutumu announced that all baptised members must offer a declaration of loyalty by swearing their opposition to circumcision. Several other church missions followed suit. Robert Strayer and Jocelyn Murray write that the stage was set for a major conflict, with neither side willing to compromise.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Momoh, Comfort. "Female Genital Mutilation", Radcliffe Publishing, 2005, pp. 6–10.
    • Also see Nussbaum, Martha Craven. "Judging Other Cultures: The Case of Genital Mutilation," Sex and Social Justice. Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 119–120.
  2. ^ Thomas, Lynn M. "'Ngaitana (I will circumcise myself)': Lessons from Colonial Campaigns to Ban Excision in Meru, Kenya", in Shell-Duncan, Bettina and Hernlund, Ylva (eds). Female "Circumcision" in Africa. Lynne Rienner, 2000, p. 129ff.
  3. ^ a b Strayer, Robert and Murray, Jocelyn. "The CMS and Female Circumcision", in Strayer, Robert. The Making of Missionary Communities in East Africa. Heinemann Educational Books, 1978, p. 36ff.
  4. ^ Mufaka, Kenneth. "Scottish Missionaries and the Circumcision Controversy in Kenya, 1900–1960", International Review of Scottish Studies, vol 28, 2003.

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