Mothering experience: challenges and concerns
Most women in our sample expressed pride and relief that their daughters did not undergo FGM/C. However, their mothering experience was still tainted by several challenges, which are addressed in the following section.
Pressure from the extended family network
A number of participants declared that FGM/C is a conditio sine qua none to a woman’s marriage. They asserted that beyond a union between two individuals, marriage is also an alliance between families, and it is incumbent upon parents to ensure their daughter’s marriageability by keeping tradition. This significantly complicated parental objection to FGM/C, because of the socioeconomic disadvantage and social vulnerability inherent to a woman’s celibacy. Such was the experience of several participants, whose own parents later expressed their disproval of the practice. They had felt coerced to endorse the group law in order for the family to be part of the social body. Most participants stated that, in their locality, ‘uncut’ daughters and their family are typically shunned from the community and are prevented from partaking in traditional ceremonies and specific group gatherings. The narrative below from an Ethiopian mother, Bilal, offers an illustration of the social ramifications of foregoing FGM/C for the entire family network and the community:
“The perception they have back home, if the girls are not circumcised, they will be very active sexually, and they will lose their virginity. And that’s a shame. Back home if you don’t have your virginity when you are married, that’s a shame to you, that’s a shame to your family, a shame to your neighbour, a shame to everybody!”
This narrative underscores the importance of communal ties, affiliation and a shared group identity. It is congruent with the fact that the foremost difficulty disclosed by mothers was pressure and involvement of the extended family network, which frequently inquired whether their daughters had undergone FGM/C. This family involvement stemmed from aunts as well as female elders from the paternal side of the family. Several participants in Abidjan (25%) had repeatedly warned their entourage that they did not want their daughters to be “cut” and complained about what they described as an antiquated intrusion on their maternal purview. Mothers living in urban settings in Ivory Coast mentioned that their daughters were better protected in the city, and several refrained from taking them to their home village for fear that they would be subjected to FGM/C. Diasporic mothers (43%) also reported being pressured by relatives in their home country. They expressed a lack of safety in their homeland, where community involvement was ineluctable. Consequently, several opted not to take their daughters on vacation to Africa in order to avert the ritual. Such was the experience of Binta, a Guinean mother residing in Canada:
“I’ve seen a lot of cases like that. It is not the parents who do it, but it’s like, you’re living in an environment that is not safe for girls. It’s unsafe. It’s really unsafe. If they realize that the child was not circumcised, they will come and take her to do it. And what are you going to do after that? Take them to Court? And it is not just members of your family or your husband’s family. I am telling you, it’s anybody. As long as there is even a small link between you and them, they’ll do it. (…) Each time I talk on the telephone with one of my husband’s aunties she says ‘your daughter is still in Canada. It hasn’t yet been cut’. One of them wants to do it, because she’s a circumciser (…). She says ‘the day your daughter comes home, I will do it’. So I’m not taking any chances. My daughter is not going home, I’m not going to take that risk.”
Women’s narratives indicate a tendency to avoid geographical spaces where FGM/C is still widely pervasive for fear that their daughters might be exposed to the practice without their consent. Maternal protection superseded respect for their elders’ preference regarding FGM/C, which for some mothers, came at the cost of geographical dislocation and erosion of family ties.
Concerns about ‘uncut’ daughters’ burgeoning sexuality
In spite of the vicarious satisfaction expressed by most participants, the shift was not without ambivalence for a Malian and an Egyptian diasporic mothers. Of note, both mothers were amongst the three participants in our sample who had no conscious recollection of their own FGM/C experience. The Malian woman was ‘cut’ shortly after birth, and the Egyptian participant underwent the procedure in a hospital setting, under anaesthesia and sedation. Both opted not to have their daughters undergo FGM/C for fear of legal repercussions in Canada. Their daughters’ paediatrician had addressed FGM/C and deterred them from carrying on the practice. Mariam was an articulate Malian woman in her early forties. She was quite traditional, and conservative in her views. Elements of her culture of origin permeated her discourse and were central to the way in which she organized her life. For this mother, her child’s ‘uncut’ body was cause for curiosity and anguish:
« My daughter, she’s a teenager now. She’s starting to tell me ‘mom, my friends have boyfriends you know’. (…) In my time, at 15, we didn’t even think about boys, and we feared our parents. But this is not the same generation. So that’s what I’m afraid of. And above all, I tell myself that my daughter wasn’t circumcised. According to what we hear, people who are circumcised and those who were not, it’s not the same thing. Those who were circumcised can wait. But it’s the opposite for those who weren’t circumcised. So that’s what I have in mind when it comes to my daughter, and I won’t stop talking to her. She knows that to us, some things are sacred. ».
Miriam perceived the libido of ‘cut’ and ‘uncut’ women as being antithetical, stating that “it is the opposite for those who were not circumcised”. Now an ‘uncut’ teenager, her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality was cause for maternal concerns.
With regard to adolescence and sexual temperance still, the perception of Fatma, the Egyptian mother of three, offers an illustration of FGM/C’s speculated ability to prevent premarital relations. She mentioned that currently, the prevalence of FGM/C is plummeting in her country of origin, except illegally in remote villages. Although, according to her, the practice was beginning to fall into obsolescence, she was not opposed to its continuation:
« Here in Canada it must be cut off! It protects and prevents girls from going out with boys. She’s going to go out and only stay with her friends, it’s better! I’m in favour of that. I’m against the fact that here, they’re really in a hurry! And it’s not clean on both sides. So they should do it in Canada, because I see that here, young people are very eager. Over there [Egypt] the youth are with their family at home. But here, some parents let their daughter go anywhere! It’s not good. So it’s better to do it here than over there”.
For Fatma, FGM/C was of little use in Egypt, where daughters are protected within the confines of the family nest and the collective enforcement of social rules and gender roles. But far from deflecting its relevance overseas, she propounded that FGM/C would serve greater purpose if ‘exported’ to Canada —where her daughters were being raised— as an impediment to youth’s sexual licence. Hence, for several participants, mothering ‘uncut’ daughters raised significant concerns about transmitting cultural values of sexual modesty.
A diasporic woman from Guinea recounted a painful experience with regard to the protection of her daughters. After the birth of her first daughter, she made the resolution to leave the country to prevent her from undergoing FGM/C. She was a highly educated woman, who was prosperous and financially independent in her home country. She had not anticipated how complex and lengthy the migratory process would be, but remained firm and resolute in her intentions. While undergoing the immigration process to Canada, she became pregnant with her second child: also a daughter. The participant eventually received immigration papers, but because the initial request was formulated after she had given birth to only one child, she was not granted papers for all her children. She left the country with one child, under the assumption that following migration, the process of having the second daughter come to the country would be a formality. Unfortunately, such was not the case. Her second daughter immigrated years later, after undergoing FGM/C. This mother recounted with great sadness the painful experience of initiating the migration process to spare her daughter the pain of FGM/C, only to leave the other daughter behind. Her guilt was compounded by her second child verbalizing feelings of abandonment, anger and despair that she had not been spared ‘like her sister’. Our participant had attempted several times to inquire about her experience, but her daughter refused to address FGM/C, stating that she did not want to be reminded of what happened while her mother was away. The youngest daughter had migrated one year before the interview was conducted. Needless to say, the reunification process was arduous. Mother and daughters were in family therapy and slowly repairing and cultivating family ties and trust, which had been broken in part by policies, customs and distance.
Mothering experience: individual and collective successes
The following section addresses the many positive facets of mothering ‘uncut’ daughters, as described by the women in our sample.
Mother-daughter relationship: on maternal empowerment and vicarious protection
With the sole exception of the two diasporic mothers whose experience was detailed above, all women expressed relief and gratitude for the opportunity to raise their daughters in an environment that permitted them to demur the practice. Their decision was both endorsed within their novel social setting and buttressed by law. They made such statements as “thank goodness we have moved to the city so I don’t have to worry about that”, “at least I know my daughter is safe here”. Over the course of the interviews, women reflected upon their own painful experience of FGM/C. This incarnate, intimate knowledge catalyzed their deep-seated rejection of FGM/C for their children. The following excerpts illustrate their vehement disapproval of the ritual and their unwavering commitment to protect their daughters:
Alice: “I regret it [undergoing FGM/C] so much! So much! If someone came to me now telling me ‘I’ll give you billions of dollars if you circumcise your daughter’, I can’t! I can’t! I can’t because of the pain that I know today (…). As long as I’m alive, no one will touch my daughter!”.
Awa: “As I am sitting in front of you, maybe if I were dead it would be another story. But as long as my two eyes are open, my daughters, never! My daughters will never, never do that! We did not know what it was about and we fell into that trap. I was fooled once, but I won’t be fooled again (…) All I know today is that we’re going to fight for our daughters”.
A sense of agency and maternal protection exuded from women’s discourse. The vicarious protection they were able to afford their offspring constituted a source of relief and gratification that acted as a counterpoint to their own memories and pain. Mothers were appreciative of the opportunity to raise their daughters in an environment that offered protection against FGM/C, and took solace in knowing that their daughters would know another destiny.
A new mode of transmission of cultural ethos
The participants’ narratives indicate that the upholding of moral propriety and sexual temperance are central motives to FGM/C. They often stated that these were core values of their culture of origin in terms of women’s expected behaviour. Hence, repudiating FGM/C triggered a wave of questioning as to how they would transmit these values to their daughters without resorting to the ritual cutting, particularly in light of their displacement to a setting that enabled more casual interactions between genders. It was a fundamental concern for the two diasporic mothers who were in favour of FGM/C, but also for mothers in our sample who rescinded the practice. Maternal angst and curiosity about their daughters’ sexuality emanated from their discourse. Foregoing FGM/C caused them disquiet about their daughters’ libido. More specifically, they feared that their daughters would not be able to refrain from engaging in premarital sexual relations, and hence not be virgins upon marriage. They also feared that their sexual drive would lead them to have extramarital affairs. These concerns highlight their wish or preference regarding their daughters’ sexual behaviours, but it also underscores a focus on marriage and family ties, which could be halted or compromised by premarital and extramarital sexual relations. In order to curtail sexual “promiscuity” without resorting to FGM/C, several participants both in Ivory Coast and Canada engaged in discussions with their daughters around sexuality. Several women explained that in light of the novel sociocultural environment in which they were immersed, they would have regular conversations with their daughters about relationships and sexuality. Several spoke to the importance of forging dialogue with daughters and asking them questions, unlike “in the old days”. Hence, they adapted their childrearing practices by prompting open discussions about coming of age, reproductive health and sexuality.
The emergence of communities of mothers against FGM/C
All women in our study mentioned the taboo nature of FGM/C in their community of origin. Many had felt compelled to raise the issue with their mother following their own ritual cutting, but were quelled by elders who admonished them to stay silent about the practice. Several participants expressed a protracted yearning for answers to the questions they had generated in their child’s mind; questions which were still lingering in the backdrop. Now well into adulthood, a number of women reported breaking this taboo and engaging in a dialogue about FGM/C with other mothers in their community, who had also undergone the practice. Women residing in Ivory Coast and in Canada reported this phenomenon of support through dialogue. Conversations centered around the consequences of FGM/C in different facets of their lives and on their commitment to protect their daughters. Women recounted positive feelings regarding these discussions and felt a sense of mutual understanding, solidarity, and a collective engagement to shield their daughters from the ritual. These organically formed circles of women consisted of sisters, in-laws, fellow Church attendees, and women who met at information sessions organized by ONEF-NGO and pursued conversation outside the realm of the organization. Both Christian and Muslim mothers reported engaging in such discussions, irrespective of the geographical location, as women residing in Ivory Coast and Canada reported this communal experience.