As One Group Modernizes, Becoming a Woman Won’t Mean Permanent Scars

Leaders of Kenya’s Masai are promoting an end to genital cutting.

Kenyan Masai women gather during a meeting dedicated to the practice of female genital mutilation on June 12, 2014. (Photo: Simon Maina/Getty Images)

Feb 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Around the age of nine, female members of the Masai tribe in Kenya, like millions of girls across the globe, are routinely taken against their will, restrained by their parents, and subjected to a procedure that mutilates their anatomy, usually without anesthesia.

In Masai culture, the practice, known as female genital mutilation, is part of a long-standing ceremonial tradition meant to mark the beginning of the passage into womanhood. Now, some Masai leaders in southern Kenya are seeking to end the practice while remaining true to their community’s values and traditions.

Instead of undergoing mutilation, some Masai girls take part in other aspects of the ceremony surrounding FGM, including shaving their heads, dancing, wearing newly beaded clothes, and drinking the blood of sacrificed animals (cow’s blood is a staple of the Masai diet). Local chief James Kamete, who leads the Masai of Esiti, said the girls learn about women’s roles in society and are encouraged to continue their schooling, according to The Seattle Globalist.

“We are encouraging people to change one part of Maasai culture, but not give up all of what makes us proud to be Maasai,” Sarah Tenoi, a Masai woman from Loita Hills who underwent FGM 15 years ago, wrote in The Guardian.

Unlike male circumcision, which helps curb the spread of HIV, FGM, sometimes called female circumcision, has no medical benefits and can be dangerous. The procedure is often performed in unsanitary environments with unsterilized tools, making the girls prone to infection, and can make sex painful and cause difficulties with childbirth.

Kenya banned the practice in 2011, outlawing even disparaging comments toward women who have not undergone the procedure. But the laws are not strictly enforced in the tight-knit, pastoral tribe, and it survives in pockets throughout the country. While 27 percent of Kenyan women have undergone FGM, more than 73 percent of Masai women have been cut, according to a 2013 study.

The higher rate among Masai speaks to FGM’s firm grip on the tribe’s traditions. Supporters believe it helps the community by curbing promiscuity; a woman whose clitoris remains intact is said to be excessively driven by sexual desire until undergoing the procedure. Many men refuse to marry uncut women, believing that they will stray from their marriages. Some girls even opt to be circumcised to fit in with their peers and be seen as eligible for marriage. People from European cultures, however, see it as, aside from a form of child abuse, a tool of oppression: Women who are unable to climax as a result of the procedure are divided from those who are, and women’s power in the society is diminished as a result.

Some Masai men and women, fearing change, worry that girls who do not undergo the procedure will be unable to marry and will be shunned. But Kamete and Tenoi are determined to promote the alternative ceremony until FGM is eliminated. They hold rallies in their communities, speak to individual members, and enlist prominent men to publicly declare that they would marry an “uncut” woman. Tenoi estimates that approximately 20 percent of Masai girls now celebrate their passage into womanhood with the alternative ceremony.

“If we can carry on performing and educating, we can get our community to declare the abandonment of female genital cutting within three years,” Tenoi wrote in The Guardian. “If we can end it here in my community, we will have the means to end it everywhere.”