Tag Archives: ethics

Hot Topic – Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the Maasai culture: Beyond Cultural Relativity & our symbolic jewellery alternative

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Fusion Traditional Bracelet shows beauty of Massai cuff, yet relaxes permanence and rigidity with addition of elastic corsetting

What makes a piece of jewellery great is not only its beauty but also the presence of a profound symbolic meaning in its form. Such meaningful jewellery becomes a portable piece of art.

You may be pleased to know that your Lotusland necklace is really more than an intricate string of beautiful beads. It is also a capsule of a vibrant indigenous African culture that thrives millions of miles away from us on the feral grasslands of Tanzania and Kenya. Behind every motif carefully embedded in your jewellery lies a perennial cultural value centuries old, told from paradigms far beyond our wildest imaginations by people who uphold lifestyles radically different from our own. Yet through all the far reaches of the globe, transcending cultures however beautiful or peculiar runs the common thread that ties us all back together: a thread of humanity and the desire to live our own cultural beliefs and be recognized as unique human groups. By fusing the unique Maasai culture with Italian design – the conceptions of beauty on our side of the world – we hope that our jewellery provides a platform for a special form of intercultural exchange.

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Many distinctive cultural Maasai values are symbolized in our jewellery. We will explore a few of them, beginning with perhaps the weightiest issue surrounding the culture today: the ongoing practice of circumcision on young girls as a rite of passage into womanhood.

Our traditional bracelet cuff is inspired by the wrist cuffs a Maasai girl typically wears after she passes her circumcision ceremony. She will adorn herself with her most beautiful accessories after being formally recognized as a full-fledged woman. But her beauty can mask the suffering and pain of circumcision she has so bravely endured.

The actual act of circumcision is the core component of a larger annual four-day ceremony comprising festivities that momentously mark young girls’ passage into womanhood. Yet the grim reality of circumcision is hardly worthy of celebration. The widespread term coined for the process, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), is indicative of its horror.

As with various other Middle Eastern and African groups, Maasai circumcision involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia – without anaesthesia. This procedure is usually performed by a hired local cutting “expert” who uses knives, glass and other blunt objects to make the incision on girls as young as seven years old. The fact that it takes multiple adults to hold down a seven year old child during the procedure is a testament to the degree of inhumane torture and pain of the process. The initiate’s suitor is the likely sponsor of the procedure, and he will take her as bride only after she is cut.

The sheer shock a young girl experiences during cutting is often enough to scar her for life. The extent of damage to her sexual and maternal health and even her livelihood and survival are beyond the control of cutting “experts” and local healthcare providers – some initiates die of infection from crude sanitation or contract HIV/AIDs from sharing contaminated cutting objects with other girls in the same ceremony. Those who survive even lose the ability to experience sexual pleasure and often live with painful complications. Horrendous aftereffects of FGM are plenty, but those who endure them remain remarkably secretive. The bottom line is that in Maasailand, FGM continues to be glorified and these easily impressionable young girls are raised to believe that FGM brings the promise of womanhood.

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Why is such a flagrant abuse of girls’ rights still allowed sacrosanct status in any culture? Cultural relativism is the likely answer. Its proponents are usually Western academics, elite Africans, nationalists and many Maasai tribesmen themselves who collectively resist the push to eradicate FGM.

In this case cultural relativity is so intractable because the Maasai live in a sort of cultural enclave in Africa that is remarkably resilient to the Westernization and modernization happening around them. Closed to the outside world, Maasai communities and societal structures operate on different moral values even compared to most Kenyan and Tanzanian societies in their proximity. With FGM so historically engrained in their culture, the tribe itself readily gives a host of rationales for the practice, such as helping women preserving their chastity and fidelity by removing the organ responsible for sexual pleasure or keeping marriages in order since wives are so disinclined to cheat. Others believe that the abolishment of FGM would undo centuries of history, insult the ancestry and bring curses to the communities affected.

These kinds of culture keepers are not necessarily malevolent by wanting to deliberately harm the young girls. They are often elders and men in charge of Maasai communities who justify circumcision as an act of love and care to help girls better find husbands and preserve moral purity of sexual fidelity amongst their people. Their basic defenses all come down to the fact that the culture needs no outside scrutiny since it has worked this way for so long and should not be changed.

A Maasai saying goes: “It takes one day to destroy a house; to build a new house will take months and perhaps years. If we abandon our way of life to construct a new one, it will take thousands of years”. But even culture strengthened by time cannot diminish a glaring truth: FGM is a form of human torture.

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Even so, culture keeping makes the cause against FGM difficult to operationalize. Within the intractable patriarchal framework of the Maasai men automatically reject and shame uncut women. Since men are the heads and commanders of Maasai society, the unwed girl has little choice but to comply if she wants to be accepted by her people and find a husband. Worse yet, many grandmothers and mothers force their daughters to go through the same excruciating pain they themselves experienced since they view FGM as an absolutely necessary step towards true Maasai womanhood. Such adults are predetermining concepts of womanhood, sexuality and marriageability for the younger generation. Other adults non-compliant with the tradition have trouble finding alternatives due to inadequate education and economic difficulties. When no one can stand up for innocent young Maasai girls, the torture of FGM becomes an unavoidable part of their futures.

No matter how intense external pressures may be, the ultimate end to FGM starts from within. After all in a cultural enclave people pay more attention to their own kind than to foreign preachers of human rights. Though communities are far from abolishing the practice completely at least more and more women with access to education develop the awareness and courage to stand up for themselves and their daughters against FGM.

Young men’s attitudes need to be changed as well. Their continued rejection of uncut girls – labelling them as mere children unfit for marriage – is the primary reason why most Maasai girls are still gritting their teeth through FGM instead of revolting. Fortunately organizations such as AMREF are working on the ground to effectuate much-needed attitudinal shifts. They begin by informing elders about sexuality and womanhood. They then pass enlightened knowledge to young men searching for their future brides. Success is slow but steady.

Hope also lies with the “new face” of the Maasai female: educated girls who have rejected circumcision themselves and resist scorn from their communities to teach others about the cruelty and dangers associated with cutting. Many have even run away from their predetermined destinies to seek freedom. The international community can help by giving these strong women more opportunities to speak out when they are silenced. They are bravely revising the traditionally warped notion of womanhood with the power of knowledge and confidence. Their ideas are incredibly valuable.

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 A symbol of strength. Click to show on official site.

Re-examination of FGM is a product of the clash between rigid tradition and the internationalization of knowledge and ethics. Parallel to this fusion of values our particular wrist cuff harmoniously fuses together European chic with very traditional Maasai beauty. Our Milanese student designers have replaced traditional wire with elastics to string the beads together in this unique combination of styles. The result is this stunning symbol of the versatility of tradition, of our successes in altering oppressively strict binds of culture in favour of humanity and positive change. As with the case against FGM the import of Western values into Maasai tradition does not mar its strength; instead, fusion makes tradition all the more beautiful and its adherents more free to express their individuality. We dedicate this cuff to the Maasai women’s courageous fight for rights in hopes that with every passing day they can find new hope for brighter futures.

The good news is that positive changes are under way thanks to gradual acceptance of international values by the Maasai. For starters, “experts” who perform the cutting are often operating with more sanitized instruments to minimize chances of infection. Furthermore, some women have themselves designed an alternative “cutting with words” rite of passage for girls which consists of a three-day-long educational session about sex and self-confidence as well as festivities to replace the actual act of physical mutilation. The education raises girls’ awareness of self-worth. It steadily chips away at their conception that inferiority to men is an unalterable reality. More and more families are investing in young daughters by sending them to schools. These changes, however gradual, are extremely significant in the long run.

The future looks bright. Gradually phasing out FGM need not mark a slippery slope into undoing the Maasai culture altogether, because a culture does not have to be static to be strong. We hope young Maasai girls can soon grow up into women without having their livelihoods and development compromised by harmful rituals.

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Those who fear that changes run up against centuries of Maasai history may want to consider that in the case of FGM, the culture has little else to lose than a sanction for cruelty.

What is your take?

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