When she realized that she could have achieved what her peers had, she bent her head down in ‘shame'. She was silent. If only she could have resisted the pressures from her community, she could have been just like them.
I met Zuwena on campus after a long summer break. Of the many stories we shared, this got my attention.
Zuwena said she could tell that this young lady was her age too. It was easy for her to be embarrassed: a mother before she had a college or high school degree. Holding her head high amongst her mates from around the world was not as easy. She could easily have been a student learning about the negatives of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), but here, she stood the subject of the lesson.
Though the occurrences are statistically low around the world, many girls still suffer under the practice of FGM. Supporters of the practice have often stated culture and traditions as justification. This young lady was one of twenty Maasai women Zuwena met during her summer in Tanzania. All had been mutilated at some point.
When I spoke with her, Zuwena looked down as she narrated stories of these women. There was an aura of both surprise and satisfaction in her body language. She was astonished at how much she didn’t know about these practices taking place in her own country. Her source of gratification was the lessons these women taught her.
The proponents of the practice cite culture and traditions as justification for its existence. This is almost to assume that cultural preservation is better than cultural dynamism. The women Zuwena referenced had rejected this argument. They decided not only to self educate, but to extend the conversation to the men - the patriarchs of the society - to challenge them with reason and not force.
The main argument presented against FGM has been how the practice is not sustainable for the health of young girls, but this has not been effective in capturing the attention of the men. One of the ladies Zuwena spoke of decided to take a different approach. She focused on the desires of men, seeing the practice benefits them. She has been educating men on how the FGM practice has a long term effect on the economic gains of the men and the society as a whole, to the detriment of women. In this, she has argued within the Maasai cultural context of finance and economics.
I was glad to hear stories of the agency of these women: a testimony of hope and a willingness to make life for themselves better despite living in a patriarchal society. They are not waiting for the men to change. They are demanding space to be human.
This piece is a product of conversations with Zuwena Machano (UBCO International student) about her summer experience in Tanzania