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Gambia parliament moves to overturn ban on female genital cutting

BANJUL, Gambia — Gambia’s National Assembly has voted to advance a bill that would overturn a ban on female genital cutting, putting this tiny West African country on a path to being the first nation in the world to roll back such a protection.

Many of the women who filed into the National Assembly building on Monday to witness the proceedings had experienced the horror that comes with cutting, which has been practiced for generations here. One woman said she was taken by her family at age 8 to a ceremony in which she was pinned down and cut. Another learned on her wedding night that her vaginal opening had been sealed. A third experienced years of infections and later infertility after being cut without her parents’ permission.

The women listened stoically as members of parliament — the vast majority of them men — pounded their gavels in support as Almameh Gibba, the lawmaker who introduced the bill, described it as intended to “uphold religious rights and safeguard cultural norms and values.” The ban on cutting, he said, represents a “direct violation of citizens’ rights to practice their culture.”

At the session, 42 of 47 parliament members voted to move the bill forward, teeing up months of national dialogue and possible amendments before a final vote on whether to revoke the 2015 ban. If Gambia ultimately moves forward, activists said they fear the decision — which the United Nations says would mark a global first — could lead other nations to follow suit.

Already, the United Nations says that about 75 percent of girls and women in Gambia between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subjected to genital cutting, which is often described by opponents as female genital mutilation, or FGM. Globally, more than 200 million women and girls are estimated to be survivors of female genital cutting, which can involve removing part of the clitoris and labia minora and, in the most extreme cases, a sealing of the vaginal opening. Medical experts say the procedures, which do not have medical benefits, can cause a range of short- and long-term harms, including infections, severe pain, scarring, infertility and loss of pleasure.

“It is a rollback on women’s rights and bodily autonomy,” said Jaha Dukureh, a Gambian activist whose little sister died as a result of a botched procedure and who found out on her wedding night, at 15, that she had been sealed as a baby. “It is a rollback in terms of telling women what to do with their own bodies. This is all this is.”

As Dukureh was speaking to a journalist in the National Assembly, a former government official and proponent of the bill, Mai Ahmad Fatty, stopped to talk. He said that in Gambia, female circumcision, rather than female genital mutilation, is practiced. Dukureh told him that she knew best what had happened to her own body, and that it was mutilation.

“You are denying [us] as women who have been through FGM,” she said. “You are telling us that what we are saying is a lie.”

Gambia, which was carved out of Senegal during British colonial rule, is a country of about 2.5 million where news travels fast. And since last year, when three women were convicted of practicing female genital cutting, much of that news has focused on the practice, spawning a countrywide discussion about religion, culture, patriarchy, and reproductive health and sexuality.

One of Gambia’s most prominent imams, Abdoulie Fatty, paid the fines of the women who were convicted, saying that the practice was taught by the prophet Muhammad, and then launched a campaign to overturn the ban, leading to Gibba’s bill. There has been debate about the practice in Islam, but many Muslim leaders have condemned it, and in many Muslim-majority countries it is not widespread.

Outside the National Assembly on Monday, women and men holding signs that read, “Girls need love, not knives” squared off against Muslim clerics who were preaching to dozens of veiled girls from Islamic schools. They cheered as one cleric told them circumcision was justified by religion.

Inside the building, where only five of Gambia’s 58 lawmakers are women, the discussion Monday was dominated by men. Among the survivors in the audience was Sainey Ceesay, the founder of a nonprofit focused on destigmatizing infertility, who said she only recently decided to start talking about what she experienced at 8 years old. At that time, women had gathered her and a group of other girls at a house in Banjul, the capital, and used a razor to cut off her clitoris.

Ceesay, who said she suffered for years from trauma and infections and was unable to conceive, is still holding out hope that the ban will not be repealed. “At least as of today, FGM is still illegal in Gambia,” she said with a quiet sigh.

Fatty, the cleric whose support helped push the bill forward, said that he did not have a problem with those who choose not to practice cutting but added that Gambians should have the right to practice what has long been in their culture. Western ideals, he said, should not be imposed in the countries that do not share them.

Fatty leaned forward in his chair ahead of the session on Monday, growing animated as he explained that it was about following the teachings of the prophet, about purity and about reducing the likelihood of cancer. (Doctors say there is no basis for this claim.)

“It is something not to reduce feeling, but to control, to balance the feelings of a woman,” he said in an interview.

When asked to clarify whether he meant women have too much desire in the absence of cutting, he nodded his head and wagged a finger.

“Too much,” Fatty said. “Too much. We can say in sex, women’s power is more than men’s power. … Women can do sex longer than men. So that is why Islam came to balance. They can be together and their desire can be balanced.”

Far from parliament’s public stage, deeply personal debates are also playing out within communities and families across the country, often among women and sometimes exposing sharp generational divides. Many women note that because cutting often happens when girls are no older than in elementary school, they are never given a choice in the matter.

In one family living near Gambia’s southern border, a grandmother in her 60s who used to be involved in the traditional ceremonies for cutting said she still believed in the practice, noting that her three daughters had all been cut and never complained. She felt so strongly that when her granddaughter was young, she took her to be cut without permission from the girl’s mother.

Sitting at her feet, her granddaughter, now 20 and studying nursing, said she is fully aware of the negative consequences. “If it were in my power to stop FGM today, I would,” she said. Both women spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Mariama Gassama, a grandmother from a town about 20 miles outside of Banjul who said she had participated in circumcision ceremonies, said that while pleasure is still possible after cutting, the practice was necessary to ensure women do not “have too many feelings for men.”

Fatou Baldeh, an activist and FGM survivor who just days earlier had been honored at the White House, said she tries to “hold grace” for the women who continue to advocate for the practice, knowing many have not been educated and have only their own experience to go by.

But sitting in the parliamentary chambers Monday as she listened to the men debate, Baldeh said she was seething.

When one activist started wiping tears from her eyes with tissues, a lawmaker demanded that women who were crying leave the chambers, and the speaker agreed, asking them not to make a scene.

Baldeh said she wanted to scream listening to the men trivialize the pain women had experienced. But she resolved to stay in the chambers, knowing the importance of the women being present, forcing the men to look at them as they cast their votes.

“We have a right to cry,” she said. “But we knew the importance of staying. So we kept our tears in.”

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