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Thursday, 2 March, 2000, 19:00 GMT
Cutting out a tradition in Mali
By Ruth Evans
Her involvement started when her own baby daughter was circumcised without her permission or knowledge by one of her father's co-wives. Since then she has campaigned tirelessly against the practice.
"I prefer to use the term female genital mutilation, " says Fatoumata, "because circumcision suggests that nothing important is cut, whereas female genital mutilation acknowledges that a girl is deprived of a very important part of her body."
Fatoumata's campaign has given her a very high profile in Mali. She's a controversial figure who is either loved or loathed by her countrymen. Efforts to draft legislation for the government have resulted in a backlash from conservative forces in the country.
"I have death threats against me" she says, " there have been attempts to burn down my house, I have been in three car crashes and every day, Islamic radio here in Bamako broadcasts curses against me." But she is undaunted by what people think of her, and it seems clear nothing will deflect this determined woman from her campaign.
An uneasy encounter
Mahmoud Dikko is Director of the Islamic radio station that Fatoumata says has been threatening her. We went to visit him in his office overlooking Bamako's Central Mosque and the busy market. At first he refused to shake my hand or to let me into his office. We put Fatoumata's allegations to him and he said "No, it's not true, it's all in her mind, it's not true!"
Mahmoud Dikko denounces what he regards as a Western-inspired campaign against circumcision. People like Fatoumata Sire, he says, are simply dancing to the West's tune and this amounts to nothing less than "cultural aggression."
"What right has the West to come here to lecture us, about a tradition it does not understand, when it tolerates things like homosexuality and sex before marriage. For us these things are shocking - they make us vomit!"
Clearly, it is going to be a tough job to change attitudes and traditions that are not only so deeply entrenched but also so sensitive. But Fatoumata says that one effective way of doing this is to persuade the women who perform the circumcisions to stop. "Persuading one circumciser to stop could save the lives of hundreds of young girls," she says.
A fresh start
The town of Segou is a couple of hours' drive from the capital, with wide dusty boulevards adjacent to the River Niger. Here Fatoumata's organisation has set up a weaving project, which aims to provide an alternative income to women who used to perform circumcision for a living. It's also a potent signal of gender empowerment, as weaving is traditionally a male preserve in Mali's highly complex and stratified society.
Her mother and grandmother before her had performed circumcisions and it was a highly respected job in the community. Traditionally performed after months of preparations and initiation into womanhood, circumcision was a way of "keeping little girls clean and stopping them running after men." But once she learned of the dangerous consequences from infections and potential loss of life, she stopped, because she came to the conclusion that circumcision constituted violence against women.
Taking the message on tour
Afterwards, the chief of Mana village emulated his theatrical counterpart in the performance, by announcing that now they understood the dangers of circumcision the village would put a stop to the practice.
Change will certainly come slowly if methods like these are all campaigners have to rely on. A more effective means, argues Fatoumata, would be to introduce a law banning circumcision outright. But although the government has been sitting on draft legislation for some time, it has yet to pass this law. Fatoumata believes the government is running scared of fundamentalist Islamic reaction.
Stamp it out - or let it die away?
High up on the hill overlooking the red dust that permanently envelops Bamako sits the seat of government and presidential palace. Here in his oak panelled office, Pascal Babu Couloubaly, the Chef de Cabinet of the President's Office, explains that in his opinion a law would not be effective because literacy rates in Mali are so low few people would be able to read it and it would therefore be unenforceable.
Besides, according to Pascal Babu Couloubaly, now wearing his other hat as an anthropologist, circumcision has today largely lost its meaning as part of the rites of initiation and marriage. Marriages are no longer arranged and these rites have died away. Now all that is left is the operation, which is being performed at an earlier and earlier age, sometimes on young babies.
"The best way to deal with this is not to lecture to people but to allow them to reach their own conclusions with dignity and humour, through things like theatre and education, and that way circumcision will disappear," argues Pascal. "This is democracy in action!"
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