Saturday, 28 February 2009

Sexuality, African Religio-Cultural Traditions and Modernity: Expanding the Lens

Sexuality in the post-matriarchy

In our symbolic relationship to the animal world, elephants can be seen as women’s other cousins in ancient matriarchal traditions.A female elephant cannot be penetrated unless she grants access; she signals her readiness by urinating. Elephants are therefore not sexually vulnerable to the male like chimpanzees are. According to palaeontologists, modern woman evolved beyond the biological sexual vulnerability marked by the visible red vulva and the scent of her immediate cousin, the chimpanzee female, who cannot say no to male penetration when she is in estrus or ovulating. The modern woman’s vulva is inverted and unlike the chimpanzee female her ovulation is hidden from the male gaze and nose. Evolution, ritual and culture enabled early modern human females to reconfigure their sexuality through collective ritual control in ancient matriarchy, based on the logic of female solidarity and matriarchal kinship. They owned their sex and said yes or no together when it mattered. Yes or no about sex also translated into yes or no on major social issues about which women could invoke collective strike action.

Like capitalism, post-matriarchal social developments are marked by a patriarchal control and oppression of women that has functioned through the fragmentation and atomisation of women. Women have more individual choices and freedoms, but less collective power. Does this suggest that modernity has rendered women more vulnerable as individuals? Ownership of access is consequently a major problem that radicalises our discourse on sexuality because, logically, it points to the question of subjectivity and choice as opposed to objectification, possession and forced penetration. In traditional societies, strategies of refusing forced penetration gave rise to the power of the midwife or senior women that could be seen as women’s response to these fears, hence the development of organised women’s rituals to take control and protect women. Women have been cultural inventors and ritual initiators since the beginning of human social history. Women so organised may possess structural power, but in the case of the practice of female circumcision, it also has the negative repeated generational violence of rituals of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in some societies. The surgical practice of cutting and stitching up results in enclosure that we might call a no access practice and involves the most radical extensive cutting. The midwife controls access or holds the key to open up for child delivery and stitch up again for sex.

Male power over female sexuality

A power shift from the collective strength of women to a post-matriarchy presents new contradictions in the power of the midwife, the husband and father over female sexuality. The fragmentation of women and a new form of patriarchal dominance readily explain the puzzle of the sexual subservience of wives in modern society, their sexual competition with daughters and younger females, and why men are now said to be the main proponents of FGC and other means of control in modern post-matriarchal society. Under a patriarchal domination we hear statements that demonstrate a husband’s sense of insecurity about the question of honour and infidelity, or a father’s punitive measure to correct shame or ensure honour. These punitive measures can also extend to uncircumcised women in societies that do not practice FGC. Such attitudes are current and global, and demonstrate possession and possessiveness, for example covering women and daughters up and not letting them out of sight! We should recall that in European traditions, knights who served their nations in war locked up their women with chastity belts and went off to war with the key! They even hid away some of their women and daughters in faraway castles. Some of their kings even had a wife hanged or her head cut off on account of alleged infidelity. In many ways male sex controllers or sex gatekeepers must have envied the power of the midwife. They have behaved towards their women in similar ways at all times in history and across cultures. Just as some social statements expose extreme patriarchal control, some of the reasons that are expressed in beliefs and traditions for the practice of FGC equally show ignorance about the complex biology of the female sexual and reproductive organs in cultures that practice FGC. Some reasons, such as the fear that the clitoris and labia might grow too big, or get in the way, show surprising knowledge of the potentials of the female sexual organ for self-pleasuring or pleasure by others. Thus, the most radical and almost truthful claim in a symbolic sense is the rationalisation of FGC as a counter to sexual equality for girls. The fear that the clitoris would grow to equal a male penis therefore has some truth, but is biologically false since in maturity the two organs do not look alike, even in instances when an individual has both male and female sexual organs. Sex as pleasure is counter to fundamentalist or purist thinking that insists on sex as sin, sex as duty, sex as marital right and sex as male domination. When viewed solely from the perspective of the ramifications of FGC, sex would incorrectly seem mechanical and only for male gratification and female procreation for which a woman is simply a depository. This simply restates and reinforces the perspective and practice of male power over female sexuality.

Ifi Amadiume

African and African American Studies Program Dartmouth College, USA

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