Grappling with Women’s Rights in Sierra Leone

Jennifer D. Klein
“A woman is like a ball; once a ball is thrown, no one can predict where it will bounce. You have no control over where it rolls, and even less over who gets it.”
–Mariama Ba

It’s interesting how long I’ve held strong opinions about global women’s rights without ever really confronting the realities of practices I’ve criticized.  Perhaps this is innately human, to assume we know without knowing, to assume we have a read on other people’s realities.  It’s disconcerting to be reminded of how little I know–not just because I like to think I know a lot, but because the complexities and nuances of life around the globe are so intense that they render me speechless sometimes.

For years, I taught about women’s rights in Africa through Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, a brilliant novela which explores the experiences of women in a changing society in Senegal.  My students did deep explorations and debates on polygamy and female genital mutilation, among other topics.  While I always suggested that students take on the challenge of arguing the pro side, providing well-researched opposition myself to increase the authenticity and depth of argument on both sides, I have to admit that I always did have a right answer in my head (which I’m guessing my students realized the whole time).  Clearly polygamy was an atrocious practice which disempowered women.  Clearly no little girl should ever have her sexual organs cut, sewn up or removed.  As a student-centered teacher, I wanted my kids to explore the issues for themselves… but I’ve realized recently that I actually wanted them to come to my own conclusions the whole time.

Walking through the rural southern village of Bumpe in Sierra Leone, an old man told me proudly that he has three wives.  “Do they do that in America?” he asked me.  I nodded and told him of small pockets of polygamous communities in the U.S.  I said nothing critical, smiled a lot and asked if he was taking good care of all of his wives, as the Koran orders.  His answer astonished me slightly: “They take care of me and I couldn’t exist without all three of them,” he told me.  He pointed to the cook fire.  “I am that pot over on the fire, held up by three stones.  If you remove one of them, I will fall.”

My host has uncles and aunts spread all over the village—and the world.  The explanation?  His grandfather had 30 wives, and multiple children with each.  It’s extreme enough to bring back memories of old testament classes and my confusion over Solomon’s harem of wives.  But who am I to question thousands of years of communal traditions in a culture so much older than my own?  I think of my ex-husband in Costa Rica, whose grandmother bore 20 children with an alcoholic husband–can I really say it would have been worse to have multiple mothers raising those children so they might have been better nurtured?  Certainly questions of population and economics apply, and small families are easier to maintain, but how different is the polygamous family from the socialist communities of Israel or other parts of the world, where it is believed that it takes a village to raise a child?  The single father is the only difference, I’m coming to realize–beyond that, the issue is more a moral one.  And if a puritan moral mindset claims that marriage must be between one man and one woman, then yes, it deserves to be questioned not just for LGBTQ couples, but for anyone else who defines marriage differently.

Female cutting (also known as female genital mutilation or female circumcision) is a tougher issue for me to wrap my head around still, and I haven’t been able to get anyone to talk about it.  What I know is this:  Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of female excision (removal of the clitoris and labia) in Africa, and the practice is tied to the poros, secret societies which use excision as part of initiation.  When I asked my host about it, he said that most Sierra Leoneans belong to poros; he was initiated into one in his teens and he speaks of it with nothing but pride.  He warned me against asking any of the women in his village or family about their own initiation experiences.  But the question lingers–if most members of this community belong to poros, then that means most of the girls and women have undergone cutting.

The guide book in my pack tells me that initiation generally takes place during a young person’s teens, that men as much as women bear some sort of scar from their initiation process.  There are questions raised about how safe and hygenic these practices generally are, but the book suggests that most Sierra Leoneans won’t talk about excision with foreigners because they know the west sees it as bad and they don’t want to get embroiled in arguments about a practice they are proud of.

I didn’t realize how much this underlying question was bothering me until I started interviewing teenage students at the high school.  I found myself wondering briefly about the initiation scars the boys might carry, but each time I found myself talking to girls, I was gripped by the realization that most of them have probably had their sexual organs excised.  Sitting with my host’s mother, who I have come to adore, I am deeply pained to think that she has gone through such a practice.  The two young nieces who run around the house and dance for me will undergo it one day.

My own Jewish culture has circumcised baby boys for thousands of years, but female cutting feels different still, and that confuses me.  I’ve seen documentaries on indigenous initiations rites for teenagers which usually include incredibly painful rituals.  Things like this happen all over the world, a sort of pain-based transformation from teen to adult.  Some of those young people have the choice to walk away; others don’t.  Who am I to judge female cutting as apart from these rituals, as something inherently wrong, given the pride with which my host speaks of his own initiation?

I am left with more questions than answers.  Does being a constructive and engaged global citizen mean I work to end practices I think are wrong around the world?  I know my first goal should always be to understand why the practices exist and where they come from.  Should my next goal be to accept them or to change them?  I used to ask my students to come up with their own answers about where the line was for them:  When is a cultural practice something we should try to end, and when should we accept it for its cultural importance to others?  But the more I explore the world, the less sure I am that I have the right to judge anyone else’s choices.

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