Today I saw my sister cutting small circles out of a scrap of gourd, poking holes in the circles, and stringing them onto a seashell necklace for her baby. She explained:
When a woman has more than one son, as many of these sons as possible are circumcised at the same time. In this business eldest sons are to be pitied, for their circumcisions are decidedly more painful and memorable those of their younger brothers.
After boys have recovered from their circumcisions and are able to walk and dance again without pain, their families through parties. When two or more boys from the same mother are circumcised, a gourd bowl the size of two human heads is brought to the party. During the festivities those brothers will grab corners of the bowl and pull until the bowl breaks. Women in attendance instantly dive to the ground to try to grab pieces to wear for good luck.
After discussing male circumcision, we got onto female circumcisions. It is now illegal to perform circumcisions on girls in Senegal. A very old woman who lives across the road was imprisoned a few months ago. She was the neighborhood circumciser for many many years, and despite the law there remain many parents, including some women whom she had circumcised when they were young, who want to have their daughters circumcised. Someone informed the police that she was still cutting little girls, and the old woman was arrested. Many members of the community went to the jail and begged for her release. She was freed, and she died not long afterwards. My sister, who was circumcised by this woman, blames her death on her time in jail and the theft of her role and status in our society. There is now no one in our neighborhood qualified to perform female circumcision, but my family knows a woman in the next quartier.
There are a variety of cuts that can be called circumcisions. My sister told me that when she was about eight years old she was cut and the blood dripped down to cause her vagina to mostly close. I'm not clear on preciscely where she was cut, but another volunteer told me that circumcision around here often involves sewing the vagina shut, leaving just enough space for menstral blood to exit. Shortly before her marriage my sister went back to the old woman who had circumcised her, and this woman cut her open. She told me that the first few times she had sex it was very painful, but sex has since become "a little" pleasurable.
She told me they perform circumcisions for a variety of reasons. It dates back in local tradition to long before Islam was introduced. She said people here debate about whether Islam says circumcision is necessary. Circumcisions, especially of her kind, ensure purity until marriage, and she said that sometimes families will flaunt a bloody sheet after a wedding night. She told me that non-circumcised vaginas can smell bad. Although city girls are likely to be allowed to choose a spouse, village girls are often given arranged marriages. It is easier for the parents to make a good match if the girl is circumcised. Also, I suspect there is the argument some American men have for circumcising their sons, of simply wanting their offspring to look like them.
There used to be classes on womanhood and a celebration to go along with being circumcised, so that it was a formal and joyful introduction to the community, but since it has become illegal, girls are being circumcised in secret as babies. Despite the pain of the procedure, the premarital cutting, sex, and childbirth, my sister is considering having her daughter circumcised. She only hinted at this. I think she was a bit concerned that I will report her to the police.