OTI Online
Fall 1996

photographs by Stephanie Welsh

At some point, a young girl is warned that her body is not marriageable as is.

FOR PHOTOGRAPHER STEPHANIE WELSH, FEMALE GENITAL mutilation first became meaningful reading Alice Walker's novel Possessing the Secret of Joy.FOR PHOTOGRAPHER STEPHANIE WELSH, FEMALE GENITAL mutilation first became meaningful reading Alice Walker's novel Possessing the Secret of Joy. "My initial reaction was one of outrage," Welsh told ON THE ISSUES. "At first I set out to make other people angry too." After traveling to Kenya and seeing it happen to 16-year-old Seita Lengila, Welsh "realized it's not something that can be stopped by angry people yelling at Africans. It is deeply entrenched in tribal life."

Also called female circumcision, it is practiced throughout most of Africa, in some Arab nations, and even underground in Western countries. UNICEF estimates that two million girls a year undergo the procedure, which ranges from removal of the tip of the clitoris to complete excision of the clitoris and labia minora and parts of the labia majora, with suturing of the vulva's sides. These stitches are ripped out for intercourse or childbirth then resewn.

This year Welsh, 22, won a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for this portfolio of pictures taken while interning at an English-language daily in Nairobi. "The ceremony is a wonderful ritual that unifies the tribe," Welsh told 077. "It's very beautiful - except for the circumcision itself."

More often than not, older women perform these sometimes-fatal operations on their daughters. According to tribal law in Seita Lengila's village, it would have been illegal for her to marry or give birth without first having her clitoris cut away.

THE MOTHER Nyamat Lengila builds a house. Here her daughter will have her clitoris cut out, spend a few weeks recovering, then live by herself as a woman.  THE SISTERHOOD Circumcised girls from surrounding villages paint Seita with red ocher. They spend the night convincing her there will be no pain.  THE DAUGHTER The night before, Seita Lengila (right), 16, has her head shaved to symbolize the shedding of her girlhood.

THE INCISION "Why are you trying to kill me?" Seita screams as other women hold down her legs and stiffle her cries. "Stop that," they scold; "it doesn 't hurt."  THE LOSS After the cutting, Seita stands in her own blood. Now she can legally marry and have children.  THE SOLACE Lois Towan comforts Seita, her goddaughter. Seita was the first girl in her village to go to school. Women in the tribe "are subject to control by their husbands," Welsh said. "Women have no voice; it is not a woman's place to speak about it. They don't have much to say about anything. Certain tribes are also struggling to keep tribal roots. They don't want to do anything to jeopardize that; they don't want to get rid of any rituals or customs."

"Only a mutilated woman is considered 100 percent feminine," writes Mary Daly in her book Gyn/Ecology. "By removal of her specifically female-identified organ, which is not necessary for the male's pleasure or for reproductive servitude, she 'becomes a woman.'" Parallel examples in other cultures abound - from the custom of Chinese footbinding (which mothers also did to daughters) to the surgical removal of ribs for a corseted "wasp waist" (which mothers condoned) to mothers' encouragement of daughter's dieting patterns today. Studies cited by Peggy Orenstein in School Girls estimate that 10 percent of American women are anorexic or bulimic and nearly two thirds of young girls have distorted body images.

"One must suffer to be beautiful" warns a French proverb. One job of mothers under patriarchy is not to let daughters forget.

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