Amadiume

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The views expressed in this presentation are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ARSRC or any organisation providing support Sexuality, African Religio-Cultural Traditions and Modernity: Expanding the Lens Ifi Amadiume In this exploratory essay, Ifi Amadiume, takes a critical look at the normative (“prescribed sexual practices”) as well as counter normative alternatives (“subversive alternatives”) to sexuality both in Africa and in other cultures as they r
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   1  Sexuality, African Religio-Cultural Traditions andModernity: Expanding the Lens Ifi Amadiume   In this exploratory essay, Ifi Amadiume, takes a critical look at the normative (“prescribed sexual practices”) as well as counter normative alternatives (“subversive alternatives”) to sexuality both in Africa and in other cultures as they relate to gender concepts and practices that address the problem of inequality and state patriarchy. One of the issues the essay tackles is the politics of control or ownership of access to women’s bodies – with particular focus on the power of the midwife, the husband and father over female sexuality. “At all times and in all cultures there has been a lot of meddling with and fighting over women’s sexual and reproductive organs”, the author notes. The essay calls for an open discussion of these issues to encourage possibilities for resistance and change that is individual and systemic. “What we need here is more comparative work to expand our sex knowledge about positive messages from cultures, religions,literature and science. We need to work with a broad perspective that subjects the rigidity of the normative to a critical evaluation that presents a more progressive alternative in the face of the challenges of social change”, the author asserts. Introduction The practice of sexuality in Africa presents many difficulties to researchers andscholars due to the ambiguity of beliefs and attitudes in traditional cultures andreligions. Sexuality is even more problematic in the received world religions andglobal popular cultures of post-colonial African modernity. A perspective thatencourages discourse on responsible sexuality without guilt, fear or ill-health is awelcome and courageous departure from stasis and regression that typify rigidorthodoxies or suffocating normativity.Most discourse or advocacy work on the subject of sexuality in Africa has beencentered more on prescribed sexual practices, either descriptive or critical, andnot on subversive alternatives to encourage and open up possibilities forresistance and change that is individual and systemic. All cultures and religionsregulate sex, yet permit some sexual freedom that can even be counter-normative; some more so than others. By this exploratory essay I hope to The views expressed in this presentation are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ARSRC or any organisation providing support    2 encourage an open discussion that considers the normative as well as counternormative alternative sexuality as they relate to gender concepts and practicesthat address the problem of gender inequality and state patriarchy. Sexuality in the Post-Matriarchy In our symbolic relationship to the animal world, elephants can be seen aswomen’s other cousins in ancient matriarchal traditions. A female elephantcannot be penetrated unless she grants access; she signals her readiness byurinating. Elephants are therefore not sexually vulnerable to the male likechimpanzees are. According to paleontologists, modern woman evolved beyondthe biological sexual vulnerability marked by the visible red vulva and scent ofher immediate cousin - the chimpanzee female - that cannot say no to chimpmale penetration when she is in estrus or ovulating.The modern woman’s vulva is inverted and unlike the chimpanzee female, herovulation is hidden from the male gaze and nose! Evolution, ritual and cultureenabled early modern human females to reconfigure their sexuality throughcollective ritual control in ancient matriarchy based on the logic of femalesolidarity and matriarchal kinship. They owned their sex and said yes or notogether when it mattered. Yes or no about sex also translated to yes or no onmajor social issues about which women could invoke collective strike action.Like capitalism, post-matriarchal social developments are marked by apatriarchal control and oppression of women that has functioned through thefragmentation and atomization of women. Women have more individual choicesand freedoms, but less collective power; does this suggest that modernity hasrendered women more vulnerable as individuals? Ownership to Access  Ownership to access is consequently a major problem that radicalizes ourdiscourse on sexuality because logically, it points to the question of subjectivityand choice as opposed to objectification, possession and forced penetration. Intraditional societies, strategies of refusing forced penetration give rise to thepower of the midwife or senior women that can be seen as women’s response tothese fears; hence the development of organized women’s rituals to take controland protect women. Women have been culture inventors and ritual initiatorssince the beginning of human social history. Women being so organized resultsin structural power, but in the case of the practice of female circumcision, it alsohas the negative repeated generational violence of rituals of Female GenitalCutting (FGC) in some societies. The surgical practice of cutting and stitching upresults in enclosure that we might call ‘no access’ practice and involves the mostradical extensive cutting; and the midwife controls access or holds the key toopen up for child delivery and stitch up again for sex. Male Power Over Female Sexuality     3 A power shift from the collective strength of women to a post-matriarchy presentsnew contradictions in the power of the midwife, the husband and father overfemale sexuality. The fragmentation of women and a new form of patriarchaldominance readily explains the puzzle over the seemingly sexual subservienceof wives in modern society, their sexual competition with daughters and youngerfemales, and why men are now said to be the main proponents of FGC and othermeans of control in modern post-matriarchal society. Under a patriarchaldomination we hear statements that demonstrate a husband’s sense of insecurityabout the question of honor and infidelity, or a father’s punitive measure tocorrect shame or ensure honor. These punitive measures can also extend touncircumcised women in societies that do not practice FGC. Such attitudes arecurrent and global, and demonstrate possession and possessiveness as forexample covering women and daughters up and not letting them out of sight! Weshould recall that in European traditions Knights who served their nations in warlocked up their women with chastity belts and went off to war with the key! Theyeven hid away some of their women and daughters in faraway castles. Some oftheir kings even had a wife hanged or her head cut off on account of an allegedinfidelity. In many ways male sex controllers or sex gatekeepers must haveenvied the power of the midwife. They have behaved towards their women insimilar ways at all times in history and across cultures.Just as some social statements expose extreme patriarchal control, some of thereasons that are expressed in beliefs and traditions that support the practice ofFGC equally show ignorance about the complex biology of the female sexual andreproductive organs in cultures that practice FGC. Some reasons such as thefear that the clitoris and labia might grow too big, or get in the way showsurprising knowledge of the potentials of the female sexual organ for self-pleasuring or pleasure by others. This is the most radical and almost truthfulclaim in a symbolic sense because it directly rejects the idea of sexual equalityfor girls. The fear that the clitoris would grow to equal a male penis therefore hassome truth, but is biologically false since in maturity the two organs do not lookalike, even in instances when an individual has both male and female sexualorgans. However, some traditional African societies such as some ethnic groupsin northern Mozambique, Zambia, and southern Tanzania practice what isvariously called labia stretching or labia elongation or enlargement in their femalepuberty and initiation rituals, which is the opposite of cutting. We do not hearmuch about this practice or the experiences of sex in these African cultures.Sex as pleasure is counter to fundamentalist or purist thinking that insists on sexas sin, sex as duty, sex as marital right and sex as male domination. Whensolely viewed from the reasons stated above or from the perspective of theramifications of FGC, sex would incorrectly seem mechanical and only for malegratification and female procreation for which a woman is simply a depository.This simply restates and reinforces the perspective and practice of male powerover female sexuality and this is not the whole story of sexuality in Africa.   4 Sexuality, African Traditions and the Post-Colonial Discourse on sexuality usually centers on practices and beliefs that take place indifferent situations involving movements between urban, rural and internationalgeographical and cultural locations. It is an unequal discourse in which there isassumed superiority of knowledge about sex by urbanites and Western globalitesover “uninformed” and “primitive” villagers or “traditionalists”. Practicesconstituting sexual abuse are the topics we know best as scholars, researchersand activists that are concerned with social justice. In this project, we havewritten negatively about what as feminists we perceive or read to be indigenousattitudes to sexuality. The truth is that we do not really know much about theactual acts of sexual intercourse practiced, and we have succeeded in trashingall women in Africa as sexually repressed, sexually inferior and sexuallymutilated!With more knowledge and more questioning and if we can also manage somelove and respect, I believe that we can discover that we missed the ambiguity ofrepresentation in traditional sexuality. We missed a balanced understanding ofthe contradictions that this ambiguity presented. Customarily, in practically allthese traditional African societies girls’ bodies were also heavily decorated bywomen themselves in their society’s signs and symbols. The point is that thiselaborate and colorful decoration and beautifying makes the girls seductivelyattractive; regardless of normativity, and controlling cautionary statements andbeliefs that feminists have focused on to argue women’s sexual inferiority inAfrican traditions. Some might argue that instead of instilling fear of sex in younggirls, they should have developed the use of contraceptives. Traditionalcontraception was practiced by married women and mothers through lactation insome societies and that enabled them to space birth. As we know, the healthproblems associated with contraceptive use suggest that modernity has nottreated women’s bodies any better. Certainly, some use contraceptives bychoice, but women are also forced to use contraception for population control.Equal attention should also be paid to the representation and symbolism of girls’bodies in images and art to glean and understand both subtle and overt woman-centered cultural aesthetics of sexuality.The late Senegalese novelist, Mariam Ba turns this prejudice on its head throughthe character of a grassroots woman Ouleymatou who uses traditional “gongopowder” and “suggestive wiggle of an African woman’s rump, wrapped in thewarm colors of her pagne” (p.112), to seduce back the university educated andinternationally traveled man that she loved and desired away from his equallyeducated white wife who had no love or respect for his family, friends or culture.In this plot of seduction, “it was Mother Fatim, the figurehead of the compound,who slipped Ouleymatou incense and aphrodisiac powders at night, with aknowing wink” (p.120). African educated elites are mistaken to assume to knowmore about sexuality than the illiterate masses or traditional villagers, given thefact that age-appropriate sex education that is not only limited to religiosity,disease, pregnancy and abortion prevention is not taught in the school
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