Fluid identities : contextualising genital reconstructive surgery after female circumcision in Burkina Faso : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Social Anthropology at Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand.
Female circumcision procedures were traditionally performed on many girls and women
in Burkina Faso. These practices were outlawed in 1996, and are now termed ‘female
genital mutilation’ by the government and activists trying to stop them. About thirtyfive
years ago, Pierre Foldès, a French urologist who was on a humanitarian mission to
West Africa, developed a surgical procedure to alleviate health problems associated
with these practices. He later refined his procedure and started using it to also restore
clitoral anatomy and function. This surgery, which is presented as two distinct
procedures in Burkina Faso, is now performed by some indigenous doctors in
Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso.
In this ethnographic study, I explore the reasons motivating some Burkinabe women to
seek genital reconstructive surgery, the impact this surgery has on them and societal
attitudes towards this surgery and these women. I discuss concepts of gender and
embodiment in relation to Burkinabe girls’ and women’s health and sexuality by
considering their understanding of what is normal, healthy, natural, complete, sexually
attractive and feminine. I also consider the manner in which the meanings of these
notions are changing depending on the prevailing discourse.
I argue that the salience of the discourse promoted by the Burkinabe government and
activists working to end female circumcision in the urban areas of Burkina Faso is
compounding the harm associated with this practice. It has led some circumcised
women to view themselves, and to be viewed by others, as unhealthy and sexually
defective, and to believe that they need genital reconstructive surgery. Yet, limited
information about this surgery, its cost and taboos associated with sex and sexuality
limit women’s access to the surgery. I further argue that that some Burkinabe women in
the Raëlian Movement are co-opting the discourse that paints circumcised women as
victims to create spaces where they can remodel typical Burkinabe values, but also
exercise those which are particular to their religion. They have thus embraced genital
reconstructive surgery to reconstruct not just their bodies, but also their identity as
healthy and sensual women.