The politics of vaginal Labia Elongation: Pleasure or pain for African women?
The politics of Labia Elongation (LE): pleasure or pain for African women?
Yesterday I sat in a planning meeting with a fellow woman activist and a self-acclaimed ‘feminist’ male colleague discussing possible methodologies for a forthcoming pilot women’s circle that we intend to hold. I was representing one human rights organisation and my colleagues were representing another non-governmental organisation (NGO). (names are withheld for ethical reasons). Our two organisations intend to use the women’s circles as a continuous process for women’s rights movement building in Zimbabwe, depending on the success of this pilot one. Just Associates (JASS), another global NGO, has also successfully initiated feminist movement building using women’s well-being circles in Zimbabwe.
This was a rare occasion in the Zimbabwean setting, one where you could freely mention vaginas and penis without thinking twice in the presence of a male Zimbabwean of the opposite sex. In Zimbabwe, like in many spaces on the African continent, issues of sexuality remain taboo, with female sexuality being a highly policed and silenced purview. Within this milieu of silence, women are incessantly violated in relation to understanding their sexual identities, and this increases their susceptibility to HIV and AIDS infections among others.
As we loudly thought through the logistics, possible methodologies, topics and themes for the process, two or three ‘taboo’ words kept popping up, again and again. The vagina being the most politicised, stole the show. We talked about sexual pleasure, and ended up on the dark side, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). We extended our discussion into the politics of whether labia elongation is a type of FGM, and therefore a violation of women’s rights or not.
My female colleague openly expressed her discomforts with the practice of inner labia elongation, and based her arguments within the context of heterosexuality, and on the socially constructed notions of genital beauty through the lens of gendered violence. I will passionately refer to labia elongation as LE in this article. She argued that the process of LE is a form of symbolic violence against women in the name of culture, where women are made to de-sensitise their genitalia in the process of seeking to modify them for promoting male sexual pleasure, before they become old enough to understand sexual matters. This, in her argument, may account for the high prevalence of adolescence pregnancies and HIV/AIDS as young people are introduced to matters of sex before they reach the right age.
The World Health Organisation classified the elongation of the labia minora as a Type IV female genital mutilation in 2000, and later as female genital modification in 2008 . The United Nations classifies it under “harmful traditional practices” , and many anthropologists, the majority of whom are foreign to African practices and experiences, have also branded it a perpetuation of the violation of women and girls’ rights to healthy sexual pleasure . They argue that the use of botanicals to enhance the stretching exercise may have negative side effects on the women’s genitalia.
My male colleague acknowledged that he has heard lots of arguments and politicisation of the practice of LE, but chose not to pass any judgements given that he does not have a vagina and has never experienced the process of elongating. From the stories he has heard however, women from his community have used their elongated labia to enhance sexual pleasure for both themselves and their partners.
I belong to the wave of African women who regard this practice as a positive force in our lives, and I did not mince my words during the discussion. Together with these feminists, and in line with feminist epistemology, I consider the negative branding of LE as yet another misunderstanding of the cultures and ways of the African people by foreign scholars, based on the politics of patronage and compounded by biases. Like Sylvia Tamale , I argue that categorising LE as FGM is not in touch with the realities of the women with elongated labia who, thanks to the practice, are able to experience immense sexual pleasure.
I come from a community where no force or pressure is exerted on individuals to partake in LE. The elderly women in my community do realise that culture is dynamic, and do acknowledge with regret that in traditional society the practice was a rites of passage, and would be practiced to young girls before menstruation for specific reasons held common by community leaders. With the changing times however, mothers and aunts are careful enough to introduce the topic to girls in their post menarche phase, when they are mature enough to make choices about the practice, based on their personal beliefs and sexual identities.
The botanicals applied to ease the elongation by softening and lubricating the labia to rid it of lacerations and pain have been another source of critique by those who oppose LE, on the basis that they could have negative side effects on women’s health. These herbs however cannot be dismissed simply on the basis that they were discovered by traditional Africans and did not pass through an overseas laboratory to be tested and packaged like modern anaesthetics. Moreover, modern day homoeopathic research has proved that the botanicals have wide medicinal use also revealed that they contain demonstrated beneficial bioactive compounds. The ‘women’s schooling circles’ in my community are also clear on the fact that the elongation is meant to increase not only male but female pleasure as well.
A firm believer and disciple of LE, I continue to personally cherish my sexual experiences with my entire being, and did not experience any pain worth writing about during the process of elongation. I also haven’t heard of any woman who has suffered dire health consequences from the practice, and this being said, I have no reasons to imagine that sex would have been better without the elongated labia. The pleasure I derive from merely imagining how the labia have made my genitalia look more attractive keeps me linked to and reminded of the wit of my long gone great grandmothers. My married peers I have discussed this issue with also collude that their elongated labia make their genitalia more attractive and supposedly more effective in pleasuring their sexual partners. Whilst FGM has a capitalistic mode to it, and is designed to fatten the pockets of the traditional patrons who hide behind the FGM midwives, and are the real drivers of the insane practice, where I come from LE is completely free from the financial gain aspect.
The two contrasting images of LE presented and represented by my colleague’s point of view and my own above; two women activists from the same tribe, same country but different ethnic origins may add more questions to the same old million dollar puzzle; “What therefore is LE? Is it vaginal mutilation or vaginal modification? “ The controversy may also spark further criticisms and judgements of “traditional beliefs that confuse their own people.” In my view however, this should be a pointer to the fact that women are heterogeneous, and complex; and studies about the “other women’s lives” should be approached with enough caution and reflexivity. Feminism is not uniform; there is Western and African feminism. In African there is no single feminism, given that we have 53 African countries on the continent, thus 53 African feminisms. This being said, feminist and gender analysis should not only use sex as the sole category of analysis, but should also be careful to note the intersections of race, class, religion, and ethnicity.
Before we closed our meeting, it was quite obvious to my two colleagues and I that the sexualities topic was going to be one of the issues the women’s circle would tackle among others like politically motivated violence, gender-based violence, civil registration rights, sexual orientations to mention but a few. Onward, and step by step - the dots will finally connect!