FGM, Women Driving, And The Stockholm Syndrome Of Oppressive Societies

By Reem Gaafar

A few weeks ago, a German television show host conducted a few interviews on the Sudanese street asking what the youth thought of FGM. One particular young lady, well dressed and sitting in the driving seat of a car, told him that yes, she was circumcised, and that she planned on circumcising her own daughters if/when she has them. She ended the interview stating that Sudanese women had enough rights already, and that was enough. The interview caused uproar on social media in the usual manner: the majority condemning her comments and attitude, a considerable amount defending her opinion/free speech, and the usual onslaught of sarcastic jokes, memes and comments. I’m not sure what the girl thinks of all this now, but what I am sure of is that for all the criticism she has faced, she has just enough social support to keep her on her feet.

And this is my problem.

Surfing through the comments on different social media platforms (and trying not to vomit), I found that those supporting her either:

  • Believed she represents a significant and important proportion of the community that supports this practice and therefore there was nothing wrong with her voicing this opinion.
  • Defended her stance on FGM with the usual justification that it was a religious practice that should be upheld.
  • Were happy with the way she ‘confidently’ handled the interview and the annoying TV host (who also came under fire because of his ‘unprofessional’ way of handling the interview and for daring to ask such a shameful question).
  • Were on her side regardless of what they agreed with or didn’t, because she was a fellow Sudanese/woman and it is our job to defend our comrades against the ‘others’ (others here almost always referring to ‘those Arabs’, or non-Sudanese attackers).
  • Thought she was very pretty and had a dashing smile (yes, a lot of people voiced this opinion).

It is not so much the fact that people actually agree with what she is saying (because let’s face it, FGM is still a huge issue in Sudan), but the fact that she and others like her insist that they will continue this practice because it is part of Sudanese tradition. It doesn’t matter how harmful it is, how disgusting: it is tradition, and it’s not going anywhere. A tradition that is to be defended by the people that have suffered from it the most. It is a fact that those upholding FGM in the society and insist on its continuity are women: grandmothers and mothers, and now apparently even daughters. This is one of the many reasons why efforts to combat and eradicate FGM have reached so little relative success, but that’s a story for another day.

This incident reminded me of another not so different incident, which was also the cause of mockery and dismay. Recently, Saudi women were finally granted the right to be issued driving licenses, after decades of lobbying by women’s rights groups and activists. The world applauded the decision and everyone rushed to congratulate the Saudis as they prepared for a new era. And then, the other side showed up. For years, the ban on women’s driving in KSA was backed by religious justification that driving was haram, bad for women, would prevent them from having children, and all sorts of nonsense. But when the royal family decided they would allow driving, the clerics immediately backed down. However, some Saudi women posted on social media that no, they wouldn’t be driving, because ‘driving was for sluts’. They believed the religious justification and would continue to comply with it, with several Twitter campaigns by Saudi women blasting the Saudi government for such a blasphemous decision, refusing it and asking instead for jobs, salaries for housewives and an end to corruption.

This, in my opinion, is some form of combination brainwashing-Stockholm syndrome, where people who have been held hostage for a period of time eventually bond with their captors and turn to their side. This kind of behavior is well documented in abused children, battered women, prisoners of war, cult members and other individuals who have been exposed to choking abuse from other people/groups. Living in a society that informs you day in and day out that FGM is good, right, and/or necessary despite the physical and emotional damage it inflicts on you and all the evidence that points to the opposite, eventually convinces you. Growing up being told that driving is just as bad as drinking and adultery will of course make you believe it is. And when the door opens to let you out of this situation, you not only prefer to stay, but defend your position and those who have put you in it.

Our problem is not the controlling patriarchal society anymore. It is not the old generations who put many harmful practices in place and suppressed rights and progress. That used to be our problem, but now we have a bigger one: we are faced with a brainwashed generation that is obstinately regressing, and not only refuses to go forward, but fights it as well. This is the generation of future mothers, educators and policy makers. Mothers who plan on circumcising their daughters, educators who plan on telling our children that what little rights they already have are enough and that they don’t need any more, and policy makers who will fight the system and push it back into the stone ages.

The pioneers of the Sudanese Women’s Movement did not bust their backs and face punishment and exile for this shit. Neither did the countless women who fought and continue to fight in their homes and communities for our right to be where we are today and tomorrow, for the right to education, equal pay, political involvement, fairness in marriage and a whole lot of other things which the privileged young women of today not only take for granted, but spit out and refuse because they believe in ‘tradition’. It is a severe insult to our past and present, and a worrying and irritating obstacle in the way towards social and political reform which our country and community so desperately needs. It also exposes the hypocrisy and blindness of a society that praises and mourns the sacrifices of women like Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim and all she fought for, then turns around and steps on what she believed in.

At this point, emancipation and reform for our country seems very, very far away indeed.


Tayo Sogbanmu / 20 October 2017

This was a great read. You are right indeed. There is no such thing as women’s rights being enough because there are women literally dying for the freedom to choose. It can not be an option because it isn’t an option. It is a necessity. It is the need to live.

Elyaza Digna / 20 October 2017

I love and agree with what u said or have highlight. Some women find it easy for others to think for them and they just follow….they kept following till they believed.

Good one to read

Ayandola Ayanleke / 21 October 2017

Like you said, it is Stockholm tendency for a woman to prefer bondage to freedom. It is sad indeed that we can be so brainwashed, just like the woman that would claim her husband hitting her is simply correcting her.

Ola Diab / 21 October 2017

Very-well written, Reem. Very valid points. But I think the most alarming thing she said, which a lot of people paid attention to, is when the host asked her, “Why should women be circumcised?” She said, “Well, it’s customs and traditions.” Many were surprised that what seemed like an educated woman believed this is a valid reason to circumcise young girls. She seemed ignorant, which angered many, being that her ignorance is dangerous, believing that because of “customs and traditions”, she will circumcise her daughters. Here is the concern.

Reema / 25 October 2017

I believe that the girl featured on that interview was being defensive, she just didn’t want to discuss our messed up legacy with a Lebanese dude ( considering their racism towards Africans and brown people). But I’ve talked with some girls who are in their early 20’s and they believe that we need to practice fgm and we must pass it on to the next generations claiming that fgm maintains the girls’ purity and curb their sexual desires. At that point I knew we are losing the battle because some clerics, ignorant men and old women made the girls believe that they are some sort of brainless creatures with slutty intentions who need to be controlled by cutting them and stitching their holes so they can preserve their families’ honor and reputation.

Continue? / 15 March 2019

I simply desired to thank you so much once again. I’m not
certain the things that I would have worked on in the absence of these secrets documented by you on that
theme. This has been a real horrifying issue
in my position, but noticing the well-written approach you
managed it made me to weep over joy. I am just happier
for this service and have high hopes you are aware of a powerful job that you are getting into
educating men and women through your webpage. I am sure
you’ve never got to know all of us.

Sundus Elarabi / 18 September 2019

Very well written article my dear Reem. I’m a Sudanese gender specialist, My PhD was mainly on VAW. I always keep watching and observing young Sudanese girls opinions on such customs. although most of this generation have an access to education and they are highly aware that FGM is a common type of violence against girls and women that practiced on them because of their gender. But at the other hand FGM may provide a solution for some of those girls who practicing sexual relation. Some of these well educated girls unfortunately miss used the trust and freedom their families gave to them and miss concept the words of independent women and liberal lady to be engaged in illegal relations with their boyfriends. Circumcision gave her the chance to fix what have been damaged. I realized that this the way that some girls think regardless of their level of education or social status. on the other side, the majority of young men do not like to marry a circumcised lady and some of them do not even like to marry those well educated ladies because they don’t trusted their behavior.
We still need a community mobilization to work on women’s self-esteem in Sudan especially among the educated independent young ladies who are confused of their believes and their interest.


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