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Cradle of humanity reaches to the West

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Africa is essentially a collection of 10,000 tribes forced by colonial masters to form 50 nations. How these ancient cultures from the cradle of humanity interact with modernity will be one of more interesting stories of the coming century.

African migration is just beginning to have an impact on Western societies such as Australia. Most Africans who arrive here are Muslims.

There was a short but emotional outcry last month over the possibility of the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists reviewing the practice of ritualised clitoral nicks. It was ultimately related to a rising East African presence in Western countries.


Clitoral nicks serve a harm-minimisation function to stop genital mutilation. The practice is being reviewed by gynaecological groups in the United States and Europe in response to African migration.

The Australian college was asked by the Herald Sun whether it might consider a similar review. Despite our gynaecologists saying no, the issue was too juicy not to turn into a story.

Anecdotally, I have never heard of botched female genital mutilations appearing in emergency departments here. A spokesman for the college said it had not been informed of any cases. This may be related to African migration in Australia being of a more skilled and middle-class variety, although the refugee population often gets the most attention.

The sudden prominence of the genital mutilation issue coincides with the release of Nomad, the latest book by the Somali-Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali, herself a victim of clitorectomy, asserts without evidence that the practice occurs commonly throughout all Muslim communities. An old World Health Organisation report from 1997 quotes a figure of 130 million cases worldwide, but primarily in East Africa.

In this respect, the practice is a cultural one. However, the African cultures in which it does occur are largely Islamic, although religious practice is often interwoven with local animistic beliefs. Male elders are able to harness Islam's deep fear of female sexuality, the driver for many of its views on social organisation, to argue that the ritual is consistent with strict Islamic law.

The tribal history of Africa correlates closely with Islam's origins. The hijab is a case in point when trying to discern whether practices are cultural or religious in nature.


The hijab's original purpose was to regulate male sexual desire. Some anthropologists, led by an American Middle East expert, Philip Carl Salzman, have theorised that warring tribal groups in Muhammad's time lived and died by the number of men they were able to mobilise in a fight, known as ''balanced opposition''.

This imperative meant developing tactics to outnumber enemies, which included marrying one's daughters to cousins or practising polygamy as a way for the tribe to benefit from increased fertility.

The scrutiny of other families' females was common, done in the hope of catching them in an immoral act to compel their men to kill them and forfeit their fertility, known now as honour killings. The axis of shame and honour was paramount.

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First published by the Sydney Morning Herald on June 28, 2010.

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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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