The sound of silence: the 1929-30 Gikuyu ‘female circumcision controversy’ and the discursive suppression of African women’s voices
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In 1929-30, British missionaries active in central Kenya sought the help of the British colonial government in banning and eventually eradicating the Gikuyu tradition of female circumcision. This was met by an uproar amongst the Gikuyu population, many of whom protested in the form of the Muthirigu dance song, giving rise to what is known as the ‘female circumcision controversy.’ Contemporary sources demonstrate the numerous contributions to the debate on the issue, including from missionary societies, colonial officials, British women, and Kenyan men, who all incorporated the controversy into their various agendas, be it concern for women’s health on the missionary’s part; anxiety of colonial officials over the impact of circumcision on Kenya’s long-term population growth; worry for their ‘sisters’ by British women Members of Parliament; or concern about Western infringement on Gikuyu traditions on the part of Kenyan men. What is most noticeable is the absence of Kenyan women’s voices in the sources on the matter, in spite of the fact that this was an issue about their own bodies. This article examines the different ways in which Kenyan women’s voices were silenced on the issue, and attempt to retrieve their voices from the sources available. In doing so, the article seeks to demonstrate the general tendency to silence African women in history and in historical epistemology.
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