Twenty-two years since the major migration from Somalia to Norway began, this quantitative study investigates whether or not the attitudes toward FC among Somali immigrants have improved in favor of its abandonment. The findings reveal that 70% of the study population supported the discontinuation of all forms of FC, which is consistent with recent qualitative findings that showed that Somalis in Oslo are on the brink of abandoning all forms of FC . A sustained decline in the prevalence of FC has been reported to be the ultimate indicator of a change in behavior towards FC , and the fact that 90% of the girls who came to Norway at the age of ≤7 were not circumcised is therefore an indication of an abandonment of FC among Somali immigrants living in Oslo. A prior study in London indicated that Somali girls who came to the UK before or at about the usual age of circumcision were more likely not to be circumcised than those who did not . Additionally, the finding that 81% of the study participants had no intention to circumcise their daughters indicates that Somalis living in Oslo have a tendency towards abandoning the FC tradition, with previous studies in both the UK and Sweden also reporting a similar result [6, 36]. While there has been a large amount of research that has produced sufficient evidence to support the plausible abandonment of FC among Somali immigrants [2, 4, 6, 37], others argue that FC is a traditional norm deeply imbedded within the social culture of the Somali people, which could take generations to abandon . However, by reflecting the introduction of FC in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is evidence that the spread of the practice has taken place very quickly . If circumstances similar to this occur and help facilitate the rapid abandonment of FC in the context of migration, there are a number of reasons to believe that the practice can also be abandoned very quickly.
Firstly, infibulation was almost absent in the southern Sab clans in Somalia in the early 19th century, while it was at almost 95% in the northern Noble clans. The southern clans later adopted infibulation by emulating the Noble clans in order to gain status . In accordance with this, Mackie has mentioned that it took 20 years from the introduction of FC in Nyertete in Sudan until it reached a universal state . The Nyertete communities in Sudan, as well as the Sab clans in Somalia, both adopted the practice of FC quickly in order to ensure that their girls qualified for marriage by Noble clans and to ensure the economic security of their daughters. This indicates that the main motivational factor for the practice is that parents want what is best for their children, and once an alternative condition emerges within a given community and parents recognize that their daughters will be worse off with circumcision, they will also abandon the practice . A recent qualitative study in Oslo shows that being circumcised is no longer a status-related development among Somalis in Oslo due to the fact that uncircumcised young girls are much more likely to attract boyfriends, and have a higher chance to be married than their circumcised counterparts . If FC provided status in Somalia and was adopted in order to ensure the economic security of girls in Norway, where FC is no longer status-related, but instead a crime and stigmatizing, the Somali immigrant’s tendency to abandon the practice would not be unexpected.
Secondly, the type and frequency of FC in Somalia are predicted by region of residence and not by the birthplace of the parents . For example, people who moved from Northern Somalia, where infibulation was common, to Southern regions, where the milder forms of FC were predominant, adopted the practice common to their new residence. Hence, the abandonment of the practice by Somali immigrants who resided in the West, where FC is a crime, is not a surprising move. Furthermore, tribal facial scarring is a common practice in certain communities in Southern Sudan, where it represents beauty and status, but is a disgrace among educated and urbanized youths from practicing communities residing in the capital of Khartoum, where facial scarring is not practiced. In a similar manner, FC represents status in Somalia, but in regard to Somalis in Oslo, circumcised girls often conceal their circumcision status from boys because Westernized Somali boys often prefer uncircumcised girls for marriage or relationships over circumcised girls . Consequently, migration to the West is highly likely to be a dead-end for FC among the Somali community.
According to the modified stages of change theory, people abandon the practice when they find a motivation to do so and have the ability to act upon their decision, i.e. when their social context supports, promotes or at least accepts abandonment . This may apply to Somalis in Norway because the social pressure that perpetuated the practice in Somalia no longer exists in Norway, where being uncut is the norm, thus perpetuating a supportive environment for change. Furthermore, Shell-Duncan has argued that in certain situations people may sometimes abandon the practice even if they are personally in favor of its continuation, e.g. when other decision makers or social pressure force them to stop the practice, or where there is an enforced law that forbids the practice and there is a fear of prosecution for breaking this law . This could also be true in Oslo since the practice of FC is a high-profile crime, and every person is informed about it as soon as he/she arrives in the country. Based on external pressure, there are uncertainties surrounding the sustainability of such a change. However, the positive side of such pressure is that when uncut generations who are born or brought up in Norway become parents, they will most likely automatically reject the practice since they were not cut, and have never experienced the social pressures that sustain the practice; therefore, they will have no reason to cut their daughters’ genitals.
Although FC is an old cultural tradition that every Somali girl undergoes in one form or another, culture is not static, but instead a dynamic process that changes with the circumstances that surround it. Factors such as migration, social context and the level of education can amend a culture, and play a significant role in reshaping a community’s norms, behaviors and values . Once migration occurs, attitudes toward continuing female circumcision may change . For example, when Somali immigrants arrive in Norway, they experience different perceptions of parental practices, women’s status and role in society, and through intense awareness campaigns they understand more on the health and religious aspects of the practice, which may lead to a re-evaluation of initial perceptions concerning female circumcision . In accordance with this, a prior study reports that the longer that Somalis stay in exile, the higher the likelihood that they will abandon FC . The argument is that where FC is not a social norm and is not associated with social status by the majority culture, some of the social pressures influencing its continuation will “slowly but surely” disappear. A recent qualitative study in Oslo reports that having undergone FC no longer gives status in Norway, but instead disgrace , which strongly challenges the initial perceptions concerning the importance of female circumcision such as status, religious duty or being part of a good culture.
In this study, women were less likely to support the continuation of the practice compared to men, with a similar trend being found in Somalia, as well as with Somali immigrants in London . In addition, approximately 40% of men in Oslo preferred a circumcised woman as a wife. The reported gender difference in attitudes toward the practice could be related to the fact that the vast majority of male respondents in this study resided in Norway ≤4 years, while nearly 50% of female respondents resided in Norway ≥10 years. Thus, male respondents might not have benefitted fully from awareness campaigns compared to women. The other possible explanation is that FC is often considered a female issue in Somalia, though this tradition is not limited to only Somalia. Even in the West, the issue of FC is a female issue from the grassroots to the professional levels, and the organizations that deal with FC are primarily women’s organizations, with their grassroots audiences being other females. As a result, men are often deprived of information regarding the practice.
Fortunately, while many other immigrants from FC-practicing countries are very secretive and try to avoid talking about FC or expressing the reality of FC in their communities, many Somalis are outspoken and openly accept that FC was part of their culture, a harmful culture that they are committed to fighting against . Nevertheless, a prior study reveals that some Somali immigrants have expressed anger that their efforts to deal with FC have never been acknowledged, and that they have been highly stigmatized for having FC as part of their culture, which is the very culture they are trying to fight against . While the present study and others [2, 6, 36, 37] clearly show that FC abandonment among Somali immigrants is a matter of reality, the successful community programs that may have contributed to this change are rarely acknowledged. In general, people are more likely to promote a new behavior when they are rewarded for doing so. Instead of rewarding and promoting the community efforts that led to such a successful change, if more “culturally aggressive” measures are imposed on communities, i.e. the “genital checkup of girls,” community motivations toward the change may be impeded. We therefore recommend that more efforts should be dedicated toward understanding, acknowledging and promoting the grassroots efforts that have proven to be successful in changing people’s attitudes toward the practice.
The important limitation of our study is its cross-sectional design, thereby making it difficult to establish the causes. Moreover, all of the variables were self-reported, with a distinct possibility of both under- and/or over reporting. For instance, self-reported types of FC may not be a reliable source of information; however, a validation study comparing self-reported types of FC among Somali women and the reality obtained through clinical examinations is under way. The practice is illegal in Norway, which may affect some people’s decision to report their position towards the continuation of this illegal practice. Nonetheless, this was minimized by employing research assistants who were trusted and not associated with any authority by the study participants.