The meaning-making process of the girls in connection with FGC was carefully monitored and supervised by their mothers, older sisters, grandmothers, and other women. The educational goal was that the girl should become a clean and honorable woman. This is achieved when the girl has performed the ritual, has understood and accepted its importance, and finally passes it on to the next generation. In order to reach this educational goal, girls are provided with formal and informal instruction structured in what we have identified as five phases of learning. The girls’ meaning-making process is stimulated by their introduction to a set of metaphors for constructing their first meaningful narratives.
When our informants spoke of the ritual and the meaning behind it, their descriptions were rich in metaphors. Lakoff and Johnson17
argue that metaphor is a natural phenomenon, and a natural part of our thought and language. Metaphors are not only about words and how we talk; they are also about conceptualization and reasoning. Which metaphors we choose and what they mean will depend on the nature of our bodies, our interactions with the physical environment, and our social and cultural practices.17
Theories and research behind metaphors explore how, often unconsciously, they become building blocks in the understanding of aspects and dimensions of our experience. This is typically the case with human emotions, abstract concepts, mental activity, social practices, and so on. Even though most of these can be experienced directly, none of them can be fully comprehended on their own terms. Instead, we must understand them in terms of other kinds of entities and experiences, ie, understanding via metaphor.17
The cognitive importance of metaphor in instructional settings is acknowledged; it is argued that metaphor can play a central role in the pedagogical process of making what is learned more explicit.18
Good metaphors suggest new connections by picking out an illustrative and familiar example from a certain category. If this is grouped with another example from another category not related to the metaphor category, a relevant similarity is created.
“Being like your mother” is a prototypical example of the new class of category that is linked with the unfamiliar category of FGC. The girl’s cognitive structures or schemas are expanded, whereby links are made between the new concept and previous experiences are grouped into familiar categories. Being like your mother and grandmother is desirable, it is a part of growing up, and for a little girl both her mother and grandmother are familiar, clearly defined concepts. The child also finds the same clarity in the concept of being “clean” versus being “unclean”. The key to understanding the meaning of the new category of FGC and the comprehending metaphors is that both processes are bound up with activities. It is not simply a matter of hearing and understanding words, it is about acting in one’s surroundings. The learner classifies and is corrected; she sorts, perceives similarities and differences, and reclassifies. The same activities are done with the metaphors, ie, classifying, building new links, and testing hypotheses suggested by the new class-inclusion relationship.18
Because they are not allowed to handle food in the kitchen or serve tea, the Somali girls are told and shown that they are not “clean” and that they are not living up to the two metaphors of “being like your mother” and “being clean”.
Several of the infibulated Somali informants referred to the outcome of their circumcision as “being smooth”. In their childhood, they had become familiar with the concept of “being smooth” and linked this to esthetics. Explanations of the smooth esthetic were often followed with a quick hand gesture indicating that you could stroke a closed and smooth genitalia that was free from any external visible parts. Somali women often consider the infibulated genitalia as beautiful and sexy.19
has pointed out that being smooth is not only popular but fashionable, and that unmodified genitals are seen as ugly, unrefined, uncivilized, and even not fully human.
Bruner argues for the narrative as an instrument for meaning-making because, in understanding cultural phenomena, people do not deal with the world event by event but rather frame events in larger structures.22
Creating narratives is a cognitive process that serves understanding by organizing events and happenings into frames of meaning.23
Within narrative psychology, narrative structuring and plots are essential to the meaning-making process. “Narrative structuring operates by configuring actions and events into a temporal whole. As concepts serve to give meaning to particular objects and actions by giving them a categorical identity, plots serve to give meaning to particular happenings and actions by identifying them as contributors to the outcome of an episode.”23
Many of the daily life experiences of a child occur within an accustomed setting with familiar people, and do not entail the need for extended meaning-making. Through participation in daily activities, the child develops cognitive schemas or scripts that act as a framework for sequences of familiar situations.24
The script serves as an adequate means for understanding events that conform to the expected, but when the unexpected occurs, the meaning becomes unclear. One of the chief functions of a narrative is to help the child deal with situations and experiences that are contrary to the expected. The narrative process is triggered by the unexpected; it reviews the unusual event in order to make sense of it.23
The two newly circumcised girls who climbed a tree reached a turning point in their understanding, which contributed a new understanding and meaning to the larger narrative about FGC. After falling from the tree, the girl was puzzled when her stitches were inspected by her aunt: “I didn’t know it was that important.” The plot in this episode constitutes a turning point in her understanding of the importance of FGC, clarifying the importance of and defining a conclusion on the need to be careful. In this and in similar reported episodes, the plots are about obscurity and not understanding. This is what structures the narrative. Lack of knowledge is the motive for constructing the narratives from all the episodes that are defined by the plot as having something to do with the child’s puzzlement and attempts to understand FGC. Our informants mentioned a range of similar episodes, ie, not being allowed to participate in food preparation or serving tea, being teased about being uncut, the positive and overwhelming ceremonies after the ritual, and praise for having been “such a strong girl” during the cutting. The plots in such episodes define new meaningful components that bring clarity to the girls’ ongoing composition of their FGC narrative. Commonly mentioned metaphors are open-closed, clean-unclean, child-grownup, esthetic-ugly, and included-excluded.
If a metaphor continues to make sense after being tested both in real life and cognitively by creation of a relevant similarity between two categories, then it passes into literal truth, whereas the metaphor itself becomes “dead”.18
For our informants, the metaphors gradually made sense and became literal truth, and then ceased to exist as metaphors. Having served their purpose, they became “dead metaphors” and turned into explanations in themselves. In this context, we may note how the metaphors highlight the cultural ideas of being clean and honorable, while hiding matters such as medical issues and other possible rationales behind the ritual.
As argued above, the plots and specific meanings from different episodes are created in context, in play, and in social conduct. The FGC narrative is constantly readjusted and shaped. Through this process of narrative structuring, the girls achieve “an interpretation of life in which past events and happenings are understood as meaningful from a current perspective of their emplotted contribution to an outcome”.23
However, the girls’ learning process was actively stopped, in part as a result of the strong cultural regulation of communication about FGC. The strict limitations on how one can talk about FGC act to restrict the natural exploration and critical discussion that could have developed further and shaped the FGC narrative. Our informants’ childhood and adolescent explanations and understanding of FGC must be characterized as limited, based on their use of metaphors and circular and tautological explanations like “that’s the way it is”, “it is necessary”, “that’s how we do it”, and “we have always done it”. The mothers’ and grandmothers’ explanation that “we do it out of love” indicates that they love the girls, and if the girls oppose the ritual, they are automatically rejecting their love. This is also another example linking honor and morality to the concept of cutting, which characterize the knowledge as morally embraced.
argues that it is difficult to provide religious instruction without the use of metaphors because of lack of empirical data. We could argue that there are similarities between a child’s first religious instruction and teaching about FGC. The abstract subjects of God and death and about FGC are made understandable through metaphors which both highlight and conceal certain aspects of the phenomena explained.
With FGC, the learning process is deemed a success when the educational goal has been achieved, ie, the circumcision ritual is accepted as a necessity, the girl is proud of it, and later on it is passed on to her own daughters. The educational goal has become established in thought, in language, and in conduct, and yet this learning process has been halted at the level of tautological explanations, not least because of the strict communication rules that effectively regulate open discussion. The communication convention defines the rules for talking about FGC, ie, what can be said, in what ways, at what time, and by whom. The tautological explanations based on half-understood ideas convey just enough knowledge for girls to be able to accept the ritual and carry on the tradition without questioning it, at least not openly.
In contrast, if there were a deliberate educational goal that involved the learners engaging in explorative discussions and internalizing knowledge into a reflexive mode of thinking, the educational process would have to be brought to the next level of learning. That would require introducing a metalanguage of FGC for formulating words and characteristics beyond the realm of the limiting metaphors. It is this level of education that needs to be fostered in settings where open and explorative discussion can be encouraged, and where the child or adolescent is motivated to ask questions and participate actively. The lack of these characteristics makes the knowledge embodied, and it is not being abstracted and cognitive accessible in a critical reflexive mode of thinking.
Tostan’s community-based educational program provides a good example of the educational components of promising programs and approaches in terms of ending FGC. This program aims to empower women through a broad range of educational and health-promoting activities to define and pursue their own goals better. One of the key components is the creation of a forum in which women can safely engage in free and equal discussion about their challenges and problems, and in which the subject of FGC is freely debated and a trustworthy alternative to FGC is introduced. The strategy is to launch a process of basic education and discussion that spreads to public discussion and public declaration against the practice in order to achieve a collective shift in convention.13