A Puppet on a String: The Manipulation and Nationalization of the Female Body in the "Female Circumcision Crisis" of Colonial Kenya

By Boulanger, Sara | Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

A Puppet on a String: The Manipulation and Nationalization of the Female Body in the "Female Circumcision Crisis" of Colonial Kenya


Boulanger, Sara, Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies


The 1920s were years of growing resistance to colonial rule in Kenya. Kenyans were reacting to the oppressive nature of British rule, and especially to the confining boundaries that British officials had drawn for them in the political, economic, and social spheres. At the forefront of this oppression were missionaries who used Christianity in an attempt to mold Kenyans into the kinds of societies that fit into the "civilizing mission" of colonialism. The missionaries' outlook mixed turn-of-the-century ideas of white supremacy with ideas from the Victorian era, which placed women in subservient roles, stripping them of authority and status. The burgeoning power of colonial rulers and the heightened status of missionaries were bringing about a total restructuring of society's gendered norms. Resistance groups began forming in reaction, the earliest and strongest of which were among the Kikuyu speakers.

In the 1920s, Christianity created divisions among the Kikuyu by polarizing several issues. This study will focus on one of those issues: the circumcision of girls and young women. Prior to colonial rule, female circumcision was an important rite of passage that nearly all members of Kikuyu society accepted.xxxvii The most prominent resistance group, the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), used its acceptance of female circumcision to gain support for the retention of all aspects of Kikuyu culture, particularly ideas about land tenure. In opposition was the Kikuyu Progressive Party (KPP), which took up the outsiders' banner and advocated for complete abolition of the excision practice. In addition to dividing political loyalties, the "female circumcision controversy" split families and destroyed friendships. It also affected their individual identities and the way Kenyans perceived each other.

The advocates for change in Kikuyu society in the 1920s and the major instigators of the controversy over female circumcision were missionary schools and their students. The Church of Scotland Missions (CSM), the African Inland Mission (AIM), the Church Missionary Society (CMS), and the Gospel Missionary Society (GMS) were the leading Protestant missions teaching against this central event in a Kenyan woman's rite of passage. Dr. John Arthur, head of the CSM at the time, was perhaps the most outspoken opponent of female circumcision through the 1920s and 1930s. He saw to it that his teachers instructed against female circumcision, which missionaries almost unanimously labeled "barbarous." As such, the teaching against circumcision became one of the most controversial issues of an increasing conflict over cultural norms.xxxviii Eventually, the circumcision of a young woman would hamper her chance to enroll in particular schools. This resulted in many Kenyan women seeking out schools run by different religious groups, or, more importantly, supporting newly forming independent churches and schools in which missionaries and government officials had no role.

This struggle placed Kikuyu women at a crossroads regarding their identity and place in society. By participating or not participating in the practice of female circumcision, attending a certain school, or merely desiring to attend school, many young women were severing ties with their families and clans, and through these with Kikuyu culture. Often, when these ties to family and culture were lost, young women turned to Christian religions and related practices to fill the void. As I will show, "choosing" whether or not to be circumcised could not be an act of self-determination given the historical context of these times. Instead, the Kenyan woman faced double-binds in that no matter what she did, she alienated herself from one side or the other. This dilemma marked her oppressed status and represented the nationalization of the female body.

In all appearances, missionaries, the colonial government, and newly forming political parties were taking what they perceived as just positions in the controversy. …

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