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Clash of Cultures: Mother Faces Jail For Daughters’ Circumcision

January 8, 1993

PARIS (AP) _ According to the ancient customs of her African ancestors, Teneng Jahate was merely a dutiful mother. But a French court, in a landmark judgment, sentenced her to jail Friday for arranging the circumcision of her two eldest daughters.

Mrs. Jahate, a Gambian living in France since 1983, was sentenced to one year in prison, plus a four-year suspended term, for hiring a midwife to circumcise the girls in 1987, when they were 1 and 2.

The procedure entails slicing off the clitoris and surrounding tissue, and is performed without anesthesia.

Critics call it genital mutilation and a way for men to curb a woman’s sexual pleasure. French law classifies it as a form of child abuse so severe it could draw a maximum life sentence.

The sentence was a milestone in France’s battle to stop the practice among its large African immigrant population.

Previously, one midwife who performed a circumcision was sent to jail, but never before had a parent received anything harsher than a suspended sentence.

Mrs. Jahate, 34, burst into tears when the sentence was announced, crying out: ″My children, my children 3/8 Who will take care of them?″

It was not immediately clear whether Mrs. Jahate would appeal. Prosecutors indicated she would be allowed several weeks with her family before starting her sentence.

Female circumcision remains widely practiced in a swath of African countries, including Somalia, Mali, Senegal, Sudan and the Ivory Coast.

The rationale for the ritual varies, but in general stems from a conviction that a circumcised woman appears more pure and thus more desirable to a prospective husband and that an uncircumcised woman may be shunned.

Testifying through an interpreter Thursday, Mrs. Jahate said: ″I didn’t know it was forbidden in France. I did it because I knew they would be circumcised when they returned to Gambia, so why not do it when they were little?″

The defense attorney, Gilles Flavigny, accused the prosecution of hypocritically trying to inflame jurors’ emotions, rather than acknowledging that Mrs. Jahate’s intentions were good.

″This has been done since the time of the Pharaohs,″ he said. ″It will take two or three or four generations to die out.″

The chief prosecutor, Jacques Mouton, contended that Mrs. Jahate was aware of the law and said, ″Custom must give way to public order.″ He expressed concern for three younger daughters who have not yet been circumcised.

″The Jahates have no intention of changing this practice,″ he said. ″The three youngest risk circumcision on their next vacation.″

The father, Jambala Jahate, testified he was not present during the circumcisions and had no advance knowledge of them. The midwife, paid $70 for the operation, was not found by investigators.

Like polygamy, female circumcision poses a dilemma for French authorities. Among the millions of immigrants from Africa are many whose customs violate French law.

Female circumcision, also known as excision, was addressed cautiously in a government report released recently by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

″Legally, the question of excision is already resolved - it goes to court in most cases,″ the report said. ″But practically, it’s uncertain whether it can be resolved. It’s a phenomenon even more complex than polygamy.″

The report said adherents ″believe circumcision is an affirmation of femininity and that an uncircumcised woman is an incomplete woman.″

″Actions against the practice, though they must remain energetic and determined, would benefit from greater discretion,″ the report asserted. It said excision trials promoted public ″voyeurism″ and could an ″image of barbarity that will inhibit a better understanding of African immigrants.″

The report said it was wrong to contend, as some critics do, that female circumcision stemmed partly from men’s desire to curb their wives’ ability to enjoy sex.

But the blame was placed squarely on men in ″Sisters of Affliction,″ a 1982 book by Raqiya Dualeh Abdalla, the first Somali woman to publish a comprehensive denunciation of circumcision.

″The various explanations and mystifications offered to justify the practice ... all emanate from men’s motive to control women economically and sexually and as personal objects,″ she wrote.

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