The Church and the 1929 Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) contestation in Kenya, with special reference to the Scottish Presbyterian Church and the Kikuyu community
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Initiation rites are the lifeblood of most African communities. In East Africa, these rites are part of traditional beliefs and customs, and may include physical mutilation,. In Kenya, particularly, the initiation rite was seen as a graduation ceremony and a means of enculturation, giving a sense of identity. The arrival of European missionaries in the early 20th century set the stage for contestation between Christianity, as understood by the European missionaries, and the African leaders over the rite of initiation. Female genital mutilation was at the core of this contestation. Missionaries perceived the practice as not only brutal and oppressive but also medically and hygienically undesirable. They considered it foreign to both their culture and to Christianity. It was barbaric and primitive, by their standards. They felt it was deserving of church discipline. In 1929, this rite was vigorously attacked by a number of influential European agencies, missionaries, pro-African bodies and government educational and medical authorities. An injunction was put out by the missionary churches preventing circumcised girls and their parents from attending church and school. The African leaders and cultural systems hit back strongly, especially against the church. In 1930, a strong challenge against the missionary position was launched by the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) in Nyeri. The result was the opening of independent schools and churches. These independent churches tolerated FGM and many other African cultural practices. Whereas the African Independent Churches (AICs) demanded religious freedom from what they perceived as cultural imperialism, however, they in turn denied freedom to children and women who had for years been suppressed by patriarchal ideals. This article outlines the 1929 contestation in Kenya with regard to female genital mutilation, with special reference to the Scottish Presbyterian Church and the Kikuyu community. It endeavours to demonstrate that the point at issue between the Missionary Church and the African Independent Churches was religious freedom in the form of a customary rite. The article uses written sources to reconstruct the history of the 1929 FGM contestation in Kenya and attempts to assess its implications for the church and society in general. It argues that in this contestation, FGM was used only to score political and religious points and was not addressed per se.