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Female circumcision: a rite of passage into womanhood?

Updated: Mar 1

Salimata Badji Knight interviewed by David Warden

Salimata Badji Knight and David Warden are part of the Bournemouth-based Many Faiths Team which visits local schools to model good dialogue between Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Humanism.

I met up with Salimata Badji Knight (known to me as ‘Sali’) for coffee in Westbourne on a blisteringly hot day in June. I was amazed by her story. Sali speaks perfect English with a strong French accent. She grew up near the Place de la Concorde – one of the major public squares in Paris. As a teenage girl she recalls asking her friends, “So when did you become a woman?” They seemed puzzled, so she was more specific: “At what age were you cut?” In the ensuing conversation she was shocked to discover that she was different from her peers. Sali’s family come from Senegal in West Africa but they can trace their ancestry back to Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great, who is often regarded as the greatest pharaoh of Ancient Egypt (13th century BCE). His successors and later Egyptians called him the “Great Ancestor”. One of the main ways in which you were marked out as a descendant of the great pharaoh was through the rite of circumcision. Essentially, it was (and for many, still is) an initiation into the community of your ancestors and it marks your passage from childhood to womanhood.

“The practice of circumcision predates Islam by millennia.” 

When Sali was just 4½ years old, she was taken “on holiday” back to the village of her family in Senegal. Soon after arrival, she was told that she was going “on a picnic”. She remembers that at a certain point she was held down by a group of women and she started hitting and biting them to stop the painful cutting. She even remembers the clothes they were wearing.

Sali told me that she had always had a strong sense of “mefrom a very young age. When she discovered that her school friends had not undergone circumcision she felt angry that something had been done to her without her consent. When she confronted her mother, her mother burst into tears and said she had had no power in the matter.  “It was your grandmother who wanted to do it. She thought it would make it easier for you to get a husband.” By this time, her grandmother had died.

Sali started to read up on the subject and she learnt a lot from Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese historian and anthropologist of pre-colonial African culture. She discovered that the practice had been handed down through the matriarchal line for thousands of years. It was an integral part of traditional African religion and it conferred their identity as Pharaonic people as distinct from Bantu people. Although her mother is Muslim, the practice of circumcision predates Islam by millennia. 

Her father apologised to her and the practice has now ended in her family. Sali is very proud to say “This is my legacy – I am a ripple in the river." In 1996, they succeeded in saving 50 girls from having the procedure carried out in their village in Senegal. Also since 1996, the practice has been illegal in Senegal and has almost been stopped. She has trained many men to understand, and they have been very helpful.

Sali loves children and would like to have had her own. But a vaccination programme, in addition to the FGM procedure, has left her and many other women unable to have children. [Please see note below on vaccination and fertility.]

Sali is now a practising Buddhist, and her meditation and chanting have helped her to let go of any anger and to direct her energy into campaigning.

60,000 girls are at risk in the UK every year, and 200 million women worldwide are believed to have undergone the procedure. Sali has been interviewed by the BBC and by Sky News but she prefers to work in the background rather than become a celebrity campaigner. She does not want to be seen as a victim or put Africa in a bad light. She has worked with the NSPCC to help set up a 24-hour FGM ChildLine. Children recognise the letters “NSPCC” and they can text privately if they are worried.

When Sali goes back to Senegal her relatives describe her as white’.

Towards the end of our conversation Sali told me that “We are Nubian people which means ‘sunkissed’. Our skin is very dark because people with lighter skin would not have survived in the African climate.” Nubian people are descended from the early inhabitants of the central Nile valley, believed to be one of the earliest cradles of civilisation. When Sali goes back to Senegal, however, her relatives describe her as “white” because she has grown up in Europe. This seemed like a great starting point for a future conversation.

Note on vaccination and fertility

Based on current evidence and scientific consensus, vaccination programmes are not known to adversely affect fertility. There is no biological mechanism proposed by which vaccines are known to directly affect the reproductive system in a way that would reduce fertility.

Read more about Sali’s story here:

This interview first appeared in Humanistically Speaking in July 2021 when the magazine was produced in PDF format.

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Eric Hayman
Eric Hayman
Mar 01

Before getting on to what is euphemistically called “female circumcision”, “male circumcision”.


Male circumcision has a long history related to ‘coming of age’– puberty, and becoming a man – and practised for millennia in many parts of the world.  When I lived in Lesotho in the early 1970s, I saw boys in their early teens dressed in the traditional blankets or even cow hides, and little else being led to what were called ‘circumcision schools’ – primitive huts away from other habitation, where they would spend a week or more.


Apart from being a ‘rite of passage’, the basic way the cutting was done meant bravery/stoicism on the part of the circumcisees.  In days past, this was supposed…

Replying to

Thanks Eric for this very informative comment.

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