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Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya / Edition 1

Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya / Edition 1

by Lynn ThomasLynn Thomas
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In more than a metaphorical sense, the womb has proven to be an important site of political struggle in and about Africa. By examining the political significance—and complex ramifications—of reproductive controversies in twentieth-century Kenya, this book explores why and how control of female initiation, abortion, childbirth, and premarital pregnancy have been crucial to the exercise of colonial and postcolonial power. This innovative book enriches the study of gender, reproduction, sexuality, and African history by revealing how reproductive controversies challenged long-standing social hierarchies and contributed to the construction of new ones that continue to influence the fraught politics of abortion, birth control, female genital cutting, and HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520235403
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/20/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 316
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)
Lexile: 1670L (what's this?)

About the Author

Lynn M. Thomas is Assistant Professor of History and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Women Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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Politics of the Womb

Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya

By Lynn M. Thomas


Copyright © 2003 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93664-5


Imperial Populations and "Women's Affairs"

In his annual report for 1939, H. E. Lambert, the district commissioner of Meru, included an account of how the local population had reacted to the outbreak of World War II. According to Lambert, people generally had expressed a "calm interest" in the war, with many seeking out the latest news; headmen and elders had declared their loyalty to the British empire and readiness to assist in any way possible. Not all young men, however, were eager to join the cause. Lambert told the story of a group of young men who sought to avoid military service. He wrote that some of the "girls" had teased the group about the "indignity of head-porterage," prompting them to flee and hide in the forest for "fear of compulsory recruitment as carriers." It was the possibility of men carrying heavy loads on their heads—a form of labor usually reserved for women—that animated the girls' "jibes" and the young men's flight to the forest. Lambert described with bemused approval how the local headmen and tribal police brought the situation under control: "The native authorities soon stopped the nonsense by initiating the young ladies, and the young gallants crept cautiously back."

By presenting local authorities' punitive initiation of a group of girls with such candor and amusement, Lambert's anecdote reveals something of the peculiarities of colonial policy towards female initiation and excision in Meru. Rather than working toward the gradual elimination of excision, as was the colonial government's stated policy at the time, officials in Meru sought to enforce female initiation at an earlier age. As we shall see, the roots of this enforcement policy lay in a colonial desire, dating back to the 1920s, to combat abortion and encourage population growth. Lambert's story suggests how, by the late 1930s, the enforcement of female initiation also served to demonstrate the power of the colonial state at the local level. A pro-natalist initiative had become a tool for quelling young women's taunts, restoring masculine self-esteem, and convincing cowering young men that it was best to serve the British empire.

This chapter examines how and why the enforcement of female initiation became such a crucial component of colonial governance in 1920s and 1930s Meru. During this period, blacks in central Kenya instilled female initiation with the power to create adult women, ensure fertility, discipline female sexuality, and reproduce labor. By intervening in this process, colonial officers in Meru sought to fulfill the material and moral obligations of imperial rule and to secure political control. Condemnation of excision by Protestant missionaries and British feminists brought female initiation to the attention of the Colonial Office in London, but concerns over population decline convinced officers in Meru that abortion, rather than excision, was a greater threat to Kenya's colonial future. Through formulating and enforcing measures to regulate excision and prevent abortion, British colonial officers crafted a relationship between themselves and a group of local men that enabled them to intervene in women's affairs. As Charles Ambler has written of nearby Embu District, administrative involvement in female initiation "represented an unprecedented extension of male authority into the female domain." These interventions also challenged hierarchies among women. They disrupted the processes through which girls became women and older women exerted authority within their communities. For all those involved, moral and political order depended upon managing the politics of the womb.


From their first years of activity in central Kenya, Protestant missionaries confronted the practice of female initiation. As early as 1906, Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) missionaries at Kikuyu preached against excision together with its attendant celebrations, dances, and teachings as "barbaric" and "indecent." Missionaries soon realized that female initiation posed a direct challenge to their education efforts, as girl students routinely left mission schools when their time for initiation approached. In an effort to stem these losses, missionaries experimented with holding female initiations on mission grounds. These initiations followed the model of "purified" male initiations, which had been taking place at mission stations since 1909. They were organized by local Christians and excluded ceremonies that, according to the missionaries, placed "undue emphasis on sexual life." Unlike the male procedures, which were performed by hospital staff, however, the female ones were carried out by the "usual Kikuyu woman circumciser." These procedures quickly proved too much for the missionaries to handle. Following the performance of a female initiation at the Tumutumu mission station in 1915, the senior doctor decided that because "the cruelty shown by the old woman was so great ... he would never allow anything of the kind again." Missionaries were particularly disturbed by the severity of the procedure and the apparent pain endured by the initiate.

As Protestant medical work expanded during the 1920s, missionaries began to ground their opposition to female initiation in health concerns. While they obliquely referred to the potential sexual consequences of excision by describing it as "sexual mutilation" and occasionally suggesting that the practice aimed to decrease "sexual passion," Protestant missionaries emphasized the health consequences. They insisted that, in the short term, excision often led to hemorrhaging and infection. Differentiating between a "minor" form, which entailed the removal of the clitoris alone, and a "major" form, which involved the removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and part of the labia majora, Presbyterian doctors argued that the "major" form produced scar tissue that led to impaired urination, menstruation, and intercourse, and, most importantly, complications during childbirth. According to this perspective, excision scar tissue, by prolonging or impeding childbirth, resulted in stillbirths, infections, vesicovaginal fistulas, and maternal deaths. Female genital cutting, however, was not unknown in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain and America. Medical doctors, on occasion, performed clitoridectomies to cure epilepsy and hysteria and to curb masturbation in female patients. But Protestant missionaries saw nothing therapeutic about excision as practiced in central Kenya. Instead, they charged it with confounding reproduction.

Opposition to female initiation grounded in arguments about infant and maternal mortality resonated with colonial officials' concern with low population growth rates in East Africa. Officials in Nairobi and London viewed population decreases caused by disease, famine, and war as threatening labor-intensive economic schemes and Britain's imperial reputation. Nationalist and eugenicist ideologies of the period situated population growth as a sign of a nation's or empire's vitality. With the increased scrutiny of colonial rule by international organizations, including the League of Nations, following World War I, failure to foster growth among colonized populations became a potential source of political embarrassment for European powers.

Officials in interwar Kenya were especially sensitive to accusations that they were neglecting the health and welfare of Africans. In late 1919 the Kenyan government became the subject of public criticism and Colonial Office scrutiny. Protests by missionaries and black political organizations revealed that the Kenyan government blatantly placed settler and state interests ahead of African ones through policies that encouraged forced labor. The Colonial Office sought to curb the worst abuses by compelling the Kenyan government to ensure that colonial officers' involvement in labor recruitment did not extend beyond informing men about work opportunities and by limiting the circumstances under which officers commanded compulsory labor for state projects. While these Colonial Office interventions mitigated some indignities, Kenya's system of mandatory work passes and onerous taxes continued to make it one of the most coercive labor systems in British colonial Africa.

Within Kenya, black political groups, including the East African Association and the Kikuyu Central Association, denounced oppressive labor policies and demanded that the government recognize black land rights. Together with missionaries and more conciliatory political organizations like the Kikuyu Association and Kavirondo Taxpayers' Welfare Association, they complained that too much of the tax revenue collected from black Kenyans was spent on developing infrastructure in white areas. In London, Dr. Norman Leys and W. McGregor Ross, two men who had served as colonial officers in Kenya, led similar, often coordinated, campaigns against the Kenyan government. They stirred church and humanitarian groups to action with moving accounts of abuses committed by state officials and settlers, ensuring that the plight of black Kenyans received press and parliamentary attention.

Within this political context, the Kenyan colonial government felt compelled to address the issue of excision. Protestant arguments that excision contributed to infant and maternal mortality appealed to officials' concern about low population growth in the colony and their desire to demonstrate their commitment to improving the health and welfare of African populations. In the 1920s Protestant missionaries began to call for a government ban on the "major" form. In 1925 officials in Nairobi heeded missionary pressure by urging Local Native Councils (LNCs) in all districts where excision was practiced to consider restricting it. LNCs were colonial institutions comprised of African men and the British district commissioner. Colonial officials designed LNCs to be a part of the indirect-rule system, which aimed to govern colonial populations, whenever possible, through indigenous authorities. Like the indirect-rule position of headman, however, LNCs did more to create new local authorities than to engage preexisting ones. As the British district commissioners who presided over them held full veto powers, LNCs operated as tightly controlled venues for political expression. They possessed limited authority to enact local statutes and raise local taxes. After much coaxing from the district commissioner, the Meru LNC passed resolutions in 1925 and 1927 forbidding excision without a girl's consent, prohibiting procedures that exceeded the removal of the clitoris (the "minor" form), and requiring all "circumcision operators" to register with the council. While similar resolutions were passed elsewhere in central Kenya, Protestant missionaries were not satisfied with the results. To garner central government attention and resources for the cause, Protestant missionaries urged officials in Nairobi and London to introduce a colonywide ban on the "major" form as part of a new penal code then being drafted.

Colonial officials were wary of introducing such a ban. First, they were uncertain as to the relative prevalence of the "minor" and "major" forms. Second, they were beginning to appreciation the depth of local commitment to the practice. In 1929 this commitment became clear when thousands of young men and women responded to Protestant missionaries' anti-excision campaign by performing the Muthirigu, a dance-song that derided opponents of excision for corrupting custom, seducing girls, and stealing land. Other Muthirigu verses hailed the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) and it leaders. Denouncing this dance-song as seditious, the colonial government quickly banned it.

Initially, KCA leaders, the most vocal critics of colonial policies in central Kenya, did not take a strong stance on the Protestant anti-excision campaign. As late as January 1930, Jomo Kenyatta, the organization's representative in London, told Colonial Office officials that he supported the idea of hospital personnel educating central Kenyans about the ill-health consequences of excision. Kenyatta's perspective soon changed, once it became clear that the KCA's growing constituency adamantly opposed colonial interference in the practice. In his 1938 anthropological account of the Kikuyu, Facing Mount Kenya, Kenyatta defended excision as "the very essence of an institution [initiation] which has enormous educational, social, moral, and religious implications." Through the "female circumcision controversy" of 1928–31, defense of female initiation became a tenet of central Kenyan cultural nationalism.

Kenyatta was not the only London-based activist involved in the controversy. Female parliamentarians in the House of Commons proved to be particularly vocal allies for Protestant missionaries. In December 1929, during discussion of a motion condemning colonial policies that failed to foster the "social well-being" of colonized populations, the Duchess of Atholl directed attention to the ongoing controversy in Kenya. Criticizing the Kenyan government's reticent approach to the issue, she and her female colleagues argued that the "major" form of excision should be banned because of the dangers it posed to infants and mothers during childbirth.

Historian Susan Pedersen has demonstrated how such maternalist rhetoric simultaneously enabled and limited the anti-excision campaign. On the one hand, it allowed for a wide range of women, from the conservative Duchess of Atholl to women's rights advocate Eleanor Rathbone, to support a prohibition. On the other, it limited their condemnation to the "major" form, as the "minor" form was not found to produce scar tissue that could lead to complications during childbirth. Like Protestant missionaries, women activists only obliquely addressed the potential sexual consequences of the procedure. According to Pedersen, these women lacked a "forthright (and anatomically explicit) public rhetoric" through which to define the clitoris as a sexual organ; the reproductive framing of excision prevailed because it was easier to defend women as mothers than as sexual beings. Pedersen's analysis effectively illuminates the discursive constraints which precluded women activists from arguing for a complete ban. It does not, however, explain official refusal to institute a colonywide ban on the "major" form. That answer lies with consideration of the politics of colonial control.

The final blow to the Protestant missionaries' campaign for a colonywide ban came in September 1930 when the director of medical services in Kenya reported the findings of a health investigation into excision. The investigation revealed that officials' suspicion that the "minor" form of excision was more pervasive than the "major" form was mistaken. Of the 374 "Kikuyu women" examined by medical doctors, only three had undergone the removal of the clitoris alone and only four were unexcised. In light of this revelation, the Acting Governor concluded that it would be politically impossible, given the strength of the previous Muthirigu protests and the related rise of the KCA, to enforce a law which would make illegal nearly all excisions in central Kenya. A well-publicized but unenforceable law could only damage colonial prestige. The Kenyan government and Colonial Office responded by stating that excision should be combated through "education and propaganda and such administrative action as can be undertaken with the assistance of the native authorities themselves." In Meru, official concerns about abortion would mean that instead of gently discouraging the practice, "administrative action" would enforce it.


The earliest colonial reports filed from Meru included discussion of abortion. In 1910, Edward Horne, the first colonial officer stationed to the area, provided a description of sexual relations between young men and girls.He wrote that circumcised, unmarried men (s. muthaka, pl. nthaka), who ranged in age from sixteen to thirty years, were "free to go with any unmarried girl," although they usually married the girl with whom they had been "sleeping." He described unexcised, unwed girls (s. mukenye, pl. nkenye) as similarly free-willed, choosing their own partners without consulting their parents. Horne's description suggests that young people engaged in sexual relations that were not meant to result in procreation. According to Horne, when the time came for the warrior age-grade to marry, all "their girls" were initiated and then "b[ought]." Horne wrote that if a girl happened to become pregnant before her initiation, a "miscarriage" would be brought about. As we shall see, such pregnancies were considered dangerous and undesirable. Horne's description of premarital sex, female initiation, and abortion did not condemn any of the practices involved. Early colonial officers, preoccupied with establishing military control and collecting taxes, rarely sought to reform the social order.


Excerpted from Politics of the Womb by Lynn M. Thomas. Copyright © 2003 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

1. Imperial Populations and "Women’s Affairs"
2. Colonial Uplift and Girl-Midwives
3. Mau Mau and the Girls who "Circumcised Themselves"
4. Late Colonial Customs and Wayward Schoolgirls
5. Postcolonial Nationalism and "Modern" Single Mothers


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