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Gender in Practice

Culture, Politics and Society in Sierra Leone


John Idriss Lahai

In Sierra Leone, the dominant epistemological framework of the political and social history of the country and the post-colonial understanding of the place of men and women are based on the inter-subjective discourses of power, place, identity and belongingness. Through a complex web of culturally regulated, politically motivated and patriarchally conditioned belief systems on sexualities, a transition is imagined that goes beyond symbolism and familial attributes. Its aesthetics, as this book demonstrates, are deployed as a domain in which the political and cultural understanding of statehood, gender relations, politics, governance, armed conflict, human rights, women’s empowerment and sexual identity are made and remade. In the main, the rudimentary discourses on the everyday individual/collective survival strategies of women have exposed, in expressive forms, the gendered uncertainties in people’s lives. However, in practical terms, as described in this book, these uncertainties are a demonstration of the tensions between culturalism (and its post-colonial discontents) and the gender-ideological narrative concerning the question of gender equality and women’s place in politics, culture and society across time and space in Sierra Leone.
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Chapter 2: Rainforest Belief Systems and the Making of Gender Identities


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Rainforest Belief Systems and the Making of Gender Identities

It is a measure of the true human condition in Sub-Saharan Africa that engendered relationships are shaped, in part, by people’s intersubjective understanding of the cultural functions of the rainforest. Since the nineteenth century, ethnographers, anthropologists, historians and geographers have tried to understand the role of the rainforest in the making and unmaking of communities and sexualities in Sierra Leone. Some of the questions that people have asked are: What constitutes ‘womanhood’ in the Sierra Leonean rainforest? What are the controversies, contentions and contradictions surrounding the cultural relevance of ritualised cultural practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM)? Does FGM promote womanhood? In what ways have longstanding rainforest relationships contributed to the patriarchal stabilisation of communal gender relations and the making and unmaking of women’s sexuality? And further, are the processes around the making and unmaking of womanhood fortuitous or contrived in the rainforest? Is the cultural notion of womanhood a challenge to the patriarchal status quo? If so, what strategies are employed by women to challenge patriarchal conditioning with regard to womanhood and women’s place in households and communities?

Ingrained in heteronormative narratives on womanhood are transnational controversies around how sexualities are transformed through the cultural practice of FGM in Sierra Leone. While recognising that my interpretation may possibly attract criticism from both Western feminists and Africanist scholars for unintended biases, the aim of this chapter is to...

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