Can one imagine a place where a woman’s natural body becomes a problem for them? In Africa, many young girls are forced to flatten their breasts to protect themselves from the “male-gaze”. This utterly disturbing practice is a tradition in parts of east, west and central Africa, particularly followed in Cameroon where girls as young as 8 years old, developing breasts, have to go through with this process to prevent attention from males, sexual harassment, rape and teenage pregnancy.
It’s done by female members of the house, mostly mothers, who use stones, hammer, or a spatula heated on hot coal. The girls have to go through excruciating pain during the process of ‘breast ironing’, the reason for which they are not even aware of at the tender age. It often takes weeks of ironing before it actually happens and till then the girl has to embrace the pain.
In her blog for Cosmopolitan, an anti-FGM campaigner Leyla Hussein writes, “Breast ironing is just another way to control a woman’s sexuality and perceived attractiveness. Breasts become a dangerous body part that must be removed in case they attract male attention, as if removing all signs of femininity from a girl’s body could protect her from being raped”.
Apart from the physical trauma, the mental trauma is harder to get over. A photographer who met and shot some of the victims in Cameroon told Vice.com that some women don’t like their chests to be touched ever again. “It’s hard for them to undress in front of their boyfriends—if they even have one, that is,” he added. Unfortunately, women who undergo this process are prone to health issues, they may not be able to breast-feed again and are even vulnerable to cancer.
The UN estimates that 3.8 million young women are at risk of breast ironing in Central and West Africa.
“What an absurd world we live in when women’s bodies are not considered safe in their natural state, and men are not considered responsible for controlling their own urges,” writes Hussein.