” A Look Into Female Genital Mutilation”
“She only loses a little piece of the clitoris, just the part that protrudes. The girl doesn’t miss it. She can still feel, after all. There is hardly any pain. Women’s pain thresholds are so much higher than men’s” (Denniston, 7).
This was a direct quote from an interview of people who unquestionably accept sexual mutilations. The interviews were conducted from 1979-1994 in Sudan and from 1984-1995 in parts of the United States and Europe. The exact location and date of the person who said this was not revealed. Sexual mutilations among females are also known as female circumcision, infibulations or clitoridectomy. Although there are variations in procedure, many times the above names are used interchangeable. The practice of female circumcision has long been a part of the lives of many young Muslim, Christian, Jewish and African girls.
The July 14, 1996, Los Angeles Times, states that more than 120 million women across a broad swath of the African continent have been subjected to the brutal genital mutilation. Most are children between the ages of 4 and 10 when the ritual takes place. Although Westerners condemn it as torture, child abuse and a violation of human rights, it remains a revered rite of passage in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. According to the World Health Organization, circumcision dates back almost 4,000 years. No one knows exactly how the practice began, though scholars speculate its origins lay somewhere along the Nile Valley.
The reasons for performing this procedure are almost as numerous as it’s consequences. The procedure can simply be a small but painful nick across the hood of the clitoris, but is typically more severe. The most severe type of circumcision is called infibulation. The clitoris, inner labia and most of the soft flesh of the labia are scraped or cut away. Often with a double edged blade, scissors or even a shard of glass, performed by a close relative,midwife or barber. The July 14, 1996, Los Angeles Times, states:
“The child is then bound from waist to toes, and she will remain tied for weeks until scar tissue nearly seals the vagina. She is left with just a pencil-thin hole close to the anus for urination and menstruation. It can take the child a quarter of an hour to urinate, drop by drop. She could develop a kidney or bladder infection. When her menstrual periods start, they will last 10 days and she will be incapacitated by cramps nearly half the month caused by the near impossibility of flow passing through so tiny an opening. The odor of soured blood will linger”.
“If the wound heals improperly, shiny keloid scars will crisscross the otherwise soft tissue of the vulva. Childbirth will be difficult, and the thick scars may have to be cut through to the rectum.” The trauma of a child’s pain transcends into adulthood. A normal and happy sex life is almost never enjoyed, and I am influenced to believe that the magnitude of female circumcision is not understood by the child and rarely explained. To some children it is a way to stop the painful teasing of others who believe that those who have not been cut are inferior. For most it is the only way to become a woman.
Female circumcision, better known as Female Genital Mutilation, is an ugly monster finally rearing its head from out of the depths of time. It can attack a girl at any age, with a little prompting from her society, and the aid of an unsuspecting human wielding the knife. Usually, it is performed from a few days after birth to puberty, but in some regions, the torture can be put off until just before marriage or the seventh month of pregnancy (Samad, 52). The reality of female circumcision is that it is still accepted, regularly practiced, and willingly exercised as a rite of passage for young girls into womanhood. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is believed to have been performed at least 1400 – 2000 years ago beginning during an era know to the Muslims as “al-gahiliyyah” or “the era of ignorance”. FGM is generally associated with the Muslim religion, however in reality, it is more of a social custom than a religious one. Today, it is common throughout North and Central Africa, the Middle East, and Muslim populations of Indonesia and Malaysia. A special note should be made here that circumcision in Muslim countries outside of Africa is rare or nonexistent. It is believed that female circumcision “took root” in Muslim and African Christian religions, but there is no Koranic or Biblical support of these claims. That is why it is now safe to say that circumcision is more of a social custom that is often treated as its own religion, a secret ritual meant to be a secret forever (Female Genital Mutilation, 2). “All woman in the world are circumcised. It is something that must be done. If there is pain, then that is part of a woman’s lot in life” (Denniston, 8). Circumcision is an essential part of a woman’s identity (Abusharaf, 25). It is a rite of passage for young girls into womanhood and marriage. Many practitioners say “[Circumcision is] an integral part of their culture and ethnic identity, and some perceive it as a religious obligation” (Abusharaf, 26). There is a great deal of pressure on families to have their daughters circumcised. The Samburu of Kenya say uncircumcised girls are unclean, promiscuous and immature. “An uncircumcised vulva is unclean and only the lowest prostitute would leave her daughter uncircumcised.”
Denniston, 8). Although circumcision is usually the choice of a father or elder female, when given the choice, girls will many times choose circumcision to avoid being teased and looked down upon by their peers. There are several reasons elders make the final decision as to if a girl will be circumcised, all dealing with the fact that girls have little choice. The following reasons are why a girl has few choices: age, lack of education and resources, dependency of parents and then husbands for life’s necessities, and marriage. If a girl is not circumcised, in many countries and cultures, a marriage will not be able to be arranged and the girl may be cast out from the society (Althaus, 1-3). Because circumcision is considered an essential part of a woman’s identity, abolishment has serious social implications. Many of the implications deal with the results of what happens to the body of an uncircumcised girl. Some groups in Nigeria believe that if a woman’s clitoris is not removed, a baby could die during childbirth if it comes in contact with the clitoris. Others say if left alone, the female genitalia will continue to grow, resulting in a “grotesque” penis like organ dangling between her legs. Lastly, some say that vaginal secretions will be produced by glands normally removed by the surgery which would be thought to be unclean and lethal to sperm (Abusharaf, 27) As you can see a girl has too much to loose, including a future husband, by not getting circumcised. Therefore, society “makes the most” out of a young girl’s circumcision.
Circumcision is many times accompanied with a celebration for a girl and her family. Girls are given status in their community, showered with gifts and suddenly marriageable. They are also allowed to adorn themselves with jewelry and womanly garments. The parents of the girl also benefit from this celebration. Now they are able to arrange a marriage and gain a high bridal price for a circumcised daughter. A celebration in Kenya and Tanzania begin when the Masai “undergo the operation publicly, then testing becomes a test of bravery and a proof that they will be able to endure the pain of childbirth” (Abusharaf, 26).
Female circumcision is a procedure intended to reduce sexual arousal, and discourage premarital intercourse or later adultery. There are three variations to the procedure: sunna circumcision, clitoridectomy, and infibulation. Sunna circumcision is when the tip of the clitoris and/or the covering (prepuce) is removed. Clitoridectomy is when the entire clitoris, the prepuce, and adjacent labia are all removed. Infibulation is a clitoridectomy followed by the sewing up of the vulva, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood flow. To put this in perspective for a man to understand, infibulation would be like cutting off a man’s penis completely, cutting the testicles to the groin, and making a hole in them to have the semen siphoned out (McCarthy, 14). But still, it can get worse. The instruments that can be used to perform the operation are usually crude and dirty. they can include kitchen knives, razor blades, scissors, broken glass, and in some regions, the teeth of the midwife. Because of this, there are many dangers threatenng the victim. The side effects vary in severity, but many times one will lead to another. The following is a list found in the article “Female Genital Mutilations”: Hemorrhaging
Chronic urinary and pelvic infections
Gynecological and obstetric problems
Difficulty in childbirth
Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf goes into detail about some of the long-term complications woman may experience. Scar tissue blocking the urethra or vaginal opening can lead to a build up inside the body. This build up results in chronic pelvic and urinary infections. These continuous infections then can lead to back pain, kidney damage, uterine cramping, and infertility. When a woman does become pregnant, childbirth becomes an unnecessarily painful process. During childbirth for an infibulated woman, a baby’s head can actually push through her perineum. The perineum is the muscular area between a woman’s vagina and anus. Sometimes, a fistula will form as a result of obstructed labor. The fistula is the abnormal passage from the bladder to the vagina. The fistula can cause frequent miscarriages due to urine seeping into the uterus. It should not be surprising that some or all of the above side effects may directly result in depression and anxiety for woman. Their chronic health problems, infertility or loss of a husband’s attention due to difficult penetration usually causes the depression.
What must a woman do to conform to society? “The acceptable image of a woman with a place in society [is] that of one who is circumcised, docile, fertile, marriageable, hardworking, asexual and obedient” writes Olayinka Koso-Thomas, a Nigerian physician (Abusharof, 27). The irony of this is that in a society where woman are forced to mutilate their bodies, men are allowed to have multiple wives and engage in extramarital affairs. In a survey of 300 married Sudanese men, each of whom had one infibulated wife, and one or more not, they preferred sex with the uncircumcised wife. A majority of the 300 men, 266, agreed that they preferred sex with the uninfibulated wife, yet women are ostracized if they are not circumcised. Contrary to popular belief a woman has no guarantee of a secure marriage after circumcision. Actually, the opposite is more likely to be true. Infibulated woman are more prone to fertility problems, which is grounds in Africa for being cast off by a husband (Abusharaf, 27) How ironic is that?
The issue of circumcision tends to be one accompanied with opposition. “Female circumcision [is] a ritualized form of child abuse and violence against women, a violation of human rights” (Althaus, 4) The topic of female circumcision was not openly discussed until the second half of this century, when in the 1950’s and 1960’s African activists and medical
practitioners presented health consequences to international organizations like the United Nations and World Health Organizations. Later, in 1979 international efforts began with the World Health Organization publishing statements against female circumcision. In 1984, African women’s organizations gathered in Dakar, Senegal. There they formed the Inter-African Committee Against Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Woman and Children. Since 1984, groups in twenty-three African countries have been working together to end FGM. The International Conference on Population and Development met in 1994 in Cairo, Egypt to develop a document that specifically addressed FGM. It was called “basic rights violation”. Recently, several other projects have been designed to end genital cutting. The approach of some of these other projects is to develop alternatives to those accustomed to the practice of female genital mutilation. In 1996 the Meru district of Kenya was introduced to alternative initiation rituals. Twenty-five pairs of mothers and daughters participated in a six-day training session during which they were informed of the health consequences associated with circumcision. Sessions concluded with a “coming of age” celebration for the young girls at which time they were given “books of wisdom” prepared by their parents. Another alternative attempted dealt with the midwives who perform the circumcisions. Because the circumcisions are the midwives lively-hood, project funders knew that they should be made aware of other ways to make a living. The country of Sudan offered its midwives the option of working in a soap factory which was funded by Oxfam and UNICEF. Health and community education was a big issue that needed to be focused on. Therefore, the African government launched public-information campaigns. One such campaign in Burkina Faso held awareness meetings and distributed teaching materials educating the public of the short and long term side effects associated with female circumcision. Also, in Sierra Leon, the health workers informed the general adult population of the health problems associated with circumcision. The result was more families willing to leave their daughters uncircumcised. The national committee also created a documentary film, shown on national television, saying “ma fille ne sera pas excise e”, “my daughter will not be circumcised”. The results of these piloted projects are not precisely known as of yet, because many of the projects just began in 1995. However, we do know that men and woman under twenty-five are more likely than those in their forties to want to abandon the tradition of female circumcision (Althaus, 5-6). The Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), states that in most countries, women with higher educational levels and an income of their own, are less likely to have been circumcised and are also less likely to have their daughters circumcised (Abusharaf, 27). Substantial change within these cultures is likely to only occur with the improvements in the status of women in society. DHS was a survey conducted in Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Eritrea, Mali, and Sudan. The results show that 43%-97% of females of reproductive age are circumcised in these areas. Each day, over 6,000 girls are circumcised a day, worldwide. This figure includes the United States and Canada (FGM, 2).
Female circumcision is a highly controversial topic in society today. As the data suggests, it is still widely accepted and practiced. However, I have to agree with the words of Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, “I have no doubt that when African woman have taken their rightful places in the various spheres of life, when they have gained social equality, political power, economic opportunities, and access to education and health care, genital mutilation will end. Women will make sure of that.”
I found this so true as I read the story of Soraya Mire. Soraya Mire, a 13-year-old from Mogadishu, Somolia, never knew what would happen to her the day her mother called her out of her room to go buy her some gifts. When asked why, her mother replied, “I just want to show you how much I love you.” As Soraya got into the car, she wondered where the armed guards were. Being the daughter of a Somolian general, she was always escorted by guards. Despite her mother’s promise of gifts, they did not stop at a store, but at a doctor’s home. “This is your special day,” Soraya’s mother said. “Now you are to become a woman, an important woman.” She was ushered into the house and strapped down to an operating table. A local anesthetic was given but it barely blunted the pain as the doctor performed the circumcision. Soraya was sent home an hour later.
Soraya broke from her culture’s confining bonds at the age of 18 by running away from an abusive arranged marriage. The April 9, 1995, Los Angeles Times, prints a profile of a Ms. Soraya Mire; In the article Ms. Mire is 28. An excerpt reads: One day in Russian class, Mire passed out from unbearable menstrual pain. In a hospital emergency room, an Egyptian gynecologist familiar with female circumcision examined her. Gently, he gave Mire her first lesson in basic anatomy. He explained that the Somali doctor had removed her clitoris and other genitalia as a way to reduce sexual pleasure. “I had no idea,” she says. “For the first time, I knew what they took, and the worth of what they took.”
Seven months later, the doctor performed reconstructive surgery on her. Now in the U.S., Soraya is a leading spokeswoman against FGM (Bell, 58). In addition to being active in the fight against FGM, she is a American filmmaker. She has come a long way. Being well-educated about the facts of FGM also brings to light the ugly truth. “It is happening on American soil,” insists Soraya. Mutilations are occurring every day among immigrants and refugees in the U.S. (Brownlee, 57). Immigrants have also brought the horrifying practice to Europe, Australia, and Canada (McCarthy, 14). Normally, it is practiced in North and Central Africa (“Men’s…”, 34), the Middle East, and Muslim populations of Indonesia and Malaysia (“Female…”, 1714). Although it seems to have taken root in Muslim and African Christian religions, there is no Koranic or Biblical backing for FGM (“Men’s…”, 34). Many times female circumcision is treated as a religion in itself. It can be a sacred ritual meant to be kept secret forever. The most frequent reason offered for female circumcision is to stifle a girl’s desire for sexual intercourse and to make penetration impossible, thereby preserving her chastity. The main reason is to protect the girl from men until she is married. Dr. Mohammed Haddi, an obstetrician and gynecologist believes that because marriage is an economic necessity in countries where circumcision is prevalent, the ritual is “seen as an act of love, rather than one of cruelty”. The funny thing is once married the honeymoon is rarely a night to look forward to. Most women are ripped or cut open by their husbands, often cruelly, without any concern for the woman. The act is often described by the infibulated as “a burning by fire of the body and soul.”
Abusharaf, Rogua Mustafa. (1998). Unmasking Tradition A Sudanese anthropologist confronts female “circumcision” and its
terrible tenacity. The Sciences, 38, 22-27.
Althaus, Frances A. (1997). Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage Or Violation of Rights. International Family Planning
Perspectives, 23 (3), 1-6.
Brain, James Lewton. (1979). The Last Taboo Sex and the Fear of Death. (1st ed.). New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
Brownlee, Shannon and Jennifer Seter. “In the name of ritual.”
U.S. News and World Report, (Feb. 7, 1994), 56-58. “Female
Denniston, George C., & Milos, Marilyn Fayre. (1997). Sexual Mutilations A Human Tradegy. (1st ed.). New York: Plenum Press
Female Genital Mutilation In Africa, Middle East and Far East. http://www.religioustolerance.org/fem_cirm.htm
Goldman, Ronald. (1996). Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma. Boston
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McCarthy, Sheryl. “Fleeing mutilation, fighting for asylum.” Ms.,
(July 1996), 12-16.
“Men’s traditional culture.” Economist, (Aug. 10, 1996), 34.
Reik, Theodor. (1931). Ritual. London: Hogarth Press
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