Female Genital Mutilation
Female Genital Mutilation is believed to have started in Egypt 2,000 years ago and spread from there. Only a few years ago, FGM was considered a cultural tradition, but now the United Nations has labeled it as a violation of human rights. Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United States has declared Female Genital Mutilation grounds for seeking asylum and is a punishable offense (1).
Many of us never heard of Female Genital Mutilation until the story of Kauziya Kasinga, a woman from West Africa. Her father did not believe in polygamy, forced marriage, or "female circumcision". He died when she was 17 and the father's sister inherited the home, banished the mother, ended Fauziya's schooling, and arranged a marriage as a fourth wife to a man she had never met. The aunt scheduled her for the circumcision and she ran with 3,000 dollars that one of her aunts had saved.
What is female circumcision? The female genital mutilation term covers three main varieties of genital mutilation (2). There is the "sunna circumcision"; this consists of removal of the prepuce and/or the tip of the clitoris. Ironically, sunna in Arabic means "tradition". This is done because it is believed that the clitoris is a very dangerous part of the female anatomy. In our culture, Freud stated in his book, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, that the "elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity. In 1979, the "Love Surgery" was performed on women in the United Sates. Dr. James Burt, the "Love Surgeon", introduced "clitoral relocation" (sunna circumcision) to the medical field. He believed and acted upon the idea that excision does not prevent sexual pleasure, but enhances it. Dr. Burt practiced in Ohio for almost ten years before he was exposed after which he gave up his license.
Clitoridectomy, also referred to as excision, removes the entire clitoris and the removal of the labia. Thirdly, there is a procedure called an infibulation. This is the most extreme form of circumcision, it consists of the removal of the clitoris, the labia, and the joining of the scraped sides of the vulva across the vagina, where they are secured with thorns or sewn with thread. A small opening is kept to allow passage of urine and menstrual blood. A woman with this type of circumcision must be cut open to allow intercourse on the wedding night and is closed again afterwards to secure fidelity to the husband. It is sometimes opened to allow childbirth, but is sewn up again. In some cultures, the husband will cut her open to have sex with her. In males, you would have to remove the entire penis and testicles (castration) to compare this with infibualtion (3). This was done in the Catholic Church to get men to sing soprano. It is no longer permitted and has been outlawed by the Pope. It was also done to men who worked in harems so that they would not have sex with the girls.
Female genial mutilation is mainly practiced in the African culture. It is also practiced in Christian, Judaism, Aboriginal, and Islamic cultures. FGM is not religious, but is a social custom (4). In some countries it is almost universal. There are over 30 million women currently living in Nigeria that have been circumcised and 24 million in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Some groups say that 114 to 130 million women worldwide have had the operation. FGM has spread worldwide with immigrants coming from Africa and other nations that accept this practice. It is outlawed in the United States, but the practice is still done. Specialists in Denver, CO reported in 1998 that at least 6,000 immigrants have settled in the area from African countries, which widely practices FGM. Dr. Terry Dunn, director of a women's clinic in that city commented: "I know of one patient where it was clear it was performed in this country." About 4 mutilation cases are seen each year at the clinic (5).
Female Genital Mutilation can be done at any age depending on the culture. Most cultures do it at the age of puberty; some do it at birth. The justification for the operation appears to be largely grounded in the desire to terminate or reduce feelings of sexual arousal in women so that they will be much less likely to engage in pre-marital intercourse or adultery. The clitoris has a lot of nerve endings, and this gives feelings of sexual arousal when stimulated.
Women in countries that practice FGM who don't get circumcised have a hard time finding marriage partner and being chastised by other women and men. If you are not married say in an African tribe you have no usefulness. Family honor, cleanliness, protection against spell, insurance of virginity and faithfulness to the husband or simply terrorizing women out of sex are sometimes used as excuses for the practice of FGM. In Muslim countries men prefer circumcised wives because they are more likely to be faithful. Other claims in support of FGM are (6):
a. The clitoris is dangerous and must be removed for health reasons. They believe that if it is a poisonous organ, which can cause a man to sicken or die if contacted by a man's penis. Others believe that men can become impotent by contacting a clitoris, or that a baby will be hydrocephalic (born with "water on the brain") if its head contacts the clitoris during birth. Some believe that the milk of the mother will become poisonous if her clitoris touches the baby.
b. If the clitoris is removed along with the labia is eliminates bad genital odors.
c. FGM prevents vaginal cancer
d. An unremoved clitoris can lead to masturbation or lesbianism.
e. FGM prevents nervousness from developing in girls
f. It prevents the face from turning yellow.
g. It makes the woman's face more beautiful.
h. If FGM is not done, older men may not be able to match their wives' sex drive and may have to resort to illegal stimulating drugs.
i. An intact clitoris generates sexual arousal in women can cause neuroses if repressed.
These claims appear to have little support outside of countries where FGM is common.
FGM was started during the "al-gahiliyya" (translates into "Era of Ignorance"). The Bible is silent on the subject, but the Sunnah (words and actions of the Prophet Mohammed) contains a number of references to female circumcision. One passage is recorded between Mohammed and Um Habibah, a woman who performed infibulation on slaves. She said she would continue to do it unless he forbade it and until Mohammed ordered her to stop doing it. He replied, "Yes, it is allowed. Come closer so I can teach you; if you cut, do not overdo it because it brings more radiance to the face and it is more pleasant for the husband"(7).
Nawal El-Saadawi, a Muslim circumcised woman, stated (8):
"The importance given to virginity and an intact hymen in these societies is the reason why female circumcision still remains a very widespread practice despite a growing tendency, especially in urban Egypt, to do away with it as something outdated and harmful. Being circumcision lies the belief that, by removing parts of girls' external genital organs, sexual desire is minimized. This permits a female who has reached the dangerous age of puberty and adolescence to protect her virginity, and therefore her honor, with greater ease. Chastity was imposed on male attendants in the female harem by castration, which turned them into inoffensive eunuchs. Similarly female circumcision is meant to preserve the chastity of young girls by reducing their desire for sexual intercourse."
The danger in FGM is the unsanitary conditions that these procedures take place in. A midwife or holy woman uses an unclean sharp instrument such as a razorblade, scissors, kitchen knives, and pieces of glass. These instruments are frequently used on several girls in succession and are rarely cleaned, causing the transmission of a variety of viruses such as HIV or hepatitis. Beyond the pain, there are long-term physiological, sexual, and psychological effects, which have been reported from those who have been circumcised. The infections are the biggest problem. There are reports of death from shock and hemorrhage. Long-term complications include sexual frigidity, genital malformation, chronic pelvic complications, recurrent urinary infection and retention, and all obstetric complications, such as the fetus being exposed to disease, having the child's head crushed in the birth canal. Some women must undergo another operation to be "opened" to let the baby out.
When Fauziya Kasinga let her story be known the United Nations and other countries decided to take this problem head on. They have refused to give loans to nations that refuse to stop the practice of FGM. The New Woman Research Center in Egypt says the decision to codify FGM instead of criminalizing it had nothing to do with religion or morality, but is instead "a decision to codify the control of women, and codify violence against them, in addition to decodify the inferior status in society" (9).
The UN Human Right Conference in Vienna, has classified as a human rights violation and is a criminal offense and against the statutes of national and international medical associations.
UNICEF and UNDP want to stop this. They say that it is "absolutely certain that if similar tortures were inflicted on boy children the whole world would rise up to stop it by all means".
1. Atrocities Against Women: Female Genital Mutilation. Mason, Marcia L. Sept. 1995. HTTP://WWW.WORLDCITIZEN.ORG/ISSUES
2. FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION: AN INTRODUCTION. National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers FGM Awareness and Education Project. Box 2512 San Anselmo, CA 94979
3. Female Genital Mutilation. http://www.hollyfeld.org
4. Female Genital Mutilation. http://www.hollyfeld.org
5. Associated Press Article, Feb 1998, web site found at http://www.feminist.org/news/newsbyte/february98/0218.html
6. Female Mutilation in Africa, Middle East and Far East; anon. http://www.religioustolerance.org/fem_cirm.htm
7. ABU-SAHLIEH Sami, "To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah: Legitimization of Male and Female Circumcision: available online at Http://wwwhollyfeld.org
8. Nawal El-Saadawi, "The Hidden Face of Eve, Women in the Arab World," translated and edited by Sherif Hettata, Zed Press, London, 1980, pg.33
9. The Women's Watch, Spring 1996 Vol. 22 No. 2, pg.44-49. Fran Hosken, Editor.