A Brief History
On February 6, 2018, we stand with the United Nations in recognizing International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. While normally we endorse the right of people to do as they please, horribly mutilating children without the informed consent of that child is not something people should be doing. The archaic practice of female genital mutilation is sexist and a form of abuse/assault on female human beings, sadly, still practiced today in at least 30 countries (but actually many more).
In 2003 the United Nations determined that by insisting on immediate cessation of this cruel practice it could be possible to end the practice within a single generation. (While we are not so optimistic, it is worth a try.) If female genital mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision, is such a good idea, allow women to make their own decision whether or not to have the procedure when they become of legal age! (For that matter, same thing with male circumcision.)
The practice of FGM consists of cutting off the outer female genitalia, usually including the clitoris and often including the labia minora, sometimes sewing the vagina partially shut leaving just enough of an opening to allow urination and menstrual flow. In backward nations, this practice is done under unsanitary conditions with a razor blade or a piece of broken glass, often causing extreme pain and infections. Usually an older woman performs the procedure, but in some cases the local barber (we do not make this stuff up!) is the “surgeon.” The procedure is normally done with no form of anesthesia, except in more industrialized countries where FGM may be performed in a hospital. Botched jobs can result in a lifetime of pain and discomfort, scarring, lack of vaginal lubrication, restricted penetration ability in the vagina and a host of other problems, including death from infection.
Various cultures have their own standard sorts of FGM, some more radical than others, and some limited to “nicking” the clitoris. In ancient Rome, Romans would have the labia of slave girls closed with a clasp to prevent intercourse.
FGM is regularly practiced in 27 African countries and in Indonesia, Yemen, and Iraqi Kurdistan. It is less commonly practiced in other countries, including the United States and other seemingly progressive nations. Perhaps 200 million women and girls around the world have undergone this mutilation.
As if this demeaning method of suppressing women is not bad enough when performed, living with the consequences includes the additional pain of ripping/cutting open the joined tissues when the girl is married to allow for intercourse, although often times intercourse is now painful or difficult because of the procedure and scarring. When the woman is ready to deliver a baby, there often has to be even more cutting (called de-infibulation), and incredibly after birth the vagina is closed up again to provide a tight channel for intercourse (for male pleasure) called re-infibulation.
Reason given for FGM (or excuses if you will) include eliminating sexual pleasure by the female to ensure fidelity, or by some explanations this somehow makes the woman happier. In fact, some women report they are very glad to have the procedure and feel it is a gift to their daughters to have the FGM performed! Other reasons include physically preventing intercourse without leaving an obvious sign of penetration and tightening of the vaginal canal for “improved” sexual relations (for the man, anyway). Some cultures find the natural appearance of the vulva abhorrent, and much prefer a smooth, labia free visage. The “dry sex” that often results as a product of infibulation is replicated by aficionados of FGM by introducing Vick’s Vaporub, toothpaste, or other substances (leaves, tree bark, etc.).
Despite the persistent and widespread belief that FGM, or female circumcision, is a requirement of Islam, it has no basis in the Islamic religion and appears nowhere in the Quran! Sadly, many Muslims believe, for whatever reason, that this practice is somehow religiously required. In fact, the practice in Africa predates the inception of Islam by many centuries.
European and American doctors used to remove the clitoris as a treatment for “insanity” and to prevent masturbation, especially in the 19th Century. Resistance to FGM began in Colonial Kenya in the 20th Century and in Egypt beginning around 1920. By 1959 Egypt had outlawed infibulation, and finally banned FGM in 2007. The latter half of the 29th Century saw increasing numbers of studies on the subject of FGM and activists attempting to educate people about the practice and eliminate it wherever possible. As part of the Women’s Rights movement, the elimination of FGM is considered a mandatory aspect of reducing the oppression of women. The subject of FGM remains controversial and prone to debate and is sometimes compared to other forms of cosmetic surgery or body modification.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think about FGM? Is this an assault against women and girls? Is the practice the right of parents to choose for their child? Please give us your opinions and reasons for those opinions about this highly controversial subject in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Gruenbaum, Ellen. The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Roald, Anne-Sofie. Women in Islam: The Western Experience. Routledge, 2003.