"Of course I shall have them circumcised exactly as their parents, grandparents and sisters were circumcised. This is our custom."An Egyptian woman, talking about her young daughters
"We are circumcised and insist on circumcising our daughters so that there is no mixing between male and female... An uncircumcised woman is put to shame by her husband, who calls her 'you with the clitoris'. People say she is like a man. Her organ would prick the man..."An Egyptian woman
"Circumcision makes women clean, promotes virginity and chastity and guards young girls from sexual frustration by deadening their sexual appetite."Mrs Njeri, a defender of female genital mutilation in Kenya
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the term used to refer to the removal of part, or all, of the female genitalia. The most severe form of FGM is known as pharaonic circumcision or infibulation. The procedure consists of clitoridectomy (where all, or part of, the clitoris is removed), excision (removal of all, or part of, the labia minora), and cutting of the labia majora to create raw surfaces, which are then stitched or held together in order to form a cover over the vagina when they heal. A small hole is left to allow urine and menstrual blood to escape. In some less conventional forms of infibulation, less tissue is removed and a larger opening is left.
85% of genital mutilations performed in Africa consists on clitoridectomy or excision. The procedure most commonly occurs in girls between the ages of 4 and 8. An estimated 135 million of the world's girls and women have undergone genital mutilation and 2 million girls a year are at risk of mutilation - approximately 6,000 a day. It is practiced extensively in Africa and is common in some countries in the Middle East. It also occurs mainly among immigrant communities in parts of Asia and the pacific, North & Latin America and Europe.
The effects of genital mutilation can lead to death. At the time the mutilation is carried out, pain, shock, haemorrhage and damage to the organs surrounding the clitoris and labia can occur. Afterwards urine may be retained and serious infection develop. Use of the same instrument on several girls without sterilization can cause the spread of HIV. More commonly, the chronic infections, intermittent bleeding, abscesses and small benign tumours of the nerve which can result from clitoridectomy and excision cause discomfort and extreme pain. Infibulation can have even more serious long-term effects: chronic urinary tract infections, stones in the bladder and urethra, kidney damage, reproductive tract infections resulting from obstructed menstrual flow, pelvic infections, infertility, excessive scar tissue, keloids (raised, irregularly shaped, progressively enlarging scars) and dermoid cysts.
First sexual intercourse can only take place after gradual and painful dilation of the opening left after mutilation. In some cases, cutting is necessary before intercourse can take place. In one study carried out in Sudan, 15% of women interviewed reported that cutting was necessary before penetration could be achieved. Some new wives are seriously damaged by unskilful cutting carried out by their husbands. A possible additional problem resulting from all types of female genital mutilation is that lasting damage to the genital area can increase the risk of HIV transmission during intercourse. During childbirth, existing scar tissue on excised women may tear. Infibulated women, whose genitals have been tightly closed, have to be cut to allow the baby to emerge. If no attendant is present to do this, perineal tears or obstructed labour can occur. After giving birth, women are often reinfibulated to make them "tight" for their husbands. The constant cutting and restitching of a women's genitals with each birth can result in tough scar tissue in the genital area.
Genital mutilation can make first intercourse an ordeal for women. It can be extremely painful, and even dangerous, if the woman has to be cut open; for some women, intercourse remains painful. Even where this is not the case, the importance of the clitoris in experiencing sexual pleasure and orgasm suggests that mutilation involving partial or complete clitoridectomy would adversely affect sexual fulfilment. Clinical considerations and the majority of studies on women's enjoyment of sex suggest that genital mutilation does impair a women's enjoyment. However, one study found that 90% of the infibulated women interviewed reported experiencing orgasm.
The mechanisms involved in sexual enjoyment and orgasm are still not fully understood, but it is thought that compensatory processes, some of them psychological, may mitigate some of the effects of removal of the clitoris and other sensitive parts of the genitals.
Custom and tradition are by far the most frequently cited reasons for FGM. Along with other physical or behavioural characteristics, FGM defines who is in the group. This is most obvious where mutilation is carried out as part of the initiation into adulthood. Jomo Kenyatta, the late President of Kenya, argued that FGM was inherent in the initiation which is in itself an essential part of being Kikuyu, to such an extent that "abolition... will destroy the tribal system". A study in Sierra Leone reported a similar feeling about the social and political cohesion promoted by the Bundo and Sande secret societies, who carry out initiation mutilations and teaching. Many people in FGM-practising societies, especially traditional rural communities, regard FGM as so normal that they cannot imagine a woman who has not undergone mutilation. Others are quoted as saying that only outsiders or foreigners are not genitally mutilated. A girl cannot be considered an adult in a FGM-practising society unless she has undergone FGM.
FGM is often deemed necessary in order for a girl to be considered a complete woman, and the practice marks the divergence of the sexes in terms of their future roles in life and marriage.The removal of the clitoris and labia ' viewed by some as the "male parts" of a woman's body ' is thought to enhance the girl's femininity, often synonymous with docility and obedience.It is possible that the trauma of mutilation may have this effect on a girl's personality. If mutilation is part of an initiation rite, then it is accompanied by explicit teaching about the woman's role in her society.
In many societies, an important reason given for FGM is the belief that it reduces a woman's desire for sex, therefore reducing the chance of sex outside marriage. The ability of unmutilated women to be faithful through their own choice is doubted. In many FGM-practising societies, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to marry if she has not undergone mutilation. In the case of infibulation, a woman is "sewn up" and "opened" only for her husband. Societies that practise infibulation are strongly patriarchal. Preventing women from indulging in "illegitimate" sex, and protecting them from unwilling sexual relations, are vital because the honour of the whole family is seen to be dependent on it. Infibulation does not, however, provide a guarantee against "illegitimate" sex, as a woman can be "opened" and "closed" again. In some cultures, enhancement of the man's sexual pleasure is a reason cited for mutilation. Anecdotal accounts, however, suggest that men prefer unmutilated women as sexual partners.
Cleanliness and hygiene feature consistently as justifications for FGM. Popular terms for mutilation are synonymous with purification (tahara in Egypt, tahur in Sudan), or cleansing (sili-ji among the Bambarra, an ethnic group in Mali). In some FGM-practising societies, unmutilated women are regarded as unclean and are not allowed to handle food and water.
Connected with this is the perception in FGM-practising communities that women's unmutilated genitals are ugly and bulky. In some cultures, there is a belief that a woman's genitals can grow and become unwieldy, hanging down between her legs, unless the clitoris is excised. Some groups believe that a woman's clitoris is dangerous and that if it touches a man's penis he will die. Others believe that if the baby's head touches the clitoris during childbirth, the baby will die. Ideas about the health benefits of FGM are not unique to Africa.
In 19th Century England, there were debates as to whether clitoridectomy could cure women of "illnesses" such as hysteria and "excessive" masturbation. Clitoridectomy continued to be practised for these reasons until well into this century in the USA. However, health benefits are not the most frequently cited reason for mutilation in societies where it is still practised; where they are, it is more likely to be because mutilation is part of an initiation where women are taught to be strong and uncomplaining about illness. Some societies where FGM is practised believe that it enhances fertility, the more extreme believing that an unmutilated woman cannot conceive. In some cultures it is believed that clitoridectomy makes childbirth safer.FGM predates Islam and is not practised by the majority of Muslims, but has acquired a religious dimension. Where it is practised by Muslims, religion is frequently cited as a reason.
Many of those who oppose mutilation deny that there is any link between the practise and religion, but Islamic leaders are not unanimous on the subject. The Qur'an does not contain any call for FGM, but a few hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) refer to it. In one case, in answer to a question put to him by 'Um 'Attiyah (a practitioner of FGM), the Prophet is quoted as saying "reduce but do not destroy". Mutilation has persisted among some converts to Christianity. Christian missionaries have tried to discourage the practice, but found it to be too deep rooted. In some cases, in order to keep converts, they have ignored and even condoned the practice. FGM was practised by the minority Ethiopian Jewish community (Beta Israel), formerly known as Falasha, a derogatory term, most of whom now live in Israel, but it is not known if the practise has persisted following their emigration to Israel. The remainder of the FGM-practising community follow traditional Animist religions.