Female genital mutilation (FGM), also sometimes called female genital cutting or female circumcision, is practiced in more than 25 African countries, as well as several countries in western Asia and in various ethnic minority communities in other Asian countries. The practice takes one of three forms. The mildest form of FGM is called Sunna and involves cutting the hood of the clitoris. It is the form of FGM considered most analogous to male circumcision, but traditionally Sunna has not been widely practiced. More common is infibulation, which is the most extreme form of FGM. Infibulation is the removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and most of the labia majora. The vagina is then stitched closed, except that a tiny opening is left for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. The most commonly practiced form of FGM is excision. In excision, the clitoris and all or part of the labia minora are removed.
Although FGM is sometimes performed on infants, it is more typically considered a rite of passage for young girls between the ages of 6 and 14. Traditionally, the practice has been accompanied by much fanfare to celebrate the girl’s entry into womanhood and to mark her as marriageable. The underlying rationale for FGM is to ensure a girl’s purity. In most societies that practice FGM, it is widely believed that females have a naturally insatiable sex drive. By removing their genitalia, the societies are protecting girls from sexual temptation. In fact, the uncut are usually considered “unclean” and, therefore, unmarriageable, so they are consequently unfit to fulfill their culture’s most valued roles for women: wife and mother. To refuse to have one’s daughters cut is essentially economic suicide in many practicing societies, since no respectable men will associate with uncut girls.
Historically, FGM received little attention in Western countries. Beginning in the 1970s, however, feminist researchers began publicizing information about the practice in order to raise awareness about its detrimental effects on women and girls and to pressure governments of practicing countries to outlaw it. Because the cutting is usually done by an elder village woman or traditional birth attendant using various nonsurgical and unsterilized instruments (e.g., a razor, a knife, a piece of broken glass, a flattened nail) without the benefit of anesthetics, the practice is not only extremely painful, but also has many serious health complications. These include shock, hemorrhage, septicemia, and tetanus, and the practice also can result in death. At the very least, those who have been cut are unlikely to ever experience sexual pleasure. FGM makes sexual intercourse quite painful, and also increases the incidence of serious complications during childbirth, raising the probability of maternal and infant mortality.
Western feminists, joined by groups of African women and men, have organized campaigns to eliminate FGM, primarily by educating parents about the dangers of the practice and by lobbying governments to enact legislation prohibiting it. Only a few African governments, such as that of Kenya, have passed such laws, but research indicates that they are weakly enforced and that many parents continue to adhere to traditional beliefs, so they have the cutting done in secret rather than with the customary public celebration. Several Western countries, including the United States, Canada, France, and Great Britain, have enacted laws prohibiting FGM, in response to recent cases involving African immigrants importing the practice to their new countries of residence. Nevertheless, some immigrant parents try to save enough money to send their daughters back to their home country for the cutting ritual. In Canada, the threat of FGM in an individual’s home country is grounds for granting the individual trying to escape the practice refugee status. The courts in the United States have been reluctant to follow Canada’s lead, but some have granted asylum to women fleeing FGM.
Despite the serious complications from FGM, resistance to eliminating it has come not just from parents who do not wish to jeopardize their daughters’ marriageability, but also from individuals who resent what they perceive as “outsiders” imposing Western values and trying to destroy the Indigenous culture. Women themselves have also been resistant to change since the practice serves as a source of power and status for them. Efforts to eliminate FGM, therefore, need to be sensitive to local cultural concerns and should simultaneously implement policies and programs to provide women with other avenues of power and status in their societies.
- Barker-Benfield, J. (1976). The horrors of the half-known life. New York: Harper & Row.
- Lightfoot-Klein, H. (1989). Prisoners of ritual: An odyssey into female genital circumcision in Africa. New York: Harrington Park Press.
- Wilson, T. D. (2002). Pharonic circumcision under patriarchy and breast augmentation under phallocentric capitalism: Similarities and differences. Violence Against Women, 8, 495–521.
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