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Finding a Path in the Absence of Truth

I.W.'s picture

Isabelle Winer


Paper 4

Finding a Path in the Absence of Truth

With billions of people and millions of cultures all simultaneously inhabiting the world today, a universal truth seems entirely impossible.  Every culture has had its own collective mass of experiences unique to them, which have shaped the manner in which they view and participate in our shared world.  Often times these groups even have truths which conflict with those of other groups, but as we have learned over the past semester those conflicting stories are all true to the people who believe them.  We cannot place them in a hierarchy because ultimately they are simply the functional and evolving stories that are the most practical for each group.  Yet having accepted that no story is better than another leads the global community no closer to figuring out how to handle these conflicting stories.  When peoples’ lives and well-being become threatened by these stories it becomes even more pressing to be able to find a functional and fair manner in which the world can govern itself.  In recent years the predominantly African practice of excising the clitoris has become increasingly debated in the global community.  This traditional practice has come to be called, amongst human rights activists and then later organizations such as the United Nation and the World health organization, female genital mutilation (FGM).  Outside of Africa there is a general feeling of disgust at the practice of FGM, but there has also been the opposing argument that this is simply another case of economically powerful nations imposing their own moral judgments upon a folk lifestyle.  Defenders of female genital mutilation, or female genital cutting, range from many of the African women who have undergone the operation to western academics who believe that we cannot fully understand the practice and therefore cannot judge it.  While this practice may be an integral part of a complex culture in which women are glad to undergo the pain and trauma, in its current form female genital cutting is life threatening to the women who endure it.  It has become critical to find a tiebreaker amongst all the stories.  Education and freedom of information are that tiebreaker.  The women of Africa should be allowed to decide their own future, but they should be informed enough to do so.  Currently, the overwhelming lack of accurate information is contributing to the existence of female genital cutting, and that is where the true problem lies.

Female genital mutilation is an umbrella term used for any sort of modern procedure in which there is partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or injury to the external or internal female genitalia.  It is estimated that between 100 and 140 million girls and women have undergone some sort of female genital mutilation[1]. The most common form of female genital cutting, accounting for up to 80% of all cases, is the excision of the clitoris along with part or all of the labia minora[2]. Another 15% of women have also undergone infibulation.  Infibulation is the stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening, which must later be reopened to allow sexual intercourse[3].  There has been much debate recently about the prevalence of short-term and long-term effect of genital cutting. Furthermore, the effects vary greatly depending on the type of procedure and the manner in which it is performed.  Some possible short-term complications include severe pain, shock, hemorrhage, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region, and injury to the surrounding tissue. Death can result from shock, hemorrhage, or infection.  Cysts and abscesses, keloid scar formation, damage to the urethra, urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse), sexual dysfunction, and difficulties with childbirth are all possible side effects of these procedures. The spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is possible when the same instruments are used on multiple women, but the extent of this is unknown as it has never been the subject of extensive research.  Because this practice is so secretive, it is hard to accurately estimate how many women have undergone some form of the procedure.  As the map shows it is pretty concentrated to the middle and northwest of the African continent with a high concentration around Egypt and Sudan. Also highly variable is the age at which female genital mutilation takes place. It is performed on infants, adolescents, and sometimes even on mature women.

Some of the reasons families and communities give for performing female genital cutting upon their daughters are, “‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, cleanliness, purity, enhancement of fertility, and reduction of excessive sexual desire”[4].  In some areas it is believed that men and women are both born ambiguously sexed.  Therefore men and women must both undergo some sort of genital cutting, so that they remove the elements of their genitalia that belong to the opposite sex.   More specifically in the women it is thought that the clitoris is actually a very small penis.  According to myth the male Sky-God could not have sexual intercourse with the female Earth because she had a protruding anthill on her.   It was not until that anthill was removed that they could have intercourse and produce the first humans[5].   Another explanation is that by removing the clitoris from the women, and therefore lessening her sex drive, her chastity can be maintained until marriage and her fidelity can be assured once married. Some Muslims believe that female genital cutting is demanded by the Islamic faith. In fact, the belief that Islam demands this is the reason why there are some communities in the Middle East who also practice genital cutting. The two final common explanations are that it provides aesthetic appeal or that it maintains social cohesion and integrity. For all of these reasons genital cutting is now widespread across mid-Africa. In places such as Egypt and the Sudan it is now the social norm, although still performed secretly.  There have been many accusations amongst the human rights and medical communities that genital cutting can lead to feeling of incompleteness, anxiety, and depression amongst the women who have undergone genital cutting, but the reality is often the exact opposite.  If a women chooses to not have the operation then every women in her community will know.  As a result none of the older women in the area will allow her son to marry the uncut girl.  By choosing to not undergo the procedure a women loses many of the opportunities she would have otherwise had because she is seen as unclean, immature, or even infertile. Female genital cutting has become so ingrained in the society and social interaction that there really is no choice but to do it.  Otherwise the woman is doomed to a very lonely lifestyle filled with feelings of incompleteness, anxiety, and depression.

            With a culture so deeply rooted in its beliefs that millions of women each year are subjected to a dangerous and excruciating procedure, it seems impossible to put an end to thousands of years of tradition.  Furthermore, is it truly justifiable to forcefully abolish and outlaw female genital cutting and thereby radically impose our set of moral judgments on a group of people who have had an entirely different set of experiences?  Another factor that complicates the debate even further is that there is not just one group of people that believe in the importance of female genital cutting, there are many and each one with its own unique reasons.  To western women sex and sexual pleasure have become of huge importance in the fight for equality.  More specifically, the clitoris has come to represent hundreds of years of being oppressed and ignored.   For western women the role of the clitoris has been dramatically defined by the writing of Sigmund Freud in 1905.  Freud claimed that mature women should only experience vaginal orgasms because clitoral orgasms are an adolescent phenomenon.  He saw masturbation as an inherently male practice, which is inappropriate for full-grown women.  This caused the many women who were unable to achieve an orgasm through solely vaginal intercourse to feel inadequate or dysfunctional.  According to a recent study of 4000 women  published in a Royal Study journal, one in three women reported never or rarely achieving an orgasm through exclusively vaginal intercourse[6].  The same study also showed that masturbation increased the number of women who were capable of reaching an orgasm.  Freud’s claim was a symptom of a more widespread cultural view that men enjoyed and desired sex while women simply endured it.  Even to this day in western culture there is a double standard.  If a man is sexually promiscuous he is seen as a hero among men and desired by women.  Yet if a woman is sexually open and experimental, both men and women tag her as a “slut”.  To western women the clitoris signifies both their sexuality and their independence from men.  Therefore when they hear about women having their clitoris removed, the natural assumption is that the women also have no freedom.

            Western women view femininity as being tied up inexorably with the clitoris.  This is simply not the case in many African societies, in fact they view the clitoris as being directing opposed to their femininity.  The women of Kono in Sierra Leone demonstrate this alternative view of female sexuality.  They come from one of the communities that believe that all children are born androgynous and that as adolescents the children must undergo surgical procedures so as to be assigned to their sex, and therefore become fertile.  Sexual pleasure to the people of Kono is the incentive for reproduction.  It is believed that if the clitoris is left on the women it will grow to become a small penis, a clearly masculine attribute.  Additionally if the clitoris is not removed they think that women will begin pleasuring themselves solely through masturbation and lose all interest in sexual intercourse, resulting in no reproduction. Masturbation is also seen as an inherently masculine act.  Since to the people of Kono reproduction is the most important aspect of life, the clitoris must be removed. The women of Kono do not see this as an attack on their femininity; instead they view the removal of their clitoris as a reinforcement of their female sexuality.  Despite the removal of their clitoris, these women do not feel as if their sexual lives have been inhibited.  They have simply moved on to a new phase in their sexual lives: one that requires the partnership of a man.  One twenty-one year old Kono women said of orgasms post-clitorectomy, “When a man really loves you, he will take his time to do it, and it will be very sweet.”[7] Whether they are citizens of Kono or not, many of the women who undergo female genital cutting are glad to be rid of their clitoris, because their culture has taught them to.  Even if they are not pleased to be rid of it, they know that by accepted it they will be able to live much more normal lives. 

            The fears and concerns expressed by the participants of female genital cutting are not as foreign to American women as they would like to think.  The women of the West have always been attempting to change their appearances so as to appear more sexually appealing.  In recent years with the help of new medical instruments and techniques, western women are going under the knife in increasing number to make themselves more closely suited to their societies view of beauty.  Attempting to achieve the large breasted ideal perpetually thrust at women in the media and advertising, 291,000 women each year receive breast implants. That is up 37% from five years ago.[8]  Within the last couple of years this surgical obsession has dropped below the belts of women.  Labioplasty is a vaginal surgery consisting of the reduction of the folds of the labia to make it appear smaller.[9]  Either or both the Mons Pubis and the external/internal labia are partially excised to reduce their size.  While some women undergo the procedure due to physical pain as a result of clothing or sexual intercourse, many women have solely aesthetic reasons.   Women who get the procedure either have had stretching due to childbirth or are just unhappy with the size of their labia.  The public awareness and popularity of this procedure has increased thanks to frequent articles about labioplasty in popular women’s’ magazines.  Another type of female genital procedure is piercing.  Genital piercing is an incredibly interesting aspect of western society because unlike poplar belief, it is actually a uniquely western practice.  Most people believe genital piercing to be a barbaric practice performed mainly by isolated tribes in underdeveloped countries, but there have actually been very minimal references to genital piercing outside of recent western history.  These consist primarily of few small tribes in Borneo and a mention in the Kamasutra.[10]  Genital piercing first became relatively common in post World War II Europe and America.  Then in the 1970s it became more popular and fashionable with the rise of the punk rock movement and some gay and S&M subcultures. [11]  The most popular female piercing is the vertical clitoral hood (VCH), in which the tissue above the clitoris is pierced.  The VCH can also be done by piercing the tissue deep behind the clitoris.  Piercing of the actual clitoris is rare, not due to lack of interest, but because a women must have an exceptionally large clitoris for the piercer to be able to perform the procedure.  Genital piercing does pose distinct risks.  If the piercing is not properly cared for infection can set in, which can lead to sterility and other potentially life-threatening conditions.  Furthermore unsterilized equipment has the potential to spread many diseases including leprosy, tetanus, tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV, and other sexually transmitted diseases.  Piercing the clitoris can also be very risky as scar tissue can form blocking the release of urine. [12]  While labioplasty and genital piercing may induce a sense of disgust amongst many citizens of the western world, they are generally accepted as being something that should be allowed to continue.  That is because of the basic difference between these practices and female genital cutting.  For either labioplasy or genital piercing it be legal, the person undergoing them must be fully informed of the risks involved and what the procedure entails.  Furthermore, the law requires labioplasty and genital piercing both to be performed by trained professionals in a sterile environment.

            In Fuimbai Ahmadu’s ethnography titled “Rites and Wrongs:  An Insider/Outsider Reflects on power and Excision” she graphically details her own personal experience of undergoing female genital cutting in her Kono community.  Fuambai returned to Freetown, Sierra Leone when she was around twenty-one after having spent a majority of her life in Washington, DC.  She was told that she and her fourteen year old sister where returning to their native country for their ritual initiation into womanhood.  While Fuambai has a vague understanding of what that “initiation” entailed, neither she nor her mother could bring herself to fill in her younger sister.  She describes being drugged soon after her arrival and told nothing of what was to come.  In her drugged state a mock battle occurred in which she and her sister were yanked naked from side to side.  Soon there after Fuambai was given somewhat more information about what was to come, but she knew it was only because of her advanced age that they broke the “code of silence”.  Her sister did not get that same courtesy.  From there she was drugged further, separated from her sister, and taken into a small shack.  She was set down on a large leaf with her legs splayed open.  Then they proceeded to hold her down while a sharp blade made two incisions.  Drums drowned out her initial cries of agony.  Then she lacked enough strength to even scream and they left to begin on her sister.  The overarching themes of her experience were a lack of control and knowledge.  Upon entering Sierra Leone she was never given the chance to say “no” or even informed of the details of the procedure she was about to be subjected to.  In retrospect Faumbai is a supporter of the practice, but there are many other women who have been through the same ordeal and are not accepting of it. 

            Acknowledging that there is no universal truth can leave the world in a seemingly impossible knot, but to live in this world there has to be a way to still function on a global scale.  In class we have spent a lot of time discussing how each “truth” is just a story constructed that has a useful purpose.  Therefore to end we simply need to remove the usefulness of this particular story.  In the case of female genital mutilation education is truly the answer.  By allowing these communities greater access to information it will slowly reduce the usefulness of the story of female genital cutting.  When these women are able to see that there are billions of women out there who have had entirely normal lives with their clitorises still attached, the risks will no longer be worth it.  Obviously a change is going to take time, because when a practice has been occurring for thousands of years, as female genital cutting has been, an instant change is impossible.  History is an incredibly powerful force, but a mother’s love for her child is even stronger.  The only reason that these mothers are subjecting their young daughters to this agonizing ritual is because they believe it is a necessary part of life.  When they see that it is not, it will not be worth watching their daughters cry out in agony.







Works Cited


  1. "Female Genital Mutilation." World Health Organization Fact Sheets. June 2000. World Health Organization. 9 May 2007 <>.
  2. "Female Orgasm is 'Down to Genes.'" BBC News. 7 June 2005. BBC. 9 May 2007 <>.
  3. "The Most Common Cosmetic Surgeries." Forbes. 9 May 2007 <>.
  4. Rodriguez, Ricardo, MD, and Keith Robertson, MD. "Labioplasty." Cosmeticsurg - The Science of Beauty. 9 May 2007 <>.
  5. Griffin, Morgan R. "All About Genital Piercing." WebMD. Ed. Brunilda Nazario, MD. 2003. 9 May 2007 <>.
  6. Shweder, Richard A. "What About 'Female Genital Mutilation'? And Why Understanding Culture Matters in the First Place." Taking Sides: Clashing Veiws on Controversial African Issues. Ed. William G. Moseley. N.p.: n.p., 2004. 192-195.
  7. Creel, Liz. "Abandoning Female Genital Cutting: Prevalence, Attitudes, and Efforts to End the Practice." Taking Sides: Clashing Veiws on Controversial African Issues. Ed. William G Moseley. N.p.: n.p., 2004. 200-208.
  8. Ahmadu, Fuambai. "Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision." Female "Circumcision" in Africa. 283-312.
  9. "Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa." Map. afrol News. 9 May 2007 <>.

[1] "Female Genital Mutilation." World Health Organization Fact Sheets

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ahmadu, Fuambai. "Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision."

[5] Ibid.

[6] "Female Orgasm is 'Down to Genes.'" BBC News

[7] Ahmadu, Fuambai. "Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision."

[8] "The Most Common Cosmetic Surgeries." Forbes

[9] Rodriguez, Ricardo, MD, and Keith Robertson, MD. "Labioplasty."

[10] Griffin, Morgan R. "All About Genital Piercing."

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.