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Female Genital Mutilation

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Biology 103
2003 Third Paper
On Serendip

Female Genital Mutilation

La Toiya La Vita

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision, is a destructive and invasive procedure involving the removal or alteration of female genital. The procedure is carried out at a variety of ages, ranging from shortly after birth to some time during the first pregnancy, but most commonly occurs between the ages of four and eight. There are three main types of FGC that are practiced: Type I (Sunna circumcision), Type II (Excision), and Type III (Infibulation). These three operation range in intensity, from the "mildness" of Type I, to the extreme Type III.

The practice occurs in Africa, the Middle East, parts of Asia, and in immigrant communities in Europe and North America. An estimated 135 million of the world's girls and women have undergone genital mutilation, and two million girls a year are at risk - approximately 6,000 per day - about one every 15 seconds. (1) Although Female Genital Mutilation predates Islam and is not practiced by the majority of Muslims, it has acquired this religious dimension. However, FGM is a cross-cultural and cross-religious ritual. In Africa and the Middle East it is performed by Muslims, Coptic Christians, members of various indigenous groups, Protestants, and Catholics; to name a few.

The type of mutilation practiced, the age at which it is carried out, and the way its done varies according to a variety of factors, including the woman or girl's ethnic group, what country they are living in, whether in a rural or urban area and their socio-economic background. The first and "mildest" type of FGM is called "sunna circumcision" or Type I. The term "Sunna" refers to tradition as taught by the prophet Muhammad. This specific procedure involves the removal of the tip of the clitoris and/or its covering (prepuce). The second type of FGM, Type II also known as clitoridectomy, involves the partial or entire removal of the clitoris, as well as the scraping off of the labia majora and labia minora. This procedure is often used by countries that are prohibited from using the more extreme procedures. Clitoridectomy was invented by Sudanese midwives as a compromise when British legislation forbade the more extreme operations in 1946. (2)

Infibulation (a.k.a. Pharaonic circumcision) is the third and most dramatic procedure of FGM's; it has been banned in some countries but still exists in others. This most extreme form consists of the removal of the clitoris, the adjacent labia minora, labia majora, and the urethral and vaginal openings are cut away. The vagina is then stitched or held together with thorns, leaving a small opening for menstruation and urination. To engage in intercourse the woman is then cut open by her husband on their wedding night. The woman's vagina is often restitched if her husband leaves on a long trip to secure fidelity. Female Genital Mutilations are mostly done without anesthesia and in unsanitary conditions where instruments such as unsterilized razor blades, tin lids, scissors, kitchen knives, and broken glass are used. (3)These instruments are frequently used on several girls in succession and are rarely cleaned.

In various cultures there exist different "justifications" for Female Genital Mutilation including preserving cultural and gender identity, controlling women sexuality, and other things as well. Other arguments supporting FGM are that it will reduce promiscuity, increase cleanliness, and enhance femininity. In cultures where FGM is common, marriage prospects are higher for a woman who has undergone the procedure. Many people in FGM-practicing societies, especially traditional rural communities, see FGM as a large part of their cultural identity and regard it as so normal that they cannot imagine a woman who has not undergone mutilation. 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". (4)

Societies that practice infibulation are strongly patriarchal. Preventing women from indulging in "illegitimate" sex, and protecting them from unwilling sexual relations, are vital because the honor of the whole family is dependent on it. Infibulation does not, however, provide a guarantee against "illegitimate" sex, as a woman can be "opened" and "closed" again. Unmutilated women are often regarded as unclean and are not allowed to handle food and water. In some areas of Africa, in relation to pregnancies, FGM is delayed until two months before a woman gives birth. This practice is based on the belief that the baby will die if she/he comes into contact with their mother's clitoris during birth or the baby will be hydrocephalic (born with excess cranial fluid) if its head comes in contact with the clitoris. In some societies the clitoris may represents other harmful things including:

--The clitoris is dangerous and must be removed for health reasons. Some believe that it is a poisonous organ that 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.

--Bad genital odors can only be eliminated by removing the clitoris and labia minora.

--FGM prevents vaginal cancer.

--An unmodified clitoris can lead to masturbation or lesbianism.

--FGM prevents nervousness from developing in girls and women.

--FGM prevents the face from turning yellow.

--FGM makes a woman's face more beautiful.

--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.

--An intact clitoris generates sexual arousal in women which can cause neuroses if repressed.
The most common justification for FGM is its tradition. Many of the practitioners are unwilling to change their customs and are often kept ignorant of the real implications of FGM, and the extreme health risks that it involves. These beliefs and baseless fears are among the many justifications of this appalling procedure.

Aside from the obvious pain and torture that these women must go through there are several other serious and fatal effects. During the procedure pain, shock, hemorrhage and damage to the organs surrounding the clitoris and labia can occur. The use of the same unsterilized instrument on several girls can cause the spread of infections including HIV, which in most cases can lead to AIDS. Extreme discomfort and pain is felt as a result from the common chronic infections, intermittent bleeding, abscesses and small benign tumors of the nerve from clitoridectomy and excision. As a result of infibulation there are 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, keloids (raised, irregularly shaped, progressively enlarging scars) and dermoid cysts. In order for sexual intercourse to take place the opening of the vagina must gradually and painfully dilated, in which most cases cutting is necessary. The sewn vagina is also cut open during pregnancy so that the child may pass through, and they are then sewn back together to make them "tight" for their husbands. The constant cutting and restitching can result in tough scar tissue.

The issue of FGM has received increasing global attention and controversy over the past several years for various reasons. Yes it is true that the practice must be dealt with in order save these women and promote Human Rights, but we must take into consideration the strong and unbinding presence of cultural importance and implications which make the matter much harder to resolve in a way that is effective. Although Female Genital mutilation is seen as barbaric, we must shed light on the fact that up until a few decades ago, the clitoris was still believed to be a very dangerous part of the body. "Elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity." (Sigmund Freud) As recently as 1979, these surgeries were performed on women in the United States. In this sense the controversy regarding FGM can be seen as a form of hypocrisy and cultural imperialism, which leads people to ask, "What right do others have to criticize our way of life?" leading them to challenge Western practices such as giving people up for adoption, sending parents to elderly homes, or conducting abortions. This forces me to think open-mindedly about this issue. The first place we should start, as people who are concerned, is educating. Members of African societies whom perform these procedures must first know of the fatal consequences. Educating these communities and higher officials will shed light on the risk and danger involved, and then those communities can work on shaping a society which keeps its culture, traditions, and rituals but reexamines the bloodiness and torture involved in them. To just eradicate these rituals won't do much good, because we can erase the practice but we can't simply erase the mentalities attached. Men and other authoritative figures will continue to instill these same values of superiority and dominance thus creating a majority where women will be caught between the social norms of the "educated" and those of the majority. The struggle is not getting rid of these horrendous practices, more importantly the struggle involves reshaping the consciousness involved, which isn't so easy a task.

(Additional Material)


"I was genitally mutilated at the age of ten. I was told by my late grandmother that they were taking me down to the river to perform a certain ceremony, and afterwards I would be given a lot of food to eat. As an innocent child, I was led like a sheep to be slaughtered.

Once I entered the secret bush, I was taken to a very dark room and undressed. I was blindfolded and stripped naked. I was then carried by two strong women to the site for the operation. I was forced to lie flat on my back by four strong women, two holding tight to each leg. Another woman sat on my chest to prevent my upper body from moving. A piece of cloth was forced in my mouth to stop me screaming. I was then shaved.

When the operation began, I put up a big fight. The pain was terrible and unbearable. During this fight, I was badly cut and lost blood. All those who took part in the operation were half-drunk with alcohol. Others were dancing and singing, and worst of all, had stripped naked.

I was genitally mutilated with a blunt penknife.

After the operation, no one was allowed to aid me to walk. The stuff they put on my wound stank and was painful. These were terrible times for me. Each time I wanted to urinate, I was forced to stand upright. The urine would spread over the wound and would cause fresh pain all over again. Sometimes I had to force myself not to urinate for fear of the terrible pain. I was not given any anesthetic in the operation to reduce my pain, nor any antibiotics to fight against infection. Afterwards, I hemorrhaged and became anemic. This was attributed to witchcraft. I suffered for a long time from acute vaginal infections."

Hannah Koroma, Sierra Leone



1)Female Genital Mutilation In Africa, The Middle East & Far East, Nice site, but focused around breaking down religious misconceptions.

2)Female Genital Cutting (FGC): An Introduction, This Site is basic, yet informative.

3)Female Genital Mutilation; Contemporary Human Rights Issues, Short and to the point.

4)What is female genital mutilation?, This site is nice pretty good because it's outlined by very common yet helpful and interesting questions.



Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

10/13/2005, from a Reader on the Web

Hi Serendip staff, I am currently doing research for a paper on FGM, as it is a controversial topic that has stirred strong emotions of anger and interest on my part since having first learned about it my junior year of high school. I found the concise article on the procedure very informative. I would also like to praise the writer for presenting two sides to the issue, as it allows for an understanding of the reasons, however ludicrous, behind it. My only block now lies in formulating a thesis. I want to make a claim that expresses my disgust at the procedure while supported by logic. Your piece was great.



Paul Jablonka's picture


The reason fails to list "purification". It fails also to notice that an inventory of the work on Palestenian women reveals that most of the operations are trivial. It fails to mention that Etheopian Catholics do this also as in it is not unknown among them. Jehovists mutilate their male children..... they got to me somehow. The central weakness of the deal is the actual definition of purification; it is actually none of the above as in nothing tangabel... a reification issue perhaps. Also it is done by women to their young girls... If anyone should know better.... So print an illustrated leaflet in the local language (on durable paper or plastic) describing and illustrating how to obtain the purification for Science Sure by way of a procedure painful and bloody enough but that WILL heal up OK.: Since they all don't have any clear idea what the purity mechanics actually are, they can not have a clear idea that they are not obtained. I suggest a transverse clitoral hood piercing that will support a cute silver dongel. People have a right to fool religens, like Islam, so don't resist it; help them like I said. Your problem with it comes from your fool religen.