Female Genital Mutilation
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, is the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. The practice is found in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and within communities from countries in which FGM is common. UNICEF estimated in 2016 that 200 million women living today in 30 countries—27 African countries, Indonesia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Yemen—have undergone the procedures.
Typically carried out by a traditional circumciser using a blade, FGM is conducted from days after birth to puberty and beyond. In half the countries for which national figures are available, most girls are cut before the age of five. Procedures differ according to the country or ethnic group. They include removal of the clitoral hood and clitoral glans; removal of the inner labia; and removal of the inner and outer labia and closure of the vulva. In this last procedure, known as infibulation, a small hole is left for the passage of urine and menstrual fluid; the vagina is opened for intercourse and opened further for childbirth.
The practice is rooted in gender inequality, attempts to control women’s sexuality, and ideas about purity, modesty and beauty. It is usually initiated and carried out by women, who see it as a source of honour and fear that failing to have their daughters and granddaughters cut will expose the girls to social exclusion. Adverse health effects depend on the type of procedure; they can include recurrent infections, difficulty urinating and passing menstrual flow, chronic pain, the development of cysts, an inability to get pregnant, complications during childbirth, and fatal bleeding. There are no known health benefits.
There have been international efforts since the 1970s to persuade practitioners to abandon FGM, and it has been outlawed or restricted in most of the countries in which it occurs, although the laws are poorly enforced. Since 2010 the United Nations has called upon healthcare providers to stop performing all forms of the procedure, including reinfibulation after childbirth and symbolic “nicking” of the clitoral hood. The opposition to the practice is not without its critics, particularly among anthropologists, who have raised difficult questions about cultural relativism and the universality of human rights.
In countries where FGM is common, the practice’s many variants are reflected in dozens of terms, often alluding to purification. In the Bambara language, spoken mostly in Mali, it is known as bolokoli (“washing your hands”) and in the Igbo language in eastern Nigeria as isa aru or iwu aru (“having your bath”). Other terms include khifad, tahoor, quodiin, irua, bondo, kuruna, negekorsigin, and kene-kene. A common Arabic term for purification has the root t-h-r, used for male and female circumcision (tahur and tahara). It is also known in Arabic as khafḍ or khifaḍ. Communities may refer to FGM as “pharaonic” for infibulation and “sunna” circumcision for everything else. Sunna means “path or way” in Arabic and refers to the tradition of Muhammad, although none of the procedures are required within Islam. The term infibulation derives from fibula, Latin for clasp; the Ancient Romans reportedly fastened clasps through the foreskins or labia of slaves to prevent sexual intercourse. The surgical infibulation of women came to be known as pharaonic circumcision in Sudan, and as Sudanese circumcision in Egypt. In Somalia it is known simply as qodob (“to sew up”).
The WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA issued a joint statement in 1997 defining FGM as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons”. The procedures vary considerably according to ethnicity and individual practitioners. During a 1998 survey in Niger, women responded with over 50 different terms when asked what was done to them. Translation problems are compounded by the women’s confusion over which type of FGM they experienced, or even whether they experienced it. Several studies have suggested that survey responses are unreliable. A 2003 study in Ghana found that in 1995 four percent said they had not undergone FGM, but in 2000 said they had, while 11 percent switched in the other direction. In Tanzania in 2005, 66 percent reported FGM, but a medical exam found that 73 percent had undergone it. In Sudan in 2006, a significant percentage of infibulated women and girls reported a less severe type.
Standard questionnaires from United Nations bodies ask women whether they or their daughters have undergone the following: (1) cut, no flesh removed (symbolic nicking); (2) cut, some flesh removed; (3) sewn closed; or (4) type not determined/unsure/doesn’t know. The most common procedures fall within the “cut, some flesh removed” category and involve complete or partial removal of the clitoral glans. The World Health Organization (a UN agency) created a more detailed typology in 1997: Types I–II vary in how much tissue is removed; Type III is equivalent to the UNICEF category “sewn closed”; and Type IV describes miscellaneous procedures, including symbolic nicking.
Type I is “partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce”. Type Ia involves removal of the clitoral hood only. This is rarely performed alone. The more common procedure is Type Ib (clitoridectomy), the complete or partial removal of the clitoral glans (the visible tip of the clitoris) and clitoral hood. The circumciser pulls the clitoral glans with her thumb and index finger and cuts it off.
Type II (excision) is the complete or partial removal of the inner labia, with or without removal of the clitoral glans and outer labia. Type IIa is removal of the inner labia; Type IIb, removal of the clitoral glans and inner labia; and Type IIc, removal of the clitoral glans, inner and outer labia. Excision in French can refer to any form of FGM.
Type III (infibulation or pharaonic circumcision), the “sewn closed” category, involves the removal of the external genitalia and fusion of the wound. The inner and/or outer labia are cut away, with or without removal of the clitoral glans. Type III is found largely in northeast Africa, particularly Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan (although not in South Sudan). According to one 2008 estimate, over eight million women in Africa are living with Type III FGM. According to UNFPA in 2010, 20 percent of women with FGM have been infibulated. In Somalia “[t]he child is made to squat on a stool or mat facing the circumciser at a height that offers her a good view of the parts to be handled. … adult helpers grab and pull apart the legs of the girl. … If available, this is the stage at which a local anaesthetic would be used”:
The element of speed and surprise is vital and the circumciser immediately grabs the clitoris by pinching it between her nails aiming to amputate it with a slash. The organ is then shown to the senior female relatives of the child who will decide whether the amount that has been removed is satisfactory or whether more is to be cut off.
After the clitoris has been satisfactorily amputated … the circumciser can proceed with the total removal of the labia minora and the paring of the inner walls of the labia majora. Since the entire skin on the inner walls of the labia majora has to be removed all the way down to the perineum, this becomes a messy business. By now, the child is screaming, struggling, and bleeding profusely, which makes it difficult for the circumciser to hold with bare fingers and nails the slippery skin and parts that are to be cut or sutured together. …
Having ensured that sufficient tissue has been removed to allow the desired fusion of the skin, the circumciser pulls together the opposite sides of the labia majora, ensuring that the raw edges where the skin has been removed are well approximated. The wound is now ready to be stitched or for thorns to be applied. If a needle and thread are being used, close tight sutures will be placed to ensure that a flap of skin covers the vulva and extends from the mons veneris to the perineum, and which, after the wound heals, will form a bridge of scar tissue that will totally occlude the vaginal introitus.
The amputated parts might be placed in a pouch for the girl to wear. A single hole of 2–3 mm is left for the passage of urine and menstrual fluid. The vulva is closed with surgical thread, or agave or acacia thorns, and might be covered with a poultice of raw egg, herbs and sugar. To help the tissue bond, the girl’s legs are tied together, often from hip to ankle; the bindings are usually loosened after a week and removed after two to six weeks. If the remaining hole is too large in the view of the girl’s family, the procedure is repeated.
The vagina is opened for sexual intercourse, for the first time either by a midwife with a knife or by the woman’s husband with his penis. In some areas, including Somaliland, female relatives of the bride and groom might watch the opening of the vagina to check that the girl is a virgin. The woman is opened further for childbirth (defibulation or deinfibulation), and closed again afterwards (reinfibulation). Reinfibulation can involve cutting the vagina again to restore the pinhole size of the first infibulation. This might be performed before marriage, and after childbirth, divorce and widowhood. Hanny Lightfoot-Klein interviewed hundreds of women and men in Sudan in the 1980s about sexual intercourse with Type III:
The penetration of the bride’s infibulation takes anywhere from 3 or 4 days to several months. Some men are unable to penetrate their wives at all (in my study over 15%), and the task is often accomplished by a midwife under conditions of great secrecy, since this reflects negatively on the man’s potency. Some who are unable to penetrate their wives manage to get them pregnant in spite of the infibulation, and the woman’s vaginal passage is then cut open to allow birth to take place. … Those men who do manage to penetrate their wives do so often, or perhaps always, with the help of the “little knife”. This creates a tear which they gradually rip more and more until the opening is sufficient to admit the penis.
Type IV is “[a]ll other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes”, including pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization. It includes nicking of the clitoris (symbolic circumcision), burning or scarring the genitals, and introducing substances into the vagina to tighten it. Labia stretching is also categorized as Type IV. Common in southern and eastern Africa, the practice is supposed to enhance sexual pleasure for the man and add to the sense of a woman as a closed space. From the age of eight, girls are encouraged to stretch their inner labia using sticks and massage. Girls in Uganda are told they may have difficulty giving birth without stretched labia.[l]
A definition of FGM from the WHO in 1995 included gishiri cutting and angurya cutting, found in Nigeria and Niger. These were removed from the WHO’s 2008 definition because of insufficient information about prevalence and consequences. Angurya cutting is excision of the hymen, usually performed seven days after birth. Gishiri cutting involves cutting the vagina’s front or back wall with a blade or penknife, performed in response to infertility, obstructed labour and other conditions. In a study by Nigerian physician Mairo Usman Mandara, over 30 percent of women with gishiri cuts were found to have vesicovaginal fistulae (holes that allow urine to seep into the vagina).
Short-term and late
FGM harms women’s physical and emotional health throughout their lives. It has no known health benefits. The short-term and late complications depend on the type of FGM, whether the practitioner has had medical training, and whether they used antibiotics and sterilized or single-use surgical instruments. In the case of Type III, other factors include how small a hole was left for the passage of urine and menstrual blood, whether surgical thread was used instead of agave or acacia thorns, and whether the procedure was performed more than once (for example, to close an opening regarded as too wide or re-open one too small).
Late complications vary depending on the type of FGM. They include the formation of scars and keloids that lead to strictures and obstruction, epidermoid cysts that may become infected, and neuroma formation (growth of nerve tissue) involving nerves that supplied the clitoris. An infibulated girl may be left with an opening as small as 2–3 mm, which can cause prolonged, drop-by-drop urination, pain while urinating, and a feeling of needing to urinate all the time. Urine may collect underneath the scar, leaving the area under the skin constantly wet, which can lead to infection and the formation of small stones. The opening is larger in women who are sexually active or have given birth by vaginal delivery, but the urethra opening may still be obstructed by scar tissue. Vesicovaginal or rectovaginal fistulae can develop (holes that allow urine or faeces to seep into the vagina). This and other damage to the urethra and bladder can lead to infections and incontinence, pain during sexual intercourse and infertility. Painful periods are common because of the obstruction to the menstrual flow, and blood can stagnate in the vagina and uterus. Complete obstruction of the vagina can result in hematocolpos and hematometra (where the vagina and uterus fill with menstrual blood). The swelling of the abdomen and lack of menstruation can resemble pregnancy; Asma El Dareer, a Sudanese physician, reported in 1979 that a girl in Sudan with this condition was killed by her family.
Neonatal mortality is increased. The WHO estimated in 2006 that an additional 10–20 babies die per 1,000 deliveries as a result of FGM. The estimate was based on a study conducted on 28,393 women attending delivery wards at 28 obstetric centres in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan. In those settings all types of FGM were found to pose an increased risk of death to the baby: 15 percent higher for Type I, 32 percent for Type II, and 55 percent for Type III. The reasons for this were unclear, but may be connected to genital and urinary tract infections and the presence of scar tissue. According to the study, FGM was associated with an increased risk to the mother of damage to the perineum and excessive blood loss, as well as a need to resuscitate the baby, and stillbirth, perhaps because of a long second stage of labour.
Psychological effects, sexual function
According to a 2015 systematic review there is little high-quality information available on the psychological effects of FGM. Several small studies have concluded that women with FGM suffer from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Feelings of shame and betrayal can develop when women leave the culture that practises FGM and learn that their condition is not the norm, but within the practising culture they may view their FGM with pride, because for them it signifies beauty, respect for tradition, chastity and hygiene. Studies on sexual function have also been small. A 2013 meta-analysis of 15 studies involving 12,671 women from seven countries concluded that women with FGM were twice as likely to report no sexual desire and 52 percent more likely to report dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse). One third reported reduced sexual feelings.
Type of FGM
Questions the women are asked during the surveys include: “Was the genital area just nicked/cut without removing any flesh? Was any flesh (or something) removed from the genital area? Was your genital area sewn?” Most women report “cut, some flesh removed” (Types I and II).
Type I is the most common form in Egypt, and in the southern parts of Nigeria. Type III (infibulation) is concentrated in northeastern Africa, particularly Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. In surveys in 2002–2006, 30 percent of cut girls in Djibouti, 38 percent in Eritrea, and 63 percent in Somalia had experienced Type III. There is also a high prevalence of infibulation among girls in Niger and Senegal, and in 2013 it was estimated that in Nigeria three percent of the 0–14 age group had been infibulated. The type of procedure is often linked to ethnicity. In Eritrea, for example, a survey in 2002 found that all Hedareb girls had been infibulated, compared with two percent of the Tigrinya, most of whom fell into the “cut, no flesh removed” category.
The highest concentrations among the 15–49 age group are in Somalia (98 percent), Guinea (97 percent), Djibouti (93 percent), Egypt (91 percent) and Sierra Leone (90 percent). As of 2013, 27.2 million women had undergone FGM in Egypt, 23.8 million in Ethiopia, and 19.9 million in Nigeria. There is a high concentration in Indonesia, where according to UNICEF Type I (clitoridectomy) and Type IV (symbolic nicking) are practised; the Indonesian Ministry of Health and Indonesian Ulema Council both say the clitoris should not be cut. The prevalence rate for the 0–11 group in Indonesia is 49 percent (13.4 million).:2 Smaller studies or anecdotal reports suggest that FGM is also practised in Colombia, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and parts of Malaysia; in the United Arab Emirates; and in India by the Dawoodi Bohra. It is found within immigrant communities around the world.
Prevalence figures for the 15–19 age group and younger show a downward trend. For example, Burkina Faso fell from 89 percent (1980) to 58 percent (2010); Egypt from 97 percent (1985) to 70 percent (2015); and Kenya from 41 percent (1984) to 11 percent (2014). Beginning in 2010, household surveys asked women about the FGM status of all their living daughters. The highest concentrations among girls aged 0–14 were in Gambia (56 percent), Mauritania (54 percent), Indonesia (49 percent for 0–11) and Guinea (46 percent). The figures suggest that a girl was one third less likely in 2014 to undergo FGM than she was 30 years ago. According to a 2018 study published in BMJ Global Health, the prevalence within the 0–14 year old group fell in East Africa from 71.4 percent in 1995 to 8 percent in 2016; in North Africa from 57.7 percent in 1990 to 14.1 percent in 2015; and in West Africa from 73.6 percent in 1996 to 25.4 percent in 2017. If the current rate of decline continues, the number of girls cut will nevertheless continue to rise because of population growth, according to UNICEF in 2014; they estimate that the figure will increase from 3.6 million a year in 2013 to 4.1 million in 2050.
Rural areas, wealth, education
Surveys have found FGM to be more common in rural areas, less common in most countries among girls from the wealthiest homes, and (except in Sudan and Somalia) less common in girls whose mothers had access to primary or secondary/higher education. In Somalia and Sudan the situation was reversed: in Somalia the mothers’ access to secondary/higher education was accompanied by a rise in prevalence of FGM in their daughters, and in Sudan access to any education was accompanied by a rise.
FGM is not invariably a rite of passage between childhood and adulthood, but is often performed on much younger children. Girls are most commonly cut shortly after birth to age 15. In half the countries for which national figures were available in 2000–2010, most girls had been cut by age five. Over 80 percent (of those cut) are cut before the age of five in Nigeria, Mali, Eritrea, Ghana and Mauritania. The 1997 Demographic and Health Survey in Yemen found that 76 percent of girls had been cut within two weeks of birth. The percentage is reversed in Somalia, Egypt, Chad and the Central African Republic, where over 80 percent (of those cut) are cut between five and 14. Just as the type of FGM is often linked to ethnicity, so is the mean age. In Kenya, for example, the Kisi cut around age 10 and the Kamba at 16.
A country’s national prevalence often reflects a high sub-national prevalence among certain ethnicities, rather than a widespread practice. In Iraq, for example, FGM is found mostly among the Kurds in Erbil (58 percent prevalence within age group 15–49, as of 2011), Sulaymaniyah (54 percent) and Kirkuk (20 percent), giving the country a national prevalence of eight percent. The practice is sometimes an ethnic marker, but it may differ along national lines. For example, in the northeastern regions of Ethiopia and Kenya, which share a border with Somalia, the Somali people practise FGM at around the same rate as they do in Somalia. But in Guinea all Fulani women responding to a survey in 2012 said they had experienced FGM, against 12 percent of the Fulani in Chad, while in Nigeria the Fulani are the only large ethnic group in the country not to practise it.
Support from women
Dahabo Musa, a Somali woman, described infibulation in a 1988 poem as the “three feminine sorrows”: the procedure itself, the wedding night when the woman is cut open, then childbirth when she is cut again. Despite the evident suffering, it is women who organize all forms of FGM. Anthropologist Rose Oldfield Hayes wrote in 1975 that educated Sudanese men who did not want their daughters to be infibulated (preferring clitoridectomy) would find the girls had been sewn up after the grandmothers arranged a visit to relatives. Gerry Mackie has compared the practice to footbinding. Like FGM, footbinding was carried out on young girls, nearly universal where practised, tied to ideas about honour, chastity and appropriate marriage, and “supported and transmitted” by women.
In communities where infibulation is common, there is a preference for women’s genitals to be smooth, dry and without odour, and both women and men may find the natural vulva repulsive. Some men seem to enjoy the effort of penetrating an infibulation. The local preference for dry sex causes women to introduce substances into the vagina to reduce lubrication, including leaves, tree bark, toothpaste and Vicks menthol rub. The WHO includes this practice within Type IV FGM, because the added friction during intercourse can cause lacerations and increase the risk of infection. Because of the smooth appearance of an infibulated vulva, there is also a belief that infibulation increases hygiene.
Common reasons for FGM cited by women in surveys are social acceptance, religion, hygiene, preservation of virginity, marriageability and enhancement of male sexual pleasure. In a study in northern Sudan, published in 1983, only 17.4 percent of women opposed FGM (558 out of 3,210), and most preferred excision and infibulation over clitoridectomy. Attitudes are changing slowly. In Sudan in 2010, 42 percent of women who had heard of FGM said the practice should continue. In several surveys since 2006, over 50 percent of women in Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Gambia, and Egypt supported FGM’s continuance, while elsewhere in Africa, Iraq, and Yemen most said it should end, although in several countries only by a narrow margin.
Social obligation, poor access to information
Because of poor access to information, and because circumcisers downplay the causal connection, women may not associate the health consequences with the procedure. Lala Baldé, president of a women’s association in Medina Cherif, a village in Senegal, told Mackie in 1998 that when girls fell ill or died, it was attributed to evil spirits. When informed of the causal relationship between FGM and ill health, Mackie wrote, the women broke down and wept. He argued that surveys taken before and after this sharing of information would show very different levels of support for FGM. The American non-profit group Tostan, founded by Molly Melching in 1991, introduced community-empowerment programs in several countries that focus on local democracy, literacy, and education about healthcare, giving women the tools to make their own decisions. In 1997, using the Tostan program, Malicounda Bambara in Senegal became the first village to abandon FGM. By August 2019, 8,800 communities in eight countries had pledged to abandon FGM and child marriage.
Surveys have shown a widespread belief, particularly in Mali, Mauritania, Guinea and Egypt, that FGM is a religious requirement. Gruenbaum has argued that practitioners may not distinguish between religion, tradition, and chastity, making it difficult to interpret the data. FGM’s origins in northeastern Africa are pre-Islamic, but the practice became associated with Islam because of that religion’s focus on female chastity and seclusion. According to a 2013 UNICEF report, in 18 African countries at least 10 percent of Muslim females had experienced FGM, and in 13 of those countries, the figure rose to 50–99 percent. There is no mention of the practice in the Quran. It is praised in a few daʻīf (weak) hadith (sayings attributed to Muhammad) as noble but not required, although it is regarded as obligatory by the Shafi’i version of Sunni Islam. In 2007 the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research in Cairo ruled that FGM had “no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions”.
There is no mention of FGM in the Bible.Christian missionaries in Africa were among the first to object to FGM, but Christian communities in Africa do practise it. In 2013 UNICEF identified 19 African countries in which at least 10 percent of Christian women and girls aged 15 to 49 had undergone FGM; in Niger, 55 percent of Christian women and girls had experienced it, compared with two percent of their Muslim counterparts. The only Jewish group known to have practised it are the Beta Israel of Ethiopia. Judaism requires male circumcision but does not allow FGM. FGM is also practised by animist groups, particularly in Guinea and Mali.
Spell 1117But if a man wants to know how to live, he should recite it [a magical spell] every day, after his flesh has been rubbed with the b3d [unknown substance] of an uncircumcised girl [‘m’t] and the flakes of skin [šnft] of an uncircumcised bald man.
—From an Egyptiansarcophagus, c. 1991–1786 BCE
The practice’s origins are unknown. Gerry Mackie has suggested that, because FGM’s east-west, north-south distribution in Africa meets in Sudan, infibulation may have begun there with the Meroite civilization (c. 800 BCE – c. 350 CE), before the rise of Islam, to increase confidence in paternity. According to historian Mary Knight, Spell 1117 (c. 1991–1786 BCE) of the Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts may refer in hieroglyphs to an uncircumcised girl (‘m’t):
The spell was found on the sarcophagus of Sit-hedjhotep, now in the Egyptian Museum, and dates to Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. (Paul F. O’Rourke argues that ‘m’t probably refers instead to a menstruating woman.) The proposed circumcision of an Egyptian girl, Tathemis, is also mentioned on a Greek papyrus, from 163 BCE, in the British Museum: “Sometime after this, Nephoris [Tathemis’s mother] defrauded me, being anxious that it was time for Tathemis to be circumcised, as is the custom among the Egyptians.”
The examination of mummies has shown no evidence of FGM. Citing the Australian pathologist Grafton Elliot Smith, who examined hundreds of mummies in the early 20th century, Knight writes that the genital area may resemble Type III because during mummification the skin of the outer labia was pulled toward the anus to cover the pudendal cleft, possibly to prevent sexual violation. It was similarly not possible to determine whether Types I or II had been performed, because soft tissues had deteriorated or been removed by the embalmers.
The Greek geographer Strabo (c. 64 BCE – c. 23 CE) wrote about FGM after visiting Egypt around 25 BCE: “This is one of the customs most zealously pursued by them [the Egyptians]: to raise every child that is born and to circumcise [peritemnein] the males and excise [ektemnein] the females …” Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE) also made reference to it: “the Egyptians by the custom of their country circumcise the marriageable youth and maid in the fourteenth (year) of their age, when the male begins to get seed, and the female to have a menstrual flow.” It is mentioned briefly in a work attributed to the Greek physician Galen (129 – c. 200 CE): “When [the clitoris] sticks out to a great extent in their young women, Egyptians consider it appropriate to cut it out.” Another Greek physician, Aëtius of Amida (mid-5th to mid-6th century CE), offered more detail in book 16 of his Sixteen Books on Medicine, citing the physician Philomenes. The procedure was performed in case the clitoris, or nymphê, grew too large or triggered sexual desire when rubbing against clothing. “On this account, it seemed proper to the Egyptians to remove it before it became greatly enlarged,” Aëtius wrote, “especially at that time when the girls were about to be married”:
The surgery is performed in this way: Have the girl sit on a chair while a muscled young man standing behind her places his arms below the girl’s thighs. Have him separate and steady her legs and whole body. Standing in front and taking hold of the clitoris with a broad-mouthed forceps in his left hand, the surgeon stretches it outward, while with the right hand, he cuts it off at the point next to the pincers of the forceps. It is proper to let a length remain from that cut off, about the size of the membrane that’s between the nostrils, so as to take away the excess material only; as I have said, the part to be removed is at that point just above the pincers of the forceps. Because the clitoris is a skinlike structure and stretches out excessively, do not cut off too much, as a urinary fistula may result from cutting such large growths too deeply.
The genital area was then cleaned with a sponge, frankincense powder and wine or cold water, and wrapped in linen bandages dipped in vinegar, until the seventh day when calamine, rose petals, date pits, or a “genital powder made from baked clay” might be applied.
Whatever the practice’s origins, infibulation became linked to slavery. Mackie cites the Portuguese missionary João dos Santos, who in 1609 wrote of a group near Mogadishu who had a “custome to sew up their Females, especially their slaves being young to make them unable for conception, which makes these slaves sell dearer, both for their chastitie, and for better confidence which their Masters put in them”. Thus, Mackie argues, a “practice associated with shameful female slavery came to stand for honor”.
Europe and the United States
Isaac Baker Brown, an English gynaecologist, president of the Medical Society of London and co-founder in 1845 of St. Mary’s Hospital, believed that masturbation, or “unnatural irritation” of the clitoris, caused hysteria, spinal irritation, fits, idiocy, mania and death. He therefore “set to work to remove the clitoris whenever he had the opportunity of doing so”, according to his obituary. Brown performed several clitoridectomies between 1859 and 1866. In the United States, J. Marion Sims followed Brown’s work and in 1862 slit the neck of a woman’s uterus and amputated her clitoris, “for the relief of the nervous or hysterical condition as recommended by Baker Brown”. When Brown published his views in On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females (1866), doctors in London accused him of quackery and expelled him from the Obstetrical Society.
Later in the 19th century, A. J. Bloch, a surgeon in New Orleans, removed the clitoris of a two-year-old girl who was reportedly masturbating. According to a 1985 paper in the Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey, clitoridectomy was performed in the United States into the 1960s to treat hysteria, erotomania and lesbianism. From the mid-1950s, James C. Burt, a gynaecologist in Dayton, Ohio, performed non-standard repairs of episiotomies after childbirth, adding more stitches to make the vaginal opening smaller. From 1966 until 1989, he performed “love surgery” by cutting women’s pubococcygeus muscle, repositioning the vagina and urethra, and removing the clitoral hood, thereby making their genital area more appropriate, in his view, for intercourse in the missionary position. “Women are structurally inadequate for intercourse,” he wrote; he said he would turn them into “horny little mice”. In the 1960s and 1970s he performed these procedures without consent while repairing episiotomies and performing hysterectomies and other surgery; he said he had performed a variation of them on 4,000 women by 1975. Following complaints, he was required in 1989 to stop practicing medicine in the United States.
Colonial opposition in Kenya
Little knives in their sheaths
That they may fight with the church,
The time has come.
Elders (of the church)
When Kenyatta comes
You will be given women’s clothes
And you will have to cook him his food.
— From the Muthirigu (1929), Kikuyu dance-songs against church opposition to FGM
Protestant missionaries in British East Africa (present-day Kenya) began campaigning against FGM in the early 20th century, when Dr. John Arthur joined the Church of Scotland Mission (CSM) in Kikuyu. An important ethnic marker, the practice was known by the Kikuyu, the country’s main ethnic group, as irua for both girls and boys. It involved excision (Type II) for girls and removal of the foreskin for boys. Unexcised Kikuyu women (irugu) were outcasts.
Jomo Kenyatta, general secretary of the Kikuyu Central Association and later Kenya’s first prime minister, wrote in 1938 that, for the Kikuyu, the institution of FGM was the “conditio sine qua non of the whole teaching of tribal law, religion and morality”. No proper Kikuyu man or woman would marry or have sexual relations with someone who was not circumcised, he wrote. A woman’s responsibilities toward the tribe began with her initiation. Her age and place within tribal history was traced to that day, and the group of girls with whom she was cut was named according to current events, an oral tradition that allowed the Kikuyu to track people and events going back hundreds of years.
There was some opposition from Kenyan women themselves. At the mission in Tumutumu, Karatina, where Marion Scott Stevenson worked, a group calling themselves Ngo ya Tuiritu (“Shield of Young Girls”), the membership of which included Raheli Warigia (mother of Gakaara wa Wanjaũ), wrote to the Local Native Council of South Nyeri on 25 December 1931: “[W]e of the Ngo ya Tuiritu heard that there are men who talk of female circumcision, and we get astonished because they (men) do not give birth and feel the pain and even some die and even others become infertile, and the main cause is circumcision. Because of that the issue of circumcision should not be forced. People are caught like sheep; one should be allowed to cut her own way of either agreeing to be circumcised or not without being dictated on one’s own body.”
Elsewhere, support for the practice from women was strong. In 1956 in Meru, eastern Kenya, when the council of male elders (the Njuri Nchecke) announced a ban on FGM in 1956, thousands of girls cut each other’s genitals with razor blades over the next three years as a symbol of defiance. The movement came to be known as Ngaitana (“I will circumcise myself”), because to avoid naming their friends the girls said they had cut themselves. Historian Lynn Thomas described the episode as significant in the history of FGM because it made clear that its victims were also its perpetrators. FGM was eventually outlawed in Kenya in 2001, although the practice continued, reportedly driven by older women.
Growth of opposition
One of the earliest campaigns against FGM began in Egypt in the 1920s, when the Egyptian Doctors’ Society called for a ban. There was a parallel campaign in Sudan, run by religious leaders and British women. Infibulation was banned there in 1946, but the law was unpopular and barely enforced. The Egyptian government banned infibulation in state-run hospitals in 1959, but allowed partial clitoridectomy if parents requested it. (Egypt banned FGM entirely in 2007.)
In 1959, the UN asked the WHO to investigate FGM, but the latter responded that it was not a medical matter. Feminists took up the issue throughout the 1970s. The Egyptian physician and feminist Nawal El Saadawi criticized FGM in her book Women and Sex (1972); the book was banned in Egypt and El Saadawi lost her job as director general of public health. She followed up with a chapter, “The Circumcision of Girls”, in her book The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World (1980), which described her own clitoridectomy when she was six years old:
I did not know what they had cut off from my body, and I did not try to find out. I just wept, and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. Yes, it was her, I could not be mistaken, in flesh and blood, right in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them, as though they had not participated in slaughtering her daughter just a few moments ago.
In 1979, the WHO held a seminar, “Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children”, in Khartoum, Sudan, and in 1981, also in Khartoum, 150 academics and activists signed a pledge to fight FGM after a workshop held by the Babiker Badri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies (BBSAWS), “Female Circumcision Mutilates and Endangers Women – Combat it!” Another BBSAWS workshop in 1984 invited the international community to write a joint statement for the United Nations. It recommended that the “goal of all African women” should be the eradication of FGM and that, to sever the link between FGM and religion, clitoridectomy should no longer be referred to as sunna.
The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, founded in 1984 in Dakar, Senegal, called for an end to the practice, as did the UN’s World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. The conference listed FGM as a form of violence against women, marking it as a human-rights violation, rather than a medical issue. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s governments in Africa and the Middle East passed legislation banning or restricting FGM. In 2003 the African Union ratified the Maputo Protocol on the rights of women, which supported the elimination of FGM. By 2015 laws restricting FGM had been passed in at least 23 of the 27 African countries in which it is concentrated, although several fell short of a ban.
In December 1993, the United Nations General Assembly included FGM in resolution 48/104, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and from 2003 sponsored International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, held every 6 February. UNICEF began in 2003 to promote an evidence-based social norms approach, using ideas from game theory about how communities reach decisions about FGM, and building on the work of Gerry Mackie on the demise of footbinding in China. In 2005 the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Florence published its first report on FGM. UNFPA and UNICEF launched a joint program in Africa in 2007 to reduce FGM by 40 percent within the 0–15 age group and eliminate it from at least one country by 2012, goals that were not met and which they later described as unrealistic. In 2008 several UN bodies recognized FGM as a human-rights violation, and in 2010 the UN called upon healthcare providers to stop carrying out the procedures, including reinfibulation after childbirth and symbolic nicking. In 2012 the General Assembly passed resolution 67/146, “Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilations”.
Immigration spread the practice to Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America, all of which outlawed it entirely or restricted it to consenting adults. Sweden outlawed FGM in 1982 with the Act Prohibiting the Genital Mutilation of Women, the first Western country to do so. Several former colonial powers, including Belgium, Britain, France and the Netherlands, introduced new laws or made clear that it was covered by existing legislation. As of 2013 legislation banning FGM had been passed in 33 countries outside Africa and the Middle East.
In the United States an estimated 513,000 women and girls had experienced FGM or were at risk as of 2012. A Nigerian woman successfully contested deportation in March 1994 on the grounds that her daughters might be cut, and in 1996 Fauziya Kasinga from Togo became the first to be granted asylum to escape FGM. In 1996 the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act made it illegal to perform FGM on minors for non-medical reasons, and in 2013 the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act prohibited transporting a minor out of the country for the purpose of FGM. The first FGM conviction in the US was in 2006, when Khalid Adem, who had emigrated from Ethiopia, was sentenced to ten years for aggravated battery and cruelty to children after severing his two-year-old daughter’s clitoris with a pair of scissors. A federal judge ruled in 2018 that the 1996 Act was unconstitutional, arguing that FGM is a “local criminal activity” that should be regulated by states, not by Congress; he made his ruling during a case against members of the Dawoodi Bohra community in Michigan accused of carrying out FGM. Twenty-four states had legislation banning FGM as of 2016. The American Academy of Pediatrics opposes all forms of the practice, including pricking the clitoral skin.
Canada recognized FGM as a form of persecution in July 1994, when it granted refugee status to Khadra Hassan Farah, who had fled Somalia to avoid her daughter being cut. In 1997 section 268 of its Criminal Code was amended to ban FGM, except where “the person is at least eighteen years of age and there is no resulting bodily harm”.As of July 2017 there had been no prosecutions. Canadian officials have expressed concern that a few thousand Canadian girls are at risk of “vacation cutting”, whereby girls are taken overseas to undergo the procedure, but as of 2017 there were no firm figures.
According to the European Parliament, 500,000 women in Europe had undergone FGM as of March 2009. France is known for its tough stance against FGM. Up to 30,000 women there were thought to have experienced it as of 1995. According to Colette Gallard, a family-planning counsellor, when FGM was first encountered in France, the reaction was that Westerners ought not to intervene. It took the deaths of two girls in 1982, one of them three months old, for that attitude to change. In 1991 a French court ruled that the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees offered protection to FGM victims; the decision followed an asylum application from Aminata Diop, who fled an FGM procedure in Mali. The practice is outlawed by several provisions of France’s penal code that address bodily harm causing permanent mutilation or torture. All children under six who were born in France undergo medical examinations that include inspection of the genitals, and doctors are obliged to report FGM. The first civil suit was in 1982, and the first criminal prosecution in 1993. In 1999 a woman was given an eight-year sentence for having performed FGM on 48 girls. By 2014 over 100 parents and two practitioners had been prosecuted in over 40 criminal cases.
Around 137,000 women and girls living in England and Wales were born in countries where FGM is practised, as of 2011. Performing FGM on children or adults was outlawed under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. This was replaced by the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 and Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005, which added a prohibition on arranging FGM outside the country for British citizens or permanent residents. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) asked the government in July 2013 to “ensure the full implementation of its legislation on FGM”. The first charges were brought in 2014 against a physician and another man; the physician had stitched an infibulated woman after opening her for childbirth. Both men were acquitted in 2015.
Criticism of opposition
Tolerance versus human rights
Africans who object to the tone of FGM opposition risk appearing to defend the practice. The feminist theorist Obioma Nnaemeka, herself strongly opposed to FGM, argued in 2005 that renaming the practice female genital mutilation had introduced “a subtext of barbaric African and Muslim cultures and the West’s relevance (even indispensability) in purging [it]”. According to Ugandan law professor Sylvia Tamale, the early Western opposition to FGM stemmed from a Judeo-Christian judgment that African sexual and family practices, including not only FGM but also dry sex, polygyny, bride price and levirate marriage, required correction. African feminists “take strong exception to the imperialist, racist and dehumanising infantilization of African women”, she wrote in 2011. Commentators highlight the voyeurism in the treatment of women’s bodies as exhibits. Examples include images of women’s vulvas after FGM or girls undergoing the procedure. The 1996 Pulitzer-prize-winning photographs of a 16-year-old Kenyan girl experiencing FGM were published by 12 American newspapers, without her consent either to be photographed or to have the images published.
The debate has highlighted a tension between anthropology and feminism, with the former’s focus on tolerance and the latter’s on equal rights for women. According to the anthropologist Christine Walley, a common position in anti-FGM literature has been to present African women as victims of false consciousness participating in their own oppression, a position promoted by feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, including Fran Hosken, Mary Daly and Hanny Lightfoot-Klein. It prompted the French Association of Anthropologists to issue a statement in 1981, at the height of the early debates, that “a certain feminism resuscitates (today) the moralistic arrogance of yesterday’s colonialism”.
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