Figuring Out Female Genital Mutilation: What is it, and is it Our Business?
Female genital mutilation is a controversial practice that still continues in a number of African and Middle Eastern countries, as well as scarcely in Australia. It is considered by many to be inhumane, and a matter of human rights; while many more consider it their right to continue their tradition.
What Exactly is Female Genital Mutilation?
Female genital mutilation is an extremely invasive and risky procedure that is performed on a large number of girls across several countries.
- Female Genital Mutilation, also known as female circumcision or female genital “cutting”, is the act of surgically removing the clitoris and sometimes all or part of the female labia, for the purpose of curbing a woman’s pleasure in sex. This is thought to keep a woman faithful to her husband in marriage, as well as chaste in general. In an even more invasive and damaging procedure, which is practiced widely in some areas, the woman’s vulva is sewn closed, disabling sexual intercourse. Other reasons for the existence of this practice include religious beliefs, and as a rite of passage to womanhood; though the main reason seems to be to control a woman’s sexuality.
- This practice is performed on girls anywhere from newly born to age 15, often with unsterilized surgical tools, and without an anesthetic. Complications from these surgeries include infections of the urinary tract or internal reproductive organs, higher risk for complications from childbirth, and often, the vulva must be re-opened in the case that it was sewn closed, involving more surgeries and pain for the woman. Other negative results include higher incidence of sexually-transmitted disease or other communicable infections from the tools used, as they are rarely properly cleaned from patient to patient. The child may also die of blood loss during the procedure.
- This differs considerably from the oft-practiced male circumcision, as the procedure is rarely performed in a sterile, medical environment, and the women are generally not capable of normal sexual functioning proceeding the operation. The procedure is often performed after infancy, as well, at a time when the child can thoroughly remember the pain of the surgery, whereas babies often do not. True, in both cases, the procedure is performed without the child’s consent, but the negative repercussions that female circumcision carries are much more extensive. Many men who have been circumcised live perfectly healthy sex lives.
- In such countries as Kenya, the practice is more common out in the country areas. However, in countries like Nigeria, it is prevalent throughout. Some African countries, such as Somalia, have made a move to ban the practice, rejecting the notion that the procedure is acceptable for religious reasons. Still, according to an article on the subject, Somalia is one of the countries in Africa in which the procedure is most prevalent, as well as Egypt, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
This is what female circumcisions is, why it is practiced, the various consequences that may come from it, how it compares to male circumcision, and where it occurs most in the world.
A History of Female Genital Cutting
Although it is unknown when exactly the tradition of female genital cutting began, it is known to predate Islam, one religion in the name of which many continue the tradition today.
- This practice is often thought to have originated in Egypt, in order for the Pharaohs to keep their wives sexually faithful during war. Another possibility may be that both men and women in ancient Egypt were thought to have a component of the opposite sex, in the case of the male, a foreskin; and in the case of the female, a clitoris; and to become true men or women, both would have to be circumcised.4 Mummified females from ancient Egypt display signs of circumcision to some scholars, while others debate this. The writings of Greek historian Herodotus suggested that female circumcision was being performed by Ethiopians, Phoenicians, Hittites, and Egyptians in the fifth century B.C. The term used by Ethiopians to refer to the procedure, “pharoic circumcision”, hints that Egyptians originated the procedure, yet some Egyptian writings simply that Ethiopians were the first.
- In 1800s Europe, the procedure was thought to cure women of mental illness, such as lesbianism, “nymphomania and hysteria.” In this time, known as the Victorian era, female sexuality was virtually ignored, and expelled in any way possible. The removal of the clitoris, with or without the labia minora, was often considered a viable remedy.
As stated above, there is no confirmed origin of female circumcision, however, the reasons for having the procedure done are much the same as today.
How Often it Occurs, and How it Affects the Women
Statistically, female circumcision is a typical practice in about twelve countries in Africa, while it is only semi-common in others, and rare or nonexistent in more. Stories abound of how the practice affected women personally.
- Somalia has the highest prevalence of female circumcision, as mentioned before, with 98% of women undergoing the procedure, and interestingly, most women here do not think the practice should end. Guinea, Djibouti, and Egypt follow, with 96%, 93%, and 91% of women undergoing the procedure respectively. Countries in which these surgeries occur, but are much rarer include Uganda, Cameroon, and Ghana, the last in which most women are adamantly against the practice.
- In more developed countries, such as Europe, UK, and US, where women have plenty more access to quality education, and are generally considered equals, this practice is nonexistent.
In a piece by Cosmopolitan, three women, Aisha, age 33; Yaam, age 22; and Lesha, age 21, tell their stories. Each discuss how the procedure went, and how it still affects them today.
- Aisha endured the procedure at the tender age of six, in Gambia, after being dragged away. She could hear other girls screaming in pain, but she didn’t know why. She saw an old woman holding a sharp knife I with drops of blood sliding down the edge. The blood of the other girls. Aisha details that she can still vizualize what each one of the women that held her down looked like and the emotions that they had—“empty,” as if they didn’t see her as a human being. The cutting happened fast, she said. She fought the entire time, and as a result, only her clitoris and part of her left labia were cut.
- Yaam relates her story of not remembering the actual procedure, but realizing that she had been circumcised when her sister was taken to face the same procedure. “When they took us to a house away from the village, I knew what they were going to do. I begged and pleaded with them to stop.” However, the women, including her aunt, just laughed. “I couldn’t see my sister’s face…but I remember her blood-curdling scream and her calling out my name to help her. I felt so helpless…I felt like it was happening to me.” That is how realized that she had been through the same procedure. When she witnessed it befalling her sister, it was as if it was happening to her all over again. Yaam and her sister continue to try to shake the memory by not discussing it, though Yaam eventually came to have the understanding and forgiving attitude that the women thought that what they were doing was right.
- Lastly, American-born Lesha recalls visiting Guinea to learn about herself, and receiving a rude awakening. She tells what happened, and what her life is like now: “I was mutilated along with my baby sister. She was nine, and I was eleven. Unfortunately, Lesha’s sister did not live through the procedure. “She was blamed for not surviving, and I was praised for taking it well… She was my best friend.” Sadly, Lesha now detests the act of sex, and feels considerable pain during it. Lesha also claims that she feels as though she is being raped, each time she engages in this act that is supposed to bring pleasure. “I cry inside, I cry out loud, and my husband does not care.” Lesha contends that her husband will kill her if he finds that she denounced female circumcision, and that her parents would support it. However, she wants her story heard.
Though the pain felt afterward may depend on when the procedure was performed on the woman, it is clear from these anecdotes that female circumcision is not a welcome experience.
Is It Right or Is It Wrong?
One side of the debate on female circumcision argues that it is an infringement upon a person’s right to their religious beliefs to stop them from practicing the procedure. The other side of the debate is that the circumcision infringes upon the child’s natural human rights to reject the procedure, and be able to live her life the way that she wants, not what her future husband wants. Can nations such as America step in and regulate this? Or are the countries that practice this entitled to their beliefs and traditions? Though many countries are making a move to criminalize this procedure, it is largely left up to the other countries if they want to continue. There are movements against the practice, and it is up to each individual if they think that it is their place to take a stand against it, or if they think that they should sit back and let the dust settle. The World Health Organization, for example, deems it a human rights violation. However, much like the debate on male circumcision (though it can be argued that female circumcision is considerably more dangerous), it seems that there is no right answer, and no one can force their beliefs on another.
Female genital cutting is a hazardous, gruesome procedure that often burdens those who have had it with negative physical and psychological problems for years to come. Though the history of the procedure, and the religious or moral reasons given for it may justify it for many, the anecdotes of those who endured it tell a much different story. It is important to be educated on all of the possible consequences that may stem from the procedure, as well as on the female anatomy and health, and then to decide from there if it is the right thing to do.
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