Female genital mutilation or torture: whichever way you say it, it sounds like something horrible. In the late 1970s, the name female genital mutilation (FGM) was adapted by organizations such as the United Nations (UN), World Health Organization (WHO), and Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children. But many people have claimed that these names continue to reinforce the stigma of female circumcision. Therefore, some organizations have substituted “mutilation” with “cutting.” But those who continue to use FGM as regular terminology claim that because it is a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights, it promotes advocacy towards it abandonment. However, some see problems with this; for example, in an Innocenti Digest from UNICEF entitled “Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting,” many want to steer away from “mutilation” for the stigma that it creates:
Local languages generally use the less judgmental “cutting” to describe the practice; parents understandably resent the suggestion that they are “mutilating” their daughters. In this spirit, in 1999, the UN Special Rapporteur on Traditional Practices called for tact and patience regarding activities in this area and drew attention to the risk of “demonizing” certain cultures, religions, and communities. As a result, the term “cutting” has increasingly come to be used to avoid alienating communities.
As mentioned in the intro to the GAB’s Circumcision Series, female circumcision is referred to in many terms: female genital mutilation, female genital torture, female circumcision, and female genital operations. I choose to refer to the procedure as “female genital operation” (a term which Christine J. Walley uses in her article “Searching for ‘Voices’: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations” from Cultural Anthropology (this can be found on JSTOR)) or “female circumcision” because of their neutral charge.
According to statistics, about 100 to 140 million girls are living with the consequences of this female circumcision. Female genital operations seem like a strange and unknown operation to myself and my culture; in many cultures female genital operations are tradition. So, in addressing this heated issue, I want to look the important aspects of this procedure as a feminist looking from the outside of these cultures: hoping to understand cultural beliefs, while at the same time exploring health and ethics issues.
Many different cultures, from Africa and Asia, promote female circumcision. The origins of female genital operations are unknown–the procedure is predicted to go back to the fifth century B.C. In ancient Egypt, female Egyptian mummies were circumcised for distinction. In Victorian England, it was used on women to treat psychological disorders and prevent women from masturbating (see Cindy M. Little’s article “Female genital circumcision: medical and cultural considerations” from the Journal of Cultural Diversity”).
Interestingly enough, the procedure is most often performed, controlled, and upheld by women, not only to protect their daughter’s virginity but also their family’s reputation. Many women who perform circumcision in parts of Africa gain respect in their communities (Abusharaf’s “Virtuous Cuts: Female Genital Circumcision in an African Ontology” from a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies). I was utterly surprised to read this cultural implication of female circumcision: “the belief that female genitalia, in its natural state, is ugly and the clitoris, revolting. Women believe that if the clitoris is not removed, it will continue to grow and eventually ‘dangle’ between a woman’s legs. Some women believe that the clitoris will grow longer as the woman ages and that a woman with a big clitoris is just like a man” (Cindy M. Little). These are only a few reasons why cultures and societies perform female genital operations.
Though banned by many countries where it is still prevalent, it was used during colonial rule to claim the country’s independence. For instance, in Kenya in the 1920s and 1930s, missionaries did not allow their Christianised adherents to practice clitoridectomy (a type of female genital operation). In response, this procedure became vital to the ethnic independence movement among the Kikuyu, the most populous ethnic group of Kenya at the time; in other words, indigenous people reacted against what they perceived as cultural imperialistic attacks by Europeans. Additionally, when the British outlawed this procedure in the 1950s in Kenya, tribes continually performed clitoridectomies to strengthen their resistance to British colonial rule and increased support for the Mau Mau guerrilla movement.
I find it difficult to judge any cultural or religious practice that I am not accustomed to. However, that does not mean that I’m using cultural relativism to excuse female genital operations. More than what the procedure symbolizes (purity, virginity for the men that they will marry), the health implications are what concerns me the most.
There are four types of female genital operations. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes each of them as:
- Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, rarely, the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris) as well.
- Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
- Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, and sometimes outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
- Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
Unlike male circumcision, female circumcision has no health benefits. In fact, the procedure can have serious health consequences that can last for a life time. According to WHO, these consequences include:
- recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections;
- the need for later surgeries. For example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening (type 3 above) is surgically changed to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth, and sometimes stitched close again afterwards;
- an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths.
Because of the above health risks and implications of female genital circumcision, I can see why many groups have declared the procedure as no-tolerance. The United Nations has designated February 6 as “International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation.”
Ethics, or Conclusion
I was hoping that once I got to the conclusion I would think of a fancy answer to why or why not female genital circumcision should not continue. But it’s not that straightforward. I find it interesting that women are the catalysts of this procedure on their daughters and family members despite the long-term health risks involve. It is difficult, however, to judge something this is performed for a variety of different reasons (read here and here, for example). Cultural implications aside, though, in my opinion, the procedure should not be performed. It is too dangerous and there are too many health risks to continue this practice.
What are you thoughts about female circumcision?
This article is apart of GAB’s Circumcision Series.