Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) refers to the procedure of removing the female genitalia either partially or entirely. It is practiced widely in Africa and is also common in some countries of the Middle East.
There are three types of FGC recognized under the World Health Organization (WHO Media Center):
Clitordectomy (Type I): The entire or partial removal of the clitoris.
Excision (Type II): The clitoris and all or part of the labia minora are exorcised.
Infibulation (Type III): The clitoris and labia minora are removed, and the labia majora is stitched together to cover the urethral and vaginal entrances, while a new hole is created to allow the passage of urine and menstrual blood
It is estimated that 135 million of the world's girls and women have undergone genital mutilation. The procedure is usually done to girls of four to eight years of age, and it is commonly performed by midwives or "healers." When the mutilation is carried out, hemorrhage, shock, and damage to the organs surrounding the clitoris and labia can occur (Odu, 2004:62). Therefore, FGM can lead to death.
FGM started hundreds of years ago and the whole process is usually a rite of passage, a girl's initiation into adulthood. Many people in FGM-practicing societies, especially in traditional rural communities, regard FGM as normal and highly desirable. In their societies, the clitoris and the labia are seen as masculine organs; therefore, the removal of them is thought to make girls fully women. "In many societies, an uncircumcised woman cannot participate fully in religious, political, or social activity because only through the rite can they reach a condition of 'full humanity.'" (Favali, 2003:203). Another purpose of the procedure is to make women faithful to their husbands. FGM reduces a woman's desire for sex and, in turn, reduces the chance of females' committing infidelity. Religious leaders in many of the communities that practice FGM also support the custom, linking the moral purification and cleansing benefits to religion (Boyle, 2002:124). Devoted believers who want to carry out religious duties to their utmost are convinced that FGM is associated with righteousness and purity, which are valued by their religions.
FGM is condemned in the western world because it is seen as unnecessary and cruel. People from European countries and the United States tend to support the expression of female sexuality and find overt double standards damaging to their societies. In addition, the World Health Organization has demonstrated that the FGM procedure is very dangerous for the girls and women who are mutilated because, generally, the circumstances under which the process is carried out are very unsanitary. Most of the midwives are not adequately trained to perform the procedure, and the tools used to cut and scrap the female genitalia usually are not sanitized (Odu, 2004:62). Surprisingly, even when confronted with vast evidence that FGM is harmful for females' bodies, claims about hygiene are also used as a justification for it: Some of its supporters actually believe that the procedure is beneficial to the women's bodies, serving a cleansing purpose (Boyle, 2002:133).
Recently there have been feminist movements to eliminate FGM in countries such as Kenya and Egypt. The governments of Mali and Niger have adopted anti-FGM policies. Both governments "support educational efforts to eliminate the practice and provide media access to proponents of its elimination" (Boyle, 2002:125). One movement in particular is worth mentioning: "Circumcision Through Words." It is an alternative ritual for the girls' rites of passage and definitely more preferable on many levels. The new ritual includes "a week of seclusion during which they [the girls] learn traditional teachings about their coming roles as women, parents and adults in the community, as well as more modern messages about personal health, reproductive issues, hygiene, etc." (Davis, 2002:28). This movement is spreading in Kenya, and it may spread across Africa.
It is fair to say that the key to ending FGM lies in education. It is found that "college-educated Christian women were significantly more likely to oppose Female Genital Circumcision and not circumcise their daughters than either college-educated Muslims or non-college-educated Christians" (Boyle, 2002:131). To have successful FGM reforms, education must lead the relevant African countries to agree with the western countries in the following areas: men and women should be seen as equals; cutting someone's genitals in a unsanitary condition is dangerous; a woman is truly already a woman even with her clitoris intact; and it is needless to purify a woman by removing her genitalia. If and when these beliefs become widely accepted, FGM may come to an end. Hopefully, this will happen in the near future.
1. Boyle, Elizabeth H. Female Genital Cutting. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002. 124-133
2. Davis, Simone, W. Feminist Studies. College Park: Spring 2002. Vol. 28, Iss. 1; p. 7 (30 pages)
3. Favali, Lyda, and Roy Pateman. Blood, Land, and Sex. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2003. 202-204.
4. Odu, Kome. Iris. Charlottesville: Fall 2004. p. 62