“In the world today there are an estimated 100 million to 140 million girls and women who have been subjected to the operation. Currently, about 3 million girls, the majority under 15 years of age, undergo the procedure every year.”
–World Health Organization
Waris Dirie, supermodel and UN advocate for the abolishment of female circumcision.
When I was a teenager, I believed a number of negative stereotypes associated about Islam. One was that all Muslim women were circumcized (a euphemism for Genital cutting or mutilation that ranges from removing the outer hood of the clitoris to the cutting all external female genitalia). As I learned more and more about Islam my own pressumptions melted away. I learned that women had rights. I read Islamic legal books which detailed women’s rights to sexual gratification during intercourse with her husband. Also, I learned that Islam forbid the mutilation or alteration of the body (outside of the male circumcision). As I spoke to more and more Muslims, I learned that the vast majority of Muslims I knew considered the practice abhorrent and backwards. As I investigated it further, I learned that some Sham in bilad al-Sham and Palestine were either given the sunna symbolic circumcision or had a minor procedure splittng the hood. But it wasn’t until recently that Muslim scholars have spoken openly in the West about the practice. Yet, for years there have been Muslim scholars working against cultural traditions and practices that harmed women. These were largely grass roots campaigns and they rarely garner the same public attention that people as figures like,Alice Walker (author of the Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy) and Nawal Sadawi (author of Woman at Point Zero and The Fall of the Imam).
I want to clearly state from the outset that I am not trying to impose a Western view of feminity on the African and Muslim women who have undergone the procedure (whether forcibly or with consent). I do not believe that a woman’s wholeness rests on her clitoris. Nor do I think that Muslim and African women are helpless victims. I have argued elsewhere that women take active part in this practice and promote the norms and standards that not only condone the practice, but bake it desirable. As a writer, I try to write thought provoking and well informed pieces. For over a decade I have been passionate about this issue, but am increasingly aware of the complexities that surround the controversy of Female Genital cutting. This essay is not an exhaustive exploration of the subject. Nor do I a comprehensive list of resources on the subject. But what I intend to do is to raise this issue in support of the grass roots activists who are trying to curb a practice that is harmful to the minds and bodies of underage Muslim women. As an issue piece, I will first describe FGM (without showing any pictures that may offend my readers) using selections from the World Health Organization and UNICEF. I will also include some facts about the procedure in order to bring to light how widespread it is. I will then provide a few recent cases that have gained media attention. Finally, I will explore some of the controversies surrounding Western women’s focus on FGM and the negative outcome. This may be a choppy ride. But please read the block quotes because they detail very important information.
FGM comprises a range of procedures. The World Health Organizationstates:
Female genital mutilation (FGM), often referred to as ‘female circumcision’, comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons. There are different types of female genital mutilation known to be practised today. They include:
Type I – excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris;
Type II – excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora;
Type III – excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation);
Type IV – pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and/or labia; stretching of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterization by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissue;
scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice (angurya cuts) or cutting of the vagina (gishiri cuts);
introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or for the purpose of tightening or narrowing it; and any other procedure that falls under the definition given above.
The most common type of female genital mutilation is excision of the clitoris and the labia minora, accounting for up to 80% of all cases; the most extreme form is infibulation, which constitutes about 15% of all procedures.
Depending on the severity of the operation and health precautions taken during the procedure, there can be serious health consequences. Some studies have shown that women who have been genitally cut are more vulnerable to getting HIV. This is opposite of the effect of circumcision reducing HIV transmission for men. WHO goes on to list the negative effects of FGM:
Health consequences of FGM
The immediate and long-term health consequences of female genital mutilation vary according to the type and severity of the procedure performed.
Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue. Haemorrhage and infection can cause death.
More recently, concern has arisen about possible transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) due to the use of one instrument in multiple operations, but this has not been the subject of detailed research.
Long-term consequences include cysts and abscesses, keloid scar formation, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse) and sexual dysfunction and difficulties with childbirth.
Psychosexual and psychological health: Genital mutilation may leave a lasting mark on the life and mind of the woman who has undergone it. In the longer term, women may suffer feelings of incompleteness, anxiety and depression.
Proponents of the procedure claim that it increases sexual pleasure for their partners, reduces promiscuity and is cleaner. In Africa is is a right of passage and a tradition that cannot be broken. New Study on Female Genital Mutilation Dismisses Proponents’ Justifications Two claims about circumcision were proven incorrect in this study that compared circumcised and uncircumcized women. One, it did not reduce sexual pleasure. Two, circumcized women were more likely to have urinary tract infections.
Outside of accounts in books, documentaries, and internet. I have not had a conversation about this subject with a woman who has undergone this procedure. But I have spoken with people who have known women who have struggled after undergoing the procedure. I have heard accounts of Muslim convert men who married East African women only to find them infibulated. In one case it lead to a divorce. I have also spoken with a mixed Arab/West African who has known women who have undergone the procedure. He stated that the woman had no sensation during sexual encounters. One of my friends recounted stories about an East African woman who suffers from bouts of depression, continually bleaches her skin and wears foundation shades lighter than her actually tone, and has rejected Islam because the religion as a primary source of their gender oppression..
FGM is farely widespread in Africa and in Southwest Asia. UNICEF Reports:
Estimates of the total number of women living today who have been subjected to FGM/C in Africa, range between 100 and 140 million. Given current birth rates this means that some 3 million girls are at risk of some form of female genital mutilation every year. Most of the girls and women who have undergone FGM/C live in 30 African countries, although some live in Asia. They are also increasingly found in Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA, primarily among immigrants from Africa and southwestern Asia.
I found these alarming statistics on the prevalence of FGM from the State Department:
Guinea 98.6 percent
Somalia 90-98 percent
Djibouti 90-98 percent
Mali 93.7 percent
Sierra Leone 80-90 percent
Eritrea 90 percent
Sudan (northern) 89 percent
Egypt 78-97 percent
Ethiopia 72.7 percent
Burkina Faso 71.6 percent
Gambia 60-90 percent
Chad 60 percent
Guinea-Bissau 50 percent
Benin 30-50 percent
Cote d’Ivoire 44.5 percent
Central African Rep 43.4 percent
Kenya 37.6 percent
Nigeria 25.1 percent
Mauritania 25 percent
Yemen 23 percent
Senegal 20 percent
Liberia 10-50 percent
Ghana 9-15 percent
The State Department goes on to say that inn Indonesia there are no national figures that reveal the extent of the practice. But I have heard of cases in Anatolia, Pakistan, and Central Asia. But I have not learned of information on Malaysia, Syria, Lebanon, or Palestine/Israel. World health reports state that there are almost no cases of women undergoing the practice Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Iran. But African immigrants to the gulf may or may not practice the procedure. However, with growing immigration from AFrica and the Middle East, the practice has spared to United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. With the growing number of cases in the West, legislators seek to ban the practice. For example, UK passed Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003making it illegal to perform the procedure, assist a girl perform the procedure on herself, or go abroad to perform the procedure.
As we can tell from the statistics, FGM is not some dying practice. In fact, the debates surrounding FGM have become prominent in the news. I wanted to briefly discuss two cases, one in Burkina Faso and one in the center of the Arabo-Islamic World–Egypt. Before we take a brief look at these cases. I wanted to point out that FGM is often practiced secretly in the Muslim world. The procedure done contrasts markedly from the male circumcision ceremonies in the Muslim world.
In counries like Turkey boys are circumcised between 2 and 14. They dress up and are given gifts in celebration of this major step in the transition from boy into manhood. Female cutting on the other hand in Muslim countries is secretive. It does not have the same right of passage ceremonies as in Africa.
So, with the cultural differences in mind. I wanted to reflect on two recent deaths.
Last month 15 FGM procedures were done in a village of Burkina Faso, which resulted in the death of one girl and several hospitalized for infections and hemorrhaging. Many African countries have stepped up efforts to eliminate the practice. One article explained that the rate of FGM in Burkina Faso had been reduced by half. The government is hoping to step up cammpaigns to reduce resistance to the measures.
Years ago when I was in Morocco there was a Moroccan author who was criticizing Tahar Ben Jelloun. One of the things that bothered me about the novel was that it promoted negative stereotypes about Islam, plus it seemed as if he got things wrong (having not lived in a Muslim society for years or practiced. In Sand Child he wrote that a woman living as a man prostrated during janaza prayers. But no one prostrates during janaza. The other mistake was that the main character wondered if his wife was circumcised. FGM is not known to be practised in Morocco. It is considered abhorrent by Muslims in Saudi Arabia and man reform minded Muslims. For many of us Muslims in the West, nothing is more troubling than the continual prevelance of FGM in Egypt.
(AP Photo/Al-Masry Al-Youm)
Badour Shaker, the 10 year old whose death at the hands of a doctor performing female circumcision at an illegal clinic has sparked a national outcry. Health and religious authorities banned teh practice June 28, 2007, a ban on the practice. In July Egypt’s Muslim religious authorities issued a fatwa decreeing that female circumcision was un-Islamic.
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance’s article, “Debates about FGM in Africa, the Middle East & Far East” lists the various decrees given by Egypt’s top clerics on FGM over the years:
1949-MAY-28: They decided that it is not a sin to reject female circumcision.
1951-JUN-23: They stated that female circumcision is desirable because it curbs “nature” (i.e. sexual drive among women). It stated that medical concerns over the practice are irrelevant.
1981-JAN-29: The Great Sheikh of Al-Azhar (the most famous University of the Islamic World) stated that parents must follow the lessons of Mohammed and not listen to medical authorities because the latter often change their minds. Parents must do their duty and have their daughters circumcised.
2007-JUN-24: the Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gum’s announced that: “… this custom is prohibited.”
Alhumdulillah, Egypt’s top religious scholars are taking a stand. But the outright ban on FGM has given rise to a backlash. A recent New York Times article, “Voices Rise in Egypt to Shield Girls From an Old Tradition”, reports:
Circumcision, as supporters call it, or female genital mutilation, as opponents refer to it, was suddenly a ferocious focus of debate in Egypt this summer. A nationwide campaign to stop the practice has become one of the most powerful social movements in Egypt in decades, uniting an unlikely alliance of government forces, official religious leaders and street-level activists.
The Times article points out that there are many who don’t see the ruling as legitimate. In addition state aligned ‘ulema are discredited (well unless they are ruling in support of commonly held beliefs and practices).
One of the things Western scholars are challenged with is the desire to respect the culture of the subjects we are studying and the desire to end practices that we see as impeding upon the freedoms and well being of weaker members of society. Before I go any further, I wanted to make a point that there are people in the West who are neither Muslim nor Africa, or even traditional in any time of way who do Female Genital Cutting. There are some women who have liposuction and labia reductions . Outside of the women who have enlarged labias that may cause pain during intercourse, there are women who want in order to make their vaginas more attractive. Part of this growing trend is due to the prevalence of pornography where regular women compare themselves negatively air brushed images and plastic surgery enhanced nude models and porn actresses. I found this one website for Clitoral Reduction and Clitoral Hood Removal at a Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery Clinic. Some proponents of FGM have argued that type I, removal of the clitoris head increases sexual pleasure. This plastic surgeon also supports that claim. If that is the case, then I would argue that only adult women who are willing to take medical risks should undergo the procedure–and not little girls.
There are several controversies about FGM. One, the intense scrutiny Western women place on non-Western women’s sexual organs. Two, the backlash against Western efforts at eradicating FGM. And Three, the comparison of FGM to male circumcision. I am only going to focus on the first two. Caroline Scherf writes in British Medical Journal“Female genital mutilation must be seen as one of many harmful practices affecting women in traditional societies, and the planning of programmes for its abolition must involve the women concerned and their own perception of wellbeing and improvement… Women in developing countries are facing a multitude of suffering; we need a more wholesome approach in order to reach the ultimate goal of a dignified and healthy life for all women, everywhere.”
A review for Ellen Gruenbaum’s book states, ” Western outrage and Western efforts to stop genital mutilation often provoke a strong backlash from people in the countries where the practice is common…Gruenbaum finds that the criticisms of outsiders are frequently simplistic and fail to appreciate the diversity of cultural contexts, the complex meanings, and the conflicting responses to change.” I suppose this is why I differ from Alice Walker’s accounts of FGM and Nawal Sadaawi (who had undergone infibulation). If we truly want to help women eliminate the procedure we have to shed some of our western assumptions about FGM. We have to let the women who are subject to these procedures speak for themselves.
But I do not believe in a cultural relativist approach, especially when we have women who have spoken about the harm it has caused them. But instead of just supporting international NGOs, we should also find ways to support local grass roots movements. This is where us Muslims in the West can help. We are part of international networks. Many of us have roots in these countries where it is practiced. We should find ways to support local organizations that have little funding but do the real work supporting society’s most vulnerable members.