Female Genital Cutting


“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.

29 thoughts on “Female Genital Cutting

  1. Pingback: Cosmetic Surgery » Female Genital Cutting

  2. I agree that we should not take a culturally relative approach, particularly when victims have found the enormous courage to speak out. However those victims are both male and female and you demean your whole argument by choosing to ignore the victims of male circumcision and believe instead the myths about this practice. Around 20% of the men in the world have had the most nerve-rich part of their genitals removed (their foreskin). Two boys died in London this year from this cut – unlike the two Egyptian girls who died they were not given any form of anaesthetic, and one may have died from the shock as he underwent a heart attack within minutes of his ordeal. Deaths from male cutting are well documented and occur not just in ritual situations but in cases where a doctor has carried out the surgery – see the deaths reported in Pakistan and Candada this year. The latter baby died from an enormously painful urinary retention which caused an infection which overwhelmed his small body. Dozens of men die in Africa each year from circumcision – and those are just the ones that reach the news. Millions of men around the world are left post circumcision with serious desensitisation, and many have psychological problems resulting from the feeling of having been mutilated. There are cases i know of where there are urinary difficulties because his urethra was punctured; there are also cases of unsightly skin tags, and very tight painful erections because so much skin was taken. A baby in the US lost his whole glans this year in hospital foreskin chopping equipment; the medical literature contains 4 or 5 cases of babies who have lost their entire penis. Some were subsequently ‘re-assigned’ as girls. In one famous case this eventually resulted in suicide.

    I’m slightly at a loss to understand, with all the evidence that male circumcision causes harm, why you think it’s ok to force it on boys, whereas even making a small slit in the foreskin of a girl is monstrous. Why can’t all humans be allowed their human right to choose, as informed adults?

    As concerns HIV, a study of more than 5,000 women in Tanzania has shown recently that female circumcision does in fact provide significant protection against HIV. Given that vulva cancer is several times more common than penile cancer and typically occurs in the labia, it seems likely also that circumcising the labia would prevent some cancer in women. And obviously, as you know, females get smegma every day of their lives just like men, so cutting for that reason can’t just be argued for the male. The point is that none of these benefits are significant enough to justify a forced amputation – genital cancer of both sexes is still very rare; condoms offer almost complete protection, and smegma (which means soap) can be easily washed away.

    On the religious side, it’s not clear that circumcision is mandated in Islam – it’s not in the Qu’ran and you don’t need to do it to convert. Havin read about his life, I understand that the Prophet Mohammed was not circumcised.It’s said that he was born without a foreskin – what seems medically more likely is that he simply had a short one as some men naturally do (bear in mind circumcision in history was also much less harsh than it is today – Jews in Ancient Greece for example could pull their skin down to pretend to be uncut – so a short foreskin could look like a circumcised one). I also note that the Prophet seems to have said on watching a female circumcision:
    ‘if you must cut please don’t cut too much as you will hurt her pleasure and that of her husband’

    If he had known what we now know about the harm of male circumcision and the value of the foreskin in helping stimulate orgasm in women, surely it’s very likely he would have urged against cutting boys too? After all, as you say, to tamper with the wondrous body that God created is wrong in Islam. Who decided that the > 20,000 nerve endings put in the male foreskin (presumably by God) represent imperfection?


  3. It’s funny because this very topic came up in my Islamic Law class last week, and the most passionate person trying to argue against FGC was a Muslimah.

    Thank you for your evenhanded presentation of the topic. I am wondering what you mean by you are against cultural relatavist approaches and think that Muslims should support grassroots movements.

    I am from a West African country where the practice I’m sure persists today among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While I personally don’t agree with it, and hope that it will someday be abolished/banned/cease to exist in all its forms, I found myself angry and verging on supporting FGM (or at least itching to clarify the social implications of having/not having this procedure done) in class the other day.

    Y the sister who was against FGM spouted out all the arguments for why FGM is against Islam, but she did it in such a way that made the people who practice it menacing, even evil, and I don’t think that that is what it is about at all (and I’m not sure that she even realized that that was the effect she was having).

    while I haven’t read her book, I have had the opportunity to hear Gruenbaum speak on the topic in a seminar last year. What I have come to realize from hearing (what I udnerstood from her presentation) and talking to other women from communities where FGM is done, is that things are not going to change because people from the outside, however well meaning they are, are determined to change them: Hearts and minds can not be changed if the people trying the effect change are approaching things from a standpoint of moral superiority.

    It seems to me that stopping FGM is about transforming a cultural and (to a certain extent) an economic system, not just outlawing a particular course of action.

    I guess all this rambling was a roundabout way of saying, I’m not sure how an approach outside of cultural relativism would

    A. actually work
    B. be seen as something outside of necolonialism.

    I’d be interested to see how the government of Burkina Faso, for instance, which you mentioned above structures its anti-FGC initiatives.

    Onus falls on me to find out more, I guess.

    Thank you for posting about this.


  4. Hmmm, why is it that my first real response to this article is an all out attack?

    Laura McDonald,
    Thank you for raising the issue I didn’t really want to broach. Male circumcision is more hotly contested than Female genital cutting. And no, I do not think I undermine my arguement by not including male circumcision. I chose not to enter that debate because I do not think that the removal of a foreskinn is comparable to infibulation. Also, I think that you are drawing attention away from the issue at hand. Perhaps if I find that the WHO has a lot to say about circumcision and the harm it causes boys and young men then I can reassess my position. Also, perhaps you could advocate for more studies (that aren’t biased) on the detriments of circumcisions.

    As I stated, my post is about Female Genital Mutilation, not circumcision as a whole. Why single out only Islam? Also, would you argue that Jews are wrong for the practice? At the Council of Florence in 1442, the Roman Catholic Church did not attach any religious importance to this practice and rejected it. On the other hand however, the Coptic Christians and the Ethiopian Orthodox churches still observe as mandatory” Well, I nearly passed out when you mentioned the Prophet’s penis (s.a.w.) Honestly that is a part of his anatomy I think about. But I assumed he was circumcised by the sunnah traditions. Some legal traditions say it is sunnah (recommended tradition) and other obligatory. I know some legal rulings say that a man who leads prayer must be circumcised. It was non unknown for European sailors who joined the Barbary pirates and became Muslim to undergo elective adult circumcision. Male circumcision is not aimed at elminating male sexual pleasure.

    On the other hand, female genital cutting is aimed at removing the most sensitive part of a woman’s genital organs and is intended to curb and control her sexuality. Male circumcision Africa and ME has a different purpose. Perhaps we can compare type 2 and type 3 circumcision to the aboriginal subincinsion where they split the underside of the penis and urethra. As for anecdotal evidence on circumcision, no less traumatic and troubling, I have found that no large scale studies have indicated that circumcised men have suffered irreversible psychological damage to the scale of FGM/C.The AAP and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) do not endorse the procedure as a way to prevent any of the medical conditions mentioned previously. The AAP also does not find sufficient evidence to medically recommend circumcision or argue against it. On the other hand, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS recognized male circumcision as a preventative to HIV transmission.

    Gazelle du Sahara,
    Thank you for complicating and pushing the issue of Western advocacy to end FGM/C. Yes, there is a problem with demonizing people who practice Female Genital Cutting. And you’re right, in societies where it is prevalent there are negative social consequences for women who don’t do it. For example, the women cannot get married.

    With the influence of post-modern thought, many Western scholars become morally relativistic. Unlike many of the postmodernists, I believe there is truth and that there are things that are right and wrong. How we understand truth and right and wrong may differ. I cannot buy into a moral relatavism that gives carte blanche to any cultural practice, no matter how draconian. This is why I do agree with Tariq Ramadan on the moratorium on hudud punishments. I think I believe more in moral pluralism where I understand there to be difference but limits to it, based upon whether other individuals’ human needs are violated.

    As a Muslim in the West, I am aware of the dangers of cultural imperialism and how African and Middle East women’s bodies are a site for major cultural battles. I agree with you eradicating FGM is really about cultural transformations that come about as a result of dialogue. The change should be internal and not imposed from the West. I think it is important that we understand culture as not fixed and timeless. Culture is dynamic, and the culture that die are the ones that are inflexible and do not respond to changing social, economic, and political conditions.

    When I was saying that us Muslims in the West are positioned to do something. It is because many of us have roots in both worlds. Yes, we can be discredited as westernized. But at the same time, we may have more social capital to work with local organizations. One of the problems I have is that so much money goes to international NGOs where feel good Middle class college students (with no cultural ties to Africa or Middle East) think they are saving brown people. Yes, some of the organizations do good work. But I think we should find new ways of supporting smaller initiatives organized by African activists. We should consider giving micro-loans or finding ways to get more manpower and support for small organizations in the bush and in overpopulated urban areas alike.


  5. Pingback: Egypt » Blog Archives » Rights activist fears arrest, murder in Egypt

  6. I hope it’s all right for a stranger to comment here. I’ve only just come across your blog.

    I thought you might be interested to read the account of a young French woman of Senegalese descent who was excised at the age of four, and has undergone reconstructive surgery. Her blog is in French but there is a translation into English on my own blog called Papillon’s blog (dated 2006 but actually all this happened this year).

    I think people who bring up male circumcision are not comparing like with like. The equivalent of the most commonly practised forms of FGM would in a man be the removal of the tip of the penis as well as the foreskin.

    I so agree with you about cultures adapting. They must adapt, it is inevitable that change will come about. When people suggest that traditions should not be challenged in any way, I wonder what they would have said about the tradition of Chinese foot binding for women, without which they were not considered marriageable, or indeed slavery.


  7. Something important to consider is that traditions are not static or constant and will change with or without the influece of NGOs, ‘Westerners’ or any outside forces. If culture is the way we understand the world we’re in and the way we make sense of it then it is constantly in flux. Remembering this, I think, can help feel like there’s less ‘heroic responsibility’ to help and save women. I wonder about the role of Western women in situations like this. And in many situations. Sure, Western women can have a lot of power and influence but what does it mean that we continually take that power? If we didn’t, would someone else take it? Of course this is frightening because it can lead to a place of inaction – I place I don’t want to be.

    I’d be interested to hear about the grassroots movement against FGM (or FGC) and the ways women are finding ways to resist in their everyday lives. I think, too, it’s important to listen to women and what they want. There are a lot of women who argue for FG/CM, one of the reasons is the social capital but their arguments are important. There have also been women at UN conferences saying that there are much bigger issues that need to be addressed.

    I worry about the ways in which women’s bodies are becoming indicaors of development and how they’re becoming objects in their own realities instead of subjects of their own change.


  8. A. I have come across your blog previously and am excited that you would grace these pages and share your thoughts. But this blog is open to anyone who would like to comment. My efforts at addressing FGM are miniscule in comparison to your efforts. I wanted to know if I could list your page as a reference for further reading on FGM. I learned so much on your page after reading less than an hour. For one, I did not know that there was a reconstructive surgery. Also, I just finished the film that you linked to on your site. I’m a little loss for words. So I apologize.


  9. KT, good point. But at the same time, I would like to break down the dichotomy of Western women and African/Middle Eastern/ThirdWorld women. While I grew up in the West and have inherited the Western cultural complex, I still have a hybrid identity. Some of us are children of immigrants and are still subject to these norms and traditions. Some of us marry men from these places and fear having our children subjected to these practices. My concern is not merely out of some Western woman preaching to “other” cultures. But it is my relation to these cultures and societies as a Muslim of African descent. I am not claiming any greaty authenticity than a woman of European descent addressing these issues. But what I am saying is that in many ways I blur the distinctions between Western and traditional societies, adding further complications. With that being said, my article is really a celebration of African and ME women’s agency. I see their agency in grass roots movements that work to press for changes in practices have been determined to be harmful to women. At the same time, I am aware that there are many issues that are at the forefront of the agenda. One cannot eliminate FGM, without addressing numerous social, economic, and political conditions that are detrimental to women. They should all be addressed, not one left out because it is less controversial than FGM.


  10. Point taken. Hybridity isn’t something I was factoring in. I suppose it’s a delicate balance and finding a place where the answer isn’t doing nothing. I appreciate your views definitely, and liked a lot of what you have to say. My main concerns are about the attention FGM receives… the dichotomies that are created around women’s bodies is something that needs more probing into, I think.

    This is a great article about the way veiling is used (and talks about the fluidity of culture as well): http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3310/unveiling_muslim_feminism/

    It illuminated a lot for me about the things I was talking about. I wonder if you have any links or references you could recommend for me to read about the grassroots movements you mentioned?


  11. KT,
    “I suppose it’s a delicate balance and finding a place where the answer isn’t doing nothing. ”

    I am all too familiar with the debates on Muslim women’s bodies since my body and covering are subject to much scrutiny from both Westerners and Muslims. I am a former hijab wearing Muslim woman in America. I am also currently living in one of the Gulf states–where the majority of women wear black abayas and chadors. I suppose it is different when it comes to America’s allies. But I would argue that Muslims place just as much emphasis on the veil as a measure of an authentic Muslim identity, or Westernization, and loyalty to the Ummah as the West places on the veil, or lack thereof, as a measure of modernity and freedom.

    I do believe in the fluidity of cultures. But, one of the problems that I have with some of the arguments about the preservation of traditions is that many traditions that have usurped women’s rights are in fact recent inventions. You can see this in many Muslim countries where the dress is becoming more rigid and women are donning all black when their traditional clothing was colorful, embroidered, and embellished. In addition, Shariah law became more rigid in the 19th century with its codification (and innovation introduced by Westernizing legal reforms). Similarly, in Africa certain traditions served very narrow interests of male elders to the detriment of women and juniors. This is a major contention some historians have with anthropological works. Many of the first anthroplogists went to the oldest member of a tribe to find out local authorities, inheritance laws, and traditions that related to power and distribution of resources. These elders, often asserted traditions that served their interest to the detriment of women and juniors. While the extent of the invention of tradition in many pre-literate African societies is subject to debate, I just wanted to point out that it is possible that the intense scrutiny on women’s bodies could have begun locally. And in fact, in the case of Igbo women in early 20th century Nigeria, colonial authorities worked to impose victorian norms that limited women’s rights in cohorts with local elders. But don’t get me wrong, I am not denying that Western feminism has often been used as a type of cultural imperialism. I find it hard to buy into the universal sisterhood thing, when many white feminist movements ignore women of color in America. So, how can they set the agenda for women in the developing world when they are not willing to hear their voices?

    As for literature on grassroots movements on FGM, I am suggesting that we find ways to do that and compile the list. There are many others who are more authoritative than I am. Also, I am under serious time constraints while abroad for language training and prelim research on a very different subject. There are experts and specialists whose life’s work is dedicated to women’s issues. You can contact the writer of NY Times to learn of grassroots movements in Egypt. Here is another place to find out about various programs:
    I hope that helps. When you find some leads get back to me and I can post them.
    I hope this discussion continues with some fresh blood, new ideas, and if anyone has resources and links please include them in comments.


  12. I would be absolutely delighted for you to list the page as a reference. For Papillon the aim has always been to reach as wide an audience as possible, and this is why I have translated into English. (The over-dominance of the English language is something else that makes me uncomfortable but one has to accept that many more people already do speak it.)

    There are quite a few links for the grassroots movements, which I will look out for you. It will be a few days before I do though, because I am travelling this week.

    I do enjoy your blog. Most thought provoking and well considered.


  13. That’s an awful lot of writing (and excusing oneself for writing, including saying one doesn’t want to impose a western view, etc) instead of just saying THIS IS WRONG!!!!

    There you go. Three words. However, like “I love you”, it’s all about what you do after you’ve said them.


  14. Salaam calaykum abaayo,

    Here is a much overlooked xadiis concerning the topic at hand..

    Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah:
    A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 41, Number 5251)


  15. I doubt the statistics of 90-98 % are real for Djibouti. The country is different from Somalia and also changing fast but I guess people who make up these statistics don’t care about differences between neighbours in Africa.


  16. deeply sadden here, i don’t understand the reason or the need for this practice; an educational program is needed which focuses should be building a women for women’s support system, take religion and culture out; to my understanding and brief knowledge of this subject i was told that it is done and promoted by women who have themselves suffer the same abuse as young girls,. something is indeed wrong,… what can i do?


  17. Margari,
    First let me say that I am neither African nor Muslim and it is only by tracing back a link in my blog from your blog that I found this article.

    I too wrote an article on this subject found in your “possibly related posts” section:
    Let me say that it was a well written piece. It was written before mine and I believe you did a much more thorough job. Sorry I couldn’t have used you for a reference.

    It is important however that the message of how demeaning a practice FGM is to all women of all faiths, regardless of traditions and cultures. FGM is not just “cutting” it is “mutilation”…..mutilation of the body, the mind and the spirit.

    In its most benign interpretation it says that women cannot be trusted with the body that God gave them and needs to be “taken care of”

    But more than anything else it is a symbol of male superiority and domination over women, who in many cultures have been relegated to second class status, to be bartered and bargained over.

    This practice needs to be stopped!!


  18. A few days back I picked up an English version of an Egypt newspaper when I ventured out early one morning for breakfast. I was surprised and pleased to find an article (albeit short) indicating that a new law is in the works to implement support for the ban on female circumcision that would imprison those convicted of performing the procedure for 3 months, in addition to making them pay a 5,000 Egyptian Pound fine – and trust me, while an Egytpian Pound might not convert to much in other currencies, to the average Egyptian it is an enormous amount of money. One step at a time…one step at a time…
    READ MORE HERE: http://aishahsjourney.blogspot.com/2005/12/on-subject-of-fgm.html


  19. I can’t understand people thinking that FGM is sanctioned by Allah!? If Allah didn’t want the clitoris on women he wouldn’t have put it on in the first place! Why are these people cutting away bits of Allah’s creation? Of course exactly the same can be said about male circumcision. If a persons wants to cut away his foreskin or her clitoris, let that person decide. The thought of those poor girls being nabbed by their mothers and other community elders and held down in order to cut them like that is sickening. Who gives a right to these parents to mutilate their children? It’s a backward practice which arose out of backward times. Let’s just come to terms with that and stop attacking young defenseless girls. Give the girls respect, give the girls a choice – that’s the answer.


  20. Couple of thoughts:

    I think that when we get into arguments about “Western imperialism” as a default when topics like this come up, it becomes something of a mantra that signals the brain to shut down and stop thinking critically. The simple fact is that if you cut off an otherwise functional body part, the nerve endings in that body part no longer exist and sensation has therefore been reduced or eliminated. The fact also is that if you perform surgery in nonsterile conditions you drastically increase the risk of infection and therefore complications. I would like us to live in a world where people who happen to be from Western countries, which have had loads of experience learning about medical issues and how the body works and what causes infection, can say “Doing this type of surgery is risky to women and reduces sexual function and pleasure,” without being insulted with the term “cultural imperialist.” The laws of physics or biology or whatever is at issue do not change just because someone’s feelings might get hurt. We’re talking about women’s lives being destroyed here, not about mere differences of opinion. Doesn’t Islam forbid unnecessary surgery and suicide, anyway?

    (In case someone doesn’t quite follow that last sentence, even if it could be argued that a girl can consent to a surgery like this, considering that it does carry a greater risk of death, should she?)

    Second point. I know this post is not about male circumcision but you mentioned in one of the earlier comments that male circumcision does not reduce sexual function. It does not usually reduce function in the sex act unless something went horribly wrong, this is true, but it does reduce the basic functions of the parts of the penis itself. The foreskin is an adaptation that protects the glans from injury and drying out. When it is missing the glans rubs up against clothing and other things and develops a kind of low-grade callus. This reduces sexual sensation if nothing else. Most men in the modern West don’t notice it because they were circumcised at birth, but those who were circ’d later on do notice, and many speak out about it. A simple Google search would help you discover their stories if you cared to read them; I’m not sure how that squares with your particular beliefs about modesty, so I’ll leave it at that. But having had some experience with both circ’d and uncirc’d men, I have noticed there is a difference in, shall we say, skin condition. I don’t know how to be any more circumspect than that, sorry. They still don’t suffer as much of a loss in sensation as a woman who has undergone more extreme FGM but I guess my question is why they should suffer any at all.

    And I just went in for a “what about the men” moment when that annoys me to no end if I run into it at other blogs. Sorry. I just hate to see things done to people that don’t really need to be done and which carry such permanent, lifelong consequences.


  21. ”I think that when we get into arguments about “Western imperialism” as a default when topics like this come up, it becomes something of a mantra that signals the brain to shut down and stop thinking critically”

    Good point someone. As an American who’s family thought male circumcision was perfectly normal based only on a tradtional basis, we seriously need to question our past practices.

    I’ve met and spoke to Egyptian women who have endured FGM as children with no awareness of it’s dangers or the lack of sensation they would later live with. There are also Kuwaiti women who have endured this, though stats are low as the GCC countries generally don’t endorse this practice.

    Of the women I’ve met, none were happy with a choice not made for them. Though my opinion is it’s barbaric, I have taken a stand long ago not to fight for women’s rights or voices, if they are not willing to fight for it themselves.

    The West shouted at the Kuwaiti women’s right to vote, which I found comical. Why do they care, if the women themselves don’t care with the exception of a few? Men will never release their power, you want rights, fight for them.



  22. On the religious side, it’s not clear that circumcision is mandated in Islam – it’s not in the Qu’ran and you don’t need to do it to convert. Havin read about his life<<<<< iwant jest to say these not in islam
    the circumcized is found on some African culture and traditions

    read the quraan and you will see


  23. I don’t get why people equate FGM and circumcision either. You’ll notice I didn’t say “male circumcision,” in fact, because I don’t believe the usage of that word to denote what’s done to females is accurate. But the whole equation thing smacks of “what about the poor menz?” There’s a general trend in Western culture that every time women complain about some horrible injustice done to us, men try to one-up us in some way. Kind of annoying, and even more so to see women buying into it.

    That said, please forgive me/edit whatever here if it’s inappropriate, but not only have I read about some of the risks involved with circumcision, I’ve noticed differences myself in some of my involvements over the years. What happens with the male genitalia when circumcision has taken place is a kind of a permanent callus which reduces sensation. If you ever wondered why American gentiles adopted the practice when there is no Christian directive to do so, it dates to the Victorian era and its anti-masturbation hysteria. The practice caught on like wildfire, became accepted as “the way things are” and only recently has it begun to see a serious decline here.

    Personally I’m opposed to doing any sort of surgical alteration to a child that is not for the purpose of saving life, limb, or function. Now if they are on the cusp of adulthood and able to make rational decisions for themselves and they want circumcision or even some of the milder forms of FGM, go for it, I say. But not as infants and never against their will no matter how old they are.

    Abraham circumcised himself as an adult to mark his covenant with God. That’s really what it’s all about, a conscious decision to voluntarily enter into religious service, and while Islam does signify submission to God, I think it also signifies the voluntary acknowledgment of that submission. “There is no compulsion in religion,” and all that.

    FWIW, YMMV, and so on.


  24. Male circumcision is an invention by males following a male deity. It became a tool to reduce masturbation and is now a tradion and profitable medical procedure.
    It lessons sensation opposed to FGM which impairs basic function.

    Also, Female circumcision took place in the victorian era as a way for husbands to control their wives, it continued until the 1940’s for cleanlines and as a cure for Mental disorders.(Freudian theory)

    If African/Middle Eastern Women want to make a true comparison and call Western women out as hypocrates, note the fact that there is a rise in vaginalplasties.
    It is to say: ‘don’t cut off your genitals off to look good for a male”, while some of our women get surgery to reshape theirs .(this is important because many women would still appose Female Circumcision in the Middle East performed by a trained doctor.)

    *apponents to vaginalplasty, don’t want women to get caught up in the notion that their is a specific/right way for genitals to look.


  25. Salam Margari,

    You mentionned:

    ” Similarly, in Africa certain traditions served very narrow interests of male elders to the detriment of women and juniors. This is a major contention some historians have with anthropological works. Many of the first anthroplogists went to the oldest member of a tribe to find out local authorities, inheritance laws, and traditions that related to power and distribution of resources. These elders, often asserted traditions that served their interest to the detriment of women and juniors. ”

    I have been looking for sources on that particular subject. Could you please give me some references on this. I thank you in advance!


  26.  Why is male circumcision somehow ok, or worth less mention of? I’m a western white male, and it’s been done to a large majority of men, especially white men in the U.S. and Canada for the better part of the century.
    It affects the normal gliding motion of sex and in my opinion even changes psychological perceptions of making love. Sex with male foreskin intact can be more slow and sensual, whereas cut can make the male more rough and pounding motions which can damage both sex organs. In turn even the female can become mentally affected from this unnatural thing. Pleasure is also decreased. Attitudes born in our sub-concious during sex are formed that in my opinion damage or retard positive sociality between men and men, and women and men.

    Maybe it is so called zionist jew influence, but for whatever reason the medical professionals have pushed and convinced parents, even shaming them into it!
    Strapping a baby in a mold with no pain killers, did you know some babies have bled to death?!?! Others have had botched operation or bad heals that leave it painful to have an erection.

    Digusting practice for men and women. Mutilation to any being, human or not is disgusting and must be questioned if not resisted


  27. Oh, they’re are also other filthy practices such as searing the breasts of girls with red hot irons. To reduce temptation i guess. Breast ironing in parts of Africa and middle east, aswell as foot binding more in Asia. The feet are bound early in age to permanently warp the bones and make tiny little sexy feet for patriarchs. That is until they mold gangrene. Charming.


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