[TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of surgical procedures, social, and cultural practices pertaining to female genitalia]
Female genital cutting/circumcision/mutilation (depending on your politics) is something I learned about in any women’s studies or public health class I took in college. What is it and does it harm women? Is it different from male circumcision, and how?
I am not partial to the term mutilation, so at the outset, let us differentiate between female genital cutting, circumcision, and mutilation. According to womenshealth.gov, all three terms describe the procedure that cuts away part or all of the external female genitalia.1 The terminology mutilation, circumcision, and cutting are all quite political. Mutilation is used to convey the human rights violation that occurs when this happens to women. Cutting illustrates the procedure with less implied judgment. Referring to this procedure as a circumcision is an attempt to equate it with male circumcision, which is incorrect; there are a variety of cutting types. From here on, I’ll refer to this practice as FGM/C.
What is FGM/C?
The World Health Organization identifies FGM/C as any procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.2 Amnesty International defines it as the removal of part or all of the external female genitalia.3
Where is it practiced and on whom?
FGM/C is practiced mostly in the Middle East (i.e., Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Southern Algeria) and Africa (i.e., Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Sudan). It is NOT specifically an Islamic practice, and is performed cross-culturally and cross-religiously.4 Women of any age can go through this procedure.
Types of FGM/C
The World Health Organization identifies four types of FGM/C, ranging in severity.5
1. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris and, in rare cases, only the prepuce (fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
2. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the liabia majora.
3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia with or without removal of the clitoris. In this instance, a small opening is kept to allow passage of urine and menstrual blood. An infibulated woman must be cut open to allow intercourse, after which the incision is closed again.
4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes.
Why is it performed?
There are a number of social, cultural and religious reasons for FGM/C. Not surprisingly, it’s often associated with making a woman clean because the process removes “male” parts from women. Infibulation also takes away women’s abilities to have and enjoy sex, thereby ensuring fidelity and modesty. Family honor is another reason why girls (usually involuntarily) undergo this procedure. The practice has fairly deep-rooted history in many rural communities, and is looked at as a tradition most girls must experience.
There are a great many health risks associated with the procedure, especially in rural communities that do not have access to clean water and other means of sanitization. Infections can result from unhygienic procedures, and giving birth can be difficult and dangerous for an infibulated woman and her baby. Infibulation prevents adequate release of menstrual blood, which can be extremely painful. In addition to physical scars, women undergoing this procedure are affected psychologically. This event is traumatic and painful.
In response to growing international pressure from health and human rights organizations, a number of communities have begun asking doctors and surgeons to perform these procedures. This lessens the risk of infection, and enables the use of anesthesia.
One question that was always posed in any class that covered this subject was whether movements to eradicate FGM/C were acts of cultural imperialism. Are movements to stop FGM/C ignoring local customs in favor of Western ideals? This is easy for me to say, but I think this practice is a total violation of human rights. In most instances, women are involuntarily subjected to this procedure. Also, the belief that without FGM/C women would be unclean and impure temptresses is stigmatizing and discriminatory.
Is the opposition toward FGM/C imposing Western values on non-Western cultures? Or is this practice just a flat-out violation of human rights? Does it compare to male circumcision in any way? Should that be eradicated, too?
1. Female Genital Cutting Fact Sheet. 2009. http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/female-genital-cutting.cfm#b
2. Female Genital Mutilation. 2012. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/
3. Violence Against Women: Female Genital Mutilation. http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/women-s-rights/violence-against-women/violence-against-women-information
4. Female Genital Cutting (FGC): An Introduction. 2003. http://www.fgmnetwork.org/intro/fgmintro.php
5. Female Genital Mutilation. 2012. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/