Societies all over the world view an individual’s transcend from childhood to adulthood as a very important chapter in their life. Many rituals are done as part of the individual’s passage through adulthood. Some are ceremonious, while others involve much pain and suffering. One such painful ritual is female circumcision experienced by females in Africa. For many years, health experts have stressed the various complications that are experienced by females who had undergone the procedure ranging from excessive bleeding to death.
Governments have attempted to ban the procedure by passing laws making circumcision illegal. In spite of this, female circumcision is continuous to be rampant among African communities both in Africa and even in African communities outside the country. This paper aims to establish the prevalence of female circumcision in African communities is strongly linked to their cultural beliefs regarding the essence and protection of the femininity of their women and the religious tradition of circumcision as prescribed in Islamic teachings.
Process of Female Circumcision In order to establish female circumcision as a cultural tradition celebrated by African communities as opposed to the viewpoint of many health experts and human rights activists as an act of mutilation against women, the ritual and process surrounding female circumcision must first be discussed as well as its background in its role of preserving the virginity of the women of African communities.
Contrary to the belief that female circumcisions is a tradition rooted among the indigenous African tribes, female circumcisions have been done in Arabia, Egypt and Syria as early as the fifth century BC with evidence provided in Greek documents by ancient historians. Female circumcision was also utilized by the ancient Romans among their female slaves where they would pierce the genitalia of the slaves with pins or fibula.
Hence, the name infibulation. This was done by the Romans in order to prevent the female slaves from becoming pregnant by their masters. Female circumcision was also evident in Europe and the United States as a solution for the urge of masturbation and nymphomania (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Walley, 1997; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997).
Currently, female circumcision is being practiced by Muslims, Christians, Falasha Jews and indigenous African religions in Algeria, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Togo, Senegal and Mali as well as in the Southern part of the Arabian peninsula, Malaysia and Indonesia totaling approximately between 80 and 100 million women who have undergone some form of female circumcision with another four to five million children and adolescents undergoing this procedure every year in compliance to both their African cultural tradition of female circumcision as an initiation to womanhood as well as the requirements of their religious belief that circumcision must be done in order to be purified (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Obermeyer, 1999; Walley, 1997).
The ritual of female circumcision among the rural African tribes begins with a ceremony where people of all ages would gather within the tribe’s compound and celebrate by drinking and dancing. This is in order for the women who would be circumcised to become tired and eventually numb for the pain that will be a part of the circumcision process. The circumcision rites would be carried out the following day at dawn and held in public without anesthesia with the girl either seated or lying down with her thighs held apart by helpers (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Walley, 1997). Depending on the tribe and preference of the family and woman to be initiated, the severity of female circumcision varies. The least severe form of female circumcision involves pricking the clitoris to cause bleeding.
The second form of female circumcision is called the sunna. This procedure removes both the tip and the layer of skin covering the clitoris. The most severe is called the infibulation or Pharaonic type of circumcision. This procedure involves the removal of the entire clitoris, labia minora and most of the labia majora. Whatever is left of the labia majora is then stitched together using thread or thorns leaving only a small opening approximately the size of the head of a match stick to allow both urine and menstrual flow to pass. A powdery substance composed of sugar, gum, herbs, ashes and animal manure will be applied on the area afterwards.
While the wound heals, the girl’s legs are tied together to immobilize her anywhere between fifteen to forty days (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Obermeyer, 1999; Walley, 1997; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). In more progressive African communities as well as communities in other countries, the circumcision ritual is less extravagant. There is usually no celebration before the ritual and the procedure is usually performed by medical professionals with the use of anesthesia to perform the infibulation (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Obermeyer, 1999; Walley, 1997; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). Health Effects of Female Circumcision Female genital operations is viewed as a major health concern not just because of its geographic distribution but also the number of females involved and the adverse complications resulting from the procedure.
A woman who has undergone female circumcision does not only suffer from shock, hemorrhage and injury to the adjacent organs right after the procedure, but becomes susceptible to a number of other infections such as septicemia, tetanus, formation of scars and keloids, urinary infection, cysts and abscesses in the vulva region, pelvic inflammatory disease, infection of the uterus and fallopian tube, painful sexual intercourse, and even death (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). Women who had undergone this procedure, specifically from those who came from rural communities, experience psychological trauma as well as irritability, anxiety, and depression, reduced feelings of femininity, alterations of the personality and the absence of arousal in sexual intercourse (Kouba & Muasher, 1985) Childbearing becomes hazardous not just on the part of the mother who has undergone a female circumcision procedure but the baby’s health is placed in danger as well. The formation of scars and keloids after the procedure may contribute to extremely painful labor.
The tearing of the scar tissue surrounding the area where the procedure was done may also result to hemorrhage on the part of the mother. There is also a high possibility that the newborn will suffer from brain damage and other malformations since the sutures done on the labia majora of the mother will have to be removed only during the period of the delivery when the baby’s head will be crowning in order for the baby to pass through (Walley, 1997; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). Addressing the Issue of Female Circumcision Female circumcision has become an international controversy in reference to human rights and health issues within international conferences.
In line with this, various efforts have been done in order to minimize, if not eradicate the proliferation of female circumcision which is now commonly practiced throughout much of Africa and is now being practiced within African expatriate communities in U. S. , Canada and Europe (Walley, 1997; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). In 1958, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women called upon the World Health Organization (WHO) to study the persistence of customs that subject girls to female genital operations rituals as well as to create measures to eradicate it. The strategy being used is similar to that which led to the discontinuation of foot binding in China.
This strategy would include education and public health interventions as well as the formation of groups of parents who will pledge that they will not only cease committing their daughters to the female circumcision ritual but to discourage their sons to marry women who have been circumcised (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Obermeyer, 1999; Thomas, 1998; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). Slowly, this strategy has been yielding positive results. In Somalia, authorities have begun to make considerable effort through their education system to inform the public about the adverse effects of female circumcision. Due to the increase in education in Africa particularly regarding the adverse effects of the ritual of female circumcisions, more and more young women are beginning to favor less severe types of female circumcision if not oppose the ritual completely (Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). But in other parts of Africa, the opposite has been happening.
Instead of using education to inform the communities of the complications of female circumcision, it has driven communities to continue the procedure with the process carried out no longer by crude and unhygienic measures as they have normally practiced, but utilized the advancement of medicine in carrying out the rituals. Nowadays, more and more hospitals and health clinics in order to prevent the woman initiated from suffering from shock, hemorrhage and injury to the adjacent organs right after the procedure as well as psychological trauma due to the pain since the procedure now utilizes anesthesia and medicine to prevent possible infections (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). Moreover, in spite the government passing legislatures banning the procedures completely, African communities still perform the rituals. For example, the Sudan government passed a law banning female circumcision in 1946.
However, about 80% of women within the reproductive age group interviewed between the years 1989 and 1990 in Sudan have still undergone the ritual (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). Another is in Kenya where female circumcision has been considered illegal by the government since 1982. Yet, communities still continue to practice this since they argued that it is part of their custom (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Walley, 1997). In fact, in a study conducted by Williams & Sobieszczyk (1997), 90% of all African women both residing in Africa and in African communities in other parts of the world had planned to have their daughters still undergo some form of female circumcision with 50% of them preferring the most severe forms of circumcision. Reasons for the Prevalence of Female Circumcision
The African tribes and African communities in other countries who have practiced female circumcision for generations have remained undaunted with the continuance of the ritual of female circumcision in spite of the availability of education and resource materials for them with reference to the adverse effect female circumcision have on the part of the women. What is even more disturbing is that there are some women who request to be circumcised (Walley, 1997). One reason for this is due to the strong ties that female circumcision has in reference to Islam. Islam is the dominant religion in the countries in Senegal, Mali, Somalia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania which have been noted to practice female circumcision.
It is the belief of those who practice Islam is that all forms of circumcision is prescribed by the prophet Mohammed and that circumcision would make the woman more radiant and it is sanctioned by the Islam authorities called the ulama. However, scholars on the Islamic faith have determined that although circumcision is prescribed, the most of the severe forms of the practice of female circumcision is not a requirement according to the Quran or the hadith which are the collection of sayings of the prophet Mohammed. In fact, such forms of circumcision are prohibited (Jhazbhay, 2003; Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Obermeyer, 1999; Walley, 1997; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997).
Another reason for the continuance of female circumcision is that African communities have viewed female circumcision as an important initiation to adulthood while serving to construct, enhance and reinforce female purity and virginity in connection with the norms that govern family honor, female sexuality and marriage which must be strictly followed. For a woman to turn back from the circumcision rites would amount to disgracing their families and relatives since they will be branded as cowards thus would be isolated by the community. By undergoing female circumcision, they believe that they develop a personal sense of self-confidence and pride as well as public respect.
Such is the case among the Sabaot women who are envied by the women of Bukusu since, unlike them; they do not undergo female circumcision since their belief is that circumcision is only for male (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Thomas, 1998; Walley, 1997; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). African men also require their brides to be circumcised. Women who are not circumcised are prohibited from bearing children, particularly among the women in Meru (Thomas, 1998). Some tribes view the clitoris as a dangerous organ which could kill the baby during delivery. Others view it as poisonous that it will kill a man during sexual intercourse (Kouba & Muasher, 1985).
Moreover, women believe that fertility is enhanced after a woman is circumcised. Thus, female circumcision would increase the dowry that the men would pay in order to marry a circumcised woman further increasing the pride and self-confidence of the woman since she is now entitled to be married and bear children (Kouba & Muasher, 1985; Thomas, 1998; Walley, 1997; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). The importance of patrilineal kin in African families also influences the decision for the younger females to undergo female circumcision since female circumcision was believed to enhance the masculinity of the males and the femininity of the females through the removal of the external genitalia.
It is the common belief, especially among the Hofriyati women female circumcision is seen as a symbolism of emphasizing femininity focusing more on fertility rather than sexuality since many tribes believe that if left alone, the clitoris would grow into a penis (Obermeyer, 1999; Walley, 1997). African communities have also perceived the views of many scholars in reference to the importance of their cultural traditions as harmful, coercive, superfluous and regarded as a myth that must be laid to rest and stated that development is the goal of every country today, with development pertaining to the assimilation of Western technology and living patterns.
Although there have been a growing number of African women objecting to the practice of female circumcision, they also objected to the manner how feminists from First World countries are handling the matter. African women believed that women from First World countries do not comprehensively understand their experiences involving the matter. This is because most Euro-American studies about female genital operations view African women as thoroughly oppressed victims of a patriarchal society, ignorant, and not seen as social actors in their own right (Walley, 1997). As such, the practice of female circumcision still persists in many parts of the world because it remains as the center of the roles and how they value their women in society.
Its continuance is seen as a social standing and a return to African tradition (Walley, 1997; Williams & Sobieszczyk, 1997). Conclusion This paper has shown that there is a strong relationship between female circumcision and how African communities measure the worth of an African woman. Female circumcision is equated to courage, honor, family status, eligibility to marry and have children. Those who choose not to be circumcised are ostracized by society and are considered as a disgrace to their families, compelling them to endure this ritual. African communities have also viewed female circumcision as a fulfillment of the requirements of their Islamic faith even if scholars have stressed otherwise.
In order to minimize, if not eradicate female circumcision, efforts in educating African communities both in Africa and in other parts of the country should center on ensuring that they properly understand the requirements of Islam regarding circumcision. By re-educating them of the requirements of Islam along with the adverse effects, the tradition would eventually be eliminated. References Jhazbhay, I. (2003, August 30). Islam in Africa. Retrieved on February 19, 2008, from http://www. nuradeen. com/currentissues/IslamInAfrica. htm. Kouba, L. J. & Muasher, J. (March 1985). Female circumcision in Africa: an overview. African studies review, 28(1), 95-110. Obermeyer, C. M. (March 1999). Female genital surgeries: the known, the unknown, and the unknowable.
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