Female circumcision, also referred to as female genital mutilation, is a traditional practice dating back to ancient times in many African and Middle Eastern countries. It is a procedure that involves the cutting, burning or removal of the clitoris, labia and sexual tissues; the specifics of the procedure vary by region and culture. Female circumcision is performed on young girls usually between the ages of five and twelve years old. Many of the girls are tricked or forced into the procedure, which is performed by a woman in the village with knowledge of the tradition but no medical education or training.
While it is considered a rite of passage for girls in these cultures, female circumcision has no valid medical purpose. The practice of female genital circumcision is a medically unnecessary one that leaves women with permanent physical, mental and emotional pain and scarring. Female genital mutilation procedures are done differently in various parts of the world. In some cases, the clitoris is cut from the body. In others, the clitoris and labia, the sexual tissues that are external to the vaginal opening, are cut away and the vaginal opening is stitched shut.
According to Anika Rahman, there are, “numerous other procedures that have been documented, such as pricking, piercing, stretching or burning of the clitoris and/or surrounding tissues” (8). The procedure is usually done by a woman of the village or tribe designated for just this task. It is usually performed with knives or razor blades that are not sterile in unsanitary environments and conditions, increasing the risk for infection and complications.
Performing such an intricate medical procedure outside of a hospital and without trained medical personnel can result in a variety of complications, including urinary tract infections, pelvic infections and anemia from excess bleeding. One of the most common long-term complications from female circumcision is pain and discomfort during sexual intercourse. Adding to this common problem is the fact that many women whose vaginal openings are stitched closed are forced to stay that way until their first sexual experience with their predetermined husband, which can lead to tearing, bleeding and further tissue damage or scarring.
There are emotional and mental scars that accompany female genital mutilation along with the physical ones. In Tears of the Desert, Halima Bashir describes her experiences at eight years old in which a girl is made to feel special without being told what specifically will be done to her: “In our tradition circumcision is supposed to mark the passage from girlhood to womanhood, and so I was treated almost as if I were getting married” (55).
She describes being held down by her own grandmother while a village woman cuts her with a razor blade and that, “I knew that somewhere deep in my lost womanhood there was a burning heart of agony, but I had removed my mind to a place where it couldn’t be hurt anymore” (57). These words sound like those of a trauma victim in shock rather than those of a girl that has undergone a traditional rite of passage, providing an example of the emotions that can be experienced by a girl forced into female circumcision with no prior knowledge of the procedure.
In an interview with Alice Walker, another woman described how she was kidnapped by friends of her family and circumcised: “…her mother had told her they were going to a place where there were many bananas. She loved bananas. When they arrived, she was captured by women she’d never seen before, pinned down by them, circumcised, and kept secluded for two weeks” (Walker 42). Numerous accounts reflect memories of searing physical pain, tearing, bleeding, and fainting. The realization that this is done to a girl when she is as young as five years old makes the procedure seem even more brutal.
The actual process of female circumcision is different in each country that practices it and so are the reasons behind it. There are no valid medical reasons for the procedure, and most countries that practice female circumcision hold it as a cultural tradition or rite of passage rather than a religious rite. Rahman states, “It is important to note that female circumcision is a cultural, not a religious practice. The practice predates the arrival of Christianity and Islam in Africa and is not a requirement of either religion” (6).
In these countries, most women are considered the property of their families until they are given away to the husbands their parents has chosen for them to marry, and it is considered vital to go to marriage sexually pure and a virgin. It is believed in these cultures that female circumcision is one way to suppress sexual urges, to prevent sexual activity, and to ensure that a girl’s virginity is kept intact. A girl that isn’t circumcised is considered dirty, impure, and sexually deviant.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes how, during her childhood in Somalia, “…little girls were made ‘pure’ by having their genitals cut out…I was a Somali woman, and therefore my sexuality belonged to the owner of my family, my father or my uncles…the place between my legs…would be broken only by my husband” (Ali 31, 72). This attitude is a commonly accepted one in countries that practice female circumcision, leading mothers to subject their daughters to the same practice that was done to them and often deceive them in order to force them to submit to tradition.
Many girls are taught that they will be physically unclean and unsuitable for any man to want to marry and will therefore bring shame and dishonour to their families if they are not circumcised to keep them pure until marriage. Rheman states, “Refusing to undergo female circumcision may jeopardize a woman’s family relations, her social life or her ability to find a spouse” (25). Since most of these girls remain in their home villages their entire lives, the concept that not all women undergo this procedure is often unthinkable to them.
Halima Bashir relates how, when she went away to college and encountered girls her age that hadn’t been forced to undergo circumcision, “At first I didn’t believe it. I had just presumed that all girls went through their cutting time” (145). Though it may be tradition, there is proof that female circumcision violates women’s human rights and should be illegal. The international treaty known as the Women’s Convention defends women against human rights violation and sexual discrimination. According to the convention, states Rheman, “female circumcision must meet two principal criteria.
One, it must be a distinction based on sex and two, it must have the effect or purpose of impairing the equal enjoyment of rights by women. Female circumcision fits within this definition of gender discrimination” (21). Female circumcision is intended to stop women from experiencing physical pleasure during sex or even being able to have sex outside of their sanctioned marriage, making it a form of gender discrimination. Female circumcision deserves to be recognized as a tradition in the African and Middle Eastern countries in which it has been practiced.
However, its recognition does not warrant the continued abuse and violation of human rights of the women in these countries. These women are subjected to years of physical pain, sexual problems, infections and childbearing complications. These procedures are inflicted upon them without their consent and without informing them of the health risks or alternatives. It represents an antiquated view of women in which they are undervalued and treated as property instead of free-thinking individuals with equal rights and voices.
Female circumcision might be tradition, but it’s one that needs to be outlawed for the health and safety of women and in the name of upholding the human rights of all people. Works Cited Bashir, Halima. Tears of the Desert. New York: Ballantine, 2008. Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. Infidel. New York: Free Press, 2007. Rahman, Anika, ed. Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide. New York: Zed Books, 2001. Walker, Alice and Prathiba Parmar. Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. New York: Harvest Books, 1993.