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Female Genital Mutilation in the Middle East and North Africa Essay

Values and beliefs of a certain society can be illumined through the traditional cultural practices that often span from one generation to another. Globally, every social group has its own traditional cultural practices that are considered to be beneficial for the community. However, there are many instances that such practices may be harmful for some groups, most especially for women. Terrible traditional cultural practices are committed directly against females around the world. Despite the atrocities of such practices and its violation against human rights, many women-violent practices still exist and are prevalent in other countries.

One of the most prevalent forms of harmful traditional practices is the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) (Office of the High Commisioner of Human Rights-United Nations Organization [OHCR-UNOG]). The pervasiveness of FGM is attributed to people’s inability to question the morality of such action that should be addressed to those who practice female genital mutilation. As such, despite of the interventions of many international communities, in order to achieve gender equality, women are still violated and continue to be denied of various human rights.

Hence, it can be perceived that many traditional cultural practices, including female genital mutilation is carried out for the benefit of the male populace (OHCR-UNOG). Historical Background of Female Genital Mutilation Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as ‘female circumcision’ or ‘female genital cutting’, involves procedures that are centered in the partial or overall removal of the female’s external genitalia, or the infliction of injury to the genital organs of female for non-medical reasons.

More often than not, the practice is performed by traditional circumcisers who are believed to play a significant role in the community where they belong. However, records have indicated that FGM is also carried out by medically trained professionals (World Health Organization [WHO]). FGM is considered to be an age-old practice existent in various communities globally because it is known to be a custom (OHCR-UNOG). However, FGM’s origin has not been well established. Certain theories indicate that female genital mutilation predates male mutilation (Davis 158 qtd.

in Lightfoot-Klein). In one study, it was shown that FGM occurred in areas that are considered to be restricted to the rest of the world which includes Islamic, Semitic and Christian nations. It was contemplated that “the more ancient a custom or belief, the more universally it is found” (Lightfoot-Kline). All throughout history, reports regarding female circumcision has been existent. The very first historical reference of FGM can be traced from the literature of Herotodus, who wrote that FGM already existed during 5th century BC in Ancient Egypt.

He even pointed out that the practice had its beginnings in Egypt or Ethiopia because FGM has been performed by Ethiopians, Phoenicians, and Hitties (Taba qtd. in Lightfoot-Kline). One Greek papyrus dated 163 BC found in the British museum indicated that circumcisions were performed on girls by the time they received dowries. Different authors claimed that FGM was practiced by early Romans and Arabs (Kline). Methods employed in order to repress women’s sexuality has been well recorded in history.

In ancient Rome, women slaves are required to wear metal rings which were passed through the labia minora in order to prevent procreation. During the absence of their husbands, women from medieval England wore chastity belts to avoid promiscuity. Tsarist Russia, as well as France, America, and France during the 19th century already practice clitoridectomy; while evidences from mummified bodies of ancient Egypt indicate that excision and infibulation has been performed, thereby giving rise to the existence of pharaonic circumcision (OHCR-UNOG).

Types of Female Genital Mutilation Various types of female genital mutilation are performed depending on the cultural history and traditions of a certain community. Basically there are three common types of FGM: (1) Type one or Sunna circumcision. “Sunna” is an Arabic term which means tradition in English. This form of FGM is done by removing the prepuce or the clitoris’ tip. (2) Type two also called as clitoridectomy or excision is widely practiced in Egypt. This procedure involves the removal of the whole clitoris including the prepuce, glans and the adjacent labia.

(3) Type three which is commonly referred to as infibulation or pharaonic circumcision is the procedure commonly applied in Sudan and Somalia. Considered as the most dramatic type of FGM, infibulation, which literally means “to fasten with a clip or buckle,” involves not only the removal of the clitoris and the nearby labia, but also include the sewing of remaining parts of vulva with the use of a catgut or thread. Such form of mutilation leaves only a tiny hole in the female genital that serves as a passage for the urine and menstrual blood.

Women who are infibulated are cut open during their wedding night in order to perform sexual intercourse. However, right after the act, they are sewn again in order to avoid infidelity. More often than not, the groom is responsible for opening the bride’s sewn genitalia with the use of a double-edged dagger. There are some instances that women are cut open and are sewn back together during the time of their separation with their husbands. (4) The remaining type of FGM which is categorized as type four mutilation includes procedures that inflict damage to the female genitalia.

Such form of mutilation may range from piercing, pricking, and stretching of labia or clitoris; burning of the clitoris and other tissues of the genitalia through cauterization; scraping of vaginal orifice; vaginal cutting; placing corrosive substances to cause vaginal bleeding, and the introduction of herbal substances to narrow or tighten the vagina (Rosenthal). The most common type of FGM is the clitoral and labia minora excision which constitutes about 80% of all FGM case.

However, infibulation is considered as the most extreme form which accounts to 15% of all the mutilation procedures (Steiner, Alston, and Goodman,). The Cultural and Religious Tie: Middle East and African Areas Located Above the Equator The principle of female genital mutilation is prevalent in the societies of African territory. The extent of such phenomena can be seen in 25 countries of Africa. Infibulation is widely performed in areas including Djibouti, Mali, Somalia, selected parts of Ethiopia, Egypt and the northern region of Sudan.

Meanwhile, excision and circumcision are evident in Benin, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, Guinea, Guinnea-Bissau, Kenya, Mauritania, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Uganda, Togo and other areas in the United Republic of Tanzania (OHCR-UNOG). Currently, WHO estimated that annually about three million African girls are at risk for female genital mutilation and about 92 million of the female populace, age 10 years and above have already undergone mutilation.

The prevalence of FGM in the said areas is associated primarily with myths and the ignorance of people towards biological, medical, and religious perspectives. As noted by Hanny Lighfoot-Klein: “The clitoris is perceived as repulsive, filthy, foul smelling, dangerous to the life of the emerging new born, and hazardous to the health and potency of the husband” (Lightfoot-Klein, n. p. ). Majority of African countries adhere to such beliefs that it has been well embraced and became a value, causing FGM to become a customary practice over time.

In Sudan, the clitoris is believe to grow to the length of the neck of a goose; long enough to dangle between the legs which could rival the male penis if left uncut. Such concept influences the perception of males, thereby reinforcing them not to marry a woman who is uncircumcised or “unclean” (Lightfoot-Klein). Among the Bambara’s in Mali, it is widely viewed that once the clitoris touches the head of a child being born, automatically the child will die. As the clitoris is considered to be the male characteristic of females, its removal is seen as an action that would result in the enhancement of femininity.

In Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia, females are imposed to undergo mutilation in order to control their sexuality and ensure their virginity until marriage and their chastity right after (OHCR-UNOG). Because childbearing and marriage are the only options for most of African women, majority of them are forced to submit themselves to the practice genital mutilation which they also have to pass on to their daughters (Lightfoot-Klein). The institutionalization of patriarchal system within the society also plays a significant role in the perpetration of FGM.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the code of Hammurabi embarked the presence of some features of patriarchy in public veiling and sexual repression of women. It was stated in the code that fathers were entitled to treat his daughter’s virginity as a ‘family property asset. Due to this system, women were categorized as “respectable,” meaning they were chaste and conforming, and “disreputable,” which translates to low class or slaves. As a result, women who bowed to the system benefited from it by securing their own safety as well as that of their children.

However, they became the steadfast advocates of the system, thereby imposing it to their daughters. Present-day Africans follow the same patriarchal outlook. Female circumcision is then performed to the daughters of the women, who, during the time they were young, experienced mutilation. Although perceived by many as a violation against human rights, the practice is defended by the women themselves because they consider it as an essential part of their tradition that ensures the social standing of their family in the community they belong (Lighfoot-Klein).

The existence of patriarchal society is attributed to economic reasons. Historically, fathers are known to be keen in identifying their “real” children, in order to know who is going to handle his property. Hence, it could be perceived that the establishment of systems including moral and religious values, as well as legal aspects became an imperative in order to protect the economic interests that uphold the society. In this regard, it is hard to abandon a custom that benefits the economic interest not only of the family but the whole society as well.

The existence of such system guarantees profit for many, thereby catapulting “dayas” and medical practitioners to resist changes in the practice of female genital mutilation. Likewise, the family woman can gain considerable bride price if she is mutilated by the time of the marriage. Moreover, women continuously submit themselves to FGM for the fear that their husbands will divorce them for a second wife. This perspective serves as a threat for the women in the society who have no economic recourse and access to own properties and relies only on the “bride price gold that she wears on her body.

” As such, it can be concluded that female genital mutilation is the result of the economic interest permeating within the society (Lightfoot-Klein). While many experts hold that female genital mutilation is an African custom, there are few reports regarding the existence of FGM in the Middle Eastern territory. This is understandable because it is difficult to study sexual relations in societies of Middle East. Almost everything regarding sexuality and personal matters are kept in private sphere.

Likewise, books and research pertaining to Middle Eastern sexual habits are almost non-existent or at the most, heavily guarded by the comprehensive rules based from the Islamic law. However, recent finding from northern Iraq suggests that FGM is also practiced widely in societies outside of Africa. The case study of Iraqi Kurdistan served as an instructive case. In 2003, a German-Austrian NGO called WADI took the initiative to take medical and social support to the women in Kurdish areas. More than a year later, women who received support spoke about the practice of FGM.

It was found out that Kurds used the sunna circumcision and were performed by midwives. Subsequent studies found out that of 1,544 women, 907 had undergone FGM, which further suggests that 60% of the population view mutilation as a normal practice. The discovery in Iraqi Kurdistan debunks the assumption that FGM is solely an African practice. As Fran Hosken quoted: “There is little doubt that similar practices—excision, child marriage, and putting rock salt into the vagina of women after childbirth—exist in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula and around the Persian Gulf (Hosken 278 qtd in Osten Sacken, and Uwer).

The absence of medical records tackling FGM in the whole region does not necessarily mean that the Middle Eastern territories are free from female circumcision. Such issue is left undetected due to the lack of freedom to permit formal studies regarding the subject. Taboo also plays a significant role in the undercutting of researches in Arab nations. Many scholars and NGO in Arab countries prohibits the criticism predominant culture of Arabs and Muslims.

Because of these findings many questions were raised by the critics of FGM, one of which is whether the said phenomena is a religious issue in the Middle East (Osten-Sacken and Uwer). Many Muslims and academics from the West claim that FGM is not based from religion rather it is a practice shaped by culture (Simonet qtd in Osten-Sacken and Uwer). However, in a village level, the people who are committed to the practice perceive the action as mandate by the religion. Although the law of Islam does not have any justifications regarding FGM, many Islamic clerics in the Northern part of Iraq advise women to undergo mutilation.

If the women wish to abandon such practice, she must suffer the consequence of appearing disreputable in the eyes of the public (Mackie qtd ini Osten-Sacken and Uwer). Some Islamic scholars may disagree with FGM but others refer to the mention of FGM in the Hadith as a defense for the persistence of such practice in Middle East. The claim was further sufficed by the Islamic law specialist Sami Aldeeb Abu Salieh when he stated: The most often mentioned narration reports a debate between Muhammed and Um Habibah (or Um ‘Atiyyah).

This woman, known as an exciser of female slaves, was one of a group of women who had immigrated with Muhammed. Having seen her, Muhammad asked her if she kept practicing her profession. She answered affirmatively, adding: “unless it is forbidden, and you order me to stop doing it. ” Muhammed replied: “Yes, it is allowed. Come closer so I can teach you: if you cut, do not overdo it, because it brings more radiance to the face, and it is more pleasant for the husband. (Aldeeb Abu Sahlieh 575-622 qtd in Osten- Sacken and Uwen).

Aldeeb Abu Sahlieh’s claim is further reinforced by other Islam scholars by stating that Islam condones sunna circumcision but not the pharaonic circumcision (Omer qtd in Osten-Sacken and Uwen), and that since the prophet Muhammad does not condemn the act, thereby making it permissible and cannot be outlawed (Aldeeb Abu Sahlieh qtd in Osten-Sacken). Ultimately, the practice of female genital mutilation in the Middle East may have its roots in the cultural scope of the region. However, its religious ties cannot be disregarded. Effects of Female Genital Mutilation

The implications of FGM can be short-term and long term. The immediate consequences of the practice are hemorrhage, acute pain and infection. The infections are commonly acquired from the usage of unsterilized instruments performed in unhygienic areas and introduction of substances. The infections may range from tetanus, general septicamea, chronic pelvic infections, and recurrent urinary tract infections. Recently the transfer of HIV has also been a concern for the FGM researchers (OHCR-UNOG). Obstetric complications are also common among mutilated women.

Pregnant mutilated woman put the life of her child in danger because the fetus is at risk of acquiring infectious disease. Likewise, the head of the child may be crushed during the delivery due to damaged birth canal. Furthermore, infibulated women are needed to be opened during child birth and are commonly reinfibulated after every delivery resulting to the scarring of the genitals. Cyst commonly referred to as epidermal clitoral inclusion cyst may also develop among women who undergo type 3 FGM (Rosenthal). Female Genital Mutilation has also psychological implications.

These include sexual phobias, depression, and lack of libido which result in the premature ejaculation among women’s partners, personality disorders like rebellion which may eventually lead to psychiatric disorders (Rosenthal). Some evidences indicate that children who undergo FGM experience recurring nightmares (OHCR-UNOG). The socio-economic problems associated with FGM include higher divorce rate and drug abuse which are commonly associated with the males. It was found out that a male with mutilated wife has the tendency of using narcotics to give sexual pleasure to his wives (Rosenthal).

Response to Female Genital Mutilation In 1997, World Health Organization (WHO) together with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) issued statements against the continuous practice of female genital mutilation. By 2008, a new statement was issued supporting the increased advocacy of totally condemning FGM which was backed heavily backed by more countries of the United Nation. The 2008 statement include data concerning the past and present practice of FGM.

The statement also gave emphasis on the increased recognition of human rights and provided evidences regarding the extent of the issue. The damaging effects of FGM were also presented in order to affect changes in the public policy. From 1997, various government and non-government organizations both in the international and local levels ratified laws abandoning FGM (WHO). Conclusion Based on the study, it is apparent that female genital mutilation predominantly place women in a disadvantaged position. Immense cultural pressure is considered to be the root cause of FGM.

However, based from several findings, religion also serves as an encouragement for the existence of such practice. The impact of FGM does not only affect women but also the society where it is widely recognized as a custom. Although, international interventions reduced the prevalence of FGM in African regions during the past years, its practice may not be totally eliminated if practicing communities will not abandon the act itself. Hence, organizations as well as government agencies should further promote awareness regarding the issue of FGM. Works Cited Lighfoot-Klein, Hanny.

“Prisoners of ritual: Some contemporary developments in the history of female genital mutilation. ” The Female Genital Mutilation Cutting Education And Networking Project. 30 April-03 May 1991. 10 December 2008 <http://www. fgmnetwork. org/Lightfoot-klein/prisonersofritual. htm>. Office of the High Commisioner of Human Rights-United Nations Organization. “Fact sheet no. 23, harmful traditional practices affecting the health of women and children. ” Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2008. 10 December 2008 <http://www. unhchr. ch/html/menu6/2/fs23. htm#ii>.

Osten-Sacken, Thomas and Uwer, Thomas. “Is female genital mutilation an Islamic problem? ” The Middle East Quarterly. 2007. 10 December 2008 < http://www. meforum. org/article/1629#_ftn38>. Rosenthal, Sara. The Gynecological Sourcebook. Chicago, IL: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2003. Steiner, Henry, Alston, Philip and Goodman, Ryan. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals: Test And Materials. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2008 World Health Organization. “Female genital mutilation. ” May 2008. 10 December 2008 <http://www. who. int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/>.


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