Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a socio-religious practice that is very prevalent in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It entails the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia for cultural or any other non-therapeutic purpose. As of 1999, at least 130 million girls and women were believed to have undergone FGM. In the same year, it was estimated that about 2 million girls are at risk of being subjected to some form of the procedure every year (WHO 3). FGM is criticized mainly for its detrimental effects on a woman’s physical and psychological health.
Girls and women who had been subjected to FGM may die of hemorrhage, shock, urinary tract infections or tetanus (WHO 21). They may likewise experience psychological disorders such as severe depression, anxiety and psychosomatic illnesses (Markle, Fisher and Smego 79). Advocates of FGM, however, claim that Islam requires the practice in order to preserve a woman’s chastity (WHO 6). The actual origins of FGM are very obscure – ethnologists and historians have come up with different theories regarding the existence of the practice.
While FGM is commonly associated with Islam, historical evidence shows that the former has predated the latter by at least 1,200 years. The procedure was believed to have been first discussed by the Greek historian Herodotus (484 – 425 BC) (Bullough and Bullough 205). According to his writings, the Ethiopians, the Hittites and the Phoenicians during the 5th century BC were already practicing FGM (UNFPA n. pag. ). The early Romans, the Egyptians and the Arabs likewise performed FGM – there are historical accounts of Egyptian mummies exhibited signs of having undergone the procedure (UNFPA n. pag. ).
For the ancient Egyptians, FGM was regarded as a sign of distinction among the aristocracy (Momoh 5). In Western Europe and the United States, FGM was known as clitoridectomy. Until the 1950s, doctors in these regions used clitoridectomy to treat “ailments” in women such as hysteria, mental disorders, nymphomania, masturbation and lesbianism (UNFPA n. pag. ). FGM is usually done on girls between 8 to 10 years old. Reproductive health experts, however, point out that the procedure is already being carried out on younger girls – there have been cases wherein infant girls were subjected to FGM just a few days after their birth (WHO 147).
FGM is classified into four general types: a. Type I – Excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or the entire clitoris. b. Type II – Excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora. c. Type III – Excision of part or the entire external genitalia and the stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation) (Momoh 6). d. Type IV – Pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and or the labia; scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice; cutting of the vagina and or the introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to induce bleeding or to tighten the opening (UNFPA n.
pag. ). FGM is usually performed by traditional midwifes or village barbers. They use unsterilized instruments such as razor blades, knives, broken glass, scissors or sharpened stones. Furthermore, they conduct procedures without anesthetic in unhygienic settings (WHO, 148). A new phenomenon, however, has emerged in the recent years – the “medicalization” of FGM. Despite laws banning the practice of FGM, hospitals in Egypt, Kenya and Sudan now clandestinely perform the procedure.
Under the pretext of an illness, female teenagers in these countries are circumcised in the hospital either early in the morning or late at night. The procedure is done during these hours in order to evade detection and arrest. The punishment for performing FGM is relatively stiff – a $625 fine or incarceration for up to a year. But doctors willingly look the other way for the money – medical practitioners in Kenya, for instance, are paid between $37 and $125 for every procedure they perform. Traditional practitioners, in sharp contrast, could charge only as much as $25 (Nzwili n.
pag. ). Egypt’s current problem with FGM can be traced back to the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994. The ICPD was held in Cairo – supposedly a turning point in the understanding of health, development and women’s rights in the Islamic world. Critics, however, pointed out that the Cairo Program of Action merely “forwarded a holistic vision of the connections between sexual ad reproductive health and women’s economic autonomy, social and political equality, access to education and freedom from violence” (Chavkin and Chesler 35).
The issues regarding the right of women to control their sexuality and the relevance of this right to achieving health and social justice were inadequately discussed (Chavkin and Chesler 35). Despite this shortcoming, the ICPD managed to transform the issue of FGM from a relatively low-profile subject into matter of national debate. Conservative religious leaders who participated in the conference and their allies in the Egyptian press expressed their approval of FGM by claiming that it is an important part of national and religious identity.
Progressive women’s groups, on the other hand, argued that the practice perpetuated the inferior status of women in Egyptian society. In the process, this dispute on FGM showed that the topic of women’s rights is simply a means for Egyptian politicians to attain popularity among the electorate (Chavkin and Chesler 35). Eager to make a good impression on all the foreign delegates of the ICPD, particularly on those from the West, the Egyptian minister of health stated that FGM was already a dying practice in Egypt.
But on the very next day, CNN reported about the circumcision of a young girl that took place somewhere in Cairo (Chavkin and Chesler 35). The minister, in an act of political face-saving, declared that the Egyptian government was determined to confront and put an end to the practice. In order to appease Egypt’s conservative sector, meanwhile, he signed an ambivalent decree which allowed only public medical facilities to perform FGM. The law even included provisions which set standard fees and special days when families could book appointments (Chavkin and Chesler 36).
The aforementioned aftermath of the ICPD showed the greatest obstacle towards fully implementing anti-FGM policies and programs not just in Egypt but in all other countries that practice FGM – the reconciliation of universal imperatives of human rights with the values of local cultures. The same dilemma also hounded other FGM-related fatalities, particularly the death of four-year-old Egyptian girl Amira Hassan. She died in 1996 due to anesthesia-related complications while undergoing FGM. Instead of pressing charges against the doctor, Ezzat Shehat, Hassan’s parents simply dismissed her demise as “a will of God” (HURINet n.
pag. ). They believed that subjecting their daughter to FGM was their duty as good Muslims (HURINet n. pag. ). Most Egyptians continue to believe in the said relationship between FGM and Islam. A 2005 UNICEF report on the practice revealed that about 97% of women between 15 and 49 years old were subjected to circumcision (Reuters-AlertNet n. pag. ). Despite a 2008 law which renders FGM punishable by three months to two years in prison and a fine of LE 1,000 to LE 5,000, the practice continues to be secretly carried out in Egypt.
According to the country’s conservative and religious groups, FGM is necessary to maintain a woman’s chastity (Samaan n. pag. ). Indeed, cultural and religious beliefs are also major factors behind the issue of FGM in Egypt. The practice has already existed long before the advent of Islam. And for a good reason – patriarchy was already in existence even before the emergence of religion. For a patriarchal society to survive, female sexuality must be limited and controlled (Turshen 146). FGM is regarded as one of the most effective means of controlling a woman’s sexuality.
The clitoris, the labia minora and the labia majora – the organs removed in FGM – enable a woman to enjoy sexual intercourse. In a patriarchal society, women are not supposed to experience the pleasures of sex. They are supposed to be sexless beings, faithfully serving their respective families and engaging in sex only for the purpose of procreation. Women who do otherwise are considered promiscuous (Turshen 146). It is therefore believed that circumcised women are less likely to be unchaste and commit adultery. In addition, FGM is viewed as a means of emphasizing femininity.
When a woman is circumcised, the parts of her body that are metaphorically seen as male, such as the pubic hair and the clitoris, are removed. During ancient times, it was believed that the clitoris “would grow and protrude like the (penis)” (Turshen 150). Men, on the other hand, undergo circumcision in order to enhance their sexuality. Male circumcision entails the cutting of the foreskin of the penis. A circumcised penis is believed to be more responsive to sexual arousal than an uncircumcised one; thus the ancient belief that circumcision is necessary for virility. Furthermore, a circumcised penis is easier to keep clean.
Circumcision eliminates the formation of smegma, a combination of oil, moisture and dead skin cells which serves as a lubricant during sexual intercourse (Turshen 146). Islam does not directly state that all Muslims must be circumcised regardless of gender. However, much of the existing Islamic literature today emphasizes a special link between Islam and FGM (Turshen 151). The most well-known hadith (oral traditions that record the Prophet Muhammad’s speech and actions) about FGM tells of a debate between Muhammad and Um Atiyyah, a woman who used to circumcise female slaves.
Muhammad was said to have asked Um Atiyyah if she continued to practice her profession (Denniston, Hodges and Milos 148). She said she did, adding that she would not stop doing so “unless it is forbidden and you order me to stop doing it” (Denniston, Hodges and Milos 148). He then replied, “Yes, it is allowed. Come closer so I can teach you: if you cut, do not overdo it (la tanhiki), because it brings more radiance to the face (ashraq) and it is more pleasant (ahza) for the husband” (Denniston, Hodges and Milos 148). Since the first centuries of Islam, however, Muslim scholars have been scrutinizing the authenticity of the hadiths.
They believe that majority of the hadiths were “contradictory and (contained) affirmations that gave a bad impression of the Islamic religion” (Denniston, Hodges and Milos 148). In lieu of the hadiths, Muslim scholars came up with their own explanations behind the association of FGM with Islam. The first theory was that FGM was a means of saving women from the degradation that they experienced in the pre-Islamic era. For the Muslims, the pre-Islamic era was the “Age of Ignorance” – a period of corruption, bloodshed, moral turpitude and social chaos (Akhtar 23). Women in the pre-Islamic era had few rights.
The practice of burying infant females in the sand was very rampant. Those who managed to live to adulthood, meanwhile, had no other means of survival except through prostitution (Akhtar 23). It has been mentioned earlier that the organs removed in FGM – the clitoris, the labia minora and the labia majora – enable a woman to enjoy sexual intercourse. By removing these organs, therefore, it was expected that women would no longer take pleasure in sexual intercourse and abandon prostitution in the process. The second theory is that some Islamic societies might have acquired the practice of FGM from other cultures or religions.
During Muhammad’s time, the Jews were considered as the elite of Arab society. Consequently, it became inevitable that Islam was influenced by Jewish doctrines and practices such as circumcision (Denniston, Hodges and Milos 148). But this begs the question of how come even Muslim females are circumcised – the Jews circumcise only males. The answer is that Islam might have tailored certain Jewish doctrines and practices to suit its own objectives. One of the objectives of Islam was to uplift the status of women (Akhtar 23). In order to achieve this goal, Islam put its own flavor to the Jewish practice of circumcision.
As a result, even Muslim women were required to undergo circumcision. Despite varying explanations regarding the origins and purposes of FGM, one thing is certain – it is not without detrimental physical and psychological effects. The most immediate negative effects of FGM are severe pain and hemorrhage, which, in turn, can result in hypovolaemic shock and death. Other direct effects include abscesses, wound contamination and local infections – obvious results of performing the procedure in unhygienic surroundings using unsterilized tools (WHO 149).
FGM also has substantial long-term risks. The practice usually obstructs the drainage of urine, vaginal secretions and menstrual blood. This occurrence, in turn, results in chronic pelvic infections, menstrual dysfunction and menstrual pain. Urinary retention, meanwhile, leads to chronic urinary tract infection and renal damage. When menstrual blood is unable to flow out of the body, abdominal pain and swelling ensue (WHO 149). The abdominal distention that circumcised women experience due to the lack of menstrual flow has been misinterpreted as a pregnancy.
As a result, some circumcised but unmarried women have been subjected to honor killings – killed by their male relatives in order to preserve the honor of their clan. FGM also exposes a woman to the risk of contracting HIV. Unsterilized instruments may transmit HIV-infected blood into an HIV-negative patient (WHO 149). Women who underwent FGM may also experience difficulties in sexual intercourse after the procedure. Penetration may either be painful or impossible due to a narrow introitus. Prolonged postcoital bleeding and anorgasmia may likewise take place.
In some cases, surgery was necessary to open up the vagina for penetration (WHO 150). FGM may render a woman infertile. Chronic pelvic infections often lead to the obstruction of the fallopian tubes. The latter is one of the most common causes of ectopic pregnancy, which can lead to the death of both the mother and the baby. Narrowing of the introitus, meanwhile, may force a couple to use the anus or the urethra for sexual intercourse. Fluctuating hormones during pregnancy put circumcised women at more risk for genital and urinary tract infections than their uncircumcised counterparts (WHO 150).
The most common psychological disorders among circumcised women are depression and anxiety – they have to conform to parental and societal expectations while dealing with pain, complicated recovery and other long-term health effects. Painful sexual intercourse may result in them having immensely traumatic memories of their wedding night. Circumcised women also have to live each day in fear – they constantly view each cyst that grows in them as a possible symptom of cancer or other serious ailment (WHO 152). When the physical pain becomes too much for them to endure, they might resort to suicide.
Female genital mutilation is one of the worst forms of violence that can be inflicted on a woman. In an effort to tie her to the home, she is horribly mutilated and made to live in constant pain for the rest of her life. A circumcised woman is also made to live in fear. She is constantly warned by society that to avoid circumcision is to face ostracism and even condemnation. Much still has to be done before FGM will finally be abolished. But the first step remains to be education. Societies must be made aware of the importance of educating girls.
Numerous studies have already proven that girls who have attained basic education are healthier and are less likely to die in childbirth than those who did not. When the members of a particular society – both male and female – are healthy, this society becomes productive. Works Cited Akhtar, Shabbir. The Quran and the Secular Mind: A Philosophy of Islam. New York: Routledge, 2007. Bullough, Vern L. , and Bonnie Bullough. Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia. New York: Taylor and Francis, 1994. Chavkin, Wendy, and Ellen Chesler. Where Human Rights Begin: Health, Sexuality and Women in the New Millennium.
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