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As you are reading this article, there are between eight and ten million women and girls in the Middle East and in Africa who are at risk of undergoing one form or another of genital mutilation. In the United States it is estimated that about ten thousand girls are at risk of this practice.

Awa Thiam, the Senegalese writer and activist, notes that FGM in a variety of its forms is practiced in Middle Eastern countries (the two Yemens, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Southern Algeria). In Africa it is practiced in the majority of the continent including Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Mozambique, and Sudan.

Even though FGM is practiced in mostly Islamic countries, it is not an exclusively Islamic practice. FGM is a cross-cultural and cross-religious ritual. In Africa and the Middle East it is performed by Muslims, Coptic Christians, members of various indigenous groups, Protestants, and Catholics, to name a few.

FGM has often been referred to as female circumcision and compared to male circumcision. However, such comparison is often misleading. Both practices include the removal of well- functioning parts of the genitalia and are quite unnecessary. Both rituals serve to perpetuate customs which seek to regulate and keep control over the body and sexuality of the individual. However, FGM is far more drastic and damaging than male circumcision. A more appropriate analogy would be between clitoridectomy and penisdectomy where the entire penis is removed.

The term FGM covers three main varieties of genital mutilation:

+ “Sunna” circumcision: Consists of the removal of the prepuce and/or the tip of the clitoris. Sunna in Arabic means “tradition”.

+ Clitoridectomy (also referred to as excision): Consists of the removal of the entire clitoris (both prepuce and glans), and the removal of the adjacent labia.

+ Infibulation:(also referred to as pharaonic circumcision) This most extreme form consists of the removal of the clitoris, the adjacent labia (majora and minora), and the joining of the scraped sides of the vulva across the vagina, where they are secured with thorns or sewn with catgut or thread. A small opening is kept to allow passage of urine and menstrual blood. An infibulated woman must be cut open to allow intercourse on the wedding night and is closed again afterwards to secure fidelity to the husband.


FGM is mostly done in unsanitary conditions in which a midwife uses unclean sharp instruments such as razor blades, scissors, kitchen knives, and pieces of glass. These instruments are frequently used on several girls in succession and are rarely cleaned, causing the transmission of a variety of viruses such as the HIV virus, and other infections. Antiseptic techniques and anaesthesia are generally not used, or for that matter, heard of. This is akin to a doctor who uses the same surgical instrument on a number of women at the same time without cleaning any of them.

Beyond the obvious initial pains of the operations, FGM has long-term physiological, sexual, and psychological effects. The unsanitary environment under which FGM takes place results in infections of the genital and surrounding areas and often results in the transmission of the HIV virus which can cause AIDS. Some of the other health consequences of FGM include primary fatalities as a result of shock, haemorrhage or septicemia. In order to minimize the risk of the transmission of the viruses, some countries like Egypt made it illegal for FGM to be practiced by any other practitioners than trained doctors and nurses in hospitals. While this seems to be a more humane way to deal with FGM and try to reduce its health risks, more tissue is apt to be taken away due to the lack of struggle by the child if anaesthesia is used.

Long-term complications include sexual frigidity, genital malformation, delayed menarche, chronic pelvic complications, recurrent urinary retention and infection, and an entire range of obstetric complications whereas the foetus is exposed to a range of infectious diseases as well as facing the risk of having his or her head crushed in the damaged birth canal. In such cases the infibulated mother must undergo another operation whereby she is “opened” further to insure the safe birthing of her child.

Girls undergo FGM when they are around three years old, though some of them are much older than that when they undergo the operation. The age varies depending on the type of the ritual and the customs of the local village or region.

In various cultures there are many “justifications” for these practices. A girl who is not circumcised is considered “unclean” by local villagers and therefore unmarriageable. A girl who does not have her clitoris removed is considered a great danger and ultimately fatal to a man if her clitoris touches his penis.

One of the most common explanations of FGM is local custom. Women are often heard saying that they are unwilling to change these customs since they have always done it this way and are not about to change. Oftentimes the practitioners are kept ignorant of the real implications of FGM, and the extreme health risks that it represents.

Family honor, cleanliness, protection against spells, insurance of virginity and faithfulness to the husband, or simply terrorizing women out of sex are sometimes used as excuses for the practice of FGM.

Some people believe that FGM is a barbaric practice done to girls and women in some remote villages in foreign countries of the world. However, up until a few decades ago, it was still believed that the clitoris is a very dangerous part of the female anatomy. Who can forget S. Freud who stated in one of his books entitled Sexuality and the Psychology of Love that the “elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity.”

As recently as 1979, the “Love Surgery” was performed on women in the United States. Dr. James E. Burt, the so-called Love Surgeon, introduced “clitoral relocation” (i.e. sunna circumcision) to the medical establishment. He believed and acted upon the idea that excision does not prevent sexual pleasure but enhances it. Dr. Burt practiced in Ohio for almost ten years before he was exposed after which he gave up his license.

FGM is also entering the United States with some immigrants who are holding on to their customs and identity. As of the beginning of this year, the United States courts still did not hold precedence over these cases.

Because of the large number of cases of FGM and some of the deaths it has caused, FGM is now outlawed in some European countries (Britain, France, Sweden, and Switzerland) and some African countries (Egypt, Kenya, Senegal).

It is also important to note that even though FGM is currently illegal in many countries in Africa and the Middle East, this has not reduced the number of the girls that are mutilated every year. The governments of these countries have no way of monitoring the spread and practice of FGM. The United Nations, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization has considered FGM to be a violation of Human Rights and have made recommendations to eradicate this practice. However, trying to fight FGM on legal terms is ineffective since those who practice it oftentimes do not report it. FGM is also widely practiced in villages and remote places where the government does not have an easy access.

A better and more effective approach would be a cooperation on the national level as well as the international level. The UN and the WHO have already taken the first step in abolishing these practices. Countries also need to have rigid laws that deal with FGM cases. This is also insufficient by itself. Anthropologists, educators, social scientists, and activists have to go into these villages and areas and educate the practitioners of the dangers of FGM. Female Genital Mutilation can only be abolished by a grassroots approach which would take into consideration all aspects of a particular culture and try to work within that system of beliefs to eradicate this no less than torturous practice.

On the United States level, there are many efforts that are being made in order to abolish the practice locally and internationally. The National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), a networking organization have brought together social scientists and medical practitioners from all over the world who are fighting FGM as well as male circumcision. The Washington Metro Alliance Against Female Genital Mutilation in Washington DC has also been targeting FGM risk groups, and provides peer education for African Women by African women in WA Metro Community and interfaces with western health care providers and policy makers. In addition, Si-Kata has begun efforts to bring together the efforts of researchers and organizers around the United States in the hopes of exposing this practice on a national level as well as changing policies.

On the National Level, Congresswoman Patricia Shroeder introduced H.R. 3247, a bill to outlaw FGM in the United States in the fall of 1994. The bill was then combined with The Minority Health Initiatives Act, H.R.3864. This bill was then combined with H.R. 941 on February 14, 1995 which was to be cited as the “Federal Prohibtion of Female Genital Mutilation of 1995.” At the present, this bill has not been approved.

Some overdue effort is being made to abolish FGM, but there is still much work to be done. Education of ourselves, as well as of others is a way that we can begin acting upon the convictions that human rights should not violated, and that violence against women is intolerable. Many people are still unaware that practices such as FGM are still widely practiced, and only an awareness can bring this inhumane practice to a halt.


Si-Kata P.O.Box 204 Venice, CA 90294 (310) 314-4833

National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC) P.O.Box 2512 San Anselmo, CA 94979-2512 (415)488-9883

Special Projects Fund, Population Action International 19th St, NW Suite 550 Washington, DC 20003

The Washington Metro Alliance Against Female Genital Mutilation Catherine Hogan, MS 17700 New Hampshire Ave. Ashton, MD 20861 (301)774-4456

Atlanta Circumcision Information Center David J. Llewellyn, Director 2 Putnam Drive, N.W. Atlanta, GA 30342 Women’s International Network News Fran Hosken 187 Grant Street Lexington, MA 02173 (617)862-9431

Congresswoman Patricia Shroeder (202)225-4431

http://hamp.hampshire.edu/ mnbF94/whatis.FGM.html

(C) 1995 Marianne Sarkis sarkis@luna.cas.usf.edu Rev. 950929

RISING DAUGHTERS AWARE http://www.fgm.org

On Comparisons Between Male Circumcision and Female “Circumcision” (Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation)

Recently a member of a male anti-circumcision organization wrote a letter to my local editor addressing the issue of circumcision. While truthfully stating the fact that all forms of circumcision performed on minors are a violation of human rights and medical ethics, the writer was gravely misleading and self serving in equating Female Genital Mutilation (”female circumcision”) with male circumcision. Furthermore, his choice of wording gave the mistaken impression that FGM has been both adequately addressed and “solved.”

Male circumcision is an unnecessary procedure performed for conformist, hygienic and cosmetic reasons. With female “circumcision,” these reasons are often cited to mollify critics and, after thousands of years, have become accepted superficially. The main reason, however, that young girls are sexually mutilated, is to ensure their virginity and chastity by severely damaging or entirely inhibiting their ability to enjoy sexual relations. This is to prepare them to become “proper wives.” It is done because men insist, no matter how promiscuous themselves, on virginal, “circumcised” brides. No such correlation exists with male circumcision. No boy is circumcised to “keep him virginal” until marriage, or with the deliberate intent decrease his sexual appetite. In addition, as males, boys exist as part of the status quo, while girls still struggle for basic rights.

Female genital mutilation is performed to prepare a woman for proper marriage, and ranges from clitoridectomy, to the hacking, slicing or burning off of all external female genitalia (excision), and infibulation, where the girl’s entire outer genitals are sliced off, with the resulting wound bound together with thorn, thread, cowhide thong or sutures. Her legs are then lashed together for 1-6 weeks while she heals. Often water is refused her to discourage urination. She is sewn almost completely shut, leaving small (match head size), inadequate openings for passage of urine and menses. This is mostly done under less than sterile circumstances, with rudimentary instruments (razor, knife, glass, tin can) and no anaesthesia. Girls are generally subjected to this between the ages of 3 to 15 years of age, although it varies significantly among regions and sub-groups. These procedures result in complications ranging from shock, chronic infection, post traumatic stress disorders, haemorrhage, severe scarring (both internal and external genitals), urinary tract problems, incontinence, infertility, infant/mother mortality, fibroids, fistula, sexual dysfunction, psychological disturbance, and not infrequently, death. For my infibulated friends, a simple ob/gyn exam is pure torture, resulting in days of bleeding and bed rest. For many, even a child-size speculum is too large and examination and treatment are difficult.

For male circumcision to be equivalent to even the most simple form of FGM (Type I, clitoridectomy) the head of the penis (not just the foreskin) would have to be cut off.

FGM is no longer limited to African, Malaysian and Middle Eastern nations and is now not uncommon in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

If a girl’s parents object to this practice, it is not unusual for a girl to be kidnapped and forcibly “circumcised” by relatives or members of the community. Women who speak out about this issue are often ostracized or punished. Even for women who do not fear being ostracized, this is a highly personal and difficult topic to discuss. This is not the case with male circumcision, which has become an open and frequent topic on health radio and television shows and parent support networks, as well as in print and online media.

FGM is only the beginning of women’s suffering: a lifetime of endless labour, early, arranged marriage — often to much older men–, and few basic rights, including the right to education and economic independence. Even today, girls enjoy few of the freedoms their brothers take for granted: movies with friends, outings, school field trips, use of the telephone.

It is highly unethical and reprehensible to appropriate the enormous suffering of 150 million girls worldwide to attack the very real, but far less complicated issue of infant male circumcision; to do so trivializes the disproportionate agony of women. Can male circumcision not be abolished on it’s own lack of merit? Any comparison between the two is enormously exaggerated, simplified, and overlooks the misogynous intentions of FGM.

As women we have so many of our own health issues to address– under funded and under assisted, and a health care system with undervalues and demoralizes us. We must prioritize ourselves. Some anti-male circ activists resort to a type of manipulation: women should actively use their time to support their cause because ‘circumcised men are angry men, and angry men commit more violence.’ While it is true that angry men are often violent men, and that some men are angry about their circumcisions, it is quite a stretch to blame the long historic and global fact of violence and oppression against women and girls on the practice of male circumcision. By their own statistics, anti male circ activists have noted that America is a lonely hold out in maintaining this practice, and yet a January 2000 report by Johns Hopkins, based on a ten year global study, revealed that 1 in 3 women on this planet have been raped, beaten or otherwise severely abused. According to anti male circ activists own stats, the majority of these women are being abused by uncircumcised males. It is a violent nature in the first place that tends to originate these practices, including circumcision.

What really needs to happen is that men need to grow up and address their own health needs by themselves. Consider this: the majority of capital and resources on this planet is still controlled by men; the majority of appointed and elected policy makers are still men; the vast majority of hospital administrators and policy makers are men; the majority of insurance policy makers (who pay for male circ) are men. Men have time to design Stealth bombers, run for office, take over corporations, but cannot schedule the time (often) to book their own doctor’s appointments. The kindest thing women can do for you is to tell you to grow up. Your Mommies are busy, our plates are full.



“In a free society, all individuals have a right to make informed decisions regarding their bodies. If a parent indoctrinates a child into a religion, that child can refuse that religion upon reaching majority age. However, body parts removed from a child cannot be regrown as an adult. Genital mutilation is permanent.” –J.N.

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