It's easy for us to be self-righteous and rant about the cruelty of female circumcision. However, people in first world countries are often just as destructive, if not more so, to their bodies.
By Lisa Meyerhardt
Although such an account seems amusing, female circumcision
and its effects are real. It is thought that female circumcision has been
around for at least twenty centuries (Gruenbaum 193). Despite its age,
female circumcision is only recently being discussed and debated in the
United States. In fact, the matter itself had not really been looked at
nationally until 1975, "when the Australian delegation at the first
U.N. conference on woman in Mexico City proposed a motion condemning it"
(Greer 64). Since that time, opposition to female circumcision has been
included as a part of American Human Rights Policy (Mackie 999). The U.S.
agency for International Development is also assisting the "African
organizations working to eradicate it" (qtd. in Mackie 999). Now
the world knows about female circumcision and wants to do something about
it, but change will not come suddenly due to its long tradition.
Female Circumcision is the cutting or removing of female
genitalia. According to msn.com, female circumcision is "the practice
of circumcision of adolescent women in some cultures that generally involves
the surgical removal of the clitoris or the sewing up of the vaginal opening."
There are many different names for this practice. Some refer to it as
"female genital mutilation," and others call it "female
genital cutting." Often times, the women who practice female circumcision
are extremely offended by such terms; therefore the simplest, least offensive
way to refer to it is "female circumcision."
Although it sounds barbaric to us, the people who practice
female circumcision view it as tradition, and most are not ashamed of
it. "It's not a secret; we celebrate it!" said a Sudanese woman
(qtd. Gruenbaum 15). This seems odd and cruel to us, for we are not accustomed
to their ways. Female circumcision is carried out in 28 African countries,
from Mauritania and the Ivory Coast in the west to Egypt, Somalia and
Tanzania in the east, and a few ethnic groups in Asia (Abusharaf). It's
estimated that more than 137 million women and girls have undergone the
surgery and that another estimated 2 million will undergo it each year
There are different types of female circumcision, depending
on the culture and the country. They range from mild pricks, piercings
or stretching of the clitoris and/or the labia to the total removal of
all female genitalia. The two most common forms are known as type II,
"excision," or type III, "infibulation." Excision
is the total or partial removal of the prepuce, the clitoris and/or the
labia minora. "Infibluation is the total amputation of all of the
external genitalia together with the stitching together of the remainder
of the labia majora
" ("Female Genital Mutilation").
There is, however, a small opening left for urination and menstruation.
This is held open by a single piece of straw which is left there during
the healing process (Gruenbaum 15). In Somalia, the girls' legs are often
tied together to aid in the healing process (Walker 19). Simple things
like urination are forever altered. For instance, Gerry Mackie, Junior
Research Fellow in politics at St. John's College in Oxford, and a researcher
of social and political theory, wrote about female circumcision and some
of its consequences. In his essay (1009), he writes about Hanny Lightfoot-Klein's
interviews with Sudanese women. Lightfoot-Klein is known to be one of
the leading authors and researchers of female circumcision. She began
writing about female circumcision in 1979 when she went on a 32 month
study in Africa. According to Mackie's essay, the females of Africa feel
that the time it takes them to urinate is "normal - about 15 minutes."
Such an image is horrifying to us. We can't understand that mothers don't
force this on their children, but that rather, it is done for them; it
is done out of love.
Although this doesn't make sense to a first world perspective,
we have to understand the concept of cultural relativism. The practice
can't just be declared "wrong" and "inhumane." In
fact, in the first half of the 20th century when the Europeans tried to
abolish the practice, the African people only clung on tighter to their
traditions (Abusharaf). Reform doesn't come suddenly. Those of the third
world are not going to think that their culture is wrong, and that our
views are correct. To them it is a part of their lives, and the practice
is founded on many beliefs. Some ethnic groups practice female circumcision
for real health reasons. For example, there are many people in Nigeria
who think that if a baby comes in contact with the clitoris, the baby
will die. Others think that if left unchecked, the female genitalia will
continue to grow, "becoming a grotesque penislike organ dangling
between a woman's legs." They also believe that vaginal secretions
are unclean and lethal to sperm. Needless to say, the glands that produce
these secretions are often removed during the procedure (Abusharaf). These
views are ingrained into their way of thinking. And even if they aren't
completely sure about those consequences, the possibility of them happening
is enough to scare the women into doing it. It's like when we were kids
and our parents told us not to give each other dirty looks because our
face might freeze like that - we thought they were just joking, but who
of us was brave enough to find out? The thought of going through life
looking odd and malformed scared us enough to stop. This is the same thinking
that Africans experience when debating about female circumcision.
The social justifications behind female circumcision are
extremely important in understanding why, despite the pain involved, it
continues. "Inflibulation safeguards the female's virginity, preserves
her chastity, and ensures her eligibility for marriage, thus protecting
her future" (Nour 51). Female circumcision is also considered a rite
of passage. It is done to girls when they are around 11-12 years old.
In Sudan, circumcision marks the transition from a girl to a woman. She
is now worthy of a husband and ceremonies are held to celebrate this "special"
occasion. Although the newly circumcised girl is still in her room, legs
tied together and moaning because of pain, the people outside are celebrating
(Pulsipher). In their minds, the consequences of not getting the circumcision
far outweigh the pain that it initially causes. If one does not get the
surgery, one is considered a social outcast, a pariah. The "uncut
women are called girls, whatever their age, and are forbidden to speak
at community gatherings" (Abusharaf). Men in Kenya, including great
leaders such as Kenyatta, say that no Kenyan man would marry a woman who
had not been circumcised (Walker 268). The social pressures are extremely
intense, and no one wants to be known as dirty or unclean. An example
of this is seen in Abusharaf's essay where she wrote about the account
of a Somali woman:
The fact that a seven-year-old had been brainwashed enough to try to
circumcise herself tells us something about how important being "cut"
is in their society.
It's easy for us to make judgments on female circumcision, to say that
it's wrong, but the people who practice it don't think they are doing
anything wrong to their bodies. Here in America, we have similar problems;
we try to "fit in" in other ways. Eight million people in the
United States have an eating disorder. They deliberately deny themselves
the basic nutrients needed to stay alive, and eventually, such habits
will lead to death. Eighty percent of these people are women, but no matter
what the gender, they are doing it to look thin. They are hurting themselves
in order to be accepted in society, to be a part of the crowd. It's not
uncommon for people, especially women, to harm themselves in order to
fit in. People die from plastic surgery and liposuction surgeries. These
people are causing themselves as much pain as the women in Africa who
practice female circumcision; people in first world countries are often
just as self-destructive, perhaps even more destructive, than African
women. Not only do people starve themselves, but they endure harmful surgery
in an attempt to look "more beautiful." Perhaps plastic surgery
is the first world equivalent of female circumcision. For in America,
being fat and ugly, for some, is a fate worse than death, and in Africa,
"not circumcising one's own daughter is the equivalent to condemning
her to a life of isolation" (Nour 51). We must remember that our
culture has its own problems and that they go far deeper than just the
surface; they are ingrained in society and it will take a lot to uproot
Although female circumcision is a part of African culture, it's dangerous
and its consequences are too great to ignore. We know that we can't go
into these countries and force change, but to throw our hands up and say,
"it's tradition" is too extreme as well. The health hazards
alone are reason enough to make us pay attention. Usually, the midwives
use whatever is lying around: a razor, a knife, a broken bottle (Pulsipher).
In some places, such as Sudan and Kenya, there is often no anesthesia
administered to the female who is being circumcised. These midwifes are
not trained. They are often old women with "defective eyesight"
who use "clumsy and dirty instruments" (Greer 64). Often the
success of the procedure relies on chance rather than accuracy, meaning
that the immediate complications can be numerous (Nour 50). There is a
lot of bleeding which can lead to a hemorrhage, anemia, hypotension, oliguria
(dehydration, urethral injury, urethral edema, retention), shock and/or
even death. Infections and fractures of the clavicle, femur, and humerus
have been known to happen to the females after being circumcised (Nour
52). The long term complications involve the urinary tract system, cause
scarring and infertility.
Fortunately, many pregnant women now go into the cities to see real doctors.
Usually in the second trimester, the doctor will strongly recommend that
they be deinfibulated. This is done "under regional anesthesia and
decreases obstetrical and fetal risks" (Nour 54). But when the surgery
isn't done with anesthetics, and in hospitals, numerous problems occur.
For the infibulated woman, having a child can be extremely dangerous.
What may happen is that the baby's head could push through the perineum
which is the "muscular area between the vagina and the anus."
Another complication that may arise is that an abnormal passage, or fistula,
may develop between the bladder and the vagina due to "damage caused
by obstructed labor." The women who develop fistulas sometimes suffer
"frequent miscarriages because of urine seeping into the uterus"
Currently, with deinfibulation, pregnancies are dealt with in a more
effective manner. The major problem that arises is after surgery when
the female wants to be reinfibulated, or sewn back together. In the United
States, this is allowed, although a law passed in 1997 made "performing
any medically unnecessary surgery on the genitalia of a girl younger than
18 years of age a federal crime" (Nour 55). Reinfibluation is illegal
in Britain according to the "Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act
of 1985." This doesn't mean that the woman then has to go through
the rest of her life deinfibulated; it means that she will then return
to her village and seek out someone from her own community to sew her
back up (Greer 64). This is a procedure that is much more hazardous when
performed by an amateur. Although the law was made to prevent circumcision,
it has only hurt the people involved. General laws aren't going to stop
female circumcision. Although they are a start, they are ultimately not
Two main things need to happen in order to eradicate the practice of
female circumcision. The advocates of change must be willing to educate
the doctors who take care of the circumcised patients, and they must also
be willing to teach the women about the long-term medical problems that
can result from the practice.
When I say that the doctors need to be educated, I am referring to the
number of patients who emigrate to a foreign country, and when they are
seen by physicians, the physicians often gasp in horror and ask their
patient whether they have been burned or tortured when they were a child
(Nour 52). Physicians should know what female circumcision is and be comfortable
with it, at least in front of the patient. Women have found themselves
obligated to educate their health-care providers about this practice (Nour
52). Also, physicians need to be able to help these women to the fullest
extent of their capabilities. This includes sewing them back up. These
woman have already been circumcised; leaving them open won't change that.
All it does is create more problems, more dangerous situations for the
woman. It's not as if the doctors are encouraging the idea. In the United
States, doctors strongly discourage their requests, but, like it or not,
the patients' requests need to be respected (Nour 55).
Secondly, the women need to be educated. It seems as if in each generation,
there are more and more people who oppose the practice of female circumcision.
Often the parents decide not to get their daughter circumcised, but the
grandmothers have it done anyway. Abusharaf writes about such an account
in her essay. A friend of hers, Shadia, has daughters, and although she
was against having her daughters circumcised, they were anyway. While
Shadia was at work, her mother-in-law secretly had the girls circumcised.
Such an event is not uncommon. Gruenbaum mentions in her book (20) that
the females (sometimes the wives, but most likely the grandmas) will circumcise
their daughter/granddaughters without the husbands or even the parents
knowing. Mohammed, a key consultant for Gruenbaum during her research
in Sudan, talked about how he was afraid to leave the country because,
if he did, his grandmothers would most likely arrange everything and have
his two older daughters circumcised. Although the men in Sudan are often
the ones with the power, in situations such as this, they aren't fully
obeyed. The women will comply with what the husband wants while he is
there, but they truly believe that the woman's body has nothing to do
with the men. Mohammed concluded, "If they do it, I'd just have to
If these women are educated about their bodies, about why circumcision
exists, about their basic rights as women and as human beings, it will
make a difference. Studies have shown that the more educated a woman is,
the less willing she is to have her daughter circumcised (Abusharaf).
Although there are more than 28 countries involved in the practice of
female circumcision, one can only hope that given time, it will not exist
anywhere. Already women are waking up to what is going on, and for them,
the tradition is already fading. As it exists right now, the women are
kept in the dark. There are limited educational opportunities for girls.
This may be a part of their culture now, but it doesn't have to last forever.
Things are already are starting to change. Female circumcision
once used to be highly celebrated everywhere, but now it is illegal in
major countries like Sudan and Egypt. Now it is often done without the
parents' approval. Things are changing; there are organizations that are
pushing for change like RAINBO and CEDAW (Pulsipher). But despite all
the health ads, all the warning, it still continues. Since the social
pressure is still there, female circumcision continues. But if women are
taught that the female body is unique and special, then eventually they
will learn to cherish their bodies and to reject circumcision. Everyone
is going to have to work together: the governments, the doctors, the activists.
It is my hope that change will occur, no matter how gradual it is.
Although female circumcision can't be abolished outright,
steps can be taken. Those women who want to be reinfibulated should be
allowed to be. There are around 168,000 circumcised women living in the
United States (Nour 50), around 27,000 in Sweden, 30, 000 in Italy, and
about 3000-4000 new cases every year in the UK (Bosch 1177); doctors need
to be aware of what is going on. In trying to save the girls who haven't
been circumcised, one cannot overlook those who have. Over time, the women
who now practice female circumcision will be educated enough to know they
don't need it to be beautiful. They will learn that they are not dirty,
unclean, and unfit for marriage if their body is not cut. They will not
want to change what was given to them by birth-- they will cherish it.
One can only hope that some day, women across the world, from those who
practice circumcision, to those who have surgery to alter their looks,
to those who starve themselves to be thin, will learn to treasure their
bodies and accept them as they have been given to them.