Female Genital Cutting: Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality and How to Stop It
BY: Gokce Ozdemir
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a violation of the human rights of girls and women, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. It is performed to intentionally alter or injure the female genital organs for non-medical reasons without any health benefit. More than 200 million girls and women alive today have endured FGM1, but this doesn’t mean all girls “survive” it. A year ago, a 10-year old girl, Deeqa Dahir Nuur, died due to blood loss after her genital cutting in Somalia. In response to her death, her father said “The people in the area are content with it (FGM), her mother consented to it…” and she was “…taken by Allah …”.2 In 2015 the UN set a goal to eliminate FGM by 2030. This is a practice that has to be criminalized around the world, and the best way to do this is through education.
FGM is neither new nor limited to any one specific culture. Scientific and societal beliefs towards female sexual organs –specifically the clitoris—have oscillated throughout the centuries. Italian anatomist Realdo Colombo claimed to “discover” the clitoris in 1559, describing it as “the seat of a women’s delight” and believing it was integral to a woman’s ability to conceive. Venerated Flemmish anatomist Andreas Vesalius disagreed, declaring, “You can hardly ascribe this new and useless part, as if it were an organ, to healthy women”. The “father of anatomy” stated that it must be pathological and found only on hermaphrodites. Sixteenth century European society regarded the clitoris as either a pseudo-phallic birth defect or a growth caused by masturbation. Thus the practice of amputating it if it seemed too large began (an arbitrary judgement, as clitorises can vary in size from five to 35 millimeters long and up to 10 millimeters wide). Women and girls with large clitorises were seen as hermaphrodites or lesbians, both of which jeopardized their marriageability. Doctors performed clitoridectomies to “normalize” girls and discourage masturbation in Western Europe as recently as the Victorian era.3
It may seem surprising that cutting is currently imposed on girls mainly by their mothers, grandmothers, and traditional female circumcisers who have central roles in their communities: grandmothers are considered the main decision-makers.4 In some communities, girls are even excited to get female genital cutting (FGC) because they see it as a joyful and proud celebration of becoming a woman; this attitude was described by Bettina Shell-Duncan when she was in northern Kenya in 1996.5 It’s important to recognize however that in many societies, men will refuse to marry women who are uncut, in some cases regarding their intact genitalia as a sign of their promiscuity. If a woman has no means of making money on her own, being uncut puts her at an economic and social disadvantage, and even more vulnerable to targeted sexual assault.6 FGC is so deeply integrated in some cultures that it is seen as necessary to be a member of the community and carries no malicious intent despite it being an extreme form of suppression of female sexuality.
Therefore, in this article, I will opt to use the term FGC instead of FGM. Despite how harmful and impactful the practice is, it is not done to actually “mutilate” the child, rather, as ironic as it may sound, it is done with good intentions by parents who want the best for their daughters. In my opinion, using less judgmental terms may bring communities together and be more helpful in creating a common understanding to stop FGC, although others may argue that using the word mutilation may help people understand how extremely invasive the procedure is.
Mostly done on girls between infancy and the age of 15, as described by WHO7, FGC has four types:
- Type 1 (clitoridectomy), where the external clitoris, or sometimes only the clitoral hood, is partially or totally removed;
- Type 2 (excision), where the external clitoris and the labia minora are partially or totally removed, which may or may not be accompanied by excision of the labia majora;
- Type 3 (infibulation), where the opening of the vagina is narrowed by forming a seal through cutting the labia minora, or labia majora, and repositioning it by stitching, with or without removing the clitoris;
- Type 4, which includes all non-medical and harmful procedures done on the female genitalia such as pricking, incising, or cauterizing the genital area.
Immediate complications of FGC can include excessive bleeding, fever, infections, shock, and death. In the long-term, FGC can cause urinary, vaginal, menstrual, sexual, and psychological problems, as well as a need for later surgeries, scar tissue, and increased risk of complications from childbirth and newborn death.7 For example, a 2006 study in The Lancet involving 28 393 mothers found that those with type II or III FGC were more likely to need cesarean sections, episiotomies, and suffer postpartum haemorrhage than women who hadn’t undergone FCG.8 They also concluded that “about 22% of perinatal deaths in infants born to women with FGM can be attributed to the FGM.”
Why is FGC being performed today? Reasons include social pressure to conform to this “method” of preparing a girl for adulthood and marriage, to ensure virginity until marriage, to reduce libido to prevent extramarital sexual activities, increase marriageability, and for “femininity and modesty”. The practice is often upheld in the name of religion despite the lack of religious scripts demanding the procedure, and despite the fact that FGC dates back over 2000 years. In many societies where it is performed, it exists to continue a cultural tradition.7
The countries where FGC is most common today are Somalia (98% of women aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGC), Guinea (97%), Djibouti (93%), and Sierra Leone (90%).1 Since advocacy against FGC started, 22 of 28 countries in Africa, such as Egypt, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, criminalized the practice. However, it is these same three countries where half of all girls who have undergone FGC or are at risk of it live, highlighting the weakness of enforcement and rarity of prosecutions. The countries in Africa remaining without a law regarding FGC are Chad, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leona, Somalia, and Sudan.9
This is not to say that FGC is limited to developing countries. According to a study published in 201610, in the United States alone, where FGC is illegal, approximately half a million women and girls are still at risk of FGC via vacation cutting, where girls are taken overseas for the procedure. In Canada, there has been a law against FGC since 1997 but there still haven’t been any prosecutions. Despite an estimation of more than 80,000 survivors of FGC in Canada1, there are no protocols in place to save girls from vacation cutting or to offer specialized help for survivors who immigrated to Canada after being cut. This can be compared to Britain, where the government has funded specialized clinics for survivors and training for teachers to spot girls at risk.
Criminalization of the practice is not enough, it never is, whether it’s the criminalization of FGC, drugs, alcohol, or anything else. People always find a way. The problem is, when it’s done underground, it is always more dangerous and riskier. With fear of possible prosecution, people resort to practicing FGC in secret. The issue becomes the difficulty of seeking help if anything goes wrong, and with FGC, a lot can. There are many cases where the victim of FGC has serious bleeding, but the family is hesitant to take her to a hospital because they could be prosecuted for practicing FGC. Most of the time, even if the family eventually decides to seek medical help, the child dies. We need more than laws. We need support systems available for girls and women who have undergone FGC or are at risk of it. Additionally, it is crucial to create a safe space for victims because they may be hesitant to report their families to the authorities.
More importantly, to stop it from getting to a stage where kids would need to decide on reporting on their parents or not, we have to focus on education to change the harmful beliefs about women’s (lack of) rights to sexuality and bodily autonomy underlying FCG. There is growing evidence that such education can reduce the practice. A 2013 study in Egypt found that socioeconomic status, social media messages, and women’s empowerment all impacted a girl’s risk of FGC, with mother’s education and household wealth being a significant predictor of whether a girl would undergo FGC.11
A lot of work is done by international organizations to educate women about the dangers of FGC. But it is crucial to include all members of the family and society (particularly religious and community leaders) in the advocacy against FGC to 1) raise public awareness on its dangers, and 2) explain why it is considered a violation of human rights. During such discussions, it is not uncommon to find those defending the practice in the name of Islam who are shocked when they are told it is not mandated by any religion. They often take a step back when they are told to think of why God would want the bodies of his creations to be changed, as it’s a teaching of Islam that the body, like the soul, is a “gift” from God, and we are merely stewards of our bodies rather than owners.
Even though initial beliefs motivating FGC (that female libido is inherently bad, that women shouldn’t get sexual satisfaction, and that women’s sexuality must be controlled or removed to fulfill their roles as wives and mothers) are all manifestations of patriarchal views of women, FGC has now become an internalized form of misogyny and a culturally integrated issue of education. Without having conversations with the communities that discuss the role of patriarchy vs. internalized misogyny on the continuation of the practice, a legal threat will not be enough to stop it, and outsiders telling the practitioners that they’re mutilating their kids with FGC won’t help. Only if the mindset changes can the acts follow. And the mindset can only change with education that is able to counter the teachings of the communities mandating FGC.
- Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern. New York; 2016 [accessed 2019 Jul 16]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation
- Barnes T. Father defends use of FGM despite death of his 10-year-old daughter. The Independent. 2018 July 23. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/fgm-somalia-girl-dead-father-olol-galmudug-bleed-a8460561.html
- Barmak S. Closer: Notes from the orgasmic frontier of female sexuality. Coach House Books; 2016 Jul 11.
- The Girl Generation. FGM in The Gambia: Country Briefing. 2017 January [Cited 2019 Jul 16]. Available from: https://www.refworld.org/docid/5b2baf274.html
- Khazan O. Why some women choose to get circumcised. The Atlantic Global. 2015 Apr 8. Available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/female-genital-mutilation-cutting-anthropologist/389640/
- Begenal F. Mapping FGM: Building a global picture of female circumcision. Huffington Post; 2016 Sept 22.
- World Health Organization. Female Genital Mutilation. Geneva; 2018 [accessed 2019 Jul 16]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation
- Banks E, Meirik O, Farley T, Akande O, Bathija H, Ali M. Female genital mutilation and obstetric outcome: WHO collaborative prospective study in six African countries. Lancet (London, England). 2006 Jun;367(9525):1834-41.
- 28 Too Many. The Law and FGM. Sept 2018 [accessed 2019 Jul 16]. Available from: https://www.28toomany.org/static/media/uploads/Law%20Reports/the_law_and_fgm_v1_(september_2018).pdf
- Goldberg H, Stupp P, Okoroh E, et al. (2016). Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in the United States: Updated Estimates of Women and Girls at Risk, 2012. Public Health Reports. 2016;131(2), 340–347.
- Modrek S, Liu JX. Exploration of pathways related to the decline in female circumcision in Egypt. BMC public health. 2013 Dec;13(1):921.