(MintPress) – “I dream of blood,” starts the spoken testimony given by Binta Jobe (not her real name) to the Guardian about her experience with female genital mutilation (FGM). When she was nine, she was taken into the bush near her family home in Gambia and circumcised without anesthetic by an elderly woman with no medical […]
(MintPress) – “I dream of blood,” starts the spoken testimony given by Binta Jobe (not her real name) to the Guardian about her experience with female genital mutilation (FGM). When she was nine, she was taken into the bush near her family home in Gambia and circumcised without anesthetic by an elderly woman with no medical training. “It’s an abuse. I just want Aisha to be able to grow up stronger than I am. We have no choice about it in our country. I did not understand that I had rights until I came to the U.K.”
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 140 million women and girls worldwide have been exposed to the consequences of living with FGM. In Africa, nearly 92 million girls age 10 years or older have received FGM. It is estimated that up to 3 million girls are at risk of receiving FGM in Africa annually, which is typically done between infancy and age 15.
Female Genital Mutilation, or the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, is recognized internationally as a major violation of the human rights of women and girls. It is an extreme form of sexual discrimination, an attack of the physical integrity and personal dignity of women and is recognized as an illegal act in many nations and with the United Nations. The act is classified as torture in most legislation.
However, in nations and communities where this practice is considered part of tradition, resistance to move beyond the past is rampant. After the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, a push to lift the 1996 ban on FGM resurfaced based on religious grounds. In a Nov. 17 article in the Guardian, Abigail Haworth recounted her observations about an FGM procedure she witnessed in Indonesia in 2006:
“It’s 9.30am on a Sunday, and the mood inside the school building in Bandung, Indonesia, is festive. Mothers in headscarves and bright lipstick chat and eat coconut cakes. Javanese music thumps from an assembly hall. There are 400 people crammed into the primary school’s ground floor. It’s hot, noisy and chaotic, and almost everyone is smiling.
“Twelve-year-old Suminah is not. She looks like she wants to punch somebody. Under her white hijab, which she has yanked down over her brow like a hoodie, her eyes have the livid, bewildered expression of a child who has been wronged by people she trusted. She sits on a plastic chair, swatting away her mother’s efforts to placate her with a party cup of milk and a biscuit. Suminah is in severe pain. An hour earlier, her genitals were mutilated with scissors as she lay on a school desk.
“During the morning, 248 Indonesian girls undergo the same ordeal. Suminah is the oldest, the youngest is just five months. It is April 2006 and the occasion is a mass ceremony to perform sunat perempuan or “female circumcision” that has been held annually since 1958 by the Bandung-based Yayasan Assalaam, an Islamic foundation that runs a mosque and several schools. The foundation holds the event in the lunar month of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and pays parents 80,000 rupiah (£6) and a bag of food for each daughter they bring to be cut.
“It is well established that female genital mutilation (FGM) is not required in Muslim law. It is an ancient cultural practice that existed before Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It is also agreed across large swathes of the world that it is barbaric. At the mass ceremony, I ask the foundation’s social welfare secretary, Lukman Hakim, why they do it. His answer not only predates the dawn of religion, it predates human evolution: ‘It is necessary to control women’s sexual urges,’ says Hakim, a stern, bespectacled man in a fez. ‘They must be chaste to preserve their beauty.’”
Two nationwide surveys in Indonesia — conducted in 2003 and 2010 — suggest that FGM is endemic. Between 86 to 100 percent of all households surveyed have had their daughters subjected to FGM. More than 90 percent of all adults want the practice to continue.
FGM is still freely practiced in many parts of the world, with more than 18 percent of all procedures performed by medical professionals. More dauntingly, nations that have established laws banning FGM are not enforcing the ban. For example, Jobe (who was introduced earlier in this piece) was denied asylum to protect her daughter from FGM in September, despite the U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention explicitly stating that FGM is grounds for asylum, and despite the existence of the 2003 Female Genital Mutilation Act in Britain. According to a 2001 study, an estimated 66,000 African women in England and Wales have undergone FGM, with another 23,000 girls age 15 and under at risk.
The victims of this reckless act faces a downplaying of the seriousness of the crime when viewed from a Western perspective. It is typically seen akin to male circumcision — a painful act, to be told, but something few remember after it’s done. Until more is done to educate about the atrocity of FGM, a terrible tradition may continue unchecked.
The toll of Female Genital Mutilation
In England alone, between 500 to 2,000 schoolgirls are mutilated annually over the summer holidays from classes. “Jamelia” a 20-year-old Briton, was amongst them; she recounted her experience to The Guardian:
“I came to the living room and there were loads of women. I later found out it was to hold me down, they bring lots of women to hold the girl down. I thought I was going to be brave so I didn’t really need that. I just lay down and I remember looking at the ceiling and staring at the fan.
“I don’t remember screaming, I remember the ridiculous amount of pain, I remember the blood everywhere, one of the maids, I actually saw her pick up the bit of flesh that they cut away ’cause she was mopping up the blood. There was blood everywhere.”
Female Gential Mutilation or female circumcision is one of four generally related operations designed to enforce chastity of reduced sexual sensation in women, as defined by the World Health Organization:
- Clitoridectomy: the partial or total removal of the clitoris, or the removal of the prepuce (the clitorial hood);
- Excision: the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora (with or without the removal of the labia majora);
- Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a new seal by cutting and reposition the labia majora and/or the labia minora with or without removing the clitoris; and
- Other: all other harmful procedures used to modify the genitals for non-medical reasons, including piercing, pricking, incising, binding, cutting, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
As reported by the World Health Organization, FGM has no health benefits. The removal of healthy, functional tissue interferes with the natural operations of female bodies. The removal of this sexual tissue interferes with the woman’s ability to sensitively react to intercourse, diminishing or completely eliminating arousal. As reported by Dr. Ashenafi Moges in the paper “What is behind the tradition of FGM?” in different countries, there are different rationale.
In Senegal, Islamic religious purification is the main reason (this is despite the fact that neither the Holy Bible nor the Quran endorse or prescribe the act). In Sierra Leone, tradition dictates the use, and in Egypt, it is normal practice. Other frequently cited rationales includes perceived advantages for women in terms of health, beauty, virginity and fertility, controlling the “waywardness” of girls, making a woman more faithful as a wife, misconceptions about the dangers of the clitoris (it “hinders intercourse,” “creates impotency” and “kills babies at delivery”), the wishes of husbands and the notion that the clitoris is ugly and must be removed.
Sometimes, FGM is performed in regards to harmless, but otherwise real medical conditions, such as clitorial hypertrophy, or the excessive growth of the clitoris.
As stated in the paper, “These justifications, even if each one can be refuted and demystified, in societies where illiteracy and poverty prevail, where women believe that FGM is universal, where the social pressure is tight, the justifications for FGM are the reality of life for the women in FGM practising countries. These justifications are also strengthened by cultural relativists who “assert that the practices within any specific culture are unique to the values, systems and practices within that culture. For them, there are no universal standards and the morality and values of one national culture cannot be compared to that of another …”
Even for those who survive the procedure, FGM leaves lingering scars. Sexual urge is diminished or annihilated, and many who have had FGM stated that they endure through sex instead of enjoy it. Many women end up with body image problems. Some suffer crippling bouts of depression or anxiety. Suicide in such cases is not uncommon.
The medical consequences of FGM includes short-term risks such as infection, severe pain and shock, urine retention or blockage, adjacent or adjoining tissue damage and hemorrhaging. The long-term risks include permanent and severe damage to the reproduction system, vaginal, uterine, and/or pelvic infections, cysts and neuromas, complications with pregnancy and childbirth, increased risk of vesicovaginal fistula (the restriction of blood to vaginal tissues, which causes bladder restriction, tissue death and an artificial portal between both organs — which would make urination uncontrollable), psychological damage, difficulties in menstruation, sexual dysfunction and possible death.
For many, though, FGM is an ingrained, integral part of their cultural identity. Jomo Kenyatta, the late president of Kenya, said:
“The operation is (still) regarded as the very essence of an institution, which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications, quite apart from the operation itself. For the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitordectomy (FGM). Therefore, the abolition of the surgical element in this custom means to the Gikuyu the abolition of the whole institution…In the matrimonial relation, the rite of passage is the deciding factor. No proper Gikuyu would dream of marrying a girl who has not been circumcised, and vice versa. It is a taboo for a Gikuyu man or woman to have sexual relations with someone who has not undergone this operation. If it happens, a man or a women must go through a ceremonial purification, – namely, ritual vomiting of the evil deeds. A few detribalished Gikuyu, while they are away from home for some years, have thought fit to denounce the custom and to marry uncircumcised girls, especially from coastal tribes, thinking that they could bring them back to their father’s home without offending the parents. But to their surprise they found that their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, following the tribal custom, are not prepared to welcome as a relative-in-law anyone who has not fulfilled the ritual qualifications for matrimony. Therefore, a problem has faced these semi-detribalised Gikuyu when they wanted to return to their homeland. Their parents have demanded that if their sons wished to settle down and have the blessings of the family and the clan,they must divorce the wife married outside the rigid tribal custom.”
Ultimately, it all comes down to sexual control. In many communities within the Islamic world, family honor is tantamount, and females having premarital or adulterous sex shame the family. Also, the notion of women enjoying sex in these cultures diminishes the vision of femininity and exploits the notion of the female weakness in emotional control.
What is (and isn’t) being done about this?
As of recently, FGM is outlawed in Great Britain, France, Sweden and Switzerland. The United Nations also has treaties that specifically discourage the use of FGM. However, in almost every nation that has laws banning the procedure’s use, recorded cases of female circumcision have been reported.
The problem in regulating FGM lies in its nature. Because it is a delicate issue, and because it is generally accepted that a person shall have the right to believe what they choose, the issue is not typically given much gravity. As with male circumcision, the concept rarely reach public policy forums. An exception to this happened in 1979, when in the United States, Dr. James E. Burt — ”the Love Surgeon” — introduced clitoral relocation or sunna circumcision in an attempt to enhance sexual sensation. He performed the operation for 10 years before his exposure and surrendering of his medical license.
For most of medical history, the clitoris was not well understood, and — in a certain way — feared. Sigmund Freud, in his book “Sexuality and the Psychology of Love,” said that the “elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity.”
Cultural identity is also tied to this practice. Attempts to regulate or ban the practice has driven the practice underground, where unsafe conditions further endanger girls’ life. The move to perform more FGM in hospital settings has been increasing — which had the side effect of allowing more tissue to be removed since the victim is sedated and not struggling. UNICEF, UNIFEM, UNFPA and the World Health Organization have all called on pediatric surgeons to stop performing FGM and have condemned the American Academy of Pediatrics for stating that not all types of FGM is harmful, according to its April 26, 2010 policy statement “Ritual Genital Cutting of Female Minors.”
Laws within themselves cannot disrupt a social framework. However, the need to protect women and children who seek to escape the social mentality of FGM is needed on an international level. A recommittment to the U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention — no nation should be allowed to send a FGM refugee back to face shamming, discrimination and/or death for trying to escape pain and mutilation — and international pressure for more nations to criminalize FGM is a start. But, ultimately, the problem will not go away until it becomes a part of policy discussion.
The integrity of a person’s life should never be sacrificed for convention.