Female Genital Mutilation

The mutilation of the female genitals known as female circumcision takes place today primarily in AFRICA. The practice is prevalent in areas where ISLAM is dominant, but female circumcision is far older. Pharaonic circumcision, the name given to the most mutilating form, goes back to ancient Egypt. It is not found in North Africa, Saudi Arabia, or many Asian countries where Muslims are numerous. But the Christian Copts of Egypt and the Jewish Falacha of Ethiopia know of the practice. The Kikuyu of Kenya perform it while their neighbors, the Luo, do not. Similar practices can also be found in eastern Mexico, in Peru, and in western Brazil, where they were imported at the time of the slave trade. Female circumcision was also performed in the West during the nineteenth century to treat feminine "hysteria."

The least traumatizing of these practices are called sunna, meaning "tradition" in Arabic. The most benign form consists of removing the foreskin from the clitoris, although the whole clitoris is often removed. The procedure also entails the removal of the smaller labia, called tahara (purification). Young Gishri girls in Hausa country, barely pubescent, are sold at a very high price once they have been made ready for penetration by this procedure, which involves cutting their vaginas.

Infibulation eliminates a major portion of the inner labia. What is left is sewn together with a silk thread in Sudan and Ethiopia, and with acacia needles in Somalia. This practice can sometimes also be found in western Africa (northern Nigeria, Al Pular of Senegal). Cauterization is accelerated by a concoction called mai-mai, a mixture of gum and sugar, herbal compresses, and even ash and goat dung. The operation closes the vulva almost entirely, except for a narrow orifice kept open by the insertion of a stick or a straw. This orifice is intended to permit the later evacuation of urine and menstrual flow. The procedure is performed before or sometimes after the first marriage in order to ensure the young girl's virginity. It is the husband who, using a razor blade or something similar, must open it up again to allow penetration. The goal of this practice is to give the husband strict control of his wife's SEXUALITY.

These operations are performed on girls of various ages, anytime from birth to PUBERTY. Sometimes the opposite is done: the lengthening of the clitoris is a practice of some communities in Benin and among the Khoisan of South Africa. The elongation of the smaller lips is done by MASTURBATION in lake villages, and the Shona people perform enlargements of the vagina with the use of a stick. These operations are women's business, never spoken of to the husbands. Social pressure to perform female circumcision is very strong, and the older women are especially attached to the practice. Except in educated urban areas, young women who have not gone through female circumcision are deemed unmarriageable. It is also an event that girls await impatiently because it is a cause for celebration, rejoicing, and gift giving. Without it they would be ostracized.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 40 percent of African women are subjected to such operations in more than thirty-six states. The negative short-and long-term consequences of these operations are many. Most practitioners are women who are unfamiliar with modern aseptic techniques. The most common side effects are hemorrhages, septicemia, and tetanus, not to mention painful psychological trauma. One report estimates that a third of young Sudanese girls do not survive the operation. Its consequences continue to affect women throughout their lives: repeated infections and sterility (and therefore, repudiation by their husbands) may result.

Mandatory prohibition of female genital mutilation has yielded little result. Even emigrants to western Europe from areas where female circumcision is prevalent have been known to sometimes continue the practice. Great Britain banned female circumcision in Sudan and Kenya in 1946. The practice has retreated the most in Egypt and Eritrea, thanks to the social and educational advances made during President Nasser's time. The clumsiness of Western feminists for a long time alienated African women's movements, but they nevertheless took up the fight in Khartoum in 1979, and in response, in 1982 the World Health Organization condemned female circumcision. Today the taboo is finally lifted and the subject is being openly discussed, but progress remains slow.

See also: Circumcision.


Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. 1997. African Women: A Modern History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Rahman, Anika and Nahid Toubia. 2000. Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide. London: Zed Books.

Shell-Duncan, Bettina, and Ylva Hernlund. 2000. Female "Circumcision" in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change. Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

World Health Organization, UNICEF, and United Nations Population Fund. 1997. Female Genital Mutilation: A Joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA Statement. Geneva: World Health Organization.