Female genital mutilation (FGM) is sometimes referred to euphemistically as female circumcision, but it is very different from male circumcision in both form and function.
FGM involves cutting or removing parts of the external female genitalia, including some or all of the clitoral glans and clitoral hood, inner labia, and outer labia. The diagram below shows the different types of mutilation that may be performed. In the most extreme form, infibulation, the vulva is sewn shut (or sealed with acacia tree thorns) and only a small opening is left for urine and menstrual blood to exit. This opening may be as little as 2-3mm wide.
In case you are so inclined to see a human version of type III, the National Library of Medicine has an image that I won’t include here.
More than 200 million women and girls in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Indonesia are affected., as well as smaller numbers in South America. Over half of these are in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Indonesia. Over 90% of females in Djibouti, Guinea, and Somalia undergo FGM. Infibulation is done mostly in northeastern Africa.
How it’s done
Typically the procedure is done before age 5. It may be performed by a traditional circumciser (typically an older woman) or a medical professional. Anaesthetic is used sometimes, but not always. Often blades are not sterilized. The clitoris is removed first, and the senior female relative is asked to approve the amount removed.
Unsurprisingly, there are potential complications galore, including infections, bleeding, difficulty urinating, and formation of fistulas. There is also increased neonatal mortality, with the level of risk corresponding to the severity of the mother’s FGM.
FGM and sex
When a woman with an infibulation is married, her infibulation must be partially opened. The husband is expected to do this with his penis, but if this is not possible he or a midwife may cut the woman open with a knife. The infibulation must be opened further to allow for childbirth. Typically after giving birth, the woman would be closed back up again.
In some areas where FGM is practiced there is a preference for “dry sex”, which involves applying various substances to the vagina to prevent lubrication. This increases friction and is thought to increase male sexual pleasure. However, for the poor women who’s been cut open with a knife, this combination must be horrifically painful.
In areas where this is practiced, it is seen as a sign of purity and honour for girls to be cut. Because of cultural tradition and the social expectation that women be cut in order to be suitable for marriage, bringing about changes in attitudes can be difficult.
Inequality in action
According to UNICEF, “in every society in which it occurs, FGM is a manifestation of entrenched gender inequality.” Women’s genitalia in their natural form tend to be seen as ugly, dirty, and immodest. However, the primary goal is generally constraining a woman’s sexuality. FGM is believed to decrease libido, ensure virginity prior to marriage, and reduce the chances of marital infidelity.
While male circumcision does have some health benefits in terms of reducing sexually transmitted infection risk, there are absolutely no health benefits of FGM; instead, there are significant health risks. While those that practice FGM may claim religious justification, there are no religious scriptures that condone the practice.
It’s hard to find words to capture how profoundly disgusting this practice is. This represents an extreme example, but the line of thought that women are sex machines who will hop on the nearest available penis is certainly not unique to areas that practice FGM.
It may be dressed up more prettily and presented with a neat little bow claiming the need for modesty, yet the underlying assumption is that a woman is an irresistible draw for any man in the vicinity. Yet I have never heard of a cultural group that deals with this by coming up with strategies to keep men’s pants on.
Instead, women need to be covered up and sewn up so men’s penises don’t come flying out of their pants and into the nearest hole. Where is the sense in that, and why isn’t anyone talking about an intervention to keep men’s penises restrained?
Meanwhile, many women, particularly those who have been infibulated, are sentenced to a lifetime of pain.
Culture is no justification for this kind of barbarism. The United Nations considers it a human rights violation. I can only hope for our sisters in those parts of the world that it comes to an end sooner rather than later.
- UNICEF: Female genital mutilation
- UNICEF: What you need to know about female genital mutilation
- Wikipedia: Female genital mutilation
- World Health Organization factsheet on female genital mutilation
There’s more on social issues on the Social Justice Issues page.