Female Genital Mutilation: Cultural or Religious Practice?

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By Heather Abraham 

I was genitally mutilated at the age of ten. When the operation began, I put up a big fight. The pain was terrible and unbearable… I was badly cut and lost blood… I was genitally mutilated with a blunt penknife. After the operation, no one was allowed to aid me to walk… Sometimes I had to force myself not to urinate for fear of the terrible pain. I was not given any anesthetic in the operation to reduce my pain, nor any antibiotics to fight against infection. Afterwards, I hemorrhaged and became anemic. This was attributed to witchcraft. I suffered for a long time from acute vaginal infections.    Hannah Koroma, Sierra Leone,  Amnesty International   

According to a March 2010 article in the LaGrange (Georgia) Daily News, a local resident was arrested and charged with the mutilation of her infant daughter’s genitals.  Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision, is an unusual issue to encounter in a small southern American town. FGM is most commonly practiced in various African nations, the Middle East, and Asia but with the increasing influx of immigrants to the United States, cases involving FGM are likely to increase.  In order to meet these challenges and hopefully inhibit the practice of female genital mutilation, in the United States and abroad, we need to explore the phenomena of FGM and the motivations behind this brutal cultural practice.    

What is FGM?  

According to the World Health Organization, “female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths.”  FGM procedures are generally “classified into four major types” which vary in their severity.     

  1. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
  2. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
  3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
  4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.  

Why do some cultures practice FGM?

Female genital mutilation is a cultural practice believed to reduce the female libido.  In cultures where premarital virginity and marital fidelity are a matter involving the family honor, FGM is a way of controlling and ultimately suppressing female sexuality.   In some cultures FGM is performed shortly after birth and in others it is considered a rite of passage for girls approaching puberty.  For many, FGM is an essential prerequisite for marriage as the clitoris is often viewed as offensive, unclean, or masculine in nature.  By removing the offending protuberance the woman is assigned a culturally constructed “femininity” devoid of sexual power and becomes incapable of experiencing sexual pleasure.    

Is FGM prescribed by religious law? 

Contrary to popular belief, FGM is not a practice prescribed in Islam.  It is in fact, a cultural practice that transcends religious affiliation as it is practiced among Christian, Islamic, and Shamanistic communities in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.  Although not prescribed by religious law/tradition—I would argue that religion does play a role in preserving and empowering the practice because many practitioners erroneously believe it to be a religious obligation.  Because religious leaders are silent and do not take an active and public stand against this brutal practice, they share responsibility for the suffering it has caused to countless generations of women. 

Thankfully, FGM is now receiving  international attention due to an initiative implemented by The Elders, an international group of world leaders who recently implemented the Equality for Women and Girls initiative.  This initiative calls on religious leaders from all traditions to take a stand and bring “an end to the use of religious and traditional practices to justify and entrench discrimination against women and girls.”   Among the practices targeted by The Elders are the issues of female genital mutilation, human trafficking, and violence against women, both domestic and external.   

According to the World Health Organization, “an estimated 100-140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM…and two million girls a year are at risk—approximately 6,000 per day.  FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”  

These sobering statistics should make you pause—at least I hope so—and reflect on the status of women in the 21st century.  It is easy to assume that the progress of women’s rights in the United States has somehow resonated around the world but the facts belie the dream.  Too many women suffer the indignation of having no control whatsoever over their body, future, or even the well-being of their children.   

This brings me to the question of the day:   Do you believe that religious institutions are obligated to challenge destructive cultural traditions such as FGM?     (Warning: The following video is graphic in nature)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T87gNMD50HI

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