A. Definition of and Proffered Justifications for FGM
In the early 1990s, physicians at the District of Columbia General Hospital in Washington, D.C. were faced with a strange occurrence– [p789] a woman was presenting in the emergency room in labor, clearly ready to deliver a baby, but there was no vaginal opening from which the baby could emerge. This situation repeated itself in other large cities when doctors were confronted with women who had been subjected to FGM. In all cases, these women were immigrants mainly from African nations. In many instances, the woman's vaginal area was completely sewn closed and both major and minor labia were cut. Most of these doctors had no idea what they had encountered. At that time, American medical schools did not offer training in the area of foreign cultural traditions which could impact and impede their role of administering the standard of care to their patients. More shocking than encountering this practice for the first time was the insistence by these women that their vaginas be sewn back up before they left the hospital with their new infants. These doctors had their first experience with the practice known as female genital mutilation.
Female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision, is the practice of ritual cutting and alteration of the genitalia of female infants, girls, adolescents, and adult women. Nearly four million infants, [p790] girls, and women are subjected to FGM on a yearly basis. FGM ranges in severity from Type I clitorectomy to Type III infibulations ending with a general Type IV category that includes all other forms of vaginal cuttings. Clitorectomy involves the excision of skin surrounding the clitoris with or without excision of part or the entire clitoris. Type III infibulations involve removal of the entire clitoris and some or all of the labia. The raw labia area is stitched together to cover the urethra, leaving a small posterior opening for urine and menstrual flow. Many times, non-thread material is used to sew up the opening. In most cases, no anesthesia is used.
FGM is a common practice in nearly thirty countries around the world. The most common reasons articulated in favor of FGM are tradition, religion, hygiene, male superiority, female fidelity, and economic stability through marriage. Most, but not all, of these justifications are illogical and unsubstantiated.
The practice of FGM goes back to antiquity. To that extent, its practice qualifies as a tradition. However, merely substantiating the fact that this practice has been performed for centuries does not [p791] speak to its value to society. In fact, the practice of FGM has been harmful to societies; thus, it should be discarded.
With respect to a religious justification for FGM, there is little actual support for the practice in religious scripture. The majority of those practicing FGM do so under the banner of Islam; thus, the Koran would logically be the source of religious support for FGM. However, the Koran makes no mention of circumcision for either gender. More commonly, FGM is justified through the Sunnah of Mohammed; that is, conversations that Mohammed had in his travels.
Likewise, the claim that FGM contributes to hygiene has been disproven. Proponents of this claim assert that female genitalia “are ugly and dirty and will continue to grow bigger if they are not cut away.” This myth is proven especially ludicrous when juxtaposed with the fact that many females who undergo FGM are under the age of five. Just how dirty and ugly can a five-year-old girl's genitalia be? In addition, the concern with hygiene is hypocritical because FGM actually spreads infectious diseases. For example, the risk of HIV is greatly increased when the same instrument, usually some commonly found sharp object, is used on a large number of females.
Some justifications of FGM are supported by the cultural norms of the societies that practice it. For example, the claim that cutting and sewing up a woman's genitalia will promote marital fidelity is a rationale that can probably be substantiated. It is unimaginable to think that a woman who has undergone FGM would subject herself to sexual intercourse with another man more often than she would be required to do so by her husband. This is especially true when a woman has been subjected to the most severe form of cutting.
[p792] Likewise, there is a belief that the clitoris, if left uncut, will compete with the penis in both size and power. Most cultures practicing FGM believe male superiority must be protected at all costs. Therefore, to ensure that there is no competition between the sexes, the female clitoris must be reduced in size.
Another reason given for FGM is that an unclean, i.e., uncut, woman is not marriageable. In most of the countries that practice FGM, a woman cannot survive without marriage. Marriage is an economic enterprise which allows a woman to survive outside of her parents' home. Without marriage, there is no survival for many women. Moreover, her family also suffers economically because no marriage means that two potential families' resources will not be joined to the benefit of all.
In other words, some rationales given to justify FGM can be substantiated to some degree. However, this substantiation does not diminish the horrific physical and psychological impact on the girls and women who are subject to FGM. Nor does it justify continuation of the practice.