Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Female Genital Mutilation and women /girls: Prisoners of Ritual

Various, often contradictory explanations exist for the tradition. In the main, rationales reflect prevalent mythology, ignorance of biological and medical facts, and religious obscurantism. Almost every reference links the custom to the family’s fear that their daughter won’t be “marriageable.” Unmutilated young girls are ostracized, labeled as “unclean” or branded as whores; children born to unexcised women are considered bastards in many societies, and unscarred genitals are associated with prostitution. Often unmutilated women are considered illegitimate; they cannot inherit money, cattle or land, nor do they fetch an adequate bride price.


One Somalian woman defended her granddaughter’s wish to be infibulated, saying it “takes away nothing that she needs. If she does not have this done, she will become a harlot.” The girl’s father, a college-educated businessman, expressed his uncertainty: “Yes, I know it is bad for the health of girls. But I don’t want my daughter to blame me later on because she could not find a husband.”

Different religious and social groupings see genital mutilation as the only way to protect women from unbridled sexual passion and promiscuity. A19th century British adventurer/ethnologist who spent many years studying the culture, language and sexuality of eastern Africa, wrote that “all consider sexual desire in woman to be ten times greater than in man. (They cut off the clitoris because, as Aristotle warns, that organ is the seat and spring of sexual desire.)” Unfortunately, a good portion of the research was destroyed by his devoted, but Roman Catholic, wife.

Overwhelmingly the practice is linked to virginity before marriage and fidelity afterward. Among almost every one of the peoples where the practice exists, polygamy is the norm. One argument for female excision is that no man can satisfy all of his wives, so it helps to have women who don’t desire sex. While the truth is that most men in these societies are too poor to afford more than one wife, the social reality of male dominance in every sphere of day-to-day existence is the backdrop to the ritual mutilation of women.

The origins of this grotesque practice are not known. While often found in Islamic countries, the procedure is not prescribed in the Koran. In 742 AD the prophet Mohammed was said to have proposed a reform of genital mutilation; his call to “reduce but not destroy” has been taken as an instruction to perform only Sunna, the norm today in Egypt. While Muslim fundamentalism enforces brutally medieval conditions on women, including confinement to the home and the stifling veil, only one-fifth of the world’s 600 million Muslims practice female genital mutilation.

It is clear that genital mutilations date back to ancient times. The Greek historian Herodotus noted in the fifth century BC that female circumcision was practiced by the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Hittites and Ethiopians. The Sudanese refer to infibulation as “Pharaonic circumcision”; the murky origins of the practice, however, may be inferred from the fact that in Egypt it’s called “Sudanese circumcision.”

Ritual genital mutilation has been found to have existed at one time in various forms among different peoples on every continent. Quite independently of the tradition in sub-Saharan Africa, infibulation was performed by the Conibo people of Peru. The Australian aboriginals used to practice introcision, an enlargement of the vaginal opening. Anthropologists agree that female mutilation has only occurred in societies which also practice male circumcision, generally in cultures where the sexes are strongly differentiated in childhood. Thus some believe that the practice originated to highlight the difference between male and female at puberty. The Bambara in Mali, for example, believe that all people are born with both male and female characteristics; excision rids the girl of her “male element” while circumcision removes the “female element” from boys.

The ritual is the norm in an area south of the Sahara and north of the forest line; this corresponds generally with the area of Africa where, with no shortage of land, women and children (and slaves) were once needed to cultivate the fields and tend domestic animals and were easily absorbed into polygamous households. While the nature of the means of production does not determine how humans live in a social/sexual sense, it does set elastic limits. Thus it seems reasonable to assume that female genital mutilation has its roots in agricultural society which enabled the development of a social surplus and then private property. It is only when the determination of paternity for the purpose of inheritance becomes relevant that society puts a premium on virginity and marital fidelity on the part of women.


Female mutilations continue to occur in the rural areas which maintain a subsistence agrarian economy based on a tribal structure. What’s at stake are traditional property rights in societies where women are sold like cattle, based largely on their ability to reproduce. The practice is only somewhat less prevalent today in the cities. Over the centuries it has become an unquestioned, ingrained custom.

 In Prisoners of Ritual Lightfoot-Klein reflects on these woman-hating practices as merely “a fact of her life, just as tremendous hardship, poverty, scarce water and little food, back-breaking labor, overwhelming heat, dust storms, crippling disease, unalleviated pain, and early death are facts of her life.” Whatever the rationale for the mutilation of millions of young girls, whatever its origins centuries ago, female genital mutilation is today a burning symbol of the all-sided sexual, social and economic oppression of women.


Let’s take it as a challenge to stop this unnecessary practice.


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