Female circumcision is a traditional ritual that is mostly practiced in Africa on young girls with ages that vary from birth to pre-pubescent. It is reported to have its origins (with varying degrees of reliability) in ancient Egypt. Female circumcision was also discovered being practiced in western India and eastern Asia until it was outlawed around the turn of the 20th century (common era). The procedure is varied through three different types of circumcision: Infibulation, clitoridectomy and Sunna. Clitoridectomy and Sunna are minor version of the circumcision with Infibulation being the most drastic. These practices cause serious health hazards in some women, which become greater in adult years with the introduction of menstruating, intercourse and childbirth.
Clearly, there must be a powerful reason for this procedure to continue given the complications and mandatory repetitious post surgeries. Some accounting must be taken in order to understand why women are put in such peril. The answer lies in culture. A person’s culture and background define the belief system and understanding that a person holds as innate truth. All choices and decisions are made because of culture and anything that is in direct opposition to culture affects the decision process and their beliefs.Other important elements to understanding the continuance of female circumcision are social and religious traditions, power/alienation relationships, and aesthetic tastes. Is this longstanding tradition necessary and if so are there ways to incorporate more conducive (sterile instruments, medically certified/experienced doctors, age limit, etc.) methods of performing the operation? However unnecessary an outsider may think the practice is, the irrevocable fact is that this tradition is an important element of cultural identity. If the operation somehow was not completed by a certain age in the girls life, she would be encouraged by her peers as well as her elders to seek out and request the circumcision.
Different from most traditional practices in African, female circumcision is exclusively reserved for womens presence and men are excluded from detailed knowledge of specific events. Females normally have these operations performed on them before or at puberty. It is common for the mother or other close relative usually holds the girl in paralyzing restraints while the procedure is being carried out. Furthermore, there is great celebration involved surrounding the whole ceremony when it is completed. She is welcomed back into the community where she will receive her birth rites that would have been denied to her without the circumcision.
The custom has been deeply rooted in the cultural patterns of many countries and has been performed since remotest time in both the interior regions and in the few coastal towns. This cultural ritual is one of the very few practices that are not determined by an exclusive class system. The procedure is most commonly the girls first of many rites of passage into adulthood. Without this ceremony, she may not be allowed to proceed further in any context of being an adult.
To make any comments, judgments, or suggestion, we must first attain a complete understanding of the procedures and place an honest and sincere effort in understanding the cultural basis for the incident. An intelligent analysis cannot be made without these things. A discussion towards eradicating the practice is being launched purely on the misunderstanding and shock factor that outsiders received when they learn of the cultural ritual. However heinous we take the practice to be, we will never understand or realize the serious implication of not having the procedure done.
What is Female Circumcision?
Female Circumcision is the act of cutting, reshaping and sewing together of the female genitals. Its basic purpose for implementation is to maintain the virginity of all females until their wedding night and to maintain their chastity after every birth of a child. Because of the way the surgery is performed and the lasting effects on the patient, it is considered genital mutilation in other countries and has been outlawed in the last several years. The circumcision is done most of the time while the female is between the age of birth and four years. However the next statistic shows a significant age of ten to thirteen. This is disturbing because at this time there have been extensive development of nerves in the patient and the level of pain will inevitably increase. There is a medical procedure that is outlined in the Piercing Fans International Quarterly (P.F.I.C.) that outlines and explains the procedure that could be replaced for what is know as clitoridectomy. The justification for the operation appears to be largely grounded in a desire to terminate or reduce feelings of sexual arousal in women so that they will be less like to engage in pre-marital sex. Possibility of orgasm is also reduced. The clitoris holds a massive number of nerve endings and generates extensive feelings when stimulated.
Infibulation is the most drastic form of female circumcision. It is statistically the highest form of the surgical procedure. The process is defined to simply mean to fasten. A fibula was a metal clasp like our modern safety pin and indeed, fibulae were used for most of the purposes for which we use safety pins today. The purpose of a fibulae in infibulation, is to form a barrier over the vaginal entry from the subject’s own labia is to preserve “Chastity” by temporarily preventing sexual intercourse. Female Circumcision is accomplished by first excising clitoris and labia minora, second abrading the inner edges of the labia majora, and third either sewing the abraded edges together or tying the knees and thighs together until the abraded edges adhere and heal together in a cicatrice. It is most often done when the girl is quite young. Too, it is done more often than not under abjectly unsanitary conditions.
Infibulation is not a single operation since the small opening originally left for urine and blood is not sufficiently large to allow intercourse. Thus, the husband or some other individual must uninfibulate the female enough to allow intercourse on the wedding night. The closing of the vulva to its post-wedding night size is repeated after every child is born. This is called reinfibulation.
Clitoridectomy / Sunna
Sunna circumcision involves the removal of the prepuce covering the clitoris gland and often the removal of the clitoris gland itself. Occasionally when only the prepuce is to be removed, the clitoris is still damaged.
Another form of female circumcision is the clitoridectomy. It is the removal of the clitoris glands, prepuce covering and the cutting and scraping away of the labia minora. Sometimes excision also refers to the scraping of the labia majora and the partial closure of the vulva. The vulva is not closed so far as to cover the vaginal opening completely.
Because of poverty and lack of medical facilities, the procedure is frequently done under less than hygienic conditions without medically trained personnel or anesthetics.
Some myths that are attributed to the practice itself are that the clitoris is a poisonous, dangerous organ that can cause birth defects in children and cause severe problems in the male partner if his penis comes in contact. Some other myths that attempt to justify Female Genital mutilation (FGM) are that the circumcision may prevent vaginal cancer and lesbianism.
Procedure Induced Problems
There are a number of health issues related to these procedures. The first medical concern is the lack of sterile instruments. The tools used for this operation range from razors and scalpels to pieces of broken glass, pottery and sharpened rocks. Since most FC occurs in unsanitary conditions, infections become a problem both because of the operation and because of the instruments used.
Another potential health problem is the person who performs these operations. They are generally elderly women who may or may not have ever performed such a procedure. Thus, precision is not of the highest grade. More damage is often done than intended. Since performing the operation is somewhat of a status symbol and it lucrative, old women will not give up the practice easily even after loosing much of her eye sight. Thus, a woman could continue to mutilate girls more seriously than dictated by tradition.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported other health problems attributed to the practice of infibulation include hemorrhaging, pain leading to shock and death, severe anemia, abscesses, ulcers, septicemia, chronic pelvic infections, dysmenorrhea, possible infertility, urinary stones, kidney damage, dermoid cysts, and severe dyspareunia. Further, blood clots often form so that menstrual blood is unable to escape. The clots may cause a woman’s stomach to bulge because of a build-up of blood. The Minority Rights Group reports that a woman brought into a clinic in Djibouti had 3.4 gallons of blood discharged when uninfibulated. Unfortunately, most times the bulging of the stomach is seen as pregnancy. Thus, in order to protect the reputation of the family, the woman is either sent away or more often is stoned to death for infidelity. Some other side effects of the operation can include: keloid scars, chronic infections, kidney stones and depression.
The Role of the United Nations
It seems apparent that the United Nations does not know exactly where it stands on the issue of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). On one hand, they have remained ambiguous to the subject by stating that member states may abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children (Article 24). But it goes on to state that the member states must have development of respect for the childs parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate and for civilizations different from his or her own (Article 29). This is simply the United Nations way of staying neutral in this situation because like any intelligent, political power or organization, it must remain appealing to both sides of the table in order to continue to receive support from all parties involved. It takes a similar position to mine in the instance that I do not agree nor wish to introduce myself or my daughter to the practice of female circumcision. However, I will not step forward and completely discredit or disregard these countries on or about their ancient/traditional ways of life. Since I have no extensive knowledge of their culture, (hence no complete understanding of certain practices) I will not present any forms of opinionated responses that are based on emotionally induced fears, but that have factual foundations.
Cultural Meanings / Repercussions
The circumcision of females in these noted countries carry strong connotations about the girl in question, her family and in some cases her tribe or village. If she is uncircumcised, she is considered promiscuous, disgraceful unclean and unfit to marry. The young womens spirituality is even in question at this point because she has defied spiritual law by not maintaining her chastity for her husband. This could be detrimental to her family and her tribe because money, land and livestock are exchanged during marriages. During times of war and hunting periods, men would have their previously uncircumcised wife infibulated so that they may insure fidelity during the absent period. Although there have been negative images placed on the women, there are examples where being circumcised could save her life. One such incident is the possibility of rape. If the girl has undergone the infibulation method of circumcision, she may have protection from being raped because of the inability of penetration.
Uncircumcised females in any tribe have long-term effects that carry over into other areas of business and social life. People will refuse to trade and barter with families known to have unclean and disgraceful women. The family will inevitably be ousted from any social interaction.
In Somali the usual age of girls at the time of marriage is from 12-16 years, or nearly a decade after infibulation. The family of the bride arranges marriages with the father of the groom, in exchange for gifts, usually money or livestock. Once the bargain has been made, the bridegroom’s mother or sister examines the prospective bride to be sure the infibulation is intact. In some cases, a white sheet is laid under the bride while a small penetration is made to test to see if any bleeding occurs. If there is presence of blood, the marriage may continue and they family of the bride are exalted for raising a daughter of virtue. No matter how virile the husband, consummation of the marriage is nearly impossible because of the surgically created barrier. Therefore, in most marriages, the husband or one his female relatives will enlarge the vaginal opening with a small knife so that sexual intercourse can take place. It is the responsibility of the husband’s female relatives to examine the bride a few weeks after the marriage, and if necessary, to enlarge the vaginal opening to permit intercourse.
It is clear that the practice has longevity and foundations in the definition of the culture. Even when traditional practices cause pain and permanent, physical change, they are not easily dismissed as
practices that should be banned merely because they offend our personal sensibilities. Cultural traditions and background define the belief system and understanding that a person holds as innate truth. Outsiders that do not understand or believe in another persons culture should not be able to dictate, condemn or alter a persons system of understanding.
Female circumcision cannot simply be categorized as male control and domination of female sexuality (which it may be in some cases) and thereby placed outside the pale of morally acceptable behavior without our being in violation, namely the violence of denying to those the power to choose and define their own way of life. The fact of the matter is that individuals are given wills. If these countries will to continue the practice and the women are not pushing forward to end the practice then outside influences should continue to be outside.
I am against oppression of people anywhere; but at the same time I recognize that to act upon that moral position in all cases may also require the destruction of societies in which what I take to be oppression is part of the fabric of that society. That makes me want to be very sure that I am not reacting more because of my own sensibilities and less because the oppressive behavior is demonstrably destructive of the human spirit. At the very least, I need to understand the nature of that oppressive behavior, what it means to those involved, what are the alternatives, and are those alternatives truly better for those affected. In many cases there are alternatives, and surely those alternatives become clearer if we first understand the behavior in question. We may still conclude, even if we understand the behavior, that we find it sufficiently abhorrent that we will actively work to change the behavior.
I would recommend that the United Nations take a more practical stand on the issue and begin to put in place alternatives that will at the very least make the practice of female circumcision more sanitary. These organizations offer condoms to reduce the spread of aids and food resources to incite healthy eating habits so they should begin to train these countries to complete the practice in exact medical form. This does no mean that the United Nations or any other organization agrees with the practice, it simply means that positive efforts are being made towards reducing unnecessary after effects. We will never be able to address whether or not the process is necessary because we do not understand the culture. However, we can make it better. Everyone in America does not agree with abortion, which could be considered female genital mutilation, however the choice to have the procedure done is available and it is available under medically trained doctors that are focused on keeping the patient safe. The patients of female circumcision should also have these options available. To understand does not mean to condone.