“Female circumcision” has been widely argued as being an inaccurate name for this procedure that women in some countries are put through at an early age. Countries that are known to take part in this long-standing tradition include Kenya, Egypt, and Sudan. The phrase “female circumcision” suggests that it is comparable or equal to male circumcision, which it is not. Where the male “equivalent”, if it can be referred to as such, does not generally have a lasting effect on the male’s ability to receive sexual gratification, the same cannot be said of the female procedure. Anybody who’s squeamish might not want to read the next paragraph, as the explanation of the “procedures”, though written as clinically as possible, can be unpleasant.
It would be naïve to suggest that female “circumcision” is one process alone; when we talk about female circumcision we are generally referring to the partial or total surgical removal of the clitoris, though in some places – such as the Sudan – this process is taken a step further with the process of “infibulation”, which involves the total excision of the clitoris, labia majora and minora, and the sewing up of the edges of the remaining flesh, leaving only a small hole.
The term “female genital mutilation” has also been criticised, though for different reasons; the phrase is far from being politically correct and the countries where it is practised have spoken out against its being referred to as such. Though the media has latched on to the term in recent years, the term that I will be using is “female genital cutting”, or FGC. Of course, it’s important to note that, though it is predominantly non-Western countries in which clitoridectomy and infibulation procedures are habitually carried out, colonisation and various forces related to it – such as the slave trade – have created an influx and exchange of traditions and ideals from and with other cultures. This means that “First World” countries cannot claim to be above it; FGC takes place everywhere, though it is not as prevalent in countries such as England, for example.
The procedure has come under fire of late, the reasons for which are obvious. At the core of this practice is the removal of a woman’s sexuality, before she has a chance to even understand what that means. Discussion on its origins is varied, but FGC lives on primarily because it has become a tradition; in this case, it is one that serves to keep the patriarchal order intact by suppressing “dangerous” female desire, ensuring that women are virgins before their marriage and remain faithful to their husbands once they’re married. As previously noted, the origins of FGC are diverse, and it depends on where you look as to the answers you’ll find. The main reason given for the procedure being a necessity is that the clitoris is part of a girl’s journey to womanhood; she must be cleansed via the removal of a body part that is considered to be male. In Sudan, it is assumed that if a woman has her sexuality removed then she is raised to a higher level of purity, and is more suited to motherhood; problematic, in that it assumes the role of mother should be filled by all women. Motherhood is perhaps a path better taken by those who choose it.
The point of this article, however, is not to point fingers at other cultures and tell them that they are wrong; though it’s difficult, as a woman, to find even a small degree of understanding for a procedure such as this. There are two sides to the culture coin, and it’s difficult to stop yourself from only listening to one side of the argument. Firstly, although it’s something different, you can’t just slap on the “culture” label and leave it at that. There’s a great historical precedent for bad things happening to people, only for it to be left alone or ignored by onlookers with the simple excuse of their dismissing it as a cultural difference. On the other hand, it’s far too easy to adopt the attitude that you know better than these people; all too often we put ourselves in the position of saviour, which is a condescending and offensive attitude to have.
So, what are the medical implications of this procedure? With increased criticism has come increased pressure on governments to outlaw such practices, but this can lead to more “backstreet” procedures taking place, which are unsafe and can lead to more problems than occur after medically-sanctioned operations. However, in either case, FGC can lead to:
- Infections and scarring (which can then lead to urinary problems and reproductive issues)
FCG research carried out by medical journals notes that it’s not completely necessary to “know how such a practice originated to understand that, once in place, a convention associating the practice with marriageability will be self-enforcing.” So the practice carries on because it is thought of as necessary, and it is treated as such by a culture to the point where it’s accepted and passed down to the next generation. And though it’s clear that not every single view can be taken into account here, the health risks alone are a mark against this procedure, regardless of its role in eligibility. What it comes down to is that the subjugation of women appears to be worth the potential threat to their life. This method of oppression – through a culturally-justified procedure – takes away the power of choice; the choice that everyone, regardless of gender, should be allowed; the choice you make as to how you use your body and how you fulfil your own desires. Women who go through this procedure, whether willingly or otherwise, are neglected by a society that favours male dominance and male choice. FGC can be seen, therefore, as a manifestation of the patriarchy’s fear of this power being taken away, at the cost of a woman having control over her body.
[1. Gerry Mackie, 'Female Genital Cutting: A Harmless Practice?', Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series 17.2 (June, 2003), pp.135-158 (p.141)]