Over 200 million women and girls in 30 countries across the world have suffered Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It is an age-old custom exercised in many parts of the world, especially in African and Middle Eastern communities to ‘cleanse’ the girl before she is married off.
A horrific tradition that first came into limelight in the ’70s, FGM was recognized by the United Nations as a gross violation of the child and the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989. Although it has been outlawed in a number of countries where it is performed, the laws enforced are either weak or possess too many loopholes, consistently perpetuating this practice.
Female cutting is a ritual that predates even Christianity and Islam, finding its roots in the eras of the Phoenicians, Hittites and Ethiopians; it is usually performed on girls aged between zero to 15 years. FGM has been identified into types including clitoridectomy, excision, infibulation etc according to the World Health Organization (WHO)and generally entails – but is not limited to – partial or total removal of female genital organs. The procedure is thought to be similar to male circumcision. In reality, however, this notion could not be any further from truth – as the former is done with no medical reason and can have hazardous health implications from excessive bleeding, increased risk of HIV/AIDs, stillbirth, septicaemia to complicated childbirth etc.
Statistics show that in Somalia, 98% of women aged 15 to 49 have suffered from some form of FGM, followed by 97% in Guinea, 91% Djibouti, 90% in Sierra Leone, 89% in Mali, 87% in Egypt and 83% in Eriteria.
Speaking about her childhood ordeal, Anonymous Zimbawe narrates how her grandmother urged her to adopt this family ritual. “Being an 11-year-old, I was a bit scared for I had never seen my grandmother so serious before. She asked me to remove my undergarments and told me to find two things that hang close to my vagina and start pulling them until they were long. She reasoned that all girls including my female cousins had done it, and that I was the only one left not doing it. I was cautioned that my husband would leave me if he discovered that I hadn’t performed this custom.” Brainwashed and unaware, the girl obediently complied. Little did she know that this was FGM Type IV Labia Elongation.
Not many cases concerning FGM are reported in Pakistan: it is an act practiced with utmost secrecy
In Egypt, female cutting is still widely practiced, even though new laws have been introduced to counter the custom. The practice was criminalized in 2008, though it is still being performed – even by medical representatives on the lookout for a lucrative business.
The Egyptian government has, in fact, imposed new penalties for FGM. According to Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian parliament approved new and more stringent penalties that also include jail time for accomplices and perpetrators; also holding medical facilities accountable. With combined efforts by Egyptian policymakers as well as international organizations such as UNICEF and UNDP, change is set in motion. UNDP reports positive figures as per the Egypt Demographics and Health Survey, stating: “The percentage of circumcised girls aged 15-17 has dropped from 74% in 2008 to 61% in 2014. And mothers’ attitudes are changing, too: 92% of mothers were circumcised, but only 35% of them intend to circumcise their daughters.” The organization is also making headway with campaigns like FGM-free villages that celebrate stories of women who have abandoned the custom, holding such stories as examples to be emulated.
Kenya is yet another example where FGM is still practiced. The tradition has been banned in the country by the Prohibition against FGM Act of 2011. Talking about the current state of affairs in Kenya, UN Women’s Empower Women Global Champion for Women Economic Empower, Liz Guantai, remarks: “Any person who performs FGM commits an offence. If that person causes death by FGM, that person shall be convicted for life imprisonment. I view it a consequence of patriarchy, since women belonging to these communities want to be circumcised, as it is an unspoken prerequisite for marriage.” She also believes that ending the harmful culture entails empowering men within communities to change such morbid rules. “They (men) should learn that a good wife is not one who is circumcised. If men say No to FGM, it will be easier to get rid of this primitive ritual.”
Not many cases concerning FGM are reported in Pakistan: it is an act practiced with utmost secrecy. Pakistani communications consultant Farah K. Siddiqui narrates the story of a friend belonging to a minority community who had undergone the knife in early childhood. “For me the most horrific aspect was that my friend to this day defends the practice because it has a religious prescription. I had a screaming match with her upon finding out that her five-year old niece went through it days before we were talking about it,” she explains.
In September 2016, the Indonesian government launched a much-needed campaign against Female Genital Mutilation. Led by the country’s minister for women’s empowerment and child protection Yohana Yembise, the initiative aimed at employing ‘scientific evidence’ to discourage religious and women’s groups who support FGM. The country vision to end FGM has especially been mired by challenges and controversy relating to female cutting. Although the government introduced laws banning the custom, it quickly went back on its words due to pressure from religious organizations. It earlier stated that the procedure could take place if conducted by medical professionals. Fortunately though, this regulation was repealed in 2014.
Female Genital Mutilation is an act not restricted to under-developed countries of the world. In June 2016, it was found that more than 1,200 cases were reported during the first three months of the year in England; with at least two percent of new cases lodged being of UK-born girls under 18, i.e. 11 girls. More recently, two doctors, two clinic workers and four mothers in Detroit, USA, were accused of conspiring to arrange the procedure for their daughters. The case, however, was thrown out by a US federal judge, who said that the US law against female genital mutilation was ‘unconstitutional.’
Whether designed to prevent presumed ‘promiscuity’ in women, or ‘cleansing’ her for her future husband, the ground reality is that the centuries-old tradition has neither has any health benefit nor religious significance. The only purpose for this gross human rights violation and organized crime against women, especially that of the girl child, is a control over a female’s bodily autonomy, putting her in abject physical and mental confinement.
Completely eliminating FGM is a huge challenge, for it entails countering irrational sentiments under the guise of religion and culture, dismantling deep-seated patriarchal mindset, designing women-friendly laws that bolster human rights and most importantly: bringing men on board who are pivotal to alleviating the plight of women. Until such steps are not taken, women’s safety will remain a distant notion.
This article was previously published on International Women’s Initiative website.
There used to be a program “Focus on Faith” by Roger Hardy on BBC. He visited Sheikh Tantawi (now deceased) Rector of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Roger asked the Sheikh about female circumcision and Islam. The Sheikh, considered the foremost authority on Islam and Sharia, was emphatic that Islam requires circumcision of girls.
Mr Hardy then visited India and consulted with Islamic scholars there and asked the same question. He was told that there is no such requirement in the Sharia.
So who is right?
Female circumcision is and remains and Arab/African custom. It has been carried over by early Muslim converts.