FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION
By Soukeyna Boye
In the small village of Sekou in Mali (West Africa), a baby girl is born. Her life journey begins with the naming ceremony a week after her birth, followed by the genital mutilation ceremony two weeks after. These traditions have existed from time in memorial. Barely two weeks old, Amina’s grandmother will take her to the metal worker “healer” charged with the brutal task of performing the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) intervention.
FGM (commonly called female “circumcision”) has been practiced in Africa for many centuries. Young girls are submitted to this intervention, which can be performed in different ways depending on the country and culture. In Middle Eastern and some African countries, the “sunna circumcision” is practiced; it consists of the removal of the clitoral prepuce and the tip of the clitoris. However, in some countries in West Africa, the excision or clitoridectomy is more readily performed on young girls and infant girls; in this case the entire clitoris with the adjacent parts of the labia minor are removed. Sometimes all of the external genitals are removed with the exception of parts of the labia majora; additional cuts are made to enlarge the opening of the vagina “for easy childbirth,” as it is erroneously said. In the infibulations or pharaonic circumcision, the entire clitoris and the labia minora are cut away and the two sides of the labia majora are partially sliced off or scraped raw and then sewn together. The goal of this operation is to obliterate the entrance of the vagina leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation. The girl’s legs are tied for several weeks until the wound heals. Although no deaths due to any of these atrocious procedures have been officially recorded, one can only imagine the long term psychological consequences inflicted on these young girls: suicide, post traumatic syndrome, severe depression, and reduced libido.
The world’s outrage at these practices has taken various forms, and several organizations have begun to address the issue. Early in the 21st Century, some villages in the Gambia and Southern Senegal held a public event that featured witness’ accounts, theatre pieces and dance performances. The Coptic Evangelical Association for Social Services in Egypt filled us with hope with their success in eradicating the practice, one village at a time. During the same era, the only meaningful public action at the time came from women in Somalia; the most popular woman from Somalia at the time was Waris Dirie, when she described her experiences with Female Genital Mutilation in her compelling autobiography, Desert Flower. “The prevailing wisdom in Somalia is that there are bad things between a girl’s legs.”
Traditionally, however, in cultures that practice FGM, women remain submissive, fearful of being ostracized by their families as well as by their communities. The subject is not even discussed among them, other than to ask: “did you circumcise your daughter yet,” as circumcision is considered a rite of passage, which marks women’s acceptance into adult society. Often the rationale for this ritual is of religious nature, and although the patriarchal Muslim religion does not condone the practice, a woman is deemed unclean and “wild” until she has undergone the procedure. Culturally it is said that it helps women control their sexual desire until they are ready for marriage.
It is difficult to bring about change. One reason is female illiteracy, which allows some women in practicing countries to believe that FGM is practiced all over the world on every girl. The reason not often mentioned, however, is the tradition of power and privilege that men retain. It would therefore only make sense that more enlightened men reach out to their African counterparts and teach them about the biological and sexual facts of FGM. Their public outrage would greatly impact societies that are still practicing this archaic ritual.
As long as only women address the issue, significant change throughout the world is not likely to be achieved in the foreseeable future.