Circumcision, also known as genital mutilation, is one of the oldest practices in history. It is a practice that has been conducted by numerous communities, both in the East and the West. In the Muslim world, all males have to be circumcised in order to be accepted into the Islamic religion. In the west, many cultures and countries consider male circumcision to be healthy. For example, in the US, about 65% of all newborn males are circumcised (“Discussion Papers, p.1). Male circumcision is scientifically justified, especially that it helps maintaining the health of the sexual organs through cleanliness and the prevention of infections and diseases. Female circumcision, on the other hand, is considered to be a violation of human rights, and one that is still carried out in a number of Arab countries, especially in Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and other Gulf states. This research paper describes female genital mutilation as an inhuman practice that results in serious physical, psychological and social consequences on women. This topic is important for study for many reasons. First of all, it is related to the well-being of women all over the world, reflecting the inhuman practices inflicted on them by male-dominated societies. Secondly, this issue is related to the violation of women’s human rights. Thirdly, circumcision is one of practices that threaten the health of women and put their lives at risk. Finally, researching female circumcision is important as part of the self-awareness that every individual should be involved in to create a better society and to prevent harm and unjust pains that women suffer.
What is Female Circumcision?
While circumcision of males is related to religious necessity, as well to health needs, the circumcision of women is a totally different story. It is in fact related to the sexual repression of women.
By definition, female circumcision is the surgical removal of external parts of the female genital organs (“FGM Taskforce,” p.1). In the majority of cases, the circumcision of the female is not even conducted by a surgeon, but rather by the daya, that is, the woman who is responsible for attending and nursing pregnancies and the delivery of newborns (Saadawi, p. 56).
The Concept of Female Circumcision
Circumcision is as old as the concept of virginity itself. It has been carried out for hundreds of years. It is based on the belief that virginity of women has to be protected at any rate. It is believed that through circumcision, women will not feel a strong sexual desire when she reaches the age of puberty, and hence, they will remain sexually under control. It is mainly for this reason that circumcision is still carried out, especially in those closed communities where the sexuality of women is viewed with suspicion as a dangerous risk to social integrity, religious conservatism and traditions (Saadawi, p. 57).
Consequences of Female Circumcision
Circumcision of women can have serious physical and health impact on the circumcised female. Most circumcisions take place when the girl is between the ages of four and six, that is, before she approaches the age of puberty. The operation is usually conducted by the daya, often an uneducated woman who has no idea about essential medical concepts such as cleanliness, anesthetics, pasteurization and other techniques that are indispensable for the well-being of any person undergoing surgical operations (Saadawi, p. 58).
In many cases, the female victim of circumcision suffers from infections because the surgical instruments are contaminated. Infections may be simple and on the surface, but in some cases, they may be deep and serious, resulting in painful cramps that last for days. In some cases, the infection could be very serious and due to ignorance, the infection is ignored or treated inappropriately, thus resulting in complications. It is not uncommon for girls to die within a few days or weeks as a result of circumcision-induced infection (Bahieddine, p.2).
A more common occurrence is hemorrhage. Most operations take place in the absence of any anesthetics and with the use of blunt blades. Besides, during the operation, the girl moves and kicks because of fear. As a result, the wounds are usually deep and unclean, and hence, hemorrhage results. Hemorrhage sometimes lasts for days, and the girl suffers from a severe loss of blood in her body. It is not uncommon that many girls often die a few days after the operation, not only from infections but also from hemorrhage (“FGM Taskforce, p.2)”.
On the psychological level, circumcision results in a number of very serious problems. First of all, the sexuality of the woman is inhibited, especially as a young girl who has reached puberty recalls that she had been violently treated and abused in order to maintain her sexuality under control. Circumcision for many girls is treated as a punishment that has taken place before they committed any crime (Saadawi, p. 58).
Feeling guilt for a crime they never committed, and afraid of being punished, women often suffer from serious sexual and psychological problems. In Egypt, studies show that the lacking of self-esteem and self-confidence are common traits among women who have been through circumcision.
Circumcised women also share emotional problems, as many of them find it difficult to achieve emotional integrity with the men they love. Some of them become sexually frigid as a result of their fear of sexuality, especially that the feeling of guilt never lets them free. One reason for these problems is that circumcision is usually conducted when the girl is conscious of what is going on around her, usually at the age of five or six. When such a horrifying experience happens in her life, especially in relation to her sexual organs, she develops a kind of fear that is later on enhanced by the sexual repression she suffers. Eventually, all these feelings of fear and repression develop into a phobia towards sexuality, resulting in frigidity or fear from sexuality and its pleasures (Toubia, p. 14).
The circumcision of females has also been identified as a molestation and abuse of the female child. As a practice, it cannot be justified, especially that its objective is to impose sexual repression on females. Circumcision is a molestation against female children for many reasons. First of all, there is not one medical reason or cause that justifies female circumcision and the common interpretation is that it is related to sexuality of the female. Since circumcision is a distortion of the female’s body that also has emotional harm, the fact is that circumcision of females is a criminal act. It is a violent maltreatment of females and an assault against their sexuality and femininity at the same time (Bahieddine, p. 3).
On the social level, circumcision has several serious consequences. First of all, it is a means through which conformity to social standards is forced on women. It is a means through which a woman is branded like a sheep so that she will remain virgin, mainly through the repression of her sexuality. Indeed, the goal of circumcision it to keep the woman’s sexuality under control. The point is that sexual repression does not end with circumcision. Rather, circumcision is only one of the shocks that a female child will receive during the process of sexual education in the social context, regardless how limited this education is. The female child will learn through circumcision that her body does not belong to her, but rather, to those who can control it and impose all kinds of mutilation, humiliation and pain to it. From there on, the female child is taught that she is not free to express her sexuality, that in addition to her weakness as a woman, she has been distorted and mutilated in order to have her desires brought under control. Thus, the physical tormenting is not sufficient, but in addition to it, there has to be emotional and social repression that will inevitably influence the female’s behavior and thinking for many years to come (Saadawi, p. 59).
Secondly, female circumcision is one of those behaviors through which the social rights of women are violated. Female circumcision is in fact one of the first steps towards female subordination. When a girl is circumcised, she is learning that she as a woman is punished for something that she did not do, that she has to feel guilty because of her existence, and that she is going to remain under the control of man and the male-dominated society. The violation of the rights of the female is considered to be a common occurrence in many Arab countries, especially Egypt. Yet, by identifying the circumcision of the female as a tradition that cannot be ignored or change, the violation of women’s right through female circumcision is thus turned into a tradition that persists for many years. This tradition does not only become well established in the minds of the people, both males and females, but it also becomes tolerated, accepted and even encouraged (“Discussion papers,” p.4).
At the same time, the circumcision of females is seen as a first step of teaching females that they can be abused, sexually and physically by the males in their community. This does not only inhibit the behavior of the female, but it also forces her to accept the abuse she receives from the males in her community. It is true that the circumcision operation is conducted by a female daya but the fact is that this operation takes place only in conformity with the demands and standards of the male-dominated society. In other words, although the female knows very well, through her personal experience, that circumcision is a violation of her body and a painful experience that she would be much happier and preserved without, she will accept what is happening to her because she learns that she is a subject that is subordinated to the laws set by the male-dominated society (Saadawi, p. 59).
Prevention of Female Circumcision
The prevention of circumcision cannot take place only through legal prohibition. Already the laws in Egypt for example, prohibit circumcision but they are not seriously applied for three reasons. First of all, NGOs and other interest groups do not consider circumcision to be a priority on their agendas. One reason for this problem is that NGOs cannot operate against those traditions and beliefs that are well established in the minds, behaviors and traditions of the people. NGOs depend on support from the community, but while certain changes may be accepted by the senior members of the community, issues such as circumcision are considered to be highly sensitive. To avoid angering the community, most NGOs prefer to stay away from the issue of circumcision. They only prefer to educate against it, but they do not actually fund any activities that would lead to a effective restriction or prohibition of circumcision. This is the cased as the influential key members of the community who can facilitate the work of NGOs are at the same time those who reject the prohibition of circumcision (“FGM Taskforce”, p.4).
Another problem with the prohibition of circumcision is that those who are responsible for prohibiting circumcision sympathize with the community and its traditions, and hence, it is women who in the end suffer the consequences. As circumcision is a traditional behavior and conduct, very few governmental agencies will try to impose any restriction against it. Even the Muslim communities and organizations have developed a tolerance for female circumcision in order to attract the attention and support of the traditional groups in the community. This is despite the fact that circumcision is not related in any manner to the religion of Islam, but rather, to ancient social traditions that developed and became enhanced over the years. The point is that circumcision has become a politicized behavior. To win over the political support of traditional and conservative groups, both governmental agencies and political groups will not object to female circumcision even as it is evident that female circumcision is a violation of the human rights of the female child. The consequences are accordingly suffered by the female herself, especially as the community is capable of lobbying the sufficient political support to avoid restriction on and prohibition of circumcision (Toubia, p. 17).
A third factor that has to be considered in this respect is that governments as in Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea do not seriously consider circumcision as a serious crime. Rather, it considers it as a tradition that needs to be eventually eliminated. However, the mixing between religion, traditions and social attitudes has made the prohibition of circumcision almost impossible. One factor that explains the attitude of these governments is that there is a need for social reconciliation. These governments have been accused on many occasions of launching policies against the traditions of the community, especially in relevance to the use of contraceptives and population growth control. To avoid tension with the community and to maintain acceptability of future demands, the government cannot impose too much pressure on the issue of circumcision, especially that this issue is related to the rights of the female child, that is, to the weakest members of the community. The case being as such, there is very little chance that governments would actually take the initiative with respect to applying the laws that prohibit and punish actions of female circumcision (“FGM Taskforce,” p.5).
In Egypt, the government has to some extent promoted educational programs that aim at reducing the importance of circumcision for the community. Circumcision has been educated against through the media and other means in order to discourage the Egyptian families, especially in the rural areas from accepting such a practice. The obstacle however is that even among many of the educated families, circumcision has been an accepted tradition. The reason, as it seems, is that circumcision is related to one of the most important and sensitive aspects of the Egyptian social and moral standards, namely virginity (“FGM Taskforce,” p.5).
Circumcision in Egypt is now carried out at a lesser extent than it used to be decades ago, but the fact remains that more than 50% of Egyptian girls, especially in the remote areas and regions and the countryside are still victims of circumcision. In my opinion the prohibition of circumcision in Egypt will still take many years before serious attempts are carried out, and before female children are treated as human beings. I believe that bringing the problem of circumcision to an end will require a number of radical steps. First of all, there should be serious, committed and elaborate educational programs launched in order to educate the community about the realities of circumcision. When the people find out that circumcision has nothing to do with the controlling of sexual desire of the woman, they will eventually abandon it. A second step is related to the creation of awareness about the physical, mental and emotional consequences of circumcision on the young female child. These consequences should be emphasized as being long lasting and of serious outcome so that parents become aware of what they are really doing. Thirdly, it is important to start applying the laws, at least gradually. It is difficult to make the people comply with laws that defy traditions that have been established for thousands of years. However, the application of laws can be effective if it is conducted gradually, together with efforts at the education of the community and at the spread of awareness. Egypt is not the only Arab country where female circumcision is carried. Other countries include Sudan and Somalia, in addition to some countries where circumcision is carried out but on very limited scale such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (“FGM Taskforce, p.6).
Female circumcision is still widely practiced in many communities and societies, especially in countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and others. Thousands of young girls have their genitals mutilated under unhealthy and inhuman circumstances. The purpose of circumcision, be it religious, traditional, or cultural, cannot be justified, for, it remains a serious violation of the human, health, social, and physical rights of women. It is a violation against the woman’s body, against her psychological and social well-being, and against her sexual rights. Governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are trying to bring this serious violation to an end, but obviously there are many obstacles in the way. These religious, social, cultural and sometimes official obstacles, are still preventing the elimination of female genital mutilation and as a result, the health, happiness and even the lives of thousands of women in several countries of the world are seriously at risk. Individuals, organizations and governments should continue in their efforts to bring this practice to an end. The means through which these efforts are channeled involve legal prohibition, the creation of awareness, and above all, education.
Bahieddin, Amira. The Female Child: Protection & Abuse. UNICEF, July 1994.