The Sexual Politics of Female Circumcision

                        Elizabeth W. Moen
                     Department of Sociology
                 University of Colorado, Boulder
           The Sexual Politics of Female Circumcision

     I was 12 years old when I was excised.  I remember every

detail of the operation. In our village several girls of the same age are operated by a special "excisor" or operator in her hut. The village people come together for this festivity. The night before the operation the drums were beaten until late. Very early the next morning, two of my favorite aunts took me to the house of the excisor or operator, an old woman from the blacksmith caste. In Mali, the custom is that the women from this caste do the operations of both clitoridectomy and infibulation. I did not know what the excision really meant, though I had seen on several occasions, a group of young girls who were just excised walking along. It was not a beautiful sight. Their backs were bent and they looked like old women who could scarcely hold themselves up. Once inside the house of the operator, I became terribly afraid, though I had been reassured that it would not hurt. Though it was early in the morning, I perspired and my throat became all dry. I was told to lie down on a mat on the floor. Immediately, some big hands fastened themselves on my thin legs and opened them up. I raised my head, but immediately from both sides two women held me down to the floor and immobilized my arms.

I was terribly afraid. Suddenly a hand took hold of part of my genital organs. I tried to escape, but I could not move. Then a terrible pain pierced me through and through. The operator cut the small lips and then the clitoris. It took an interminable time because it had to be done perfectly. I felt as if I were being torn to pieces. The rule says that one must not cry with this operation. I failed this rule. I screamed and cried and I was bleeding all over. Then the operator put a mixture of curative herbs and butter on the wound to arrest the bleeding. I never have felt any pain like it. Afterwards, the women who held me down freed me, but I couldn't get up; but the voice of the operator called: 'It's finished. You can get up. You see, it didn't hurt much.' With the help of two women, I was put on my feet. I was not only forced to walk to where the other girls who were excised were waiting, but they also made us dance. Under the orders of the women in charge, I was made to join a group of young and old people who had gathered for this occasion to see us dance. I can't tell you how I felt. I was burning all over. In tears I jumped about a little together with the others, who were all forced to dance. In the middle of this monstrous affair, of the excised, bleeding girls dancing about, everything suddenly began to turn around me; and I remember nothing more. When I came to, I was stretched out in a hut with several people around me. Later, the most terrible moments of my life were those when I had to urinate. It took a whole month before I healed. After, I was well again, I was the butt of everybody's jokes because they said I wasn't courageous.

(Quoted in Womens International Network (WIN) News, 1978C: 24.)

Introduction

Even though it affects over 20 million women in Africa alone, female circumcision is a fairly well kept secret (Huelsman, 1976; Hosken, 1976: Hansen, 1971/73; Head, 1978). The term itself is a misleading euphemism, no more informative than the World Health Organization's (WHO) "operations based on custom."

Forms of Genital Mutilation

Female circumcision as a euphemism is actually a series of operations categorized as genital mutilation (GM). Female circumcision as a procedure is the least mutilating of these operations. The most common procedures are simple circumcision, excision, and infibulation. These operations are performed when girls are a few days old up to their late teens, but most commonly from 8 to 12 years of age.

Circumcision. A procedure analogous to that of the male, it consists of the removal of only the prepuce (hood, covering) of the clitoris. It is the variety most advocated by Islam authorities and is called Sunna circumcision in Muslim countries. It is probable, however, that in many cases the clitoris does not escape damage, for according to Hoskens, "It is a delicate operation that requires surgical tools and good lighting. It is highly questionable that the old women who do the operations, mostly with razor blades or knives, would be capable of performing such a delicate operation, which requires knowledge of anatomy" (1978: 41).

Excision. In its simplest form, all or part of the clitoris is removed by cutting or burning (circumbustion). Usually the adjacent parts of the labia minora are removed, sometimes the entire labia minora and occasionally the labia majora as well. Clitoridectomy without removal of the labia is sometimes called Sunna circumcision too.

Infibulation. The entire clitoris, labia minora and outer surfaces of the labia majora are removed. The two sides of labia majora are then fastened together leaving only a small posterior opening for urine and menstrual blood to pass through. In Somalia and the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, a region anthropologists have called "the land of the sewn women" because of the prevalence of infibulation, the clitoris is not always removed (Pieters and Lowenfels, 1977). Infibulation with excision is often called Pharonic Circumcision because it was practiced in ancient Egypt, but when it is practiced in Egypt it is called Sudanese Circumcision because it is so prevalent in Sudan. Infibulation is the most painful and debilitating of these procedures, especially since it is often done repeatedly to a woman. In some tribes thorns ". . . are inserted transversely through the wound edges and the thorns are held in place by a piece of thread . . . a match stick is inserted in the center of the wound to allow the development of a fistule for urination . . . the match stick is removed daily for urination and reinserted until the wound heals" (Modawi, 1973: 247-248). Sometimes "The legs of the child are then tied together, immobilizing her for several weeks or until the wound has healed" (Hosken, 1976: 14). Or she may be allowed to get up and move by jumping with the aid of a small stick held in front of her with both hands (Baasher, 1977). After marriage, the opening is enlarged enough to allow intercourse, often with a knife by the husband or his relatives, or the old man or woman who performs such ceremonies in the village. In Somalia the infibulation may be cut open a bit to allow the passage of a phallus which is left in the vagina for several days to make easier the penetration by the future husband (Gottesfeld, 1959). The opening must be enlarged again to allow the birth of the first child, with defibulation and reinfibulation recurring before and after the birth of each child. Total reinfibulation, i.e., making the opening matchstick size again, may be performed on widows and divorcees, or a married woman whose husband has several wives or is away. The woman has no choice in these matters (Huelsman, 1976; Hosken, 1976; Modawi, 1973; Baasher, 1977).

Research on GM

There has been very little formal research on GM other than some descriptive reports and interpretations by anthropologists (e.g., Brown, 1963; Brain, 1977; Huelsman, 1976), and field studies or reviews of clinical records by physicians (e.g., Baashar, 1977; Pieters and Lowenfels, 1977; Lenzi, 1970; Cook, n.d.). The major studies include:

  1. Karim and Ammar, 1965: Clinical records of circumcised women in Sudan and Egypt.
  2. Basher, 1977: A sociological questionnaire given to 70 females, 18-55, residing in Alexandria, Egypt.
  3. Shandall, 1967: Clinical records of 4024 women (3820 infibulated) in Khartoum, Sudan hospitals.
  4. Huelsman, 1967: History and literature review of GM from an anthropological perspective.

Basher's is the only study found to consider the attitudes and feelings of women who have experienced GM. A major compilation of incidence, prevalence and circumstances of GM forthcoming by Hosken should provide valuable organization and clarification of the information about GM that is available (Hosken, 1979).

Maintenance of the Secret

According to Modawi, "The habit is intimately associated with tribal customs, superstition and wrong concepts of religion and is closely guarded from foreign curiosity" (13:242). The secretiveness has also been blamed on male anthropologists who could only see GM as a cultural tradition not to be tampered with rather than a vital political and health issue for women. But even female anthropologists may omit or just barely mention this issue (Hansen, 1971/3; e.g., see Paulme, 1963). The United Nations (UN) and WHO have also been reluctant to investigate or discuss these practices. (When I wrote to WHO for reports which I knew to exist, the response was from their public relations officer who told me nothing more than it is a delicate issue.) The request by participants of a 1960 UN seminar on the Participation of Women in Public Life for a study of GM in Africa has been ignored (Hoskens, 1976). In February 1979, WHO did hold a Seminar on women's health which included the topic and the UN International Year of the Child Secretariat has put female circumcision on the agenda. But so far, whatever attention GM has had by international agencies has been very low-key.

Hosken of WIN News has been in the forefront of gathering and publicizing reports from the women involved. She concludes from her correspondence with the United Nations Cultural and Educational Fund (UNICEF) that ". . . officers still refuse to recognize the facts, and despite medical information that has been brought to the agency, this information continues to be concealed" (WIN, 1978d: 43). Wherever she turns, international agencies and organizations tell her they "cannot interfere with local customs." But "They have, in fact, interfered everywhere: everything from vaccines to Coca Cola, from airplanes to TV, and VD have now been introduced in Africa" (letter from Hosken to UN officials, reported in WIN, 1978a: 49).

Considering the lack of research on GM, and the consent by silence given to it by anthropologists, the clergy, the medical profession and international agencies such as the UN and WHO it is tempting to believe common justifications such as the girls look forward to it, or GM is only repugnant to those who do not belong to the cultures in which it is done, and only ethnocentric busybodies are concerned about the practice. For example, Dr. S. Chilungu of the University of Nairobi claims that ". . . the notion that clitoridectomy is the removal of a woman's source of sexual pleasure arises out of Western perspectives" (quoted in WIN, 1978d: 42).

But the women themselves are now beginning to question and speak out against GM as evidenced by reports in WIN News and other feminist publications, the testimonies at the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women (Russell and Van de Ven, 1976) and the "quietly desperate reports from women all over the world, of man's inhumanity to women" at the 1975 International Women's Year Conference (Head, 1976: 9).

This paper has two main purposes. The first is to show that GM is not just a quaint ritual practiced among a few "primitive" tribes, and it will not be readily abandoned as the people become more "civilized." The second purpose is to show that GM is fundamentally a form of social control and to link GM to sexual politics, a theoretical explanation of societal dominance of women.

Although GM has been and remains most common in Africa, societies on every continent and many islands of the world have practiced it at one time or another. (For histories of GM see Chwatt-Bruce, 1976; Baasher, 1977; Huelsman, 1976; Lenzi, 1970; Gottesfeld, 1959.) Today it is known to be frequently performed in Africa and the Muslim Middle-East. Non-African Muslims are more likely to perform simple circumcision, while Africans, regardless of religion, are much more likely to perform excision or infibulation. Since Hosken (1979) will provide an exhaustive survey of the epidemiology of GM, this paper will provide only an overview of its incidence and prevalence.

According to WIN (1978d: 140-141) the contemporary practice of GM has been medically documented for the following parts and among the following ethnic groups of Africa:

     Arabian Peninsula:  Nagd, Kuwet, Muntafir, Bani, Tamin,
     Sammar, Mahra, Kara, Sahara, Bautahara, Boni Atije, Agarnem,
     Adwan
     Benin:  Benin
     Botswana:  Xhosa, Shangana-Thonga
     Chad:  Shuwa
     Central African Empire:  Recently outlawed
     Djibouti:  Afar, Issa (entire population)
     Eastern Africa*):  Somali, Meru, Embu, Chuka, Kikuyu, Rangi,
     Nandi, Masai, Kamasia, Pokot, Elgeyo, Njemps, Dorobo, Sebei,
     Digo, Taita, Giriama, Kisii, Kamba, Swahili, Chaga, Pare,
     Gogo, Arusha, Tatoga, Turu, Bena, Hehe, Watusi, Xhosa, Suba,
     Wasembeti, Nilo-Hamitic population groups
     Ethiopia:  Amhara, Fellasha, Kafitscho.  Oromo (Galla),
     Danakil, Tigre, Ometo, Hamitic Kufa, Babea, Sidamo, Kushite
     population groups, Somali of the Harrar area*)
     Egypt:  All population groups (Muslim and Copt) except for
     educated, urban upper and upper middle class
     Gambia:  all population groups except Jolloff
     Ghana:  Hausa, Mossi, Yoruba, Kassina, Nankani, North Ghanaian
     groups
     Guinea:  24 ethnic groups, including Foulah, Peul, Malinke
     (Mandingo), Soussou, Bambara, Kasonke, Serer, Wolof, Conakry
     area*)
     Kenya:  Masai, Kuria, Kisii, Nandi, Kipsigis, Kamba, Kikuyu,
     Digo, Taita, Giriama, Dorobo, Samburu, Kamasia, Elgeyo, Pokot
     (Suk), Embu, Meru, Terik, Marakwet, Chagga, Kavirondo,
     Watende, Wakamba, Kitosh, Lumbwa, Somali population groups
     Ivory Coast:  Malinke, Dioula, Guere, Guro, Baule, Mwan, area
     of Odienne*)
     Mali:  Bambara, Dogon, Mossi, Malinke, Saracole, Songhoi, Peul
     Mauritania:  All population groups
     Niger:  Over 80% of population groups
     Nigeria:  Yoruba, Efik, Shuwa, Ibo, Hausa, most population
     groups except Itsekiri; inhabitants of Cross River State*)
     Senegal:  Malinke (Mandingo/Wangara), Toucouleur, Peul
     (Fulani), Soce (Casama)
     Sierra Leone:  All population groups except Creoles, including
     Temne, Mende, Loko, Limba, Kono, Kuranko, Susu, Fullah,
     Mandingo
     Somalia:  All population groups practice infibulation,
     including Harrar, Afar, Dankil, Galla (Oromo)
     Southern Africa*):  Xhosa, Shangana-Thonga, Betchuanaland*
     Sudan:  Beja, Hadandana, Beni Amir, Kababish, Baggara,
     Danagla, Shaygia, Gaaliyeen, Robatab, Amarar, Fallata,
     Bushairiya, Rashyda, Dongola, Hassanie, Bisharin, Ababde,
     Mensa, Hababa, Bund Burun, Abn Haraz, Musalam Iye, Awlad Kahil
     Hassanie, Singa, Sinnar, and many more; Gezir*) and Khartoum
     provence*), Omdurman area*), Nubia*), Red Sea Coast ports*),
     Wad Medani*), Humor of West Sudan*)
     Tanzania:  Masai, Basembeti-Suba, Bakuria, Komaki, Chaga,
     Pare, Shambala, Gogo, Rangi, Turu, Bena, Hehe, Nilo-Hamitic
     population groups
     Togo:  Not specified
     Uganda:  Sebei
     Upper Volta:  Mossi, 60-70% of female population, according to
     medical sources
     Zaire:  M'Bwake, Banda

*) denotes a geographic area

Infibulation occurs primarily in:

     East Africa:  Throughout Somalia (all girls without
     exception), and all areas inhabited by ethnic Somalis; the
     Sudan--except for the Southern Province; Ethiopia, all along
     the Red Sea Coast, Eritrea; Northern Kenya; Southern Egypt,
     Djibouti.
     West Africa:  Northern Nigeria and throughout Mali.

Excision occurs primarily in:

     East Africa:  Sudan, Ethipoia; Kenya; Northern Tanzania; Part
     of Uganda; Egypt.
     West Africa:  Nigeria, Ghana; Ivory Coast; Sierra Leone;
     Guinea; Senegal; Gambia; Mali; Upper Volta; Mauritania; Togo;
     Benin; Liberia; North Cameroon.
     Central Africa:  Niger; Chad; Central Africa; Northern Zaire.

Hoskens believes this list is incomplete:

Since population groups are not restricted to political boundaries, and many are migratory, these practices are spread into adjoining areas. It must be remembered that there is a very large desert and savannah area, which is very sparsely inhabited from the Sudan westward to Mauritania. This area is crossed by Moslem Pilgrims going from West Africa to Mecca and back.

To establish which population groups subject their female children to genital mutilations, it is necessary to go to maternity stations and hospitals to record the facts directly from midwives and physicians.

It is unknown, at present, how far South and North these operations are practiced and can be established only by field work.

(1978d: 40)

GM is also thought to be practiced today, though not commonly, in Southern Europe, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, New Guinea, Malaysia, India and Pakistan, and more frequently among Muslims in Syria, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Libya, Tunisia and Algiers (Huelsman, 1976; Lennzi, 1970; Head, 1978; Pieters and Lowenfels, 1977).

The actual number of girls undergoing GM is difficult to document. Since these operations generally are not performed within the context of a modern health care system, and may be illegal, few records are kept. It has been estimated that 85% of the women in Guinea (Russell and Van de Ven, 1976), and nearly all the Mende females of Sierra Leone (WIN, 1878, b) are excised. Huelsman (1976) confirms WIN's (1978d) findings that infibulation is universal in Somalia. In 1967 Shandall estimated that 75% of Sudanese women over 20 were infibulated even though the operation had been illegal since 1946 (Huelsman, 1976). And a 1965 study of women attending a family planning clinic in Egypt found that all of them, both Muslim and Christian, had experienced excision (Hansen, 1971/73).

Consequences

Some of those suffering from severe side-effects do enter the health care system and there has been some research in villages on the medical complications of GM. Little is known about the psychological or sexual effects of GM.

Medical Complications. The most frequent complications of GM are hemorrhage, infection, and shock. Grapefruit-sized external scars and large external or internal cysts are not unusual following infibulation. The likelihood and severity of these and other complications depend upon the type of operation and its circumstances, e.g., whether it was performed with a sterilized instrument under antiseptic conditions or with a broken bottle picked up off the ground, or if anesthesia was used.

The first comprehensive study of complications from GM was done by Shandall (Huelsman, 1976). He estimated that complications were six times more frequent with infibulation than circumcision. More recently Modawi (1973) who has analyzed a large sample of the Sudanese private clinic records he has kept since 1955 concluded that complications are decreasing--at least for private clinic patients.

Immediate medical complications include severe pain (which is rarely mentioned in medical reports), hemorrhage, acute anemia, shock (from fear, pain or hemorrhage), retention of urine, injury to adjacent structures, infection (localized, ascending or general), failure of wound to heal, and death. Later complications include vaginal stones, subprabubic cysts, infertility caused by chronic inflammation in the pelvic area, hypertrophic scars, hematocolpos, vesica vaginal fistulas, increasing difficulty in urination, arthritis, menstrual dysfunctions, prolapse of the uterus, obstetrical complications such as infection following retention of the products of spontaneous abortion, damage to mother during delivery, and delayed labor which may result in brain damage if not death for the infant (Pieters and Lowenfels, 1977; Huelsman, 1976: Lenzi, 1970; Hosken, 1976; Cook, n.d.; Modawi, 1973; ChwattBruce, 1976).

Psychological Consequences. In societies that practice GM after infancy, the girls know it will occur, but they know little about it other than ". . . the girl who is not circumcised in unacceptable" (Baasher, 1977: 4). Since there have been no systematic studies of the psychological effects of GM, in fact the question is rarely even raised (Lenzi, 1970), we must rely on casual reports.

Shandall has found psychological trauma associated with GM to be variable and sometimes severe ". . . despite the cultural conditioning which should ideally cause the girl to look forward to the operation" (quoted by Huelsman, 1976: 140). In the case of excision or infibulation, Modawi suspects ". . . the operation may induce a feeling of shyness and inferiority in girls" (1973: 251). Obviously, only a rare case obtains psychiatric care, but among those who have, diagnoses include severe anxiety prior to the operation; depression associated with complications such as hemorrhage, shock, septicemia and retention of urine; chronic irritability, anxiety, depression or "frank psychosis" associated with incapacitating medical complications such as cysts or fistula; and sexual frustration (Baasher, 1977).

Sexual Consequences. Alteration of the sexual responsiveness and capacity of women who have undergone GM depends on the type of operation. Simple circumcisions may increase the sexual pleasure of women although that is not its purpose in Muslim societies (Wollman, 1973). As would be expected and as has been documented, clitoridectomy does not reduce sexual desire but it virtually eliminates the capacity to have an orgasm, which, in turn, may heighten sexual desire and frustration even more (United Nations, 1978; Baasher, 1977; Wolkoff, 1976; Lenzi, 1970; Modawi, 1973; Hanson, 1973). On the other hand the combined psycho-medical complications can ". . . substantially lessen and almost mortify the lust for love making" (Faruki, 1976: 189).

With infibulation the genital area may become so disfigured that vaginal coitus may be impossible. It may occur through a "false vagina" if the penis is able to penetrate the scar tissue, or through the anus or urethra if the vaginal area is impenetrable. Or, the husband in "a blind attempt" to make an opening may use a sharp instrument, causing severe injury (Modawi, 1973: 252). There are also reports of increased drug use by men in an attempt to overcome the frigidity of their clitoridectomized wives. In 1957 the related drug use was considered serious enough in Egypt that the newspaper el Tahrir advocated the outlawing of clitoridectomy as a means of combatting drug taking. The discussion and the move to outlaw clitoridectomy both died away, however (Hansen, 1971/73).

                 Reasons for Genital Mutilation
     Why are these operations performed?  The historical roots of

GM are uncertain, and investigators are hard-pressed to understand why it continues, especially since "none of the reasons set out . . . stand up to critical examination" (Lenzi, 1970: 56). The major justifications can be categorized as religious, initiation, and control of sexuality. Less often reasons are given such as hygiene (clearly infibulation makes personal hygiene very difficult), or esthetics which find the clitoris and labia repulsive. When all else fails "custom" is cited as the ultimate justification. (Information for this section comes primarily from Baasher, 1977; Pieters and Lowenfels, 1977; Wolkoff, 1976; Faruki, 1976; Huelsman, 1976; Lenzi, 1970; Hosken, 1976; Cook, n.d.; Hansen, 1971/73; Head, 1978.)

Religious

Although GM is practiced among Christians, Muslims, and Jews it is most common among Muslims. Among those who practice GM the non-African Muslims (as well as the Christians and Jews) may perform only circumcision on girls for the same reason they do so on boys--they believe Mohammed (or the appropriate religious figure) ordered it. More devout Muslims and African Muslims who practiced GM before conversion perform excision or infibulation, but here the reasons seem to extend beyond the sacrificial symbolism of circumcision to the aspects of the religion which stress chastity and legitimacy. In other words, much of the GM associated with the Muslim religion and labelled as a religious duty, is actually a method of sexual control. Thus, among some Muslims, the smaller the opening of an infibulated girl, the higher the bride price she will bring. (It should be noted that among Muslims who do not practice GM or who perform only circumcision, women are prevented from engaging in pre- or extra-marital sex by strong social controls such as seclusion.)

Initiation Rites

GM is also associated with initiation rites, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. It may be a puberty rite symbolizing the passage from childhood to adulthood, but often it is associated specifically with preparation for marriage and motherhood in which case excision or infibulation are accompanied by instruction in marital duties and homemaking skills. There is some controversy over whether this type of GM should even be called an initiation rite; it is certainly not a puberty rite since it may occur as early as the age of four and appears to be quite common around the age of eight or nine. It may even occur after a girl has been betrothed or married (Hansen, 1971/73; Huelsman, 1976; Hosken, 1976). Generally, excision tends to be associated with coming-ofage rites while infibulation is more often performed prior to puberty.

Describing the tribal life of the Gikuyu in Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (1959), in response to mounting criticism of excision in that society, devotes an entire chapter to the initiation of boys and girls. It remains one of the most complete discussions of clitoridectomy. Like many defenders of GM he states that the girls look forward to that day, and want to undergo initiation. That is easy to understand, for GM is very much a part of the feminine mystique in Kenya and other societies practicing GM. The girls are brought up to look forward to this event; they are told they will have special food, clothes and ornaments and will be the center of village attention. In some tribes they will be excused from household chores for several months. They are not told the details of the operation or the likely complications, and since GM is often billed as a test of courage, girls who have undergone the experience tend to hide the painful aspects from their friends. There is also ample evidence that girls who have learned about the operation do not look forward to GM at all. Nevertheless they endure it because they know no man will have them if they don't, and in Africa (as well as non-African Muslim societies) a woman ". . . who does not get married practically does not exist" (African Women quoted in WIN, 1978c: 27). Or, even more compelling, in societies such as the Nandi of East Africa, uncircumcised females know their children will be strangled (Lenzi, 1970). Thus GM as an initiation rite is also a method of sexual control.

Control of Sexual Behavior

In addition to being a covert reason or latent consequence when GM is performed as a religious duty or initiation ceremony, control of sexual behavior is also a commonly acknowledged reason for GM. Excision is used to attenuate sexual desire, and make women less vulnerable to sexual temptation before or after marriage. Excision os also performed to make women want to get married. According to one myth that is shared by several different ethnic groups in Africa, women have a clitoris so they can enjoy sex before marriage and still remain virgins. But when the clitoris is removed at puberty their sexual desires become concentrated in the vagina, so they get married to satisfy this desire (Hosken, 1976). (Was Freud familiar with African mythology or is the myth of the vaginal orgasm universal?)

Infibulation is used to increase men's sexual pleasure and particularly to ensure that any child born to a woman is the legitimate (blood) child of her husband. Infibulation is commonly used to control a woman's sexual activities, when polygyny is practiced, when the husband must be away from home, or if the women of the society engage in herding or other work that takes them away from home. It is also performed to safeguard virginity and prevent rape. (Actually it does not necessarily prevent rape; the victim just suffers more pain whether or not the attempt is successful.) In Africa GM is also important as a means to firmly establish sexual identity. The clitoris is thought to represent 'maleness' in a female and therefore it must be removed, and the prepuce is thought to represent 'femaleness' in a male and therefore it must be removed.

Female Circumcision in the Modern Setting A Ritual Without a Rite

Although there is a notable absence of systematic studies of attitudes about GM, research reports, and articles appearing in WIN News and other feminist publications suggest that the younger and more educated people are beginning to question and even refuse to participate in GM.

In Baasher's research in Alexandria, Egypt, a non-random sample of 77 women age 18-55 completed a questionnaire. Seventy percent of the respondents had experienced GM, with 60% of these having undergone infibulation. The 11.4% who thought GM should continue were mainly housewives over 30 who had little formal schooling and came from low socio-economic groups. Their reasons for favoring GM were primarily attenuation of sexual desire, hygiene, aesthetics, religious, and cultural conformity (tradition). Those against continuation of GM cited human rights, disfigurement of the "perfect image of women," social complications such as marital disharmony, health problems, and cultural conformity. (It is primitive, barbaric, and incompatible with present-day civilization.) It is interesting that cultural conformity is cited as a reason for both continuing and discontinuing GM.

No surveys of male attitudes toward GM could be found, but there is some evidence that an increasing number of younger, highly educated men want their wives to be able to enjoy sex with them. But the majority of men, along with older women, see no reason not to continue the tradition (Lenzi, 1970). Older women do have a vested interest in the continuance of GM. They can only envision a bad fate for uncircumcised girls who do not get married and have children, and many of them gain status and income by performing the operation.

The degree to which GM has become uncritically bound in custom and the brewing conflict between the generations is illustrated in the following reports. From Mali:

     The practice of infibulation and excision is deeply anchored
     in our society.  Though today the young women and girls are in
     revolt against it, the older people resist any change.  What
     happened in my family shows that.  After I became conscious of
     all the trouble and problems that result from genital
     operations, my husband and I decided that we would not allow
     our children to be either excised or infibulated.  My children
     were born in France where both my husband and I finished our
     studies.  When we returned to Mali, my mother was the first to
     ask if I had the girls excised and infibulated.  I said no and
     that I had no intention of doing so, and was opposed to it. 
     During their vacations, after I had found some work, I left my
     children often with my parents and came to fetch them for the
     weekend.  One day, coming home from work, I passed by their
     house to say hello to the children; but I didn't see them.  So
     I asked my mother:  'Where are they?' 'Oh, they are in their
     bedroom,' she said.  I went to the bedroom.  They were lying
     on the floor on some straw mats.  Their swollen eyes and faces
     took my breath away, and I screamed:  'What has happened to my
     children?'  But before they could even answer, my mother
     replied:  'Don't trouble yourself about my little girls.  I
     had them excised and infibulated this morning.' I cannot say
     what I felt at this moment.  What could I do against my
     mother.  I felt revolt rising in me, but I was helpless
     against her.  My first reaction was to cry.  She said:  'You
     should be very happy.  Everything went very well with the
     girls.'  Rather than being disrespectful, which is very badly
     taken in our environment in Mali, and to tell her what I
     thought of what she did, I quickly left the house.  (Quoted in
     WIN, 1978C: 24.)

From Sudan:

     . . . A visit to a typical family in Khartoum North will serve
     as an example of the controversy now raging over this ancient
     ritual.  Nour, aged 58, a mother of three, bears testimony to
     the horrors of the operation.  A member of the Hadendowa
     tribe, she was circumcised Pharaonic style at the age of
     seven.  The shock and pain of this ritual, which reduces the
     opening of the vagina to the size of a matchstick was repeated
     for Nour each time she gave birth, hanging traditional style,
     hands tied to the ceiling.  Each time she suffered the torture
     of rupturing the tightly sewn area, resewn after each birth
     according to the practice.  Her eldest daughter Fatima is now
     30 years old.  Unlike her mother she was fortunate enough to
     have been circumcised Sunna style with only the clitoris
     removed.  Nor does her face bear the same deep knife cuts as
     her mother's - once considered a sign of beauty in the Sudan
     and still practiced by many.  Nour and Fatima are engaged in
     a bitter conflict over Fatima's 7 year old daughter, Siham. 
     The grandmother believes it is time for her to be circumcised,
     like all good Sudanese girls; Fatima is vehemently opposed to
     the practice.  A university graduate who has travelled
     extensively, Fatima, like her friends, has begun to rebel
     against the sufferings caused to women by these old practices. 
     She considers herself lucky to have escaped with only Sunna
     circumcision but freely admits the problems she has had as a
     result, including lack of sexual satisfaction due to
     insensitivity caused by the mutilation.  She is determined
     that her daughter will not suffer the same fate.  The dialogue
     between Nour and Fatima has become the classic conflict
     between old and new generation Sudanese women.  The men
     tacitly support the practice.  Driven by a fear that unless
     the child is circumcised she will never be able to attract a
     husband, the grandmothers have been known to defy the mothers
     and solve the argument by secretly taking the children to an
     unskilled village midwife for circumcision.  (Quoted in WIN,
     1978b: 45.)

     Thus even though GM has been made illegal in some places, even

though some physicians are speaking out strongly against it, and even though women themselves are beginning to rebel against the practice, the operations continue. Where outlawed they continue in secret, and for those who can afford it they continue under the auspices of modern medicine. Moreover, they continue long after the religious and initiation rituals with which they were once associated and by which they are still justified have ceased to be observed.

Although infibulation has been illegal in the Sudan for over 30 years, the practice is still widespread. The law is not enforced (only two cases have ever been brought to trial and the sentence has been reduced).

A recent survey in Mali where GM is supposed to be an initiation rite for adolescents, has found that 38% of the respondents had their daughters excised before their first birthday. None of the young women respondents, of whom 97% were excised, had taken part in an initiation ceremony or received the education or socialization generally associated with such rites. The author concludes that all rites connected with initiation have been abandoned and most people are unable to identify any positive social value for the operation. Even in the cities of Mali, where all traditional customs have been abandoned, GM continues and is performed in hospitals (WIN, 1978C: 23).

Scarce hospital facilities and medical personnel are also used for GM in other countries. For instance, physicians working in the Hospital of the European Common Market in Mogadishu, Somalia reported in the late 1960s that each Sunday about fifteen infibulations were done on girls 4-8 years old (Hoskens, 1976). When questioned about the continuation of infibulation in Somalia, the country's chief delegate to the 1976 UN Human Settlements Conference confirmed that it continues in the modern sector and that he had his own daughters infibulated. When asked about the use of scare hospital facilities for an illegal operation he stated "it is better that way," and when asked why not abandon the practice instead, he stated "but everybody does it" (Hoskens, 1976: 10). And when a U.S. physician who was advisor to health planning in Somalia was asked his opinion of infibulation he replied it was of no interest or concern to him (Hoskens, 1976). Even physicians who condemn GM often object more to the unsanitary circumstances and complications that excision or infibulation themselves.

According to Kenyata, "No proper Gikuyu would dream of marrying a girl who has not been circumcised, and vice versa." In the matrimonial relation the rite de passage is the deciding factor" (1959: 132). Thus for Kenyata:

     The real argument lies not in defence of the surgical
     operation or its details but in the understanding of a very
     important fact in the tribal psychology of the Gikuyu--namely,
     that this operation is still regarded as the very essence of
     an institution. . . For the present it is impossible for a
     member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without
     clitoridectomy . . . The real anthropological study,
     therefore, is to show that clitoridectomy, like Jewish
     circumcision, is a mere bodily mutilation which, however, is
     regarded as the conditio sine qua non of the whole teaching of
     tribal law, religion, and mortality (1959:133).

He neglects to say that unlike the circumcision of Jews, Muslims, and other boys including the Gikuyu, clitoridectomy robs the female of sexual pleasure and the operation may have much more severe complications such as the scars which make childbirth difficult and which Kenyata only casually mentions.

Writing prior to Kenyata's death Hoskens notes that the colorful initiation rites of the Kiyuku and other ethnic groups which Kenyata (1959) considered to be essential for the continuation of the society,". . . are being greatly simplified and even abandoned." Nevertheless GM continues in ". . . private ceremonies because men insist on it. . . And so the practice is imported into the modern sector and into the towns as well, as marriage is essential for every girl in Kenya and indeed most of Africa. It is the purpose of a woman's life to have children; without children she is nothing at all." (Hosken, 1976: 6).

As suggested earlier, it appears that in Kenya as in other societies, it is GM rather the initiation or religious rites that is essential. Kenyan women are now speaking out on just this point. One writes, "This operation must have been invented by man. His aim being to cut down adultery and keep a woman for breeding and working purposes only. To prove this the Kikuyus in the old days mated only they wanted to have a baby. If the wife got pregnant that was the end of the game until another season" (quoted in WIN, 1978c: 25). And another writing about cultural oppression states:

          There are also aspects of our own cultures which are
     unacceptable to us.  Female circumcision, infibulation, much
     of the Islamic treatment of women, marriage and property and
     inheritance laws are some of them . . . It has become common
     for people, especially men, to excuse injustice to women with
     the phrase "It is African."  There is nothing African about
     injustice, whether it takes the form of mistreated wives and
     mothers, or slums, or unemployment.  And often these very men
     who so proudly condemn women to lives of servitude in the name
     of African culture are wearing three piece pinstriped suits
     and shiny shoes . . . In traditional society, female
     circumcision as practised by most of the Kenyan people was an
     invitation to womanhood, whereby a girl acquired a certain
     status and certain behavior was expected of her.  However, in
     Kenyan society now there are many ways a girl can demonstrate
     her entry into womanhood without having her body and sexuality
     altered.  Education levels are indications of a girl's
     maturity and surely a secondary school certificate or a
     university degree or a professional qualification is more
     relevant to our way of life than an intimate scar (quoted in
     WIN, 1978b: 44).

Scientific GM

Although opponents of GM refer to this practice as "uncivilized," "primitive," and "barbaric," it should not be assumed that GM is not practiced in "civilized" societies. Clitoridectomy was practiced in the United States and Europe well into this century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century clitoridectomy had become prevalent and by the height of Victorian prudery, "A kind of occupational folklore about the clitoris and benefits of declitorization developed within the medical profession" (Huelsman, 1976:129). It was most commonly used to cure or prevent nymphomania (diagnosed from just about any sign of sexual desire or pleasure in a woman) and masturbation (Lowry, 1976; Fleming, 1960; Lyndon, 1968; Huelsman, 1976; Bullough and Bullough, 1977). it is especially interesting that, according to Huelsman, ". . . no people outside Western civilization has ever employed excision of the clitoris as a supposed cure for female masturbation" (1976: 130). The practice declined by the early twentieth century in part because of a reaction to its ". . . wholesale application . . . to almost every kind of female pathology," and partly because of the liberalization of Victorian morality (Huelsman, 1976: 129). But as late as 1936 Holt's Diseases of Infancy and Childhood recommended circumcision for boys and cauterization (circimbustion) or removal of the clitoris for girls as cures for masturbation (Bullough and Bullough, 1977).

The most ardent practioner of clitoridectomy was Isaac BakerBrown, who was expelled from the Royal College of Surgeons not so much because of his uncritical advocacy and performance of the operation as because of his colleagues chagrin and envy of his fame (Fleming, 1960). (One of the main criticisms of Baker-Brown was that he did not consult husbands before examining and operating on their wives (Nichol, 1969). Even a recent article about his downfall notes in Baker-Brown's defense that he ". . . never operated on a female who was under the age of 10 years" (Nichol, 1969). A few of Baker-Brown's critics, however, wondered why, if the underlying theory were sound, analogous treatment was not given to males with similar symptoms. This is the same question that prompted the writing of this paper: Why isn't equal treatment given to males and females in all religious rites, initiation rites, and attempts to control autoeroticism?

Traditional male circumcision without anesthesia is also very painful and it may be followed by infection. But the initial and subsequent pain and complications do not compare with those associated with excision or infibulation. Sometimes the male initiation rites involve further mutilation of the penis, or when it is a test of courage the ceremony may be quite brutal (Gottesfeld, 1959). Drastic measures have even been taken to control male masturbation such as a device patented in the U.S. which had ". . . rings with spikes through them which pierced the penis if it became erect" (Bullough and Bullough, 1977: 67). But male counterparts to excision or infibulation have been rare exceptions to the rule, and certainly never a widespread tradition or procedure strongly advocated by modern medicine. (Except in societies that employed eunuchs as harem attenders, or, before vasectomy, when castration was used for eugenic purposes to prevent reproduction rather than intercourse itself. Castration has also been used as a severe form of punishment in many societies.)

                      Sexual Politics of GM
     Noting that the practice of clitoridectomy in Europe coincided

with European explorers' discovery of GM in Africa, Heulsman (1976) concludes there was no causal connection between the two events. Although these events may have different roots (and that is uncertain since, historically, GM has been practiced on every continent), I would contend they are done for the same reason: sexual politics, the control of females in order to control fertility.

Elsewhere (Moen, 1977; forthcoming), I have developed the argument that fertility rates are so important to every level of human social organization, from the global to the family, and the power inherent in control over fertility is so great that societies must dominate women. When only the aggregate birth rate is of importance, then individual women have more flexibility in their reproductive behavior. But in a highly patriarchal society, where maintenance of the blood line and/or property through legitimate children is extremely important, than it is necessary to control the sexual and reproductive behavior of each woman. The prevention of illegitimacy may be limited to controlling fertility within marriage, as when infibulation follows marriage, but it may be accomplished more successfully by demanding virginity prior to marriage and, to be even more effective, reducing the capacity for and preventing the knowledge of sexual pleasure through early excision or infibulation. Regardless of how much sexual freedom is allowed before marriage, reproduction must occur and may occur only within marriage. In a sense religious and initiation ceremonies involving GM are a pretense--they are not ends in themselves but the means to ensure that all girls marry and that all children are "legitimate."

In Muslim societies ". . . the function of modesty . . . is essentially to guarantee blood paternity . . . The illegitimacy that is feared is not merely legal illegitimacy but ritual illegitimacy as conveyed in the blood (Antoun, 1968: 689). Thus, even though the Koran appears to permit only simple circumcision, "It is probably no accident that the most drastic and painful types of female genital surgery have been adopted and preserved in a region with such culture traits as great social isolation between the sexes, heavy emphasis on the dominant male role . . . and a downgrading of the sexual pleasure women may be expected to enjoy in coitus" (Huelsman, 1976: 159).

It also appears that in some sub-saharan societies where chastity is not so essential but where children are a source of status and wealth, excision is also performed to ensure reproduction (Longo, 1964). Sexual pleasure may be allowed before marriage (and excision) but by using the device of the initiation ceremony no woman is allowed to escape marriage and reproduction without severe social sanctions. (Ironically, it has been estimated that as much as 25% of the infertility in areas practicing excision and infibulation is due to complications from the operations themselves (Hoskens, 1976; Lenzi, 1970).)

Seen in this context it is easier to understand why GM continues against the law and even totally divorced from the religious and initiation ceremonies it used to accompany, why international agencies have been indifferent to GM, and why parts of the medical profession have ensured its continuance. It is also easier to understand why "scientific" clitoridectomy could become so wide-spread in the United States and Europe during the Victorian era--a time characterized by strong patriarchy--and the ". . . need to repress sexuality for the success of the Western industrialized society" (Lydon, 1969: 62).

In contrast, one rare form of GM I have not mentioned is introcision or vaginal enlargement. This practice occurs among aboriginal Australians in order to facilitate the first experience of sexual intercourse (Head, 1978; Cook, n.d.; Huelsman, 1976). These societies are much less patriarchal than those practicing excision or infibulation because legitimacy is not important. Premarital sex is encouraged among girls (it may even occur in initiation rites and involve several men) and although "The principal interest of aboriginal women is marriage, . . . at the same time extramarital relations are the norm and are expected and enjoyed as additional spice to married life" (Huelsman, 1976: 151). No doubt aboriginal societies have ways of ensuring reproduction (e.g., the importance of marriage) but, since legitimacy of offspring is not paramount, it is not at the expense of the womens' health, or sexual pleasure. These women are not their husbands' property. I am not trying to justify introcision, it too is painful and has complications, I am suggesting that the form ritual GM takes is related to the status of women in the society, which in turn, is related to how strict a control over reproduction is desired.

In a letter to UN officers Hosken comments that ". . . if anyone in Africa would suggest cutting off the tip of the nose or the finger of a child as a sign of reaching maturity there would be an outcry all over the world about such ignorant barbarity" (reprinted by WIN, 1978a: 49). Although her conclusion that world disinterest in GM ". . . is the ultimate racist and sexist discrimination" (1976: 11) may be true, it does not get to the heart of the matter. Silent consent to GM is given because every society must control reproduction and every patriarchal society does so by controlling its women. It is doubtful that the practice of GM will end soon without international intervention, because the societies involved will not willingly abandon it until other means of ensuring reproduction and blood legitimacy are found or until these factors are no longer important. Thus it might be predicted from recent experience in other developing societies that Muslim and non-Muslim African women will be subjected to seclusion rather than infibulation when the society can afford to deny them their important roles as farmers and traders (Boserup, 1970; Boulding, 1976, 1977).

But the international outcry should not just be directed toward developing nations or the practice of GM. As shown elsewhere (e.g., Moen, forthcoming; Russell and Van de Ven, 1976) the sexuality and fertility of women everywhere are controlled by more "civilized" but no less brutal means that cause physical damage (e.g., forced sterilization, hormone therapy) and psychological damage (e.g., forced incarceration of sexually "promiscuous" females). The recognition that all of these practices are linked via sexual politics may encourage women everywhere to join in a common battle for self-determination.


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