Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Cutting Tradition - Female genital mutilation

Photographer Stephanie Sinclair visits a ceremony for young Muslim girls in Bandung, Indonesia. Female genital cutting — commonly identified among international human rights groups as female genital mutilation — has been outlawed in 15 African countries. Many industrialized countries also have similar laws. Both France and the U.S. have prosecuted immigrant residents for performing female circumcisions.

The procedure takes several minutes. There is little blood involved. Afterward, the girl’s genital area is swabbed with the antiseptic Betadine. She is then helped back into her underwear and returned to a waiting area, where she’s given a small, celebratory gift — some fruit or a donated piece of clothing — and offered a cup of milk for refreshment. She has now joined a quiet majority in Indonesia, where, according to a 2003 study by the Population Council, an international research group, 96 percent of families surveyed reported that their daughters had undergone some form of circumcision by the time they reached 14.

Female circumcision in Indonesia is reported to be less extreme than the kind practiced in other parts of the globe — Africa, particularly. Worldwide, female genital cutting affects up to 140 million women and girls in varying degrees of severity, according to estimates from the World Health Organization.

The most common form of female genital cutting, representing about 80 percent of cases around the world, includes the excision of the clitoris and the labia minora. A more extreme version of the practice, known as Pharaonic circumcision or infibulation, accounts for 15 percent of cases globally and involves the removal of all external genitalia and a stitching up of the vaginal opening.


Kirsten said...

This enigmatic custom first captured my attention in my adolescent years when I read the biography of supermodel from Somali named Waris Dirie. Dirie had undergone the procedure while living as a young girl in a nomadic tribe. She described the horror of the procedure that left her incapable of finding any pleasure in sexual intercourse and with a vaginal hole “the diameter of a matchstick.” In fact, Dirie described sex as torturous – an excruciating experience that left her writhing in torment. All of this, she said, to prepare her for marriage.

In each country, proponents shroud the practice in varying levels of mystique – they claim it prevents homosexual behavior, or that it encourages chastity, or that it counteracts the natural uncleanness that is being a woman. As the article states, no medical benefits exist; it should not be equated with male circumcision, which comes with benefits such as decreased transmission of some venereal diseases, urinary tract infections, and inflammation of the glands. But FGM is not a practice that can be combated by rationale or medical insights. As the cliché is coined, one can only fight fire with fire. And as it is a practice steeped in tradition and an aura of spiritual sanctity, it can only be fought through means of religious persuasion. As outlined by an earlier Times article, an appropriate approach entails introducing the practitioners to imams or similar spiritual leaders who will denounce female circumcision and point out that cutting any part of the body -- God’s temple -- is a sin. (

Kirsten said...

I should clarify that male circumcision comes with benefits of decreased urinary tract infections and decreased inflammation of the glands.

MGerber said...

Recently OU sponsored a cinématique at Athena Grand for the showing of the movie Moolaadé. The film serves as an international social commentary about female circumcision in Africa. While profound, the film focuses solely on one small village, and does not discuss how this practice is so widespread.

I strongly recommend this YouTube video of an Egyptian talk show. It highlights how widespread and accepted the practice of female circumcision has become.

Karen said...

“Female genital operations” to some, “female genital mutilation” to others, is a controversial cultural practice. A few estimates peg that more than 100 million women have undergone some sort of female genital operation. It is becoming more prevalent in areas outside of North African and sub-Saharan African countries due to immigrants moving around the globe. Some African countries have taken steps to outlaw the practice--it was officially banned in Kenya in 1982.

Christine J. Walley, an anthropologist that has studied female genital operations in Africa, was told that a woman’s “ability to withstand the ordeal confers adulthood, that allows one to marry and have children, and that binds one to one’s age-mates.” Anthropologists have observed that women in these societies are not viewed as victims (how they are viewed in Western countries), but as willing participants. It is often referred to as “our custom” by those that practice the tradition.
The American Anthropological Association’s Statement on Human Rights to the United Nations says, “It must also take into full account the individual as a member of the social group of which he is a part, whose sanctioned modes of life shape his behavior, and with whose fate his own is thus inextricably bound.“

The long-term fate of women rests on who has the operation and who does not. Some cultures believe that by the women having the operation, it will save children to be borne by these women in the future. Others think that the women are deemed worthy of marrying because they have the operation. Some think the women are more pure, because the operation removes sexual desires.

Some westerners feel that excision is a form of male dominance, and the operations should be stopped. Stopping the operations may save some women from experiencing and living through the horrible pain, only to be deemed as outcasts by society. Like the AAA said, “It must also take into full account the individual as a member of the social group.” Cultural relativism is key when discussing international issues.

Annah said...

I was drawn to this story in the Times Magazine by the pictures. They shocked me. But they worked in grabbing my attention and making me read the story. The question I am left with is this: what if the young girl’s father, or brother, or distant cousin saw that their partially naked little girl exposed to the eyes of the “Western” world? I wonder how much this was considered by the journalists. Even if they were given permission, was the family clearly told how these pictures would be used and who would see them? To speak to Karen’s point of cultural consciousness, I think foreign correspondents face the every day challenge of knowing what risks are worth the story. I could be totally wrong in my instinct; perhaps this family would be proud to be shown to the world as faithful followers of a religious and traditional practice. I just hope it isn’t the reverse. As much as I try to put this story in cultural context and perspective, I can find only zero tolerance within myself for this practice. Even with certain “terrorist” acts I am able to discover sympathy and understanding based on the various factors. So I am glad this story is being told. However, I hope it reaches the surrounding communities in Indonesia so that if it should change, it is a change from within.

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