Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation
My Journey in the Process
I can still remember that day like it was yesterday. The day my life gained a purpose. It was a hot Lebanese summer afternoon, and I was sitting near this young man whom I idolized on the school bus on our way home. Out of the blue, he looked at me and said, "I have a book for you that I know you would want to read. My father doesn't know that I have it. Would you like to read it?" Without giving it any thought, I answered in the positive, and he took the book "La Parole aux Negresses" (Speak out Black Sisters: Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa) out of his pocket and handed it to me.
I was fourteen years old at the time. My entire body of knowledge regarding sexuality consisted of one out-of-class seminar that I attended at my Jesuit school where they told us the true meaning of the "Apple of Knowledge of Good and Evil".
I went home that night, and after dinner, I hid in my room and started reading. Being the introvert and avid reader that I was, my mom did not think this was an unusual occurrence. It was four a.m. by the time I finished reading. I remember lying on my bed sobbing because, in those four hours I spent reading, my entire world had shattered, and my mind was struggling to comprehend something that was outside of the realm of its experience.
"Speak Out Black Sisters" was one of the first books written about the issue of female genital cutting in Africa and the Middle East. The book was a collection of autobiographical reports about women and girls who had undergone this practice. Girls my age at the time who were reporting the horrors of their experiences. Interspersed with those stories were reports and discussions about the nature of these rituals, and some of these reasons why girls are forced to undergo them. As I now leaf through this book, I notice that other topics that were covered through that book were institutionalized polygamy, sexual initiation, and skin whitening. However, for a reason unknown to me, the only one that stayed with me was the female circumcision issue.
Female circumcision is a euphemism for a range of practices that involve cutting of parts of the female genitalia. They range from Type I to Type IV, and vary from removing the tip of the clitoris, to ablating all of the external genitalia, the entirety of the clitoris, and sewing the vagina shut except for a small opening for the passing of urine and menstrual blood.The cutting is usually done by anything sharp like scissors, knives, glass and stones, and without the use of anesthesia. As for the sewing, often thorns are used for stitching, cowguts, or thread. These procedures are mostly done by midwives whose sole income and livelihood come from performing circumcisions.
What I thought while reading "Speak Out Black Sisters" was that girls my age were undergoing this practice on a routine basis, and in countries like Egypt, almost all the girls by the time they reached my age were already "sewn" shut. Egypt is considered one of the sister countries of Lebanon. Most of the popular media in Lebanon at the time was imported from Egypt, and I felt like the assault on girls there, was like an assault on girls in my country.
The following day I returned the book to my friend, and pledged that I would spend my entire life dedicated to eradicating this horrific practice. Although I not in any danger of having to undergo it since Lebanon is not a practicing country, the mere thought of it moved me so deeply that to not do anything was a horrifying thought.
There are many justifications put forward to rationalize female circumcision. Those range anywhere from "it looks better that way" to "if a girl is not circumcised, then she is not marriageable" to "if we don't cut the clitoris off, it will dangle between her legs and become like a penis". Perhaps the most important reason for the continuance of female circumcision is that it is an initiation rite. In many cultures, FGC/FC marks the passage from childhood to womanhood. The cutting is indeed part of a larger ceremony where the girl and her family and community celebrate, give her gifts, and accept her new status as a woman. These types of rituals are some of the ways in which communities are kept together, and experience bonding as an extended family.
In no way, however, am I attempting to condone these practices. This is simply an explanation of the reasons why such practices take place. Female circumcision is far from being the only physical manifestation of cultural norms and traditions. Ritual scarring, piercing, branding, tattooing and various means of adornment are all ways in which we feel as part of a community, and are able to identify with others.
As I continue to struggle to understand this practice, I often wonder why I don't feel as passionately about other types of practices that involve physical alterations as I do with female circumcision. Perhaps it is because the girls are often so young and helpless when they undergo these types of practices. Perhaps, I can understand some of the pressures that their societies impose on them at that age, having heard stories of my mother having been married off at the age of 13 to a man 15 years her senior. Perhaps, too, because female circumcision obliterates the most intimate part of a woman's sexuality, denying her any sexual pleasures in her life. Female cutting, especially the most drastic forms, are permanent, and cause lifetime complications.
In the US, we have our own practices that involve body alteration. 250,000 last year, for example, chose to go under the knife for breast augmentation. This constitutes the second largest type of cosmetic surgery, right after liposuction. The total number of surgical (liposuction, Breast Augmentation, Eyelid Surgery, Rhinoplasty, Breast Reduction) and non-cosmetic surgeries (Botox Injections, Microdermabrasion, Collagen Injections, Laser Hair Removal, Chemical Peel) last year totaled 6.9 million (2002, http://www.cosmeticplasticsurgerystatistics.com/statistics.html). Additionally, the trend of body modification of tattooing, scarification, and the various types of body piercing, including labial piercing, stretching, and in many cases, clitoridectomy (removal of clitoris) or infibulation (removal of labias, and sewing the vagina shut) has been made popular by the "modern primitive" movement of the last thirty years. These are all practices that are affected by various cultural definitions of beauty and attractiveness.
The women who choose to have their clitoral hood pierced make an informed decision about what they would like done to their own bodies. In the cases of circumcision, this is not even an option. It is a cultural edict that must be respected and followed, and any deviation results in severe ramifications.
Some people believe that FGC is a barbaric practice done to girls and women in some remote villages in foreign countries of the world. However, up until a few decades ago, it was still believed that the clitoris is a very dangerous part of the female anatomy. Who can forget Sigmund Freud who stated in one of his books entitled Sexuality and the Psychology of Love that the "elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity?"
As recently as 1979, the "Love Surgery" was performed on women in the United States. Dr. James E. Burt, the so-called Love Surgeon, introduced "clitoral relocation" (i.e. sunna circumcision) to the medical establishment. He believed and acted upon the idea that excision does not prevent sexual pleasure but enhances it. Dr. Burt practiced in Ohio for almost ten years before he was exposed after which he gave up his license.
Because of the large number of cases of FGC and some of the deaths it has caused, FGC is now outlawed in some European countries (Britain, France, Sweden, and Switzerland) and some African countries (Egypt, Kenya, Senegal). In the United States, FGC was made illegal in 1995.
The theory of cultural relativism tells us that no one culture is superior to another, and that all cultural practices must be evaluated within the context of the practicing culture. Therefore, before passing any judgments about others' practices, we must step back and make a concerted effort to understand the role that a ritual has in a particular culture, and the reason it exists, and realize that we cannot recommend its removal without replacing it with something else.
Alternative rituals are currently being implemented in countries like Ghana and Kenya, that do not include any bloodletting. A girl will still undergoes the celebrations and the rituals that usually accompany the circumcision ritual , however, the procedure itself is either replaced with a small pricking elsewhere on the body to let out a small drop of water, or bloodletting is completely done away with.
As for me, I have kept true to the promise myself that I made seventeen years ago to dedicate my life to working for the eradication of this practice. I have since spoken at international academic and medical conferences, trained pre-med students, given lectures to anthropology courses, women's studies courses, cultural studies courses, and religious studies courses. I am also writing a training manual for health care professionals for care of women who have been affected by FGC. I have also written many articles on the issue, and have been running the FGC Education and Networking Project website since 1995.
My current project involves working with the refugee relocation group in Tampa, Florida to help in the resettlement of the Somali Bantus. The Bantus are a tribe from Somalia, Mozambique and Malawi who have been persecuted, and have been living in refugee camps in Somalia and Kenya since the mid-1990s. They were given refugee status by the United States, and will be arriving in groups starting the Fall of 2003. They are a FGC practicing tribe. The Somali Bantus practice FGC, although the exact rates are currently unknown. Some of the issues that we are having to deal with in issues of resettlement, is that although the United States has given guaranteed and blanket resettlement privileges to the Bantus, some are being turned away because they had recently performed circumcision on their daughters. This presents an interesting dilemma to the United States that has proclaimed that anyone who practices FGC or is related to someone who practices it after the announcement of relocation was made, cannot be allowed to enter the United States. On the other hand, as women are left there, they are subjected to rapes, violence and poverty from living in the refugee camps. My role with the refugee relocation group is to train health care workers in Tampa how to care for women who have undergone these practices, and to establish a network of professionals who will be able to provide culturally sensitive services to women who have been affected.
As such, I continue my role of education and prevention as much as I can. I will probably never seen the eradication of FGC in my lifetime, however, if I know that I have been a part a movement that have set in motion its eradication, I will be very satisfied.