In the final article of FGM Awareness Week, Saskia Bamber explores the socio-cultural reasons behind FGM
FGM is a practice that results in the removal of the outer female genitalia, which is estimated to have affected up to 140 million women worldwide. Also known as female circumcision, it is done on girls from as young as three or four (and in very rare cases babies) up till around puberty in many countries in Africa (particularly in Egypt and Somalia where 91 per cent and 98 per cent of woman have undergone some form of FGM respectively), and certain parts of the Middle East and Asia. However, there are an increasing number of girls and women in the UK whose families take them abroad to have FGM or pay for someone to come to the UK and cut their girls. Both taking girls abroad to have FGM and having it done in the UK are illegal, however up to 60,000 girls in the UK are at risk of being subjected to it.
It said to make a girl ‘clean’ and that it calms them, decreasing the likelihood of them engaging in pre-marital sex. In essence, it has the purpose of controlling female sexuality as it is thought to preserve virginity prior to marriage. Additionally, it is a prerequisite for marriage in many societies, being seen as a sign of female virtue and chastity.
Indeed, one of the most pervasive myths about FGM is that it is a religious requirement. This is a totally false belief, as FGM actually predates Islam and Christianity (the religions that dominate the areas where it is practiced). It is in fact a cultural tradition that dates back thousands of years. There is even evidence of FGM having been done on mummies from Ancient Egypt, which is perhaps why infibulation (FGM type three – where the clitoris and labia are removed and the vaginal opening is sewn up leaving a tiny hole for urination and menstruation) is also known as ‘Pharonic circumcision’. The assumption by many Muslims that it is a requirement of Islam is thus one of the biggest myths about FGM; there is in fact nothing in the Qur’an that demands that women are circumcised or the in various Hadiths. Moreover, Islam demands that its followers do not harm their bodies in any way, adding weight to the argument that FGM is very much an un-Islamic practice.
Ideas about religion inevitably get bound up with socio-cultural reasons regarding FGM. These include the belief that if the clitoris is not removed then it will grow to the size of a penis. Furthermore, FGM is believed to increase female fertility and reduce infant and maternal mortality, only perpetuating the idea that cutting girls is ultimately beneficial. In fact the opposite is true, as one of the long-term side effects of FGM is infertility and complications during pregnancy and childbirth. There is a definite connection between the rate of maternal mortality and FGM, as mothers who have had FGM are up to 70 per cent more likely to suffer from haemorrhage and other complications during childbirth.
Rites and initiation into womanhood are another purpose of FGM, although this reason is more common among cultures that undertake the practice later, during puberty. There are many groups that actively support and encourage FGM, saying that women have the right to undergo FGM if they choose, as a way of connecting with their traditions and community. Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu, is an example of someone who is a proponent of FGM. Critically, she chose to have her clitoris cut off as an adult with other Kono women and went to Sierra Leone especially to have it done. In her opinion FGM is not harmful if it is a personal choice, and she criticises her ‘feminist sisters [who] insist on denying us this critical aspect of becoming a woman in accordance with our unique and powerful cultural heritage.’
Ahmadu argues that the effects of FGM on female sexuality are not necessarily negative and that it is a widely misunderstood practice of great cultural importance. However, her arguments do not take into account the huge psychological impact that FGM can have at any age, sometimes years later. Moreover, FGM remains a dangerous and harmful procedure that has all kinds of risks associated with it. It is usually done in unsanitary conditions by a cutter who will have no medical training, increasing the risk of infection and the transmission of diseases such as HIV and tetanus; the same long term consequences still effect those who choose FGM, such as severe scarring, recurrent urinary tract infections, infertility and a whole host of other reproductive problems.
There is an additional issue with the extent to which someone choosing to undergo FGM can make an autonomous decision, when many women are often put under huge amounts of pressure from their families and communities to have it done. The connection between the commoditisation of women and controlling their sexuality is almost always bound up with FGM. However much it may be presented as a female led, independent practice it has far more sinister and insidious purposes.
Fortunately there are many charities and organisations that are working tirelessly to prevent FGM and to educate people on the dangers to women and girls that it perpetuates. I have left a few examples below should you wish to donate to them or find out more about FGM.
Illustration by Leyla Reynolds