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Female genital operations: culture and health from a feminist perspective

November 6, 2009

Female genital mutilation or torture: whichever way you say it, it sounds like something horrible. In the late 1970s, the name female genital mutilation (FGM) was adapted by organizations such as the United Nations (UN), World Health Organization (WHO), and Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children. But many people have claimed that these names continue to reinforce the stigma of female circumcision. Therefore, some organizations have substituted “mutilation” with “cutting.” But those who continue to use FGM as regular terminology claim that because it is a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights, it promotes advocacy towards it abandonment. However, some see problems with this; for example, in an Innocenti Digest from UNICEF entitled “Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting,” many want to steer away from “mutilation” for the stigma that it creates:

Local languages generally use the less judgmental “cutting” to describe the practice; parents understandably resent the suggestion that they are “mutilating” their daughters. In this spirit, in 1999, the UN Special Rapporteur on Traditional Practices called for tact and patience regarding activities in this area and drew attention to the risk of “demonizing” certain cultures, religions, and communities. As a result, the term “cutting” has increasingly come to be used to avoid alienating communities.

As mentioned in the intro to the GAB’s Circumcision Series, female circumcision is referred to in many terms: female genital mutilation, female genital torture, female circumcision, and female genital operations. I choose to refer to the procedure as “female genital operation” (a term which Christine J. Walley uses in her article “Searching for ‘Voices’: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations” from Cultural Anthropology  (this can be found on JSTOR)) or “female circumcision” because of their neutral charge.

According to statistics, about 100 to 140 million girls are living with the consequences of this female circumcision. Female genital operations seem like a strange and unknown operation to myself and my culture; in many cultures female genital operations are tradition. So, in addressing this heated issue, I want to look the important aspects of this procedure as a feminist looking from the outside of these cultures: hoping to understand cultural beliefs, while at the same time exploring health and ethics issues.

Cultural Background

Many different cultures, from Africa and Asia, promote female circumcision. The origins of female genital operations are unknown–the procedure is predicted to go back to the fifth century B.C. In ancient Egypt, female Egyptian mummies were circumcised for distinction. In Victorian England, it was used on women to treat psychological disorders and prevent women from masturbating (see Cindy M. Little’s article “Female genital circumcision: medical and cultural considerations” from the Journal of Cultural Diversity”).

Interestingly enough, the procedure is most often performed, controlled, and upheld by women, not only to protect their daughter’s virginity but also their family’s reputation. Many women who perform circumcision in parts of Africa gain respect in their communities (Abusharaf’s “Virtuous Cuts: Female Genital Circumcision in an African Ontology” from a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies). I was utterly surprised to read this cultural implication of female circumcision: “the belief that female genitalia, in its natural state, is ugly and the clitoris, revolting. Women believe that if the clitoris is not removed, it will continue to grow and eventually ‘dangle’ between a woman’s legs. Some women believe that the clitoris will grow longer as the woman ages and that a woman with a big clitoris is just like a man” (Cindy M. Little). These are only a few reasons why cultures and societies perform female genital operations.

Though banned by many countries where it is still prevalent, it was used during colonial rule to claim the country’s independence. For instance, in Kenya in the 1920s and 1930s, missionaries did not allow their Christianised adherents to practice clitoridectomy (a type of female genital operation). In response, this procedure became vital to the ethnic independence movement among the Kikuyu, the most populous ethnic group of Kenya at the time; in other words, indigenous people reacted against what they perceived as cultural imperialistic attacks by Europeans. Additionally, when the British outlawed this procedure in the 1950s in Kenya, tribes continually performed clitoridectomies  to strengthen their resistance to British colonial rule and increased support for the Mau Mau guerrilla movement.

I find it difficult to judge any cultural or religious practice that I am not accustomed to. However, that does not mean that I’m using cultural relativism to excuse female genital operations. More than what the procedure symbolizes (purity, virginity for the men that they will marry), the health implications are what concerns me the most.


There are four types of female genital operations. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes each of them as:

  1. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, rarely, the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris) as well.
  2. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
  3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, and sometimes outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
  4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

Unlike male circumcision, female circumcision has no health benefits. In fact, the procedure can have serious health consequences that can last for a life time. According to WHO, these consequences include:

  • recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections;
  • cysts;
  • infertility;
  • the need for later surgeries. For example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening (type 3 above) is surgically changed to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth, and sometimes stitched close again afterwards;
  • an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths.

Because of the above health risks and implications of female genital circumcision, I can see why many groups have declared the procedure as no-tolerance. The United Nations has designated February 6 as “International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation.”

Ethics, or Conclusion

I was hoping that once I got to the conclusion I would think of a fancy answer to why or why not female genital circumcision should not continue. But it’s not that straightforward. I find it interesting that women are the catalysts of this procedure on their daughters and family members despite the long-term health risks involve. It is difficult, however, to judge something this is performed for a variety of different reasons (read here and here, for example). Cultural implications aside, though, in my opinion, the procedure should not be performed. It is too dangerous and there are too many health risks to continue this practice.

What are you thoughts about female circumcision?

This article is apart of GAB’s Circumcision Series.

  1. November 6, 2009 4:40 pm

    Actually, male circumcision offers little to no health benefit as well. This is not meant to trivialize or demean the fact that these women and girls go through a horrifying procedure for the sake of being perceived as pure (and being robbed of sexual pleasure), but male circumcision is to the detriment of glans sensitivity and ultimately provides no real benefit that showering once a day doesn’t. Moreover, it’s a religious operation, and it makes me uncomfortable that the “standard” way for a penis to look.

    I guess I’m unilaterally against cutting up a child’s genitals unless there’s a VERY good medical reason . . . and no, being interesexed isn’t a good reason either.

    • Kripa permalink
      November 6, 2009 5:30 pm

      I’m no advocate of male circumcision either and you’re right about there not being any health benefits to circumcising baby boys (and I think WHO retracted its statement about the health benefits too), but let’s just remember that male circumcision and female “circumcision” are nowhere on the same field. Female “circumcision” is really more akin to cutting off the penis (if the penis didn’t have reproductive function, that is).
      And that’s another thing I take issue with – mutilation might be bad because it creates stigma, I agree. But “circumcision” makes it seem like it’s just like circumcising a boy, and that’s just not true.

  2. Joseph Peterson permalink
    November 7, 2009 8:44 am

    I think this was a good overview of the subject Emily. I am impressed that you uncovered it’s true nature, rather than what is popularly believed. Facts such as it is perpetuated by the societies women, much like male circumcision. That people in those societies embrace it as a cherished cultural right, much like male circumcision. That myths about the female genitalia help perpetuate the practice, much like male circumcision. The similarities between the two are much closer than we in the US want to admit.

    Perhaps you’re aware of the work of Hanny Lightfoot-Klein

    Not all women who’ve had it done disapprove:

    Some additional reading on the subject:

    • Joseph Peterson permalink
      November 7, 2009 9:09 am

      ETA: when I say perpetuated by women, much like male circumcision, I mean the latter is perpetuated by men who’ve had it done much like FGC is perpetuated by women in the society who’ve had it done.

  3. November 23, 2009 3:39 pm

    This is a complicated issue. Ultimately, it’s not ours to decide whether or not this practice continues. We should not, however, shy away from condemning it if it violates our values any more than we should shy away from condemning spousal abuse, honor killings or anything else if it violates our values. We shouldn’t impose them, but there’s nothing wrong with expressing them.

    As far as the practice itself is concerned, it bothers me that the decision is being made for these girls before they are old enough to make the decision themselves (I don’t even like the idea of piercing baby girls’ ears), but a distinction should be made between types II-IV (Clitoridectomy or worse) which are inherently damaging to girls, affecting the physical side of sexual arousal in the best case scenario, and type I circumcision (ranging from a token prick of the clitoral hood to the removal or partial removal of the clitoral hood), which may be completely harmless IF performed by a professional in a clinical setting (it may even enhance arousal for some women)

    I wrote a news article on this subject several years ago, and I feel compelled to link to it, though it’s not perfect (I neglected the points I make here).


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