‘FGM Is About Control of Female Sexuality, But Some Girls Seek It’

By William J. Furney

It’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, yet the barbaric and sometimes fatal ritual is still being performed on around 3 million girls around the world each year. Dr Mary Nyangweso, professor of Religious Studies at East Carolina University and the author of two books on FGM (Female Circumcision: The Interplay between Religion, Gender and Culture in Kenya and Female Genital Cutting in Industrialized Countries: Mutilation or Cultural Tradition?), discussed the issue with Furney Times and looked at what can be done to end the practice.

Education is Key in FGM Fight: Dr. Mary Nyangweso.

Is FGM primarily an African problem — and also a Muslim issue?

 Not really. While the practice is common in some African countries, it’s erroneous to assume that it is a primarily African problem. The practice is found in Middle Eastern countries, such as Arabia, Iraq, and also in some Asian countries. Before Islam, the practice was known in Arabia and was even referenced by Prophet Muhammad in his conversations with women experts who performed this procedure. There are African countries that do not engage in this practice at all and the percentage of those who practice varies  from country to country. 

The UN says around three million girls undergo FGM every year. Are there fatalities associated with having it done, through infection or something else? And where are most cases of FGM performed, do you know — in doctors’ clinics or some kind of homemade procedure?

 Yes, female genital mutilation has led to some fatalities. While it’s not the most dangerous cultural practice, incidences of fatalities tend to result from hemorrhage during the procedures, infections, and complications that result during childbirth, due to having been exposed to FGM. In Egypt, just days ago, a 12-year-old died after bleeding to death following an FGM procedure.. Many cases such as this abound in many communities that embrace this practice.  

FGM is commonly performed as a cultural practice in various ritual designed environments. With modern changes, some parents have opted to taking their children to private clinics for the procedure. This table illustraties where this practice is mostly found:

 What’s the average age that girls are cut? The WHO says it’s before they’re 15 — but is it much younger than that?

In Africa, where the practice is performed as a ritual for initiating girls into adulthood, the practice was generally performed at puberty age –12-18. Due to changes in various countries where FGM is banned, some parents have had to perform the procedure as early as when the girls were infants — 2 years old — in order to evade the law. 

As FGM is such a cultural practice, do you think that in some way, women expect to have it done and might even be happy that they’ve had it — as a sort of rite of passage?

Yes. The fact that it is a cultural practice in some communities that are associated with identity, marriageability and general respect in their communities, some girls have sought FGM in spite of knowledge about health and other consequences of the procedure. 

FGM is generally performed in one of three ways: clitoridectomy, excision or infibulation, with the latter the most severe. How long do these procedures generally take, is there a lot of pain and what, if any, medications are given prior to FGM being carried out?

Of course the most severe form of FGM, infibulation, involves a lot of pain as the pain is severe. The most severe form takes longer. Traditionally, no medication is offered as initiates are expected to persevere this ritual. 

What are some of the worst effects of having FGM that you’ve seen or heard of 

Infections, hemorrhage, birth complications, due to scar-tissue formulations.

Is it your view that FGM is all about controlling women, as well as making them “pure” before being married, and ensuring they stay with their husbands?

Yes, that is a cultural view of FGM. When you look at a practice such as FGM that is performed to prevent a woman from engaging in sexual activities, and that it is categorised with other sexist practices, such as virginity, it is about control of female sexuality 

Are women who have undergone FGM unable to enjoy sex and have orgasms?

Studies indicate that some women lose sensation in sexual activity due to FGM. It should be noted, however, that this is not a consequence that affects all women. 

Is there any political will in the countries where FGM is widely carried out to try and end the practice, or are governments all too willing to turn a blind eye?

Most governments in various countries have signed to the United Nations convention to prevent gender-based violence. However, efforts to end the practice have been undermined by political needs. 

 Are there any local campaigns that you know of in countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, where FGM is performed, in which the authorities are trying to educate people about the hazards of FGM and that it’s a violation of women’s rights? 

There are a number of organizations in various countries that are addressing FGM as an issue in African countries. 

What about male genital mutilation, in the form of circumcision, which is traditionally performed in Jewish and Muslim societies? Is that not a violation of boys’ and men’s rights, when they don’t have a say and it can lead to the death of infant boys?  

Yes. The only difference about male and female genital cutting has to do with consequences of the procedure. I, however, agree any practice that is harmful in any way is a violation of the individual right and should be condemned and discouraged.

FGM is still being carried out in places like Egypt, which banned it in 2008, and in the case you metioned, the girl’s parents have been arrested — but does this tragic episode underline the scale of the problem, that it’s almost impossible to stop people from having girls undergo FGM? How do you police it? Should imams at mosques denounce the practice and tell people not to do it?

It’s because FGM is a cultural practice that makes it difficult to eradicate. As long as members of the community have not addressed the situation, FGM will continue to persistent and practiced in various ways. It is a practice attached to certain meanings that are likely not to be overlooked. Education of community members on the subject is the only way to address this dilemma. 

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