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Female Genital Mutilation

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Female Genital Mutilation:

Barbaric Custom or Cultural Rite

"I was shaking out of my skin with fear. I sat at Netsent's head so she couldn't cry out. The circumciser began to cut with a razor blade. She cut everything: the clitoris, the inner and outer labia. There was so much blood!" This is an excerpt from an article that appeared in Marie Claire in April 2003. The speaker is a girl by the name of Genet Girma, an Ethiopian, describing the conditions under which her sister Netsent was forced to have her genitalia removed. Each year, two million girls undergo the devastating and disfiguring practice of genital cutting (Goodwin 157). Genital cutting, widely known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), is the practice of cutting away parts of the external female genitalia. Although many people may see FGM as barbaric and dangerous, most of those who practice it see FGM as a religious rite and as a deeply rooted cultural practice.

The three broad categories of FGM are clitoridectomy, excision and infibulation. The mildest form of FGM, clitoridectomy, is the removal of all or part of the clitoris. Excision includes the removal of the clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora. The most extreme form of FGM is infibulation, the removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and the stitching together of the labia majora. Infibulation leaves just a small opening in the vagina for the passage of urine and menstrual fluid, and requires binding together of the legs until stitches adhere. Often the removal of the stitches is part of a wedding night ritual (Taylor 31). If the terrifying nature of the procedure were not enough, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports that FGM is "normally performed by traditional practitioners with crude instruments, such as knives, razor blades and broken glass, usually without anesthetics."

The invasive characteristics of FGM and the unsanitary conditions under which it is usually performed can have serious consequences. Pediatric Nursing writes "FGM may cause numerous physical complications, including hemorrhage and severe pain, which can cause shock, even death." It also writes "FGM may create long-term complications resulting from scarring and interference with the drainage of urine and menstrual blood, such as chronic pelvic infections, which may cause pelvic and back pain, dysmenorrhea, infertility, chronic urinary tract infections, urinary stones, or kidney damage." Infibulation is especially dangerous during childbirth when women who have been infibulated are at risk of prolonged labor, which may lead to fetal brain damage or fetal death (31-33)

The number of girls and women who have suffered FGM is thought to be as high as 140 million, almost 6,000 new mutilations each day (English 203). This practice is often associated with the religion of Islam, and is most often performed in Middle Eastern and North African countries. In both of the African nations of Somalia and Djibouti, 98% of women have had this procedure (Ahmad). Because of immigration, however, the practice of FGM has recently become more prevalent in Europe and North America. Concerns for the health of women and girls as young as three who are subject to this procedure, have led to legislation making FGM illegal in the United States.

FGM is not a religious practice required by the Islamic faith. It has, however, become a "law by custom" (Ahmad). Neither of the two main sources of Muslim Law, the Koran and the Sunnah, mention the practice, and most Islamic scholars agree that it is not an Islamic religious rite. The practice has become important to Islam because it is associated with female sexual purity. FGM is intended by its practitioners to both control women's sexual drives and also to cleanse women's genitalia by removing the clitoris, which is seen as masculine, a female penis. Because of its association with purity, young women who have not been excised have little chance of marriage in the countries where FGM is practiced (Ahmad). Genet Girma, as mentioned earlier, refused to undergo FGM after seeing her sister's ordeal. She states, "In my part of Ethiopia, every girl has to undergo this rite of passage before she marries...I knew that by denying my culture I'd be shunned by my family and by the entire clan" (Goodman157-158).

It is important to point out, however, that FGM has also been practiced in the West, and that "the practice of clitoridectomy was actually promoted in the United States and Britain during the 19th and early 20th centuries as a cure for lesbian practices or suspected inclinations, masturbation, hysteria, epilepsy, and nervousness" (Ahmad). This fact brings up interesting issues about the cultural relativity of this practice.

There is serious disagreement about whether the practice of FGM is an issue of cultural relativism or an issue of human rights. Some Western anthropologists have equated the practice of FGM with such Western practices as breast augmentation and tattooing. This argument is flawed, however, for at least two important reasons. The first is that in both the examples given, the subjects making these decisions must, by law, be adults. This is not the case with FGM, whose subjects are often as young as three. The second flaw in this argument is that neither breast augmentation nor tattooing impedes natural body functions in the way FGM can. The argument has also been made that FGM is analogous to male circumcision, which is a common practice in the West. While it is true that both procedures are cultural traditions that have no real health benefits, there are major differences between the two. The most important difference between FGM and male circumcision is that, again, FGM impedes the natural functioning of the female body in ways that male circumcision does not.

Many human rights organizations view FGM as a violation of human rights, calling for its eradication. In a meeting in Geneva in 2002, three UN agencies announced efforts to end FGM. These agencies, The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and UNICEF, asked for world support for their goal, calling FGM an "unsafe and unjustifiable traditional practice" (Taylor 33). Amnesty International has also come out against FGM, saying "the practice is a form of violence and a violation of bodily integrity" (Taylor 33). Non-Western organizations such as the Egyptian Human Rights Organization (EOHR) have also joined this campaign. Egypt has been a battleground in the struggle to eradicate FGM, where the practice is currently banned. The goal of EOHR is to teach Egyptians "the harms of the operation to both individuals and society and to clarify that this pagan custom

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