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Female circumcision

Female circumcision is a term that loosely refers to a number of procedures performed on the female genitalia and which are generally of a cultural, rather than medical, nature. It is a very nearly universal practice in parts of Africa and is frequently practiced in the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. Female circumcision was practiced in the United States from the mid 1800's to the mid 1900's as a deterrent to masturbation. The practice is viewed with revulsion within Western Civilization, particularly the United States and Western Europe, where it is referred to as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

Female circumcision should not be confused with the more benign clitoridotomy (or hoodectomy), in which a non-retracting or overgrown clitoral hood (prepuce) is split or removed. Though this procedure is controversial, it is nevertheless an elective surgery designed to increase sexual sensitivity rather than reduce it.

Table of contents

Different forms

Some confusion occurs in discussing this topic as there are several distinct practices that are all generally referred to by this name.

In some cases, no actual genital surgery occurs, though it is simulated with a knife as part of a ceremony. Those that actually involve surgery, are usually divided into three major types.

Type I or sunna circumcision is the most limited and involves only the removal of the hood of the clitoris. The term "sunna" refers to tradition as taught by the prophet Muhammad (but not included in the Quran).

Type II or clitoridectomy is more extensive and implies the partial or total removal of the clitoris, and sometimes also the labia minora. In the United States, clitoridectomy was covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance until 1974.

The most complete form of female circumcision is Type III, which is also referred to as infibulation or pharaonic circumcision. It involves clitoridectomy, the removal of the labia minora, the cutting of the labia majora, and then sewing together the cut labia majora to cover the vagina, leaving an opening to allow urine and menstrual blood to pass through. The sewn together labia majora are opened by the woman's husband before intercourse.

Other forms are collectively referred to as Type IV. This includes a diverse range of practices, including pricking the clitoris with needles, burning or scarring the genitals as well as ripping or tearing of the vagina. Type IV is found primarily among native tribes and isolated ethnic groups as well as in combination with other types. An example, sometimes referred to as excision, was practiced as an initiation rite among Australian aborigines. It involved cutting or tearing the vagina of a pubescent girl to enlarge it, after which the girl was engaged in coitus with several male tribal members.

Areas of practice

Female circumcision is today mainly practiced in African countries, especially in Muslim areas. It is common in a band that stretches from Senegal in West Africa to Somalia on the East coast, as well as from Egypt in the north to Tanzania in the south. It is also practiced by some groups in the Arab peninsula, especially in Yemen, but also in Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The practice can also be found among a few ethnic groups in South America, India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The practice is particularly common in Somalia, followed by Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Mali. Among ethnic Somali women, infibulation is traditionally almost universal. In the Arab peninsula, sunna circumcision is usually performed, especially among Arabs (ethnic groups of African descent are more likely to prefer infibulation).

Amnesty International estimates that over 130 million women worldwide have been the recipients of these procedures, with over 2 million female circumcisions being performed every year.

In modern times, the practice has spread to Europe and the U.S. due to immigration. Some traditionally minded families have the procedure performed while on vacation in their home countries.

Cultural background

A number of reasons are put forward for the practice of female circumcision. These include the belief that it moderates sexual desires in women. It is also believed that it is somehow more hygienic. Frequently the practice is associated with traditional initiation ceremonies[?]. In some cultures it is believed that girls are born with both a male and a female spirit and it is necessary to remove the male spirit through circumcision for the girl to grow up to be a woman. Sometimes it is also defended on the grounds of similarity to male circumcision.

Many African Muslims believe that female circumcision is required by Islam. In fact the practice is mentioned nowhere in the Quran, although the Sunnah contains several references to the custom. In particular, the Prophet Mohammed instructs one infibulator "Yes, it is allowed. Come closer so I can teach you: if you cut, do not overdo it, because it brings more radiance to the face and it is more pleasant for the husband." .

Many Arab Muslims interpret different passages as being in opposition to female circumcision, and believe the practice to be un-Islamic.

Female circumcision has proven to be an enduring tradition and a deeply imbued social tradition. For instance, prohibition of circumcision among tribes in Kenya significantly strengthened resistance to British colonial rule in the 1950s and increased support for the Mau Mau guerilla movement. During that period, the practice even became more common, as it was seen as a form of resistance towards colonial rule. To fight the practice it is therefore widely felt that it is necessary to work with local communities.

Medical consequences

Female circumcision is most commonly performed between the ages of four and eight. It should be performed under hygienic conditions and with application of an appropriate anaesthetic. As any surgical procedure, female circumcision can be extremely painful, and dangerous to health when not performed hygienically. Some argue that making the process illegal drives it underground and thus puts the recipients at greater risk. Many opponents of the practice argue that the deterrent effect of prohibition outweighs such risks.

When infibulation is carried out with shards of glass and other crude tools, it is not uncommon for infection to occur, sometimes resulting in death or serious long term health effects. These include urinary and reproductive tract infections (caused by obstructed flow of urine and menstrual blood), various forms of scarring and infertility. First sexual intercourse can always be extremely painful, and infibulated women also need to open the labia majora carefully. Sexual pleasure through stimulation of the clitoris, almost universally regarded as an important part of typical female sexuality, is of course eliminated.

Prohibition has lead to female circumcision being undertaken without any anaesthetic or sterilization, and by women with no medical training. The procedure, when performed without any anaesthetic, can lead to death through shock or excessive bleeding. The failure to use sterilised medical instruments can lead to infections and the spread of disease, especially when the same instruments are used to perform procedures on multiple women.

Female circumcision is prohibited in most Western countries where it is not part of local culture and tradition, and there is a growing movement in the West to see it prohibited throughout the world. Some argue that this is an example of Western cultural imperialism. Proponents of a ban reply that human rights are universal and not subject to cultural exceptions, and that the practice is a severe violation of human rights.

Some have attacked the common Western practice of performing "corrective" surgery on the genitals of intersexuals as Western cultural equivalent of female genital mutilation.

As Addressed in Popular Culture

The subject of female circumcision has been addressed by many prominent authors, singers and performers across the world. Some examples:

Also, a documentary - aptly entitled "Warrior Marks[?]" - has been done on the practice by Walker, the author of The Color Purple. Ms. Walker subsequently wrote a book of the same name, which is about her travels and experiences while making the documentary.

External References

Female Genital Mutilation - A Human Rights Information Pack (http://www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/femgen/fgm1.htm) by Amnesty International

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