Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Genital Mutilation

A couple of weeks ago, Africa Today asked me to review a submission to their journal. Probably, they knew of my article on Chinua Achebe published in Research in African Literatures a few years ago and then republished more recently in a Harold Bloom collection. Anyhoo, I accepted. The manuscript that I subsequently received discussed the first two novels in Naruddin Farah’s “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship” trilogy. In preparation for reviewing the essay, I quickly got a hold of the books; I’m currently done with the first one and nearly finished with the second. I will have a lot to say in terms of how Farah—in stark contrast to Achebe—posits gender equality as central to post-colonial nation-building, but I will save that for another time. Today, I have another issue on my mind and heart, albeit one closely related, for Farah at least, to gender equality in Africa: genital mutilation both in the US and abroad.

As I’ve made my way through the first two novels, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979) and Sardines (1981), both set in Somalia in the 1970s, I’ve noticed numerous references to that which we in the Western world refer to as female genital mutilation (FGM) or, perhaps less judgmentally, female circumcision. In the first book, Ladan suffers excruciating pain for several days each month, a pain common, the narrator points out, to circumcised women. In Sardines, Medina leaves her husband, Samater, at least in part, because he refuses to take a stand against his mother, who insists that she will circumcise Medina and Samater’s eight-year-old daughter, even if it means that the old woman has to snatch the child away from her parents for a few days to get the job done (106). In a reverie on the topic of circumcision, Medina articulates the physical and psychological damage that it causes to young girls, as well as the ways that it leads to further—seemingly endless—violations throughout women’s lives: “If they mutilate you at eight or nine, they open you up with a rusty knife the night they marry you off; then you are cut open and re-stitched. Life for a circumcised woman is a series of de-flowering pains, delivery pains and re-stitching pains. I want to spare my daughter these and many other pains. She will not be circumcised. Over my dead body” (67). In fact, the evil of the current Somali dictatorship seems to be best represented for Medina by circumcision. She tells the story of an African-American couple who visited the country with their “gem of joy,” a sixteen-year-old daughter, in order “to introduce their daughter to the country of their birth” as well as to gather research for a project that would threaten to reveal to the world the political problems of Somalia (102). Soon after entry into Somalia, the family’s passports were confiscated. To further humiliate this family, the dictator arranged for the girl’s circumcision: “The women hired by the newly stipended chieftain plotted. One night, while the parents were asleep in their room, they dragged the girl out of her bed, tied her to the bed-post, gagged her mouth with a cloth and circumcised her. Poor thing” (105). Powerless and unable to face their teenage daughter’s mutilation and the plans of the government to then marry the girl to “a man of the clan,” the parents committed suicide (105). Medina shows FGM, then, to function both as a method to subordinate womanhood and simultaneously further the power of the dictatorship.

Of course, I had heard of FGM, but I wanted to understand it within the Somali context established in Farah’s novels. Through simple internet research, I found that the US Department of State classifies infibulation, the type of FGM practiced most frequently in Somalia, as Type III Female Genital Mutilation: “Type III is the excision (removal) of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora and labia majora) and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a very small opening, about the size of a matchstick, to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. The girl or woman’s legs are generally bound together from the hip to the ankle so she remains immobile for approximately 40 days to allow for the formation of scar tissue” (par. 7). The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports, “The practice itself often takes place in remote rural areas by untrained village midwives who use instruments such as knives, razors or even broken glass. The instruments are often not sterile and the ritual is very often performed in unsanitary conditions. In urban areas, some families use a doctor to perform the operation. . . ..The practice often occurs without the use of anesthesia” (par. 7-8). The World Health Organization (WHO) considers the consequences of infibulation as severe:

Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue.

Long-term consequences can include:

• recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections;
• cysts;
• infertility;
• an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths;
• the need for later surgeries. For example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening [infibulation] needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sometimes it is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing and repeated both immediate and long-term risks. (“Female Genital Mutilation,” WHO par. 7-8)

According to UNICEF, FGM in Somalia is widespread: “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has a prevalence of about 95 percent in Somalia and is primarily performed on girls between the ages of four and 11. This traditional practice is embedded deep within Somali culture, and the belief is widely held that FGM is necessary to ‘cleanse’ a girl child. In some communities, girls cannot be married without it” (par. 1). FGM is condemned by many African nations, as well as by the US, WHO, UNICEF, and many other countries and organizations.

Looking at the information about FGM, I am deeply grateful that my own daughter will never face the prospect of female circumcision, but I am also proud of my husband and myself and our decision, made about a year and a half ago, to forego circumcising our baby son, despite both cultural and familial pressure to do so. I look at my son and daughter and see happy, healthy, and intact children, and I am proud that we have given them—and my son especially—the gift of wholeness. While it is easy to declare FGM a horrific—and backward—practice, it is perhaps harder for many US citizens to think critically about male circumcision.

It is clear to me that male circumcision, which despite the American Academy of Pediatrics' declaration that it is not medically necessary is still performed on about 75% of male babies born in the US, is similar to—albeit less severe than—FGM. Wikipedia describes the circumcision procedure:

For infant circumcision, devices such as the Gomco clamp, Plastibell, and Mogen clamp are commonly used, together with a restraining device.

With all these devices the same basic procedure is followed. First, the amount of foreskin to be removed is estimated. The foreskin is then opened via the preputial orifice to reveal the glans underneath and ensure it is normal. The inner lining of the foreskin (preputial epithelium) is then bluntly separated from its attachment to the glans. The device is then placed (this sometimes requires a dorsal slit) and remains there until blood flow has stopped. Finally, the foreskin is amputated. Sometimes, the frenulum band may need to be broken or crushed and cut from the corona near the urethra to ensure that the glans can be freely and completely exposed. (par. 25-26).

Granted, male circumcision does not cause life-long health problems or (debatably) function socially or religiously to affirm the non-subject status of its victims, and it may not be such an obvious method of exercising political control over a people as is FGM. It clearly does, however, cause boys unnecessary fear and pain—often in an infant’s already probably terrifying first few days of life outside of the womb—and reduce sexual feeling in male genitalia. Furthermore, male circumcision seems to me an attempt to indoctrinate boys into a culture that values mind over body, to abnegate, according to religious traditions, the sensations of the body in favor of a psychological closeness with God. Personally, I find this veneration of the mind/body split ridiculous, as we are all minds and bodies intricately intertwined. More importantly, though, I am against male circumcision because at its core it is a form of genital mutilation, a practice leftover from violent tribal societies that existed thousands of years ago, performed most often without that person’s consent. Just like with FGM, using the legitimizing term “circumcision” doesn’t change that.


  1. Great article Andrea! I fully agree with the points you made as to your reason for not circumcising your son.

  2. Did you have to sign the weird paper that said you waved the circumcision process? I had a friend who opted out of circumcision who had to pay a fine and sign a waver to keep her son in tact. P.S. I'm Greek. I strongly support your decision to NOT circumcise!

  3. Thanks for the support! I don't remember having to sign anything saying that we didn't want to circumcise, but everything about those couple of days in the hospital is a bit fuzzy. I do remember that the nurses put a note on my baby's bed saying that he was not to be circumcised because it is so routine that all baby boys ARE circumcised. I felt uneasy about that because I was afraid that the note would fall off the crib during one of his trips to have his hearing checked, etc. and he would come back to me mutilated. I remember keeping close tabs on what they were doing with him when he was away.