Myths and justifications for the perpetuation of FGM
The practice of FGM is widespread in 28 FGM risk countries of Africa. To understand the nature of the problem and to plan accordingly for its prevention and elimination, it is necessary to look into the motives and justifications of the practice. The basic question is what are the reasons and justifications for its maintenance regardless of its psychological and physiological irreversable damages. Once the justifications forwarded by the practitioners for its maintenance have been identified, it can easily be refuted and challenged based on the existing level of knowledge, health and educational development. Only then can appropriate actions to tackle the problem of FGM can be devised – legal, education, training, change of value, etc. As the solution lies in the understanding of the problem, and change of values and attitudes, the motives of FGM should be researched and considered seriously by academicians, policy makers and field operators. Accumulation of information and experience will refine the speed and efficiency of intervention strategies.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO 1996), the different justificaions reflect the ideological and historical situation of the societies. A variety of motives which range from myths to economic need help to maintain FGM. The myths can vary from region to region and from ethnic group to ethnic group. The most frequently cited justifications or explanations include ...
- Wishes of ancestors
- Protect moral behaviour of women in society
- Assure faithfulness of women to their husbands
- Acceptance into adult society
- Control of women’s sexuality
- Infibulation ensures fatherhood
- Increases fertility
- Gender identity
- Clitoris is a dangerous organ and must be cut
- Clitoris will damage husband’s organ
- Calms girls
- Pleases men
- Prevents infants and maternal mortality
- Religious requirement
- Preserves virginity
- Controls waywardness of girls
- Prevents pre-marital sex and adultery
FGM is not practiced exclusively by followers of one specific religion and predates both Chrisitianity and Islam by centuries. There is no possible connection between FGM and religion. In the FGM risk countries it is practised by followers of all denominations: Christians, Moslems, animists and non-believers and followers of indigenous (traditional) religion. The practice seems to be very extensive among the Muslim population in the FGM practicing countries and as such has acquired a religious dimension. In Ethiopia and Egypt, for example, both the Coptic Christians and the Muslims practise FGM. However, not all Muslims practise FGM, for example, it is not practised in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Jordan, Turkey, Syria, the Maghreb countries of northwest Africa, Morocco, Iran and Iraq. All the Muslims in FGM practicing countries do not practise it, for example, in the case of Senegal where 94% of the population are Muslims only 20% practice FGM (Mottin-Sylla 1990).
None of the two major religions, Islam and Christianity, impose the practice of FGM. There is nothing specific in the Bible or the Koran which allows the mutilation of women (Toubia 1993). The Koran does not refer to FGM but a few sayings of the Prophet (Hadith) quote the prophet as saying “reduce but do not destroy” (AI 1998). It is also claimed that the Prophet said, “...if you cut, do not over do it, because it brings more radiance to the face and it is more pleasant for the husband.” There are controversies surrounding this Hadith.
On the other hand, the religious leaders have not until recently recognized it as a harmful practice and/or discouraged its practice. They tend to link the moral benefits attributed to FGM (such as purity, virginity, morality, etc) with religion. A symposium for religious leaders and medical personnel on FGM as a form of violence was organized by the IAC in collaboration with the Gambian Committee on Traditional Practices in Banjul, Gambia from 20-23 July, 1998. The participants reached the conclusion that FGM is not prescribed by any religion and that their teaching does not advocate mutilation and they have resolved to fight against its practice (IAC).
The role of religious leaders in FGM intervention strategies at the local level is indispensable as they are the sole interpreters of the scriptures and as their words as religious leaders carry heavy weight in rural communities. Any activity targeted at changing values and attitudes must include religious leaders in the planning and implementation of projects. The misperception that the practice is a religious one must be firmly clarified.
One justification of FGM is the sociological aspect which presents the operation as a transition in life stages. FGM is taken to be an initiation rite, coming of age rite or passage rite. It was performed at puberty on girls 12 to 14 years old, or just before the onset of menustration and just before marriage. FGM as an initiation rite emphasises the transition in age status from girlhood to womanhood and to marriageable age. As an uncircumcised girl has no chance of having a suitor, the operation is a signal for her readiness for marriage and availability. Before the initiation through mutilation, the girls are kept in seclusion for a period of time (at least 2 weeks) and given instructions on morality, tribal law, social codes, being a good wife, behaviours around elders and other age groups. Group initiation rites create a sort of club to which uncircumcised ones are not accepted. In some communities, like in Sierra Leone, it is a secret society that one joins only through going the initiation rite.
To give a better picture of the importance of FGM in tradition, Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya and a strong supporter of the tradition of FGM says that,
“The operation is (still) regarded as the very essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications, quite apart from the operation itself. For the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitordectomy (FGM). Therefore, the abolition of the surgical element in this custom means to the Gikuyu the abolition of the whole institution.”
He goes on to show the close relation between marriage and FGM. He shows us that uncircumcised tribe members cannot marry and is ostracized by the community and tribe.
“In the matrimonial relation, the rite of passage is the deciding factor. No proper Gikuyu would dream of marrying a girl who has not been circumcised, and vice versa. It is a taboo for a Gikuyu man or woman to have sexual relations with someone who has not undergone this operation”.
Recent studies indicate that the initiation part of FGM is declining and that the age of operation is also declining. In many parts of Africa this justification does not hold grounds as the operation takes place on infants 7 or 8 days old as in Ethiopia and parts of Nigeria, and girl-children most under 5 years of age. The victims are too young even to understand the word marriage itself.
The upholders of FGM argue that the removal of the female genitalia contributes to the cleanliness and purity of women. In some communities popular terms for mutilation are synonymous with purification, for example tahara in Egypt and tahur in Sudan (AI 1998).
It is believed that the removal of the clitoris and labia contribute to the cleanliness and beauty of women because an unmutilated woman is considered dirty and polluted. This is one reason why uncircumcised women are ostracized within their own families and communities. The absence or removal of the clitoris keeps the vagina clean and makes vaginal intercourse more desirable than clitoral stimulation. These misconceptions are based on the fact that secretions produced by the glands in the clitoris, labia minora and majora are bad smelling and unhygienic and so makes the female body unclean.
Under normal conditions secretions are odourless and if the secretions are bad smelling, excessive and coloured, then this is an indication of infection or other serious problems, probably requiring medication. In reality FGM can create uncleanliness by closing the vulva and preventing the natural flow of urine and menustral flow and consequently leading to the retention of urine and menustral blood causing offensive smell.
In some communities uncircumcised women are considered unclean and are not allowed to participate in communal activities and feasts such as preparing food or fetching water and serving elders. The absence of the clitoris keeps the vagina clean. On the other hand, its presence is believed to damage the baby at delivery and affects the husband’s genitalia during intercourse. It is believed to enhance fertility (Leye 1998). Other myths include that FGM enhances the husband’s sexual desire; prevents maternal and infant mortality. As one can easily deduct this deep-rooted beliefs are incompatible with reality.
In some societies the clitoris is seen as a “dangerous” organ, hence, requiring its removal. It must be removed as in Mali, Burkina Faso, and all over West Africa because it represents maleness. FGM is practiced to clearly distinguish the sex of an individual based on the belief that the foreskin of a boy makes him female and the clitoris of the female makes her a male. So in FGM practising countries the removal of the clitoris, which is believed to be male parts, makes a woman feminine. In addition, clitoris is considered to be ugly on a girl and must be removed to eliminate any indications of maleness. Some go even to the extreme by priding themselves on the degree of mutilation. According to one Sudanese woman, “In some countries they only cut out the clitoris, but here we do it properly. We scrape our girls clean. If it is properly done, nothing is left, other than a scar. Everything has to be cut away.”
Since it represents masculinity in young girls and hence the need to identify their sex clearly becomes of prime importance (Hosken 1993; MRG, 1992/3). This point is better explained by an Egyptian women defending FGM.
“We are circumcised and insist on circumcising our daughters so that there is no mixing between male and female.... An uncircumcised woman is put to shame by her husband, who calls her ‘you with the clitoris’. People say she is like a man. Her organ would prick the man”.
In Ethiopia an uncircumcised women is called kintram (the one with clitoris) and is used in a dergatory way. It is a disgrace for a woman to be called kintram.
Sexual and marriage factors
The other most frequently cited reason for FGM is its assumed ability to diminish women’s desire for sex.This implies that women cannot control their sexual emotions. Uncircumcised women are assumed to be over sexy.
“Excision is believed to protect a women against her over sexed nature, saving her from temptation, suspicion and disgrace while preserving her chastity” (MRG 1992/3).
This appears to be one of the core reasons for the existence of FGM. It is believed that FGM serves as a means to discourage premarital sex and reducing sexual desire of a girl thereby preserving her virginity. The reduced desire even during the marriage is expected to ensure faithfulness of a woman to her husband. This is why it is believed that uncircumcised girls are assumed to run wild, or are considered of loose moral bringing shame and disgrace to her parents.
For most African women as well as other Third World women marriage is not an option but a must for survival. Marriage and reproduction are the only guarantee for a women to gain economic security and social status. Marriage ensures a woman with old age pension or security as well as respect in the society. Infertility is one of the worst fates that a woman can face in her life in these communities. A woman without children or an unmarried woman will have a very difficult life and a devastated old age, especially ones without any support from their relatives or community. Marriage is the base for the whole practice of FGM. Without undergoing FGM, a woman is denied the right of marriage, in most cases also the denial of receiving bride price. An unmarried woman is an outcast in the society, often suspected of running after married men – marriage breaker.
In Africa marriage does not come easily without its sacrifices. Virginity must be maintained at the time of marriage and the lack of it has damaging social consequences to the individual as well as to the parents. Virginity is the base for marriageability and it also enforces the prohibitions of sexual relationships outside marriage. Virginity is also considered as a base for a family’s honour. A girl is expected to bring honour to her family through the preservation of her virginity. This is where FGM comes as a means of ensuring virginity. It is also believed that virginity of a woman ensures the fatherhood of the husband.
Economic reasons are important factors that perpetuate the practice of FGM particularly in the rural areas. Multilation is a prerequisite for marriage and payment of the bride price to the parents of the girl. This transfer of resources entails a lot of limitations on the woman’s rights. In communities where the practice of FGM is deeply-rooted an uncircumcised girl is not eligble for marriage and maybe a burden on her parents as no one member of the community will dare to marry her. This enforces parents to have their daughters undergo the FGM operation. Along this line one can always refer to President Kenyata on this issue of circumcision and marriage – “No proper Kikuyu would dream of marrying a girl who has not been circumcised.” The payment of bride price may be relative to the degree of the operation (Smith 1995). Bride price holds the key to marriage by enforcing FGM and virginity.
The circumcisers, also known as traditional birth attendants or excisors, also play a big role in promoting and prolonging the practice of FGM particularly in the rural areas. Their trade provides them with a regular income and a social status in the community. Their success depends on the number of operations they have carried out and years of experience. The role of excisors in the elimination of FGM is very important; and it mostly depends on a change of their attitudes on the ritual and more importantly providing themselves with alternative means of income. Some NGOs and field operators at the grass root level believe that if they can convince circumsers to abandon this practice, the problem of FGM will be solved. As long as the community does not abandon the practice of FGM, finding a replacement of a new excisor is not a difficult problem to solve.
Tradition covers all the main existing deeply-rooted myths surrounding the rationalization of the practice of FGM. Each ethnic group practising FGM may have its own different versions of myths. At the top of the lists come tradition, culture and social norms passed from generation to generation usually from mother or grand mother to daughter. In poor and illiterate societies the opportunities for access to global information and knowledge and the possibilities of challenging the status-quo is minimal and inconceivable. Hence, what comes from elders, local community, political and religious leaders and so-called ‘protectors of traditional culture’ is accepted without any sort of challenge. Tradition appears to provide solutions to problems raised within communities. “It is the tradition; it is the custom; this is the way our ancestors did it,” are often invoked as responses. Even the elite are not exceptions of this cultural pressure. Those who courageously challenge the existing norm are liable to stigmatization.
A couple of recent case studies highlighting the various motives underline the importance given to culture and customs. A 1999 survey of mutilated women in Senegal (Regions of St. Louis, Kolda and Tambacounda) and Sierra Leone (1987) show the following finding:
SENEGAL SIERRA LEONE
Tradition 94% Tradition 85.6%
Initation & education 53%
Purity 52% Social identity 35%
Religion 14% Religion 17%
Requirement for marriage 22% Marriage 4%
Men’s preference 21% Chastity 3.7%
(Bob 1999) (Stat. Rec. of Women Worldwide)
In another similar study in Mali, the respondents stated their reasons for maintaining the practice of FGM as follows: customs 23%, no explanation 23% and hygiene 32% (MRG,92/3). In Senegal a study of 500 interviewees in Mbour Region showed that 31.7% did the FGM operation for purification purpose according to the Islamic law; 25.7% for traditional reasons 32.1% for the reservation of virginity (Diallo 1998).
Factors that maintain FGM
- FGM is a primary condition for marriage. No man in FGM practicing areas marries an uncircumcised woman in fear of breaking and/or respecting the local social norms.
- The payment of the bride price to a girl’s parents depends on a woman fulfilling the traditional norms of the community – FGM being the important one.
- Invokation of tradition to insist on the continuity of the practice.
- Misperception of FGM as a religious requirement.
- Ignorance of sexual and reproductive health.