Because of the private nature of the tradition and because the methods can range so greatly, it is difficult to adequately assess the details of female genital cutting in Africa.
The history of the tradition goes back thousands of years and is often (incorrectly) associated with religious dictates (von der Osten-Sacken & Uwer, 2007). It has long been associated with Islam, though there has been active opposition from many Islamic groups to prove otherwise; the procedure is not mentioned or sanctioned by the Quran (Abdelmagied, Salah, ElTahir, NurEldin, & Shareef, 2005; Abusharaf, 2001). However, it is mentioned in the Hadith, the oral tradition of Muhammad used by the Sunnah Muslim traditions; even here it does not advise for or against the procedure (von der Osten-Sacken & Uwer, 2007).
Still, many groups use religion as a way to explain female genital cutting. Dellenborg (2004) reports that clitoridectomy has been spreading as part of female cultural identity under Islam since the mid-twentieth century. Additionally, illiteracy and lack of access to information has led to the belief by many Muslims that some form of female genital cutting is prescribed for religious purity (von der Osten-Sacken & Uwer, 2007).
Whether a religion dictates the procedure or not, female genital cutting plays an extremely important cultural and social role in many areas. One common association with the procedure is that the removal of the clitoris and other genitalia is a symbol of chastity and purity (von der Osten-Sacken & Uwer, 2007). Theoretically, the removal of the external genitalia makes sexual contact less enjoyable so that a girl is less likely to be tempted by premarital sex. The most severe genital cutting and infibulation also proves a girl's virginity since she has been sewn shut (Morris, 2006). The implication of both of these arguments is that women participate in genital cutting to prove to men that they are virginal and chaste. This is partially true; chastity is, as in many cultures, valued in Muslim societies. However, Dellenborg (2004) and Abusharaf (2001) offer alternative views on the cultural need for genital cutting.
In sharp contrast to the assumption that African women are helplessly at the whim of male dominated society, Abusharaf (2001) argues that some female genital cutting empowers women. He points to the tradition of women carrying out the ritual, explaining that it is an important rite of passage rather than a forced patriarchal custom (Abusharaf, 2001). Along the same lines, Dellenborg (2004) points to the women of Jola society in Senegal, Gambia. These women use clitoridectomy as a rite, initiating women into a female secret society that actually established power for them within their social circle. Dellenborg (2004) explains Western conceptions of femininity and sexuality have difficulty understanding this choice, as our ideas of femininity and sexuality are so drastically different. Yet, male circumcision is common in most westernized nations and it, too, reduces sexual pleasure in efforts to conform to social norms. The Jola have told researchers that clitoridectomy does not relate to their sexuality in a negative way and in fact enriches their lives as women (Dellenborg, 2004). Other rituals, like smoke-bathing and deplation, use heat and pain for purification and do not meet with such adamant arguments (Boddy, 2006).
One account from Sudan explains that the cultural and spiritual importance of the purification ritual maintains the important of the community unit (Boddy, 2006). The woman explains that the Arabic word for womb (rihm) is not usually used; instead, the idiom baytal-wilada, meaning house of childbirth, is used. The implication is that the woman's body, like the high-walled domestic structure used for childbirth, is meant to enclose and protect the value of their kin and family (Boddy, 2006). In this way, the suturing or sewing of the female genitalia is symbolic of the protection of family and family values.
Perhaps the most problematic argument against female genital cutting is the physical issues. Women are physically at risk from the procedure, as are their infants during birth and pregnancy ("Female genital mutilation," 2006). Historically, primitive methods incorporated in the procedures have caused infection and death in many girls. Hemorrhaging from a poorly done surgery is still a major risk where female genital cutting is performed by untrained individuals. Because genital cutting can cause scar tissue around the vaginal opening, giving birth is often problematic for women who have had extensive cutting performed on them. This puts infants at risk if labors are longer and puts both mother and child at risk in cases where scar tissue is cut away by midwives (Boddy, 2006).
Finally, the political significance of female genital cutting should be mentioned, as it ties in to the cultural and social aspects of the rite. Over the past century, missionaries and other colonial powers have observed female genital cutting with concern. A number of attempts to outlaw the procedure, in particular the most drastic methods of infibulation, were instituted beginning in the 1920s (Boddy, 2006). Some, like the work of Mabel Woolf, aimed to create safer and less harmful ways to do the procedure; she tried to improve sanitation and introduce safer birthing methods for women who had genital scarring from cutting procedures (Boddy, 2006). While Woolf and others were moderately successful in improving conditions, outlawing infibulation seems to have exacerbated the problems.
As with many areas being colonized, Africa was resistant to "forced" modernism and considered the illegalization of any female genital cutting as an attempt to control and diminish their cultural identities (Dellenborg, 2004). As a result, many fiercely defend female genital cutting expressly to preserve cultural identity that is threatened by imperialism (Abusharaf, 2001). It is also possible that these attempts to get rid of the ritual have caused an increase in its use. According to a study of more than 28,000 women in Africa in 2006, 97% or arab women, 96% of Nubian Sudanese women, 99% of Embu women in Kenya, and 98% of Bini women in Nigeria have undergone some form of genital cutting ("Female genital mutilation" 2006). Because numbers for individual ethnic groups are not available for earlier periods, it is difficult to compare. However, UNICEF estimated that 93% of Sudanese women were circumcised in 2000-2001, compared to 89% in 1979. While this may or may not be related to the backlash from imperialist pressures, it is nevertheless obvious that genital cutting has persevered into the twenty first century.
3. Literature Review
What is the status of female genital cutting today? The answer depends on where and how it is performed and the level of genital cutting. The cultural, social, and religious risks and benefits must be considered together. Closely related to these is the psychological risk that the procedure has on girls. This, obviously, can be linked to the methods used and the social expectations. Physical risks and methodologies still range from abhorrent to strictly medical. Together, the outcomes for each individual girl are comprised of these numerous factors, addressed in the literature through scientific study as well as through individual or group case studies.
Most available literature argues that the cultural, social, and religious implications of female genital cutting do not contribute to the well being of girls as they enforce ideals of patriarchy, inferiority, and poor self-worth. However, the current climate of many individual communities and tribes is that self-worth is defined by their place as an important part of the group. Female genital cutting may be a part of that and young women who do not participate may suffer psychologically as a result.
Morris (2006) argues that the important differentiation between cultural and personal well begin should be that it is a choice of the individual. In most female genital cutting, the individual does not make the choice. Instead, parents make the choice for girls and subject them to the procedure at whatever level is available and deemed appropriate. In areas where medical advances are not available, Morris (2006) argues that the trauma of undergoing such pain at the hands of one's parents is psychologically damaging to young girls and has permanent effects. So concerned about their child and their family's place in their culture and social structure, parents are willing to risk legal repercussions in many cases just to make sure that their daughter meets the religious, spiritual, and cultural norms expected (Morris, 2006).
Due to the modernization of many areas, many families have access to medical equipment within the home or in their home village. Since regulation has not yet caught up with advancements in many areas, this makes it possible for surgical procedures like infibulation to be carried out in homes, by doctors even in areas where infibulation and other drastic genital cutting has been outlawed (Morris, 2006).
The research of von der Osten-Sacken and Uwer (2007) found that men are rarely involved in the process of female genital cutting. In fact, they cite that…