The history of female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM), has been traced back as far as the second century BC, when a geographer, Agatharchides of Cnidus, wrote about female circumcision as it occurred among tribes residing on the western coast of the Red Sea (now modern day Egypt). Based on current geographic locations of FGM, the practices seems to have originated in Egypt and has spread south and west.
Some believe that female circumcision was rooted in the Pharaonic belief in the bisexuality of the gods. According to this belief, mortals reflected this trait of the gods; every individual possessed both a male and a female soul. The feminine soul of the man was located in the prepuce of the penis; the masculine soul of the woman was located in the clitoris. For healthy gender development, the female soul had to be excised from the man and the male soul from the woman. Circumcision was thus essential for boys to become men and girls to become women.
Prior to the rise of Islam, Egyptians once raided territories to the south for slaves, and Sudanic slaves were exported to areas along the Persian Gulf. Reports from the 15th and 16th centuries suggest that female slaves were sold at a higher price if they were ''sewn up" in a way that made them unable to give birth. After the region converted to Islam, this practice was no longer possible because Islam prohibits Muslims from enslaving others of their own religious beliefs.
Is female genital mutilation an Islamic practice?
Sheikh Talib, Dean of the Faculty of Shariah of Al Azhar, March 2005: "All practices of female circumcision and mutilation are crimes and have no relationship with Islam."
Ten of the highest ranked scholars from all over the world met at the Azhar University under the patronage of the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Prof. Dr. Ali Goma'a. After listening to several international physicians, they made the sensational decision to classify the custom of female genital mutilation (FGM) as punishable aggression and a crime against humanity. As a result, the custom can no longer be practiced by Muslims.
So why does the practice of female circumcision linger in so many countries?
It is very difficult to understand why female circumcision remains if it was supposed to fade out of practice once Egypt converted to Islam, but the best explanation is that the practice continues because it is considered a tradition. Few individuals who practice female circumcision are aware of the early mythology, but several do stereotype uncircumcised girls as more masculine.
In all societies where female excision is practiced, male circumcision is also performed. Male circumcision is represented in reliefs of the Egyptian tomb of Ankh-Ma Hor of the sixth Dynasty (2340-2180 B.C.) and in other Egyptian representations of pharaonic times. But whether excision and infibulation had a parallel development is unclear. By the time of the first millennium B.C., however, there is evidence that the custom was certainly practiced in Egypt. The oldest known source that records the custom is the work of Herodotus (484-424 B.C.). He states that excision was practised by the Phoenicians, Hittites, and Ethiopians as well as the Egyptians.
Circa 25 B.C., Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian, reports that the Egyptians circumcised their boys and excised their girls. Evidence is also found in the medical literature. Soramus, a Greek physician who practiced about 138 A.D. in Alexandria and Rome, supplies a detailed description of the operation of excision in Egypt and of the instruments used. Another physician, Aetius (502-575 A.D.), describes the operation in a similar fashion. Both state that the purpose was the reduction of female sexual desire.
Moreover, some archaeologists claim that the well preserved Egyptian mummies attest to the presence of clitoridectomy. It is also generally agreed that excision was practiced mostly by the ruling class. It was a sign of distinction for the females of royal families and the priestly caste of Egypt. Women were thought to be the only possessors of magic, and FGM was an attempt to obtain control over this magic power.
According to some sources, Jews and Arabs aquired the practices of clitoridectomy and infibulation in Egypt. During the Arab conquest of North Africa, the practice was picked up and spread to other parts of the world.
FGM is practiced primarily by Muslims but also by Christians, Animists, atheists, and Jews (only by Fellashas living near Gondar in Ethiopia). The practice is widespread in areas where poverty, illiteracy, and unsanitary conditions predominate, and where the economic and social standing of women is low. It is practiced in more than twenty-six countries of the African continent and in some areas of the Arabian peninsula and Asia.
Some proponents of the practice claim that it is required by the Islamic faith. However, scholars and theologians of Islam state that female circumcision is not prescribed by their religious doctrine, emphasizing that the procedure is almost never performed in many major Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan.
Cultural roots of FGM
Kopelman has summarized four additional reasons proposed to explain the custom of FGM:
1) to preserve group identity;
2) to help maintain cleanliness and health;
3) to preserve virginity and family honor and prevent immorality; and
4) to further marriage goals, including enhancement of sexual pleasure for men.
Preservation of cultural identity has been noted by Toubia to be of particular importance for groups who have previously faced colonialism and for immigrants threatened by a dominant culture. FGM is endemic in poor societies where marriage is essential to the social and economic security for women. FGM becomes a physical sign of a woman's marriageability, with social control exercised over her sexual pleasure by clitorectomy and over reproduction by infibulation."
Importance of education
An educational program about FGM requires, above all, sensitivity to the cultural background of the patient and her parents and an appreciation of the significance of this custom in their tradition. Traditional female genital circumcision, or female genital mutilation, performed upon women in some non-Western cultures has provoked considerable international controversy since the late 1970s. Western feminists, physicians, and ethicists condemn such practice.
Having made moral judgement against female genital mutilation, what is the next step? There is clearly an impasse between cultural relativism on the one hand and universalism on the other. Those at the forefront of the debate on female genital mutilation must learn to work respectfully with, instead of independently of, local resources for cultural self-examination and change.Powered by Sidelines