Women and girls have also had a variety of tortures, blood rites, and mutilations performed on their genitals. Many people in Western society are unaware that females can be circumcised. Some think the idea is a joke. When made aware of the reality of the practice, most in the Western world find it repugnant. Yet the origins of female circumcision, and the justifications for its practice are very much similar to those of male circumcision.
Like male circumcision, the origins of female circumcision are vague and difficult to trace. Many speculations exist as to its beginnings.
Most historians agree that female circumcision was developed by many of the same people who practiced male circumcision, but probably originated much later. It appears to have had a number of different origins, and at one time was practiced by many people who have since abandoned it.
According to Hathout:
“The origins of female circumcision is [sic] rooted too distantly in human history to be fruitfully traced. The ritual has always been so widespread that it cannot have arisen from a single origin. Although always entangled in beliefs and superstitions with a mystical or religious background, the various peoples practicing it do not conform to a common racial, social or religious pattern. As a matter of fact no continent in the world has been exempt….”1
Like male circumcision, the female operation has been widely practiced by Semitic peoples. Many Moslem peoples and Egyptians still practice this rite. It is believed that the Israelites at one time also circumcised their female children.2 This is significant, for our current (United States) medical fad of infant male circumcision has come about partially as a result of Jewish influence. If the Jews still circumcised their female infants, perhaps Non Jewish Americans too would also be circumcising our baby girls.
The practice of female genital mutilation has been widespread throughout many parts of the world, although it has not been practiced nearly to the extent of male circumcision.
In Africa, the ancient Egyptians, the Mohammedans, the Gallas, the Abyssinians, the Bantu tribes of Kenya and many other African tribes…. In Asia the ancient and modern Arabs and the Malays of the East Indian Archipelago…. In Australia by many tribes…. Some Indian tribes in eastern Mexico, Peru, and Western Brazil … and the Skopizy of Russia are listed among the people who have, and in some cases still do practice the female procedure.3
Circumcision of female infants has been rare. Abyssinian infant girls are circumcised on the 8th day after birth. In Arabia it is sometimes done a few weeks after birth.4 The Ikito and the Kashbo of Africa also circumcise their infant girls during the first few weeks of life.5
Many other peoples have circumcised little girls ranging in ages from 3 to around 10. These include the Somalis, Sudanese, Coptics, and Egyptians. Sometimes the operation involves two steps, circumcision of the clitoris which is done at an earlier age, and infibulation, the artificial closing together of the vaginal lips, which is done a few years later.4
Among most other groups, the procedure is performed in early adolescence as some form of initiation rite signifying her entrance into womanhood and marriageability. This has been the practice in Peru, Australia, ancient Egypt, and the Bantu tribes.4,6
Among the Masai in Africa the operation is performed shortly after marriage. Among the Swahili and Guinea people the procedure is performed after childbirth.4
A number of different types of mutilations have been included under the broader category of female “circumcision.”
Some groups have practiced a deliberate elongation of the clitoris and labia minora-from artificial, mechanical manipulation, reaching lengths as long as 10 cm. The Hottentot tribe of Africa practiced this and the protuberance has been referred to as the “Hottentot Apron.” Possibly it was considered sensual or beautiful. Some claimed that it made intercourse easier, or perhaps was connected with Lesbianism.7 Bettelheim proposes that it developed out of women’s envy of males and desire to have a penis-like organ.8
A few groups practiced artificial defloration, the rupturing of young girls’ hymens prior to the first intercourse. Perhaps this was for magical or social reasons, or to spare the bridegroom the disagreeableness of the blood. The Totonacs of ancient Mexico cut the hymens of month-old infant girls.9 Artificial enlargement of the vagina was practiced among tribes that practiced subincision of males.10
Infibulation involves the artificial closing up of the vagina, usually accompanied by the excision of the clitoris and labia minora. These two practices together have been the most commonly practiced type of female genital mutilation.
Among the Sudanese:
“…The major part of one labium and the whole clitoris are removed by the first sweep of the razor, followed by excision of the corresponding part of the other labium … the two cut edges of skin [are clamped] between the two limbs of a split cane tied together at the end. More modern users make use of thread and needle…. This operation aims at fusion between the right and left sides, leaving an orifice that often barely admits a fingertip, and through which urine and the menstrual flow find an outlet.”1
Usually this is done by a woman whose trade is to circumcise girls, but is not medically trained. No anesthesia is used and usually the girl is screaming and struggling frantically. Therefore the ultimate outcome of the operation is often haphazard. The operation prevents the loss of virginity, or in cases where it has been lost, makes it appear that she is still a virgin. Intercourse is impossible, therefore shortly before marriage another operation is performed to enlarge the opening. Additional surgery is needed at the time of childbirth. The scar in the labia is cut away during delivery to make the vagina large enough for the child to pass. Usually the wound is then artificially tightened and “freshened up” again for her husband’s benefit.11
Clitorectomy refers to the excision of the clitoris. Usually this involves the amputation of the clitoris, as well as the prepuce (“hood” of the clitoris), labia minora and part of the entrance of the vagina. This is practiced in many Moslem countries, and in parts of Africa and South America.12 This mutilation appears to be a modification of the more damaging practice of infibulation, as a compromise among people who cannot be persuaded to do away with the operation entirely. Even today, this custom is too deeply ingrained among these people to be abandoned, so a less radical operation is replacing infibulation.13
The Omagua of North Peru excised the tip of the glans clitoris. The Kalihari perforated the clitoris.14 These are rare variations of female genital mutilation.
The amputation of the female prepuce alone, the fold of skin that normally covers the clitoris, is most closely analogous to typical male circumcision. This has been relatively rare throughout history, but like male foreskin amputation, has also been a medical fad in the United States within recent decades. While female genital mutilation parallels its male counterpart in its practice and development, although to a lesser extent, the motivation was clearly not to remove the prepuce and expose the clitoris.
Reasons for Female Circumcision:
Some people have believed that circumcision of females is desirable for cleanliness. “That thereafter the women may be able the more conveniently to wash themselves…”15 or “…to keep the women from stinking.”16
One writer explains:
“Cleanliness and freedom from offensive secretions in the hot weather is another excuse. These are all fabricated arguments to justify a barbaric custom that probably started as a tradition alone, [which] however, [are] responsible for its survival today in spite of the efforts made to eradicate it.”3
Some peoples who have practiced female circumcision apparently have a congenital enlargement of the clitoris and elongated labia minora that was considered ugly and undesirable, and thus a hindrance to marriage.14
Preservation of Virginity:
Infibulation results in a tiny vaginal opening which makes intercourse impossible. Bryk comments on the Egyptian practice:
“…In Egypt they must deprive the women of their natural rights and convert them into insensible machines for the greater security of the husband.”17
He also cites the practice of artificially tightening the vaginas of prostitutes to put them on the market as “fresh girls.”17
“To Raise the Value of the Woman”:
In countries where female circumcision was a long-cherished tradition, the operation became a necessary part of the woman’s social status, or “…both a commandment of necessity for sexual intercourse and a simple duty of decency.”15
Female circumcision was universal in Islam and no Arab would marry a girl “unpurified” by it. “Son of an uncircumcised mother” is a sore insult.20
Recent laws attempting to protect young girls from the mutilation have often gone unheeded because it has been impossible to find husbands for uncircumcised girls, and it is considered a disgrace for a woman not to marry.3
Additionally, a bride who lacks virginity can be rejected by her husband, or put to death on her wedding night. Therefore clitorectomy with infibulation, “a chastity belt forged of her own flesh,” was a matter of her own protection.21
Certain Islamic families have had an inherited tradition of their women being female circumcisers, thus giving them a position of prestige in the community. These people have had a social and economic motive for perpetuating the custom.21
A Means of Lessening Sexual Desire:
Excision of the clitoris is frequently explained as for the purpose of lessening sexual desire – protecting the morals of women and girls, making them passive, or preventing masturbation or nymphomania … during a time when it was believed that masturbation led to idiocy or insanity.13,15
Shifting the Center of Sexual Sensation:
There is a Freudian theory, now largely refuted, that women experience two types of orgasms, clitoral orgasm being “immature” and vaginal orgasm being “mature.” The possibility is offered that the clitoris is excised to “remove the erogenic zone from the front of the vagina by the extirpation of the organ most sensitive for the sexual libido….”18
However, it is dubious that any primitive tribes or ancient civilizations had any Freudian concepts of clitoral and vaginal orgasms. It has now been proven that all female orgasms are physiologically identical, the clitoral orgasm during masturbation seeming more intense because there is nothing in the vagina. However it has been noted that in victims of clitorectomy, orgasm is sometimes still possible with the clitoris removed, with the sensation evidently becoming centered in the surrounding tissue.
Other miscellaneous reasons for the procedure include fertility,14 the clitoris being believed to cause the death of a woman’s children,15 to make women more easily accessible to men,16 legal status – a woman cannot inherit property without having been circumcised,4 a required introduction into womanhood,3 or a “second birth.”18
A highly educated, modern-day Egyptian woman relates her reasons for desiring circumcision for her daughter in terms uncomfortably similar to our own society’s popular platitudes for circumcision of infant males:
“…A young Egyptian woman physician … was expecting a baby and was asked by a Danish scholar, Henny Harald Hansen, about the reasons for these mutilations. She informed him that ‘if the child she was expecting should be a girl she would circumcise her herself.’ The young woman gave several reasons. The first was religious: she was a Muslim. The second was cosmetic: she wanted ‘to remove something disfiguring, ugly and repulsive.’ Thirdly, the girl should be protected from sexual stimulation through the clitoris. The fourth reason was tradition. ‘The young doctor argued in support of her intention to respect tradition that the majority of husbands preferred their wives to be circumcised.’ “19
Why Has Female Circumcision Not Been Practiced to the Extent of Male Circumcision?
Little has been discussed in the historical literature about this. The following are possible explanations:
Among many peoples women may have simply not been important enough to warrant a special ritual such as circumcision. For example, among the ancient Hebrews the male infant was considered in need of and deserving of the special purification, consecration, and dedication supposedly afforded by the Brith ceremony. The Hebrews were an extremely patriarchal social order and females were of lower social status. Jewish female infants may not have been considered important enough to need a similar rite. (See Chapter 3 – “Circumcision and Judaism”)
If menstrual envy, as discussed in the previous chapter, was a motivation for male circumcision and other male genital mutilations, then women had a natural process of blood extruding from their genitals as proof of fertility and signifying entrance into adult status.
The male prepuce is readily visible, and usually it can be casually noted whether or not the individual has undergone circumcision. The female genitalia are not readily visible, and only closer scrutiny would indicate whether or not she has been circumcised. Therefore such motivations as “tribal identity,” “cosmetic value” and “changing the outward appearance of the organ” have not tended to operate as strongly to perpetuate the female operation as they have with male circumcision.
The highly vascular nature of the tissue of the female genitalia, as compared with the male foreskin, has very likely made female circumcision more dangerous. Rates of hemorrhage, infection, and death have been higher for female circumcision than for its male counterpart. This may very possibly be the reason that many people have abandoned the female operation.
Male circumcision has been almost exclusively under the control of men and the female operation has been controlled by women. Apparently the whole idea of genital mutilation was originally a male practice, as it appears that female circumcision developed more recently. Perhaps females had more common sense and therefore less desire to cut up their own or their daughters’ genitals. Or perhaps maternal protective urges intervened to prevent harm from befalling their daughters, while they had no such control over the circumcision of their sons. (Certainly men are equally capable of being caring and protective of their children, but such traits have frequently not been allowed to develop in males in many cultures.)
Complications of Female Circumcision
Numerous complications resulting from female circumcision have been reported. Shock can result from the initial trauma as the operation is usually done without anesthesia, or it may follow hemorrhage.22
Hemorrhage is a frequent complication which has resulted in anemia, lowered resistance to infection, and death.22 Apparently death from female circumcision was fairly common in ancient times.3
Injuries to the urethra, bladder, vagina, perineum, anal canal, and Bartholin’s glands have resulted – especially since the operation is frequently done by an untrained person with a struggling, unanesthetized girl.23
Infections have been common, including tetanus, septicemia, abscesses, infections of the urethra and bladder, chronic pelvic infection, inflammation of the connective tissue, and pockets of pus. Infections from this operation have been fatal.22,23
Retention of urine, due to damage of the urethra, or as a response to the immediate trauma have been reported.22
Epidermoid cysts — pockets within the tissue filled with puslike material, have been common. These are usually caused by outer skin being incorporated into the wound as it heals.22,24,25
Other complications include infertility due to chronic pelvic infections or obstruction preventing intercourse, excessive menstrual bleeding, painful menstruation, retention of menstrual blood, keloid scar formation, vaginal calculi (“stones” of smegma), and painful intercourse.22,23
Repeated pregnancies can be an indirect result if intercourse is painful, causing women to seek pregnancy as temporary relief from sexual demands.26
Difficulties in pregnancy and delivery caused by obstruction of the vulva and necessitating surgical intervention to insure safe delivery have also been reported.27
Female Circumcision in the United States During the 20th Century
The amputation of the female prepuce and subsequent exposure of the glans clitoris has been performed on women and little girls by the modern medical profession, particularly in the 1950s-for many of the same reasons as are offered for male circumcision.
One doctor, in an article that was published in a medical journal in 1958, advocated circumcision of female children for the following reasons:
“…The infant clitoris is hidden. The prepuce covers it at birth. The midline raphe is invariably intact. …It may remain intact into late multiparous life. …When the raphe does not open, smegma accumulation can cause trouble. If the raphe opens only a pinpoint, bacteria can enter to cause contamination of the debris. Then come the symptoms of irritation, scratching, irritability, masturbation, frequency, and urgency. In adults … dyspareunia (painful intercourse) and frigidity…. The same reasons that apply for the circumcision of males are generally valid when considered for the female.”28
During the 1950s it was popular to circumcise women who were non-orgasmic or climaxed only with difficulty. One doctor who performed the operations wrote:
“Women can have a redundancy (excessive amount of tissue) and phimosis (inability to retract) of the prepuce” and advocates the operation: 1.) If the patient is adipose this operation may help cure her adiposity (fat) by relieving psychosomatic factors, 2.) If the husband is unusually awkward or difficult to educate, one should at times make the clitoris easier to find. [!] 3). If the clitoris is quite small and difficult to contact.29
In response to the fad of circumcising women to cure frigidity, Dr. Money says:
“Some people would tell you they’ve had better sex after a nose-job operation.” He insists that while some women do report improved orgasm capacity after circumcision, the effect is psychological.30
The operation is described:
“After an injection of novocaine the doctor uses a 4-inch forceps to pull back the prepuce, makes a small 1/2-inch slit in it, and removes the elliptical piece of skin … however,…the inner lips serve as a protective shield for the clitoris and if too much is removed it could leave the clitoris dangerously exposed.”30
It is curious that doctors like this are concerned about exposing and traumatizing the very sensitive glans clitoris, but appear to lack concern or awareness that the glans of the intact male is similarly sensitive and equally exposed to trauma if the prepuce is cut off.
Interestingly enough, female circumcision was, during recent decades, purported to decrease a woman’s sexuality. In 1936, in an article written in a medical publication by a doctor, it was seriously suggested that women more passionate than their husbands be circumcised to reduce their sex drive.30
It appears doubtful that circumcision of the female confers any sexual benefits. Circumcision of females is not necessary for personal hygiene, if they can be taught necessary washing procedures. The following are instructions for female hygiene which appear in a recently published book:
“All that is required for adequate hygiene is to keep the outside labia and clitoral area clean, using soap and water. Inadequate hygiene can produce unpleasant odors and interfere with lovemaking, but frequent washing of the external genitalia will be sufficient to prevent any unpleasant odors. It may be necessary to retract the foreskin of the clitoris, and using a cotton swab or piece of gauze, remove any accumulation of smegma. Male genitals also need frequent washing, as females are no more ‘dirty’ than males.”31
There is another form of female genital mutilation that is extremely common in Western society today. It is performed regularly among today’s medical profession. Episiotomy involves the cutting of the perineum, the skin between the vagina and the anus, to enlarge the vaginal opening at the time of birth. After delivery, the severed skin and internal muscle tissue are stitched back together. This is normally done under local anesthesia, unless a stronger type of medication was used for the birth. Initial healing often causes severe pain, burning upon urination, and difficulty with defecation. Subsequent intercourse may be difficult for months. For many women, the pain caused by the healing of the episiotomy is much greater than any pain experienced with labor or delivery. This pain can definitely disrupt bonding with the baby and adjustment to motherhood.
Expectant mothers in America have been led to believe that they cannot give birth vaginally without episiotomies. They have been told that they will either tear badly or be left with a “gaping hole” for a vagina, if episiotomy is not done. Some people believe that the baby will not come out at all unless this cut is made. The rate of episiotomies for vaginal births in American hospitals has been nearly 100%. Some doctors cut the mother’s skin before the baby’s head is even in the birth canal. Doctors have even been known to perform episiotomies after the baby’s head has emerged spontaneously – so convinced are they that this surgery must be done.
Most midwives and some progressive doctors gently massage the perineum, applying oil or hot compresses to ease the tissues around the baby’s head.
Why has the genital mutilation of episiotomy taken over the American birthing scene?
The traditional position in which a woman is placed on the delivery table, flat on her back with legs spread-eagled up in the air in stirrups gives her less control over her body and hampers her ability to give birth naturally. When birth takes place in a bed or mat on the floor – which is the choice for most women giving birth at home or in birth centers – she is free to assume whatever position she desires. Less stress is placed on the perineum, particularly if she assumes a side lying or hands and knees position.
Doctors are trained to do episiotomies, and tend to assume that this is a necessary procedure. Some do not know how to deliver a baby without doing this. Perhaps for a male doctor, massaging a woman’s perineum seems too personal and time consuming. Doing a quick surgical cut and repairing it is a more impersonal “medical” procedure, which more readily fits into his or her way of thinking.
Normal vaginal birth is a simple, natural process. Doctors have been accused of turning birth into surgery in order to make their role in birth indispensable and give themselves something to do of a medical nature.
Most importantly, many male doctors readily admit to doing episiotomies “for the husband” on the idea that stitching up the vagina tightly will make future sex relations more stimulating for him. Other countries’ practices of infibulation and subsequent “freshening” and tightening of this area following childbirth, ring far too familiar a bell for today’s mother who has experienced a typical delivery in an American hospital. Women have been led to believe that they will no longer be sexually desirable after childbirth unless this operation is done. However, the first attempts at intercourse following a still-healing episiotomy, even if it offers a degree of “tightness” for her husband or partner, usually involve considerable pain and tension for her and consequently will bring about less pleasure for either partner.32
The discomfort that a man feels when recovering from adult circumcision appears to be similar to the pain and soreness that a woman experiences following an episiotomy. Interestingly, many male doctors advocate infant circumcision on the grounds that it is “so painful for a grown man to be circumcised,” yet regularly give women episiotomies with little or no concern for their discomfort. One medical doctor who has been a popular proponent of natural childbirth advises expectant parents that “Newborn babies pay little attention” to being circumcised, and tells husbands “…do not let your wife build up a mighty issue over these simple little cuts” (episiotomies),34 but that “…swelling and pain is terrific. . .”33 when grown men have circumcisions. Apparently the thinking of our male-dominated medical profession has been that only grown men have feelings and that women and infants do not have feelings worthy of consideration!
Like many other medical interventions in birth, episiotomy is justified in a small percentage of cases, perhaps 5-10% of all vaginal births. A breech birth or a sudden drop in fetal heart tones indicates the need to deliver the baby as quickly as possible and an episiotomy will speed up this process. A large baby and a tight, unrelaxed perineum or a frantic, uncooperative mother may also indicate need for episiotomy. Most midwives want to be trained and equipped to do episiotomies if necessary, but wish to reserve its use to cases of true need rather than making it a routine procedure.
As a woman, and mother of two young daughters, I find the descriptions of female genital mutilation horrifying and can only approach them with gratitude that for many people these practices have fallen into antiquity. However, with my primary concern being circumcision of infant males in this country, I am also acutely aware of the discrepancy over the fact that tremendous protest and public outrage has been expressed over the practice of female genital mutilation in other countries, while we have yet to develop similar awareness and outrage over the male genital mutilation that is rampant in our own country!
I have no interest in having myself or my daughters circumcised. I believe that they and I are capable of keeping ourselves clean and can function normally in our natural states. I never realized that female hygiene was so “complicated.” Women are rarely given specific instructions for cleaning themselves or for caring for the genitals of their infant daughters. In actuality, female hygiene is more complicated than male hygiene since women and girls frequently do not wipe themselves correctly and can contaminate their vaginas with feces.
Perhaps modern-day female circumcision can be of benefit to a few select females. Similarly, perhaps male circumcision can be of benefit to some males. However, if circumcision of either males or females were being done only to people who personally desired it or had true medical need for the operation, both practices would be extremely rare.
- Hathout, H.M. “Some Aspects of Female Circumcision” Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Vol. 70, June 1963, p. 505.
- Bryk, Felix Sex and Circumcision: A Study of Phallic Worship and Mutilation in Men and Women Brandon House, No. Hollywood, CA., c. 1967, p. 270-271.
- Schaefer, George, M.D. “Female Circumcision” Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 6, No. 2, August 1955, p. 235-236.
- Worsley, Allan, M.B. “Infibulation and Female Circumcision; A Study of a Little-Known Custom” Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the British Empire, Vol. 45, 1938, p. 690.
- Bryk, p. 273-274.
- Ibid., p. 272-273.
- Ibid., p. 276-278.
- Bettelheim, Bruno “Symbolic Wounds” Reader in Comparative Religion Lessa, William A., & Vogt, Evan Z., editors Harper & Row, New York, 2nd ed., c. 1965, p. 239-240.
- 9. Bryk, p. 281.
- Ibid., p. 280.
- Ibid., p. 281-283.
- Ibid., p. 284-285.
- Mustafa, Asim Zaki “Female Circumcision and Infibulation in the Sudan” Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the British Commonwealth, April 1966, Vol. 73, p. 303.
- Bryk, p.287.
- Ibid., p. 289.
- Ibid., p. 294.
- Ibid., p. 283-284.
- Ibid., p. 295
- Daly, Mary Gyn Ecology; The Metaethics of Radical Feminism Ch. 5 – “African Genital Mutilation: The Unspeakable Atrocities,” p. 165. Beacon Press, Boston, MA. c. 1978 Her reference: Henny Harald Hansen, “Clitoridectomy: Female Circumcision in Egypt” Folk, Vol. 14-15 (1972/73), p. 18.
- Bryk, p.290.
- Morgan, Robin, & Steinem, Gloria “The International Crime of Genital Mutilation” Ms., March 1980, p. 67, 98.
- Mustafa, p. 304.
- Worsley, p. 687.
- Hathout, p. 506-507.
- Onuigbo, Wilson I.B., M.B., Ph.D. “Vulval Epidermoid Cysts in the Igbos of Nigeria” Archives of Dermatology, Vol. 112, Oct. 1976, p. 1405-1406.
- Morgan & Steinem, p. 67.
- Dewhurst, Christopher J., M.B. & Michelson, Aida, S.R.N. “Infibulation Complicating Pregnancy” British Medical Journal, December 5, 1964, p. 1442.
- McDonald, C.F., M.D.
- “Circumcision of the Female”
- Rathmann, W.G., M.D. “Female Circumcision, Indications and a New Technique” General Practicioner, Vol. 20, No. 3, September 1959, p. 115-120.
- Schultz, Terri “Female Circumcision: Operation Orgasm” Viva, Vol. 2, No. 6, 1975, p. 53-54, 104-106.
- Kline-Graber, Georgia, R.N. & Graber, Benjamin, M.D. Woman’s Orgasm Popular Library, 9 1975, p. 99.
- Haire, Doris, Co-President International Childbirth Education Association The Cultural Warping of Childbirth; ICEA News, Special Issue, c. 1972, p. 24.
- Bradley, Robert A., M.D. Husband-Coached Childbirth “If We Have a Boy, Should He Be Circumcised?” Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., N.Y. c. 1965, p. 159.
- Ibid., Ch. 8, “Does My Wife Have To Be Cut?” p. 142.
G.P., Vol. 17, No. 3, September 1958, p. 98-99.
The Question No One Would Answer
A courageous Egyptian feminist tells the truth of her own genital mutilation — and the beginning of a life devoted to saving other women.
I was six years old that night when I lay in my bed, warm and peaceful in that pleasurable state which lies halfway between wakefulness and sleep. I felt something move under the blankets, something like a huge hand, cold and rough, fumbling over my body, as though looking for something. Almost simultaneously another hand, as cold and as rough and as big as the first one, was clapped over my mouth, to prevent me from screaming.
They carried me to the bathroom. I do not know how many of them there were, nor do I remember their faces, or whether they were women or men. The world seemed enveloped in a dark fog. Perhaps they put some kind of a cover over my eyes. All I remember is that I was frightened and that there were many of them, and that something like an iron grasp caught hold of my hand, and my arms, and my thighs, so that I became unable to resist or even to move. I also remember the icy touch of the bathroom tiles under my naked body and unknown voices and humming sounds interrupted now and then by a rasping metallic sound which reminded me of the butcher when he used to sharpen his knife before slaughtering a sheep for the “Eid” [festival].
My blood was frozen in my veins. I thought thieves had broken into my room and kidnapped me from my bed. I was afraid they were getting ready to cut my throat, which was what always happened with disobedient girls in the stories my old rural grandmother told.
I strained my ears trying to catch the metallic, rasping sound. The moment it ceased, I felt as though my heart had stopped beating, too. I was unable to see, and somehow my breathing seemed to have stopped. Yet I imagined the rasping sound coming closer and closer to me. Somehow it was not approaching my neck as I had expected, but another part of my body, somewhere below my belly, as though seeking something buried between my thighs. At that very moment, I realized that my thighs had been pulled wide apart, and that each of my legs was being held as far away from the other as possible, as though gripped by steel fingers that never relinquished their pressure. Then suddenly the sharp metallic edge dropped between my thighs and cut off a piece of flesh from my body. I screamed with pain despite the tight hand held over my mouth. The pain was like a searing flare that went through my whole body. After a few moments, I saw a red pool of blood around my hips.
I did not know what they had cut off, and I did not try to find out. I just wept, and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. Yes, it was she. In flesh and blood, right in the midst of these strangers, she was talking to them, and smiling at them, as though they had not just participated in slaughtering her daughter.
They carried me to my bed. Then I saw them catch my four-year-old sister in exactly the same way they had caught me. I cried out with all my might. No! No! I could see my sister’s face held between the big rough hands. It had a deathly pallor. Her wide black eyes met mine for a split second, a glance of terror that I can never forget. A moment later, she was gone, behind the door of the bathroom where I had just been. The look we exchanged seemed to say: “Now we know what it is. Now we know where our tragedy lies. We were born of a special sex, the female sex. We are destined in advance to taste of misery, and to have a part of our body torn away by cold, unfeeling hands.”
My family was not an uneducated Egyptian family. On the contrary, both my parents had been fortunate enough to have a very good education, by the standards of those days. My father was a university graduate and that year had been appointed General Controller of Education for Menoufa, then a province of the Delta region north of Cairo. My mother had been sent to French schools by her father who was director general of army recruitment. Nevertheless, this custom of clitoridectomy for girls was very prevalent then, and no girl could escape having her clitoris excised, regardless of her social class or whether her family lived in a rural or an urban area. When I recovered from the operation and returned to school, I asked my friends about what had happened to me, only to discover that all of them, without exception, had been through the same experience.
For years, the memory of my clitoridectomy continued to track me down like a nightmare. I had a feeling of insecurity, fear of the unknown, waiting for me at every step I took into the future. I did not know if there were other such surprises being stored up for me by my mother and father, or my grandmother, or the people around me. Since that day, society had made me feel that I was a girl, and I saw that the word “Bint” [girl] when pronounced by anyone was almost always accompanied by a frown.
Time and again I asked myself why girls were made to undergo this barbaric procedure. But I could never get an answer to this question, just as I was never able to get an answer to the questions that had raced around in my mind the day that both my sister and I were clitoridectomized.
Somehow this question seemed to be linked to other things that puzzled me. Why did they favor my brother when it came to food? Why did he have freedom to go out of the house? Why could he laugh at the top of his voice; run and play as much as he wished, when I was not even supposed to look into people’s eyes directly? My duties were primarily to help in cleaning house and cooking, in addition to studying. My brother, however, was not expected to do anything but study.
My father was a broad-minded man who tried as best he could to treat his children equally. I used to feel sorry for my young girl relatives when they were forced out of school in order to get married to an old man just because he owned some land, or when their younger brothers could humiliate and beat them because boys could act superior to their sisters. My own brother tried to dominate me, though my mother used to say that a girl is equal to a boy. I used to rebel, sometimes violently, and ask why my brother was accorded privileges not given to me, despite the fact that I was doing better than he was at school. Neither my mother nor my father ever had any answer except: “It is so.” I would retort: “Why should it be so?” and back would come the answer, unchanged: “Because it is so.”
Even after I grew up and graduated as a doctor in 1955, I could not forget the painful incident that made me lose my childhood, that deprived me during my youth and for years of married life from enjoying the fullness of my sexuality and the completeness of life that can only come from psychological equilibrium. Nightmares followed me throughout the years, especially during the period when I was working as a medical doctor in rural areas where I often had to treat young girls who had come to the outpatients’ clinic bleeding profusely after this mutilation. Many died as a result of the primitive way in which clitoridectomies were performed. Others were afflicted with acute or chronic infections from which they sometimes suffered for the rest of their lives. And most, if not all, became the victims of sexual or mental distortions later on as a result of this savage experience.
My profession also led me to examine patients from other Arab countries where excision of all external genitals and even infibulation are practiced, and where I found even worse stories than those I had experienced and seen at home. In Egypt, the removal of the clitoris is often not complete. Sometimes only the tip is cut – a modification of the operation practiced by educated parents who understand the sexual and psychological dangers of total excision, but who feel prevented by tradition from not doing the operation at all.
Although the practice is declining rapidly in Egyptian cities, clitoridectomy is still done regularly in the villages.* Clitoridectomy is only one of the measures by which the patriarchy reinforces the values of monogamy. Up until recently in some parts of Egypt, a woman could be killed if she was not a virgin on her wedding night and a wife could be killed if she was unfaithful to her husband. Because the woman has a powerful sexuality, the male-class society must enforce monogamy with powerful measures -physically, psychologically, morally, and legally.
Since the day of my terror, I have realized that I had to find my own answer to the question that no one would answer. From that day extends a long path that has led to these words.
Nawal el Saadawi
*The Cairo Familv Planning Association held a seminar, “Bodily Mutilation of Young Females,” [in 1979] and concluded that “female circumcision” is medically and psychologically harmful. The meeting called for a national campaign to educate and involve parents, medical staff, women’s associations, and religious scholars, and to formulate legislation.
Nawal el Saadawi is an Egyptian physician and writer who is well known throughout the Arab world for her books on the status, psychology, and sexuality of women, and her novels and short stories.
Before 1972, these works were published in Egypt where Dr. Saadawi worked, first in rural areas, then in Cairo hospitals, and finally as director of education in the Ministry of Health; she was also the editor of Health magazine. The publication of her book, Women and Sex, led to her dismissal as both director and editor, and her work was no longer accepted for publication in her own country. Now published in Lebanon, her books remain best-sellers in most Arab countries, but are forbidden in Saudi Arabia and Libya. Only one of her books is available in English.
At 48, Dr. Saadawi continues to write and to organize. She was a founder of the African Women’s Association for Research and Development in 1977 and is now director of the African Training and Research Center for Women (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Reprinted, with permission, from Ms. Magazine, March 1980, p. 68-69.
INDICATIONS AND A NEW TECHNIQUE
W.G. Rathmann, M.D.
GP, vol. XX, no. 3, pp 115-120 , September, 1959
Redundancy or phimosis of the female prepuce can prevent proper enjoyment of sexual relations; yet some modern physicians overlook indications for circumcision. Indications for, and relative contraindications against, use of this procedure are presented, and a new technique is described. Properly carried out, circumcision should bring improvement to 85 to 90 per cent of cases – with resulting cure of psychosomatic illness and prevention of divorces.
Instrument for Female Circumcision
Note adjustment screw on tip of handle to adjust the pressure applied by the jaws. After the surgeon clamps the instrument, it remains in place without effort. The instrument is seven inches long. [NOHARMM note: For comparison of medical instruments used for male foreskin amputation, click here]
Technique of Circumcision
It seems that such a relatively minor procedure should not require much detailed description. However, the fear of scar tissue formation, bleeding and the lack of a descriptive technique in the usual surgery texts, might prevent some physicians from attempting it. A few lines will be devoted to my previous technique, then a more simplified technique will be described.
Allow two weeks before the next menstrual period. Give 3/4 gr. seconal one-half hour prior to surgery. Trilene inhalation makes the injection of 2 per cent Xylocaine or Nesacaine less painful. Most of the injection for adequate anesthesia can be made from one point, starting at the mid-line, about one inch anterior to the edge of the prepuce. The first injection is made three-eighths inch deep, to each side of the clitoris (Figure 5). Without removing the needle from the skin, the anesthetic is then injected subcutaneously to the base of the lateral attachment of the prepuce. The needle is then removed and injections are directed cephalad, as close as possible to the sides of the clitoris (Figure 6). This latter injection reduces the discomfort of separating the phimosis. The clitoris itself is not injected.
The prepuce is then freed with a blunt probe. More Trilene is occasionally needed at this time, but the rest of the surgery should be painless. The operative area is resterilized.
In the past, two long mosquito forceps were used to help perform the circumcision. They maintained the proper relationship of the internal and external skin layers and controlled the bleeding prior to suturing. Because the procedure was technically difficult and time consuming, I developed a clamp to be used for the procedure (Figures 3 and 4).
|Figure 5||Figure 6||Figure 7|
|Figure 8||Figure 9||Figure 10|
Clamp for Procedure
This instrument is seen with jaws open Figure 4 and closed in Figure 3. It is simply a “vise-grip” pliers with strong, specially designed jaws for this procedure. After opening, the lower triangular plate or jaw (which is not perforated), is placed under the prepuce and the jaws are partially closed. A tooth thumb forceps is then used to reach through the hole in the upper jaw and pull the desired amount of prepuce into the clamp (Figure 7). The adjusting screw on the handle of the pliers can be turned to adjust for the various thicknesses of prepuce before the pliers are clamped. The cam action not only exerts adequate pressure to compress the tissues at the narrow lower edge of the upper jaw, but also sets itself so that no more force is needed by the operator.
After a lapse of five minutes, the surgeon uses a scalpel to excise the prepuce within the upper jaw, being careful to stay close to the inner wall of the clamp (Figure 8). After the triangular piece of excised prepuce is removed, only the lower blade can be seen (Figure 9). The jaws are then opened and the clamp removed. On a thin prepuce, sutures are not necessary (Figure 10). When there is a doubt whether they are needed, however, the edge is reinforced with a few 5-0 plain catgut sutures on an atraumatic needle. This technique is extremely simple, accurate and bloodless. It has given excellent results because of the reduced healing time and absence of scar tissue.
In Regards to Male Genital Mutilation vs. Female Genital Mutilation
In recent years there has been a considerable and well justified outcry over the many forms of cutting of female genitalia.
Immigrants to the U.S., primarily from Moslem countries, have wished to continue their centuries old custom. During the 1990’s the American Academy of Pediatrics attempted to approve of a ritual nick of the genitalia of young girls, not out of medical need but of social custom for these people. Vast public opposition to this caused the AAP to withdraw their approval and in 1997 a law was passed making all forms of female genital mutilation illegal in the U.S. Sadly the custom still persists in the Moslem world and among some African tribes. In the U.S. some still do it illegally, sometimes sending their daughters outside of the country to undergo circumcision. (Sadly in 2018 a judge declared the U.S. law against female genital mutilation “unconstitutional” and acquitted the doctor who had been charged with performing this act.)
Countless feminists have joined the chorus of opponents of female genital mutilation. Sadly, when those of us who also oppose male genital mutilation have tried to chime in, too often we’ve been met with scorn and denial. Our only answer has to be “pure cultural blindness.” Female genital mutilation, however accepted and embraced it may be in cultures other than our own, is universally repugnant and abhorrent to American eyes. There is no question but to forbid it. The male counterpart has been deeply culturally ingrained in the U.S. as the unquestioned norm. I once received a phone call from a man asking “Why would anybody be opposed to circumcision?” The concept has blinded our sensibilities. The challenge to crawl out of our fog of apathy and confusion, to question how we treat our children, to respect the human body in its original form, and to accept our sexuality in its fullness, has been a decades long struggle.
Some feminist voices have been angry when male rights against genital mutilation have been introduced. Hence the feminist mother who parades and protests for female freedom from genital mutilation, yet passively accepted society’s urges when her son was born and unquestionably circumcised. The following is my answer:
We are all one humanity. Society has many unfair situations which must be questioned and changed. Some inequities favor males, others favor females. But we are all together in this universe. We all exist from equal input from a father and a mother. We all begin, in our embryonic state, with equal equipment eventually morphing into ovaries, vaginas and uteri, or penises and testes. The majority of us form heterosexual unions. Regardless of our sexual orientation, we all form friendships with people of both genders. Every fertile woman is capable of conceiving and birthing a child of either gender. I doubt that there is an opponent of male genital mutilation (aka circumcision) that does not also oppose the female counterpart. One gender pitted against the other will get us nowhere. Intactivism comprises an equal amount of male and female voices.
http://www.amazon.com/Circumcision-Clitoridectomy-Rochester-Studies-Medical/dp/158046498X (Sarah Rodriguez)
https://www.google.com/search?q=female+genital+mutilations&biw=1920&bih=947&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj4692s9frLAhWpxIMKHZE2B-EQsAQIbg (huge assortment of images)