Female genital mutilation (FGM), which is sometimes referred to as female genital cutting (FGC), is a term used to describe “all procedures that involve the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. Some critics object to the use of the term female circumcision, as they believe it to be inaccurate and misleading in so far as it implies a minor operation similar to that of male circumcision.
In respect to its origins, the practice is anchored in culture rather than any specific religion. Even though it is most common in Muslim communities, FGM is also practiced by some Jewish, and Christian, as well as atheist communities. The first recorded instances of the practice also predate the founding of both Christianity and Islam. The reasons given in justification of the practice vary across cultures, but the procedure is often intricately linked with a girl’s passage from child into adulthood. FGM has been justified on the grounds that it protects female virginity and consequently family honour, by curbing a woman’s sexual desire. Furthermore, female genitalia are often regarded as unclean and even dangerous. Accordingly, their removal is seen as necessary for hygienic reasons.
Within the communities that perform it, the practice is usually very deep-rooted and driven by an interwoven set of factors including custom, religion, tradition, superstition and misguided beliefs about hygiene. There can be enormous social pressure to partake in the custom, as an uncut girl will often not be considered marriageable and may even be treated as an outcast in her community. Due to this immense cultural pressure, girls themselves may sometimes see the procedure as something that is desirable or at least necessary, having been brought up in the belief that it is the only way to become a “real” woman. Unfortunately, these girls are rarely given enough information on the risks and side effects, as well as the manner in which FGM is performed, to enable them to make an informed and independent choice.
Meanwhile, addressing Female Genital Mutilation can be challenging, since a large taboo has developed around it, and any criticism of the practice has often in itself been controversial. Western human rights activists and feminists who speak out against the procedure on the basis that it violates fundamental human rights and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women, have frequently been accused of attempting to impose their own set of values on another culture. Consequently, many people are afraid to interfere in the area, mistakenly believing it to be culturally insensitive to involve themselves at all. Yet upon closer scrutiny it becomes apparent that it is not solely Western activists and organisation condemning the practice. African NGOs have frequently taken a stand against FGM, indicating that it is not simply a matter of one culture imposing its view on another. Evidently culture and tradition alone do not necessarily serve to make a practice lawful, justified or desirable.
According to the WHO female genital mutilation can be categorised into four different types. Type I refers to the total or partial removal of the clitoris or prepuce. It is sometimes referred to as sunna, which means ‘tradition’ or ‘duty’ in Arabic. Type II describes the partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora and can sometimes include the excision of the labia majora. Type III, which is also referred to as ‘infibulation’ is the most severe. It normally entails the removal of both the inner and outer labia, as well as the narrowing of the vaginal opening. Finally, Type IV is a blanket term covering all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia. It is worth noting that while the WHO categorisation provides a precise anatomical description useful in the medical context, different cultures have developed their own descriptions and classification systems, which can differ from the above classification.