FGM: The Patriarchal Cut

Instruments used in FGM (female genital mutilation). FGM is normally carried out by older female tribal leaders and midwives who see it as their responsibility to protect girls from all harm. Ironically, there are no benefits of FGM, rather it creates several medical and psychological problems.

Female genital mutilation is a procedure in which female genitals are cut, injured or changed in some way. The practice is often done with inadequate equipment, in inappropriate places, by people with no medical qualifications because it is an illegal practice. FGM has no evidence of providing health benefits; contrary to this it is extremely dangerous, is life-threatening and impacts on young girls carries through their entire life. There is not one religion that explicitly encourages the celebrated cut, yet it is a cross-faith practice. Culturally there are approximately thirty countries in the entire world that practice female genital mutilation routinely and yet their immediate neighbours do not. So why is this life-threatening practice still prevalent and continues to be perpetuated? The answer is: Patriarchy.

The World Health Organisation has distinguished four major types of female genital mutilation: Type 1: Clitoridectomy, this is the partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals), and in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the hold of skin surrounding the clitoris). Type 2: Excision, this is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva), with or without excision of the labia majora (the outer folds of skin of the vulva). Type 3: Infibulation, this is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and re-positioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy). Type 4: This includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non- medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing and genital area.

There are more than 200 million girls and women in the world that are victims of female genital mutilation and another 15 million girls are at risk of experiencing it by 2020 in high prevalence countries. It is practiced in Africa, the Middle East and Asia and among several immigrant communities in Europe, North America and Australia. It is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15, safely before puberty. A ceremony is organised in private amongst women. The little girl is held down amid singing and shouting, to celebrate the transition from “girlhood” to “womanhood”. The girl need to stay with her legs tied together for several weeks, urination and (later) menstruation are challenging because of the pencil-pint opening left by the operation. The immediate complications can include severe pain, haemorrhage, sepsis, urine retention. The long-term consequences can include: cysts, infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications, new-born deaths, and painful sexual intercourse.

The procedures are normally carried out by older female tribal leaders and midwives, they see it as their role to protect their children from all harm and ultimately responsible for their wellbeing. They view the circumcision as a path to be accepted in the society and an integral element of a women’s rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, which prepares them for their adult responsibilities as women. In this view, the social harm of not cutting outweighs any physical, psychological, or legal risk.

The Women’s Body and Patriarchy.

The underlying factor of female genital mutilation is not religion, rather an act of a dominant patriarchal culture, to control women’s bodies and sexuality. The practise is deeply rooted in a strong cultural and social framework. It is endorsed by the elders in the community and supported by parents with what is believed to be the best interest of their daughters.

Female genital mutilation can only be understood within its cultural context, a manifestation of unequal relations between women and men with roots in extremely entrenched social, economic and political conventions.  A practice born from patriarchal culture about curtailing a women’s sexual desire – to prevent her from being “oversexed”. Female genital mutilation is practiced in societies where virginity is an absolute pre-requisite for marriage, it enhances a woman’s chastity, honour and the necessary sexual sensitivity and thus a “virgin’s” parents collect more dowry. In the community it is believed that a girl should remain shy and virtuous: Uncircumcised are unclean and should be avoided and those who are not mutilated are un-marriageable and sexually loose. Female genital mutilation is also closely associated with family honour, which is of vital importance. If a woman loses her honour, the entire family is dishonoured. The most dishonourable experience for a man in these communities is the sexual impropriety of a female member of the family, to lose her virginity before marriage would disgrace the male family members. A disgrace that cannot be restored.

Societies that are considered more inclined toward patriarchy are usually lacking in substantial women’s rights. Africa and Asian countries and parts of the Middle East have higher instances of female genital mutilation. In many of these societies, men dictate what is considered the virtuous and acceptable female image, the control is accepted because women are solely dependent on men: their fathers and husbands, for safety and economic support. A woman’s virginity symbolises a high price for her dowry that means social and economic security for the woman.

There are no cultural attempts to mark the male body as virginal or not, this has no importance. It is as though there is no need for restrictions of the male sexuality. Men obtain their status by controlling women, in a society depriving them of their self-confidence, because the whole patriarchal system is based on controlling the women’s freedom.

It is also believed that female genital mutilation promotes fertility and a narrowed vaginal opening is believed to enhance a man’s sexual desire and the challenge of penetrating a tight opening is considered to be linked to a man’s virility.  A man will commonly refuse to marry an uncircumcised woman, and in some cultures, women may request to be re-infibulated after childbirth for fear that they will not sexually satisfy their husband, or that he may take another younger “tighter” wife.

Female genital mutilation is practiced to satisfy the desire of a patriarchal family structure, but in reality, the men distance themselves from the procedure of practice, maintaining a domination presence in the “background” and are not concerned enough with the consequences to stop inflicting this depravity onto their daughters. It allows women across the world to torture other women to accommodate and appease an ideology of distorted history of male supremacy.

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