The history of society’s relationship and misapprehension of female sexuality is incredibly long and complex, and female genital mutilation forms an intrinsic component. FGM is often seen as a practice isolated to North African countries and some in the Middle East, and it is this fact that in the past has seen some hesitancy about criticising the use of the procedure. The renowned feminist writer Germaine Greer, for example, described condemning the practice as ‘an attack on cultural identity.’ Yet Western culture is perhaps suffering from poor memory, as in Victorian society cliterodectomies were routinely carried out to prevent masturbation and ensure the ‘chasteness’ of women.
‘I for one have circumcised as many girls as boys, and always with happy results.’ – Circumcision of Girls. Journal of Orificial Surgery, Vol. 7, July 1898, pp. 31-33.
This citation is from a US medical journal published in 1898; in fact, the last recorded female cliterodectemy was performed in the US in 1952.
All forms of FGM – there are four ‘types’, which range in severity – are now outlawed in the majority of Western and US countries. Its practice is concentrated largely in 28 countries in North, East and West Africa; pockets of communities in Australia; and in some parts of Asia and the Middle East. In some countries, FGM plays an important role in traditional practices intended to purify women by removing their so-considered ‘male parts’, or as a rite of passage into womanhood. Other motivations for its implementation include the wish to impede sexual pleasure for a woman and so ensure her fidelity; the forcible preservation of a woman’s virginity before marriage; or the belief that it is more hygienic. The differing forms of procedure that fall under the umbrella term FGM are carried out between infancy and up until sometimes 15 years of age. Predating Islam and Christianity, it is not connected to a particular religion, being practised by communities that may be Islamic, Coptic Christian, Ethiopian Jewish, or of certain African religions.
The health implications of FGM are manifold, from the risk during and immediately after the procedure, to ongoing conditions such as infection, and increased risk of death during childbirth. The widespread campaign to halt the practice worldwide perhaps began in the 1960s and 1970s, when doctors in Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria spoke of the extreme health risks and long term complications related to the procedure. Today many international groups such as the World Health Organisation campaign rigorously to end its practice, and many women who have undergone the procedure have spoken out in criticism of this continued and widespread disfiguring procedure.
FGM is not just a cultural issue, it is a personal one; one that affects approximately 140 million women worldwide who have endured the surgery, and the many millions more who will, despite international pressure. Increasingly, female authors – both who have undergone FGM, and those who have not – are speaking out against the practice through their writing, using literature as a tool in the fight to end this mistreatment of women.
One of the women who fights against female circumcision is the Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi. Her book Woman at Point Zero (1975) is a fictionalised version of El-Saadawi’s encounter with a female prisoner, a murderer who has consented to telling her life story before her execution. The protagonist, whose mother carried out FMG on her as a young child, has suffered routinely at the hands of men throughout her life.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was circumcised in her native Somalia when she was five, and has written of the implications of this procedure in her autobiography Infidel. She is outspoken in her criticism both of FGM and male circumcision, and has written and spoken extensively on the subject. She has also spoken of the decadence of Western feminism and thinkers such as Germaine Greer who believe the practice needs to be considered ‘in context’. She has instead rallied a cry for a new form of feminism that addresses issues of non-white, non-Western women, and is not afraid to state its position against certain cultural or religious beliefs.
Another autobiography that discusses the topic is Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad, by the UN spokeswoman for women’s rights, Waris Dirie. She too underwent the procedure when aged five, then aged 13 fled from an arranged marriage to a much older man in Somalia, moving to London and eventually becoming a famous fashion model. In 1997 she left her modelling career to campaign against FGM, and founded the Desert Flower Foundation, that seeks to end the practice by raising awareness, implementing programs and supporting victims who have undergone the procedure.
Possessing the Secret of Joy, by American author Alice Walker, is a novel about the conflict arising from having more than one cultural identity. The main character of the novel, Tashi, has emigrated from Olinka – a fictitious African country – to the US. Her emigration allowed her to escape the practice of FGM, yet instead of being relieved she is haunted by the fact that she has not undergone what is deemed a rite of passage, and returns to her native country to undergo FGM as a teenager. Dealing with the complex notion of ‘choice’, Tashi is a woman who feels she is torn between two cultures: her decision to undergo FGM is through the desire to ‘honour’ her native culture, yet is the result of pressure to fit in and no longer be teased, and the mistaken belief that she will be becoming a ‘woman’ after the mutilation. The resultant psychological trauma affects her throughout her life, as she continues to question why this disfiguring sacrifice was asked of her.