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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Digression

This is not the usual, I know, but I think that this is an important issue. This is a piece I did for a writing class I'm taking, and it was largely spurred on by another girl in the class. During our reading of the book "Slave" I was especially incensed by the practice of female genital mutilation that occurred in Mende Nazer's culture -apart from the fact that she was kidnapped and made a slave, I felt that her own family had perpetrated an act of horrible abuse by allowing this to be done to her.

When I expressed this to my peer editing group during class, I was shocked (not to mention infuriated) by hearing another girl defend this horrible violation of human rights. She said that, as a privileged white Westerner, I cannot judge another culture's religious practices because "it's like putting up a Christmas tree."

I'm sorry, but if you can think of another human being aside from Hitler who might think cutting off a child's genitals is similar to putting up a fake tree and decorating it with lights, please produce them. I would be amazed. I am still horrified that she thought she was drawing an apt comparison between two types of religious traditions, as well. One was adapted from pagan religions as a form of celebration (trees). The other is a form of patriarchal child abuse and sexual control (FGM).

For my analytical essay, therefore, I focused on this issue. Please feel free to share the information in this piece with anyone, as female genital mutilation is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

Religious and Cultural Practices in Violation of Human Rights: Female Genital Mutilation

Every day, around 6,000 girls undergo a centuries’ old religious and cultural practice. Many of them are too young to understand its significance or the impact it will have on the rest of their lives, but they are told that the ceremony is a beneficial one, and that it will contribute to their future happiness and marriage. An estimated 100- to 140-million women living today have already undergone the ceremony referred to worldwide as female genital mutilation. This practice is disguised as an important social or religious rite when it is in fact a violation of human rights and a dangerous, at times deadly, degradation of women.

According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation is recognized internationally as being a human rights violation; the practice is not limited to predominately religious societies and occurs even in developed nations, usually within immigrant families, according to Fran Hosken and (Hosken 1). The procedure reinforces religious and cultural stereotypes and subjugation of women, and causes unimaginable pain and suffering that can last a lifetime. The right to physical integrity and freedom from harm and degrading treatment are denied to women who have undergone female genital mutilation, and as the practice is most commonly performed on children, it is also a form of child abuse.

Although female genital mutilation is defended by proponents as a religious custom designed to make women suitable for marriage, it is in fact meant to force women into submissive roles, prevent them from experiencing pleasure during sex and in many cases, the procedure leaves the girl severely impaired for the rest of her life. Religion is not a valid justification of any process that violates human rights, as can be seen from examples throughout history. The Holocaust and modern genocide, as well as slavery, were and are all motivated at least in part by religion.

Many individuals justify the mutilation of female genitalia by using cultural or religious history; Mende Nazer, in reflecting on her own mutilation in the book Slave: My True Story comments that, “My parents really, truly believed they were doing the best for me” (Nazer 83). In religious cultures that practice female genital mutilation, a woman who has not been mutilated is considered unclean and will in many cases be shunned by her family and village, according to Amnesty International.

However, the practice of female genital mutilation is not one that offers any physical or psychological benefits to the girls and women who are mutilated outside of social acceptability. In cultures that practice female genital mutilation, women are usually refused and education and therefore have no options in life outside of marriage; in addition to that, men will frequently refuse to marry a girl who has not undergone the procedure. Many girls who manage to avoid being mutilated as a child are left with no option but to undergo the procedure as older teens or young adults in order to secure a marriage.

Female genital mutilation is most commonly practiced on girls between infancy and fourteen years of age, according to UNICEF. In Nazer’s tribe, she describes her circumcision as taking place over a hole dug in the ground. “She [the village midwife] scooped out a hole in the bare earth beneath me. I was numb with terror as she got out an old razor blade and washed it in some water” (Nazer 79). Nazer was eleven years old at the time of her circumcision and had been led to believe that the procedure would not be painful. For many girls, the procedure becomes much more than painful.

Although medical professionals sometimes perform the mutilation, a village midwife most commonly is given control of the procedure. The girls are not given anesthetics before the procedure or antibiotics afterward, and tools use to perform the genital mutilation range from broken glass bottles to scissors to tin can lids, according to Amnesty International. The tools used are usually dirty, and girls frequently contract infections or die from hemorrhaging as a result of being genitally mutilated. Childbirth also becomes much more difficult and dangerous for women who have been mutilated. Nazer reflects on the practice of genital mutilation within her tribe in Sudan, realizing that it was probably why her older sister’s first child did not survive (Nazer 83). Infections, HIV/AIDS, bleeding to death and sterility commonly result from female genital mutilation.

There are three major types of female genital mutilation, according to the World Health Organization, although any genital mutilation that does not fall directly within one of the three categories is still considered to be mutilation. A clitoridectomy removes all or part of the clitoris, which is central to sexual pleasure for many women. Excision is a process in which the clitoris and labia minora are removed, and sometimes the labia majora as well. Infibulation is the practice of sewing the labia minora or majora together and sometimes includes removal of the clitoris; infibulation is one of the main causes of sterility in women, as it causes menstrual blood to build up in the pelvic cavity. Some women have their genitalia burned or scraped out as well.

Women who have been mutilated frequently suffer from psychological disorders as well; the shock and betrayal of genital mutilation, as well as infections, disease and incredible pain in sex and childbirth, contribute greatly to a sense of shame and submission among women. Nazer writes that, “It took me at least two months to forgive my parents for allowing me to be circumcised” (Nazer 83). Many girls suffer from the psychological and physical repercussions of being mutilated for the rest of their lives.

Female genital mutilation is motivated by a desire to control and subjugate women, forcing them to conform to patriarchal standards of sexuality. Within the Muslim tradition, female genital mutilation is justified by the fact that it reduces the natural sex drive of women; females are expected to be submissive and non-sexual creatures except to the will of their husbands. Infibulation, for example, is seen as a way to totally control the sexuality of a woman who will be ‘opened’ and sewn back up in order to have sex with her husband and give birth to a child. This causes the development of thick, painful scar tissue and makes it challenging for a woman to give birth to a child.

Although the argument could be made that women might undergo the procedure willingly in order to be married or to fulfill what they consider to be a religious duty, this consideration does not change the current facts surrounding female genital mutilation. A woman could undergo the procedure without it becoming a human rights violation if she had access to knowledge and information regarding the effects of the procedure. However, female genital mutilation is performed almost exclusively on children who are given no choice and little information regarding what is being done to their bodies. In Nazer’s case, as she points out, she was misled and told that it would be a positive experience. “I told my mother that I didn’t want it [the mutilation] done. ….My mother sat down next to us and held my hand. ‘Ba is right, Mende. It’s healthy for you too” (Nazer 78). Afterward, she went into shock for several days and noticed her parents feeling visibly guilty about what had happened. This reaction demonstrates the idea that there may be some awareness of the dangers and consequences of female genital mutilation even within cultures that endorse it.

Female genital mutilation is one of the most serious human rights violation issues in existence today. Millions of girls undergo this dangerous, painful and damaging procedure every year despite work done by numerous organizations to criminalize and end the practice. Any individual can aid in the fight against this practice simply by spreading awareness of its existence and informing others of how dangerous it truly is.


Nazer, Mende. Slave: My True Story. New York: Public Affairs™, 2003.

Amnesty International. “Female Genital Mutilation: A Fact Sheet.” 2010. February 9, 2010. .

Fran P. Hosken “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).” 2009. February 9, 2010. .

UNICEF. “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.” March 6, 2008. February 8, 2010. .

World Health Organization. “Female Genital Mutilation.” February 2010. February 8, 2010. .

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