In the Name of Ritual
An unprecedented legal case focuses on genital politics
The pain lasts far longer than the operation. Many of the 85 million to 110 million women who have endured FGM suffer ill effects ranging from reduced or lost sexual sensation to infections, persistent pain, painful intercourse, infertility and dangerous childbirth. The purpose is to diminish sexual appetite, in order to maintain a girl's virginity--and thus her marriageability.
Health care workers in the United States are seeing an increasing number of immigrants who have been circumcised. Women who have been infibulated must be cut open to give birth, and many ask their doctors to sew them up again afterward. Filmmaker Mire reports that some Somali refugees have offered to pay doctors as much as $3,000 to perform circumcisions on their daughters, while others rely on Somali midwives. In 1986, the district attorney in Atlanta charged an Africa-born nurse with child abuse when she botched a clitoridectomy on her 3-year-old niece.
The mutilations are not likely to stop in the near future. Last October two House Democrats, Pat Schroeder of Colorado and Barbara-Rose Collins of Michigan, introduced legislation forbidding the practice on girls younger than 18. If the bill passes into law, says Schroeder, immigrants will have to be educated as they enter the country about the operation's illegality and its dangers.
Eradicating FGM in the United States will be a simple matter compared with halting it in Africa. The ritual dates back to the time of the Pharaohs, and it cuts a wide swath across sub-Saharan Africa, without regard for religious or cultural boundaries. Many Muslims believe it is dictated by the Koran, but no religion prescribes it. Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, tribalists and one sect of Jews practice FGM in at least 25 African nations. It is the most significant rite of passage in certain communities in Kenya, according to Maendeleo ya Wanawake, the nation's largest women's group opposing FGM. For more than a decade, such grass-roots organizations, along with a handful of international agencies, have decried the mutilations. They have been banned in at least four African nations, but the rituals continue.
Source of esteem. Oddly enough, it is African women who are its most vehement proponents. "Women are the guardians, the custodians of culture," says Seble Dawit, an Ethiopia-born human rights lawyer in New York City. Circumcisions are often carried out by select older women, whose profession provides them with a degree of public esteem rarely enjoyed by women in male-dominated societies. In some West African cultures, mutilation is a secret component of elaborate rites of passage, which prepare young girls for being women and wives. In other regions, such as parts of Nigeria, girls are circumcised in the street with no more ceremony than Americans devote to piercing a child's ears.
But in all societies where it is practiced, genital mutilation is governed by a deeply held cultural mythology. Michael Scott, a physician writing a book on the topic, says both female and male circumcision are supported by the widespread belief that the human body is androgynous at birth. To enter adulthood, girls must be relieved of their male part, the clitoris, while boys lose their female part, the foreskin. Girls who have not undergone the procedure are shunned as unclean, oversexed and unmarriageable. Kambura Ciobaitaru, 31, a member of the Meru tribe of Kenya, recalls that she looked forward to her own circumcision "as if it was something sweet. I proved that I was a woman in my community."