Women and the perpetuation of female genital mutilation
Dean Esmay has flung out a challenge to the female blogosphere, and I thought I'd take him up on it.
In this post, he points out that the practice of female genital mutilation (known also as "female circumcision") is neither Islamic nor the sole province of men. In fact, it occurs in a cultural band in northern Africa and predates Islam there, and women themselves are generally the agents of its transmission: they perform the majority of these "surgeries."
I am in agreement with Dean that the custom is not primarily an Islamic one, but rather, a cultural practice. However, it tends to follow a geographic distribution that intersects in many places with Islam, so the two are sometimes linked together in actuality, if not in origins. And some Moslems have used a passage in the Koran to justify the practice, although most think that's an ex-post-facto stretch.
Dean has titled his post "Understanding things: a first step towards fixing them." I agree with this notion as well: understanding something can help us in knowing how best to intervene to change it, and why it may be very difficult to do so.
Dean writes (and I believe this is the part of his post that he considers a challenge to the female blogosphere):
Historically, and even today, in most places where female circumcision is practiced, it is primarily done to women by other women...You aren't going to change this horrific, barbaric practice until you get all those aunts, mothers, and grandmothers in places like Egypt to agree that it needs to be changed. And I doubt you're going to get much mileage by blaming their brothers, fathers, and husbands for a tradition that goes back to long before any of them was born.
So, how can we best understand the practice, and is there any way to intervene to change it? There's a vast amount of literature on the topic, both online and off, and this post of mine will hardly scratch the surface--the problem has great complexity.
When one looks at a cultural practice of any sort, especially an ancient one, there are a host of interrelated issues involved, and it can be very difficult to tease out what influences what.
For the ancient practice euphemistically known as "female circumcision" (see this), the milder forms may be roughly analogous to male circumcision, but the more extreme (and more common) forms are most certainly not. They represent a horror of major proportions.
Dean is quite correct in pointing out that women have traditionally perpetuated the practice. This, by the way (at least as far as I know) tends to be true of other similar cultural practices that subjugate women physically (such as, for example, foot-binding, now fortunately eradicated).
In cultures where such mutilating customs are practiced, one reason that women tend to be in charge of performing them on other women (on little girls, actually) is that, in such cultures, men have been traditionally discouraged from touching women's bodies intimately--except sexually, that is, in the proper sanctioned relationships. But the more important reason that women are the agents of their own mutilation is that, of course, women are part of the culture, too. The custom is all of a piece, as is the culture, and women are not separate from it.
In the case of areas in which female circumcision is the custom, it is usually a cultural norm for men to only want to marry a circumcised woman. Of course, women want the girls in their own family to be marriageable; an uncircumcised girl would be a terrible liability. Still another goal of female circumcision is to enforce chastity by reducing female sexual desire, which is felt to be threatening and dangerous. Older woman, therefore, are also trying to control the tendency of younger women to run around and be sexually wild, and thus to reflect badly on the family (sleep around, get pregnant, etc.--all of which is absolutely forbidden in shame/honor cultures).
If you think of each girl who is born as a commodity that only gains worth when married, and if sexual activity prior to marriage (and intact genitalia) would make her unmarriageable, then the entire family--men and women both--will do everything in their power to stop that.
Who comes first, women or men, in perpetuating this endeavor? I don't think there can possibly be an answer; the two are intertwined. But there is no question that it is the cultural demand (expressed as a male demand) for a chaste and sexually tractable wife that's driving it, and the perception that female circumcision is an excellent way to accomplish this.
How could it be changed? Men or women--or both together--could take steps to do so--but, realistically speaking, to make this widespread would require a fairly massive cultural change in the entire way of looking at female sexuality, marriage, and the position of women in society. Although every journey begins with a single step, how do women or men get the courage to buck such a deeply ingrained system?
In the areas where female circumcision is common, it is a fact that women tend to have less political power than men, just as it is a fact that they are usually the actual agents by which the genital mutilation is performed. Most of their power is within the home, as Dean points out. And if female circumcision is the price they feel they must pay to be married and even to have a home and a family, then one can hardly expect them to cast off these chains all by themselves. It is a conundrum.
There are movements in that direction, however. And intervention can occur either through changing male or female attitudes, or both. This rather outdated article (from 1989)--which admittedly comes from a feminist and male-blaming perspective--details some suggestions for efforts in this direction, stressing the importance of education, including education of the women traditionally responsible for performing the procedure:
* Adoption of clear national policies for the abolishment of female circumcision;
* Establishment of national commissions to coordinate and follow up the activities of other bodies involved including, where appropriate, the enactment of legislation prohibiting female circumcision;
* Intensification of general education of the public, including health education at all levels, with special emphasis on the dangers and the undesirability of female circumcision;
* Intensification of education programs for traditional birth attendants, midwives, healers and other practitioners of traditional medicine, to demonstrate the harmful effects of female circumcision, with a view to enlisting their support along with general efforts to abolish this practice.
And here is a very recent article on the topic, which outlines some of the areas in which the UN is actually performing a positive service; general public education seems to be the way to go:
UNICEF is supporting programmes to end FGM/C in 18 countries and conducting initial activities in four. They use a variety of approaches:
In Senegal, largely thanks to the work of TOSTAN, a non-governmental organization that focuses on educating communities about human rights and human dignity, tens of thousands of people have declared their abandonment of the practice.
In Egypt, the FGM-Free Village Model project brings together government and UN partners to encourage villages in the southern region to make public declarations against FGM/C. UNICEF works with individuals who have renounced FGM/C and are willing to speak out and persuade others in the community to do the same.
In Sudan, religious leaders are using their authority to affirm that FGM/C is a violation of spiritual and theological principles. On Monday, government officials, the National Council for Child Welfare and UN agencies will hold a commemorative event that will include an exhibition, religious and secular songs on abandonment of FGM/C and children's performances. The exhibition will include images of girls who died of FGM/C.
...The Maputo Protocol, a regional legal instrument which explicitly prohibits and condemns FGM/C, was ratified by 15 African countries and entered into force in November 2005. A month later, 100 African parliamentarians adopted the groundbreaking “Dakar Declaration,”
which underscores the importance of community involvement as well as legislative change in ending FGM/C...
As I've said before, a mind (or, in this case, minds) can be a difficult thing to change. But not an impossible one. The same goes for that aggregate of minds known as a culture, and the practices that make up that culture.