Female Genital Mutilation

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June 11, 1996 Bio: Lisa Small, a feminist attorney and a graduate of the Public Interest Law Scholar program at Georgetown University, is a former Illinois NOW activist and Women's Law and Public Policy Fellow in Washington, DC. She's tracked this issue for over a decade.

EvaS: The topic tonight is going to be female genital mutilation. Not an easy topic. And very upsetting, too. Our first question is, what is female genital mutilation? And why is it called circumcision?

LisaSmall: Eva, FGM is a custom common in sub-Saharan Africa in which portions or all of the vulva and clitoris are cut away. Because it is a genital modification, like the circumcision performed on boys, it has been called "female circumcision" or "Pharonic circumcision". Other terms for FGM are infibulation, sunna circumcision, clitorectomy, and clitidorectomy, but these rarely appear in mainstream news outlets.

EvaS: I see.

LisaSmall: But in reality, the operation is much for traumatic medically than the circumcision of the male foreskin. It's usually NOT done in a hospital or in sanitary circumstances; it's most often performed as part of a village ritual by an older woman with whatever she has handy ... sharp bone, broken glass, and tin can lids are some of the materials used. In its most minor form, only the tip of the clitoris and its covering skin are removed. In its most severe form, known as infibulation, ALL of the genital tissues are removed, including the labia, and the resulting wound stitched shut leaving a small hole the size of a straw for urine and menstrual blood.

EvaS: Lisa, it's even more gruesome than that.

LisaSmall: What do you mean, Eva?

EvaS: They scrape away the inside of the labia majora and allow those to grow together with a straw or a stick inserted to keep a tiny hole open.

LisaSmall: Exactly. That's infibulation, and that's how you get the straw-sized hole.

DXSMac: Why is this done? And the results are not quite the same as for men because when men are circumcised, it really doesn't affect sex for them. But from what you are saying, what is done to women DRASTICALLY affects sex for them.

LisaSmall: The results are not at all the same for men. Male circumcision sometimes goes wrong, but very rarely, and it is performed on a small piece of tissue that does not greatly affect male sexual pleasure and does not create life-threatening risks to male health. This operation is done as a result of custom. It is NOT required by the Koran. It is NOT limited to Muslims. The purpose is to deprive women of sexual pleasure by removing the clitoris; and to limit sexual access to her vagina by sewing it shut. The cultural rationale differs depending on where you are and whom you ask, but some of the cultures that practice this claim it is because women's genitals are ugly and scarring them in this way makes them less ugly.

JHirsch29: Since this practice has been going on for so long, how is it we are hearing about it only now?

LisaSmall: FGM was a topic at the First International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in 1976. However, for a long time after that, western feminists were somewhat inhibited in adding their voices to the complaints of the African women who were enduring this, because there were other African women who argued that Western women should not be "culturally imperialist" and should not interfere with a tribal practice. However, the initial hesitation evolved (largely through the unending work of Fran Hosken of Boston) and people have come to realize that this is not a situation where women's rights should be culturally relative; this is mutilation and can lead to death and is a human rights offense regardless of where or why it is practiced.

Diladi: This custom was referred to in, "The Haj," which came out several years ago.

LisaSmall: I'm not familiar with "THE HAJ," but it is mentioned in many non-fiction and fiction books. Most famous, recently, was "WARRIOR MARKS" which has also been made into a movie. Alice Walker wrote "WARRIOR MARKS," by the way.

Callmems: What is the status of this operation in the U.S.? Is it happening at all?

LisaSmall: Well, Callmems, it's hard to say. There have been anecdotal reports that U.S. physicians, just like doctors in France and Germany, have been asked to perform the operation and have been told that if they don't do it, the family will do at home without anesthesia or sanitation...sort of a medical blackmail. However, I personally have not seen any reports with a name, date, and place attached. That doesn't mean they aren't out there; it just means I haven't seen them, and I watch this issue pretty closely.

Xine W: When we were mentioning novels, I just wanted to mention Alice Walker's, "Possessing the Secret of Joy," which deals with FGM.

LisaSmall: Ack! Right, Xine..."WARRIOR MARKS" was the follow-up to "POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY," which itself was a sequel to "THE COLOR PURPLE".

RN OB: A midwife where I work, who is from Atlanta, told me it was very prevalent there.

LisaSmall: RN, prevalent in immigrant women, or in women being mutilated here?

RN OB: Both.

LisaSmall: Thanks for letting me know. There is federal legislation pending to make FGM a crime in the USA.

EvaS: But it's floundering. Pat Schroeder put it out.

LisaSmall: It passed in the Senate.

EvaS: Lisa, when?

Zasulich: What is the current status of the woman from Togo? And do you think the publicity has made more people pay attention?

LisaSmall: Zas, thanks for giving me my lead-in...the bill passed in the Senate May 1, at the very same time that the Togo case was being heard just outside Washington at the Immigration & Naturalization Service court in Falls Church, Virginia. I think that the publicity leading up to the Togolese woman's hearing was what got the bill through on the Senate side, no doubt about it.

EvaS: Oh, now I remember! And she was released. Right. She's 22 now, what I read.

LisaSmall: Her name is Fauziya Kasinga, and she is only 19 years old. She has been released from the U.S. prison where she was being held pending her immigration hearing, but she is still "in custody". Eva, I have news items from May that identify her as 19 and 20, but that doesn't prove much. EvaS: Aha! :) I have some, too...differing reports. :)

LisaSmall: I know she was 17 when she fled Togo and spent two years in prison here. That would make her 19, and any birthday would make her 20.

EvaS: And she was in Germany for a while...but doesn't matter.

LisaSmall: Anyway, what makes her case unusual is that her family resisted FGM and her father forbade it. Usually it happens to girls quite young, but her father was modern and did not want her mutilated. He died and she went into the custody of relatives who wanted to marry her to a man she did not want, and who was insisting that this be done to make her an acceptable wife. She fled through Europe to the U.S. and requested asylum here. The U.S. government put her in prison, complete with strip searches, for the two years until her case went public.

MirandaOOO: Isn't this child abuse on young girls?

LisaSmall: The question of child abuse depends on whether you mean legal or moral child abuse. In some places, this is legal. In many places, it's not. Here in the U.S., we may have a real problem if a Moslem family claims that this is a part of their religion the way a bris (circumcision) is for Jews. How can we criminalize one set of conduct and not the other? At the moment, though, other than general American laws against child abuse, it is legal.

MikiRN4: So then, basically, is it being used as a form of "birth control," besides the custom of mutilation?

READ MORE ABOUT IT: Female Genital Mutilation (rev. 6/7/96 - jlc)

[NOTE: These brief bibliographies are not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of a topic .... instead they are intended to provide a starting place for reading on the topic.]

A'Haleem, Asma Mohammed, "Claiming Our Bodies and Our Rights : Exploring Female Circumcision as an Act of Violence in Africa." in: Freedom from Violence : Women's Strategies from Around the World. New York, OEF International, 1992.

Dorkenoo, Efua. Cutting the Rose : Female Genital Mutilation, the Practice and its Prevention. London, Minority Rights Group, 1994.

Female Genital Mutilation. Chapel Hill, NC, Institute for Development Training, 1993. (Training course in women's health, module 10.)

Hosken, Fran P. The Hosken Report : Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females. Lexington, MA, Women's International Network News, 1993.

Hosken, Fran P. Stop Female Genital Mutilation : Women Speak. Lexington, MA, Women's International Network News, 1995.

Keywood, Kirsty. "Female Circumcision : Mutilation of Modification?" in: Law and Body Politics : Regulating the Female Body. Brookfield, Dartmouth, 1995.

Lightfoot-Klein, Hanny. Prisoners of Ritual : an Odyssey Into Female Genital Circumcision in Africa. New York, Haworth Press, 1989.

Lutkehaus, Nancy. Gender Rituals : Female Initiation in Melanesia. New York, Routledge, 1995.

Toubia, Nahid. Female Genital Mutilation : a Call for Global Action. 2nd ed. New York, Rainbo, 1995.

Walker, Alice. Warrior Marks : Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1993.

Woods, Kathryn. Facts About Female Genital Mutilation. Santa Cruz, CA, Body Image Task Force, 1994.

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