Thousands of women undergo female genital mutilation as a cultural tradition in countries such as Sudan, Egypt and Somalia, leaving women in pain and without sexual pleasure.
However, this practice goes beyond the sexual factor, because the cutting itself puts women at a high risk for developing health complications, CSUN experts said.
Nayereh Tohidi, department chair and professor of women’s studies at CSUN, said rather than sensationalizing the sexual aspect, western societies need to talk about the harm that it might bring to women’s health.
“We need to find out what the women activists in those countries are doing to fight against this tradition,” Tohidi said. “Instead of speaking for them, we need to echo and highlight their own voices.”
The practice is performed on girls right after puberty, said Sabina Magliocco, assistant professor of anthropology at CSUN. FGM comprises all procedures of cutting around the labia and clitoris that in many cases are sewn together, leaving only a small hole for urine and menstruation.
“The idea is that it enhances the men’s pleasure, but it deprives women from experiencing sexual pleasure,” Magliocco said. “In some cases this procedure can make childbirth and even menstruation very difficult and very painful.”
The Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project reported that there are three types of FGM.
These are Type I, or sunna circumcision, which is the removal of the clitoral hood and sometimes part of the clitoris, Type II, which involves total or partial removal of the clitoris, and Type III, or Infibulation, also known as Pharaonic Circumcision, refers to the cutting of the entire clitoris and sewing the labia majora and minora to close all genital openings. The Pharaonic Circumcision is the most extreme, and women who get this type done have to have it cut open for penetration.
Traditionally, this practice means the rite of passage from childhood to womanhood because after they heal from the procedure they are considered marriageable, Magliocco said.
She said midwives or healers within these societies perform FGM, without access to proper surgical tools or anesthesia. In addition, she said, broken pieces of glass are often used to perform the procedure, which can leave women at risk for infection.
Health risks of FGM include internal bleeding, genital deformation, HIV/AIDS, holes in the bowel and bladder, emotional trauma, and even death from an untreated infection, said Robyn Parks, lecturer in the health sciences department at CSUN.
“If they are using the same tools (on) somebody who has an HIV infection,” she said, “of course the risk of infection is big,” Parks said. “A lot of the times they use a can or a piece of glass.”
Historically, FGM-practicing cultures say the practice enhances women’s beauty, fertility and virginity. But the bottom line is that it helps control women’s sexuality because they serve procreation purposes only, said Tohidi.
However, many male and female activists in these countries are doing educational campaigns trying to raise awareness on the health complications associated with FGM, Tohidi said.
“I think this practice shouldn’t remain in these cultures. (FGM) is part of their culture, but is a harmful practice and it should be stopped,” Tohidi said. “But (it) is not the job of western people to sensationalize and come up with a stereotype of African women.”
Some problems have been overlooked in these cultures, and the way international countries can help is by providing economic and literacy aid instead of judging them for their actions, Tohidi said.
If we provide this type of aid, “naturally the (activists) who are fighting for eradication can be more empowered and more successful,” Tohidi said.
FGM has migrated to the U.S. due to the immigration of people from those cultures. However, these traditions are illegal here, Magliocco said.
The Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1995 forbids and fines people who perform this practice illegally.
Although this practice is illegal, many of people from Sudan, Egypt and other countries of Africa will still want to continue practicing their traditions, Magliocco said.
Some activists are promoting that girls have FGM done by a doctor or a surgeon in a hospital and with general anesthesia, which at least reduces the risk of infection, Magliocco said.
Magliocco said that a slow change can happen, however, through the advocacy of the activists because cultures constantly change.