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It's More Than Just a Pound of Flesh

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I remember when I was seventeen, I tried on some new ideas. One of my ideas was that notions of "right" and "wrong" were false creations of society, and did not actually exist. Yeah, it didn't make much sense back then, either.

Now, that's not to say that I still don't think a fair bit of cultural imperialism does occur, and that The Western World does tend to think the rest of the world should be Like We Are, but that's not this article. That is another article.

Anyhow, one day I was testing out my "no such thing as wrong" theory by saying it out loud over lunch with an older and wiser friend of mine, who shot me down in an instant with "What about female genital mutilation? To me, that is inarguably wrong, because its only function is to remove natural human pleasure."

Well. He had me there.

Female Genital Mutilation is one of those concepts that hits you hard with the realization that universal female equality is a long way from being a done deal. For those who have heard the term FGM, but aren't sure on the exact details of it, I offer you this information:

The term FGM covers three main varieties of genital mutilation:

1) "Sunna" circumcision: Consists of the removal of the tip of the clitoris.

2) Clitoridectomy: Consists of the removal of the entire clitoris, and the removal of the adjacent labia.

3) Infibulation: This most extreme form, consists of the removal of the clitoris, the adjacent labia (majora and minora), and the joining of the scraped sides of the vulva across the vagina, where they are secured with thorns or sewn with catgut or thread. A small opening is kept to allow passage of urine and menstrual blood in most cases, though not always. In some cases, the opening is not present, which causes even more incredible health risks and can be fatal. An infibulated woman must be cut open to allow intercourse on the wedding night and is closed again afterwards to secure fidelity to the husband.

FGM is usually performed on girls from ages four to eight, but is also performed on teens and women. Anaesthetic is very rarely used. The girls are forcibly held down by a group during the procedure, which may be done using broken glass, tin can lids, scissors or razor blades.

Now, if that doesn't just turn your stomach and cross your legs, you're made of stronger stuff than I am.

Some people like to call it "female circumcision", so perhaps we'll just think "Oh, circumcision. They do that to boys everyday. No big deal." Well, if male circumcision was performed by the town barber with a rusty piece of metal, carried with it the risk of haemorrhage and HIV infection, involved cutting off the entire penis and testicles, closing up the whole shebang with some fishing wire, and was done so a man would never cheat on his wife, then maybe it would be the same.

What I'm saying is: It's not the same.

FGM isn't just about fidelity. An intact woman is seen as unmarriageable, because she is considered unclean. There are those who believe a man will die if he has any contact with a woman's clitoris. (I think I dated some people who think that, actually.) Little concern seems to be given by its perpetrators for the long term psychological, physical, sexual and emotional damage that has happened to the over 130 million Muslim and Christian women in Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia, Niger, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other countries around the planet. Even the US and Canada have instances of FGM, and have only passed laws against it within the last decade.

So. You've got dozens of countries. Major powerful religions. Centuries of institutionalized sexism. Millions of women. Thorns and catgut and HIV transmission. It's enough to make you want to catch the next shuttlebus to Neptune, isn't it? It just seems like Too Much, you know?

Well, it is a lot. But there are people who are working to stop it, in a few different ways. Some through education of local mothers, in attempt to convince them not to have their daughters cut the way they were. Some through legislation against the procedure (although there is always the danger this will just push the practise underground). Some through awareness building in places where FGM doesn't occur, in order to let the rest of the world in on how serious this practice is, and the ramifications towards upwards of 90% of the women in some countries, in hopes it will mobilize them to join the fight for change.

One woman who is working a few of these angles is SiaAmma. SiaAmma is an adult woman who underwent FGM as a child in Liberia. She now divides her time between Africa and the US, and performs a one woman show called In Search Of My Clitoris, during which she re-enacts her own cutting onstage. She has also started an organization called Global Women Intact, which works in North American to teach teenage girls to love and respect their bodies, and in Africa offers communities the knowledge with which they can hopefully transform rather than eliminate initiation ceremonies for their daughters that would leave their bodies and spirits unharmed.

What can you do? Well, you can talk about it, that's important. You can make sure that people know exactly how catastrophic the procedure is. You can also check out groups like Amnesty International, who have a very detailed article about FGM and what is being done to stop it here:, and find out about SiaAmma, where she will be performing, and how you can support her organization here:

You can give your time and money and voices to those trying to make this practice stop.

Most importantly, you can honour and appreciate your own intact body and sexuality, and never take it for granted.

An FGM Fact Sheet
According to the World Health Organization, each year 2 million girls are estimated to be at risk of the practice of FGM. As many as 98% of girls in certain parts of Africa have had or will have FGM performed upon them.

FGM offers very grave risks and consequences to a woman's lifelong physical and emotional health, and is by no means a necessary medical practice in any instance whatsoever.

The physical consequences alone can include:

Haemorrhage, short or long-term bleeding
Infection -- may include tetanus, which is usually fatal
Urine retention for hours or days
Chronic urinary tract infections
Anemia due to long-term bleeding
Chronic pelvic infections or PID
Permanent Infertility
Vulval abscesses
Keloid formations
Dermoid cysts
Neurinoma -- in which the whole genital area becomes permanently painful.
Continuous leakage of urine and faeces for the whole of a woman's life.
Sexual dysfunction, which includes no sensitivity or sensation in the clitoris, as well as highly painful sexual intercourse.
Difficulties in menstruation or dysmenorrhoea.
Gross swelling of the abdomen because of menstrual blood that cannot be released, and that swelling and the absence of menses may lead family or others to suspect a pregnancy, which would socially ostracize the woman.
Serious problems in pregnancy and childbirth, including obstructed labor, which can be fatal for both mother and baby. The baby may also suffer neonatal brain damage or death.
A high rish of HIV transmission, especially in countries where HIV is epidemic (which is the case in most of Africa) .
To become active against the practice of FGM, please contact your local chapter of Amnesty International or Planned Parenthood International.

written 06 Mar 2001 . updated 24 Jan 2014

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