The reasons usually given for cutting include:
- beauty and cleanliness
- male protection and approval
- health, religion
Are men part of FGC? Who continues the cycle?
Female genital cutting is required in order to make a good marriage match, because it is thought to indicate purity and virginity. In this sense, men support the practice by only marrying women who have undergone FGC. In order to reach collective abandonment of the practice, men must be willing to marry a woman regardless of whether or not she has been cut.
Although FGC puts women at a marked disadvantage in society, the practice is primarily perpetuated by women and passed down from mother to daughter. Men may have a very limited awareness of FGC and its consequences. The practice is very much considered a ‘woman’s issue’ and men tend not to get overly involved outside of the marriage process.
Programmes that just address the women in a community do not realise that FGC is a social norm held in place by the entire community. This means that just working with one sector of the community will not lead to sustainable abandonment. This could explain why for so many years, FGC abandonment programmes have not been as successful as they could be.
It should also be noted that while traditional female cutters generally carry out the procedure, the practice is becoming increasingly common in medical settings, carried out by both male and female health workers. Today, more than 18% of FGC taking place worldwide is performed by health care providers, including doctors, nurses, and other healthcare personnel.
Is FGC supported by Islamic texts?
There is no direct reference to female genital cutting in the Qur’an. Scholars point out that FGC was not introduced to the early Muslim community by the Prophet Muhammad since it was known to exist before his time.
Muslim scholars have been divided over whether FGC should be considered a non-religious but traditional custom, or whether Islam should denounce the practice outright. The Muslim Women’s League asserts that FGC violates Islamic doctrine. They point to the Qur’an’s teachings on the importance of mutual satisfaction within marriage.
Islamic doctrine acknowledges women’s sexual desires and supports a wife’s right to sexual fulfilment. The potential of FGC to debilitate a woman’s pleasure during sex is therefore an argument from Islamic teachings against the practice.
Muslims who advocate for FGC from a Sunni perspective commonly quote the hadith* to argue that it is a required practice:
A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said to her: Do not cut too severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.
* In Islamic terminology, the term hadith refers to reports of statements or actions of the Prophet Muhammad, or of his tacit approval or criticism of something said or done in his presence.
This hadith is often interpreted as a recommendation for a lesser cut. This causes difficulties as it is unclear what form of FGC is being advocated and how it can be carried out in a way that is “better for a woman.”
Muslim scholars have denounced FGC because there is no explicit prescription for the practice in the Qur’an. In 2006, renowned Muslim Clerics at the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Egypt met to discuss the practice and declared that FGC is not in keeping with Islamic teaching. The outcome was the Cairo fatwa and a written text entitled the ‘Golden Book’ that has been distributed amongst mosques in practising countries.
However, FGC continues to be a contested issue within the Islamic world. As well as clerics who denounce FGC there are those who advocate for it to continue. The debate in Egypt shows the continuing struggle that people face in countries where FGC is grounded in a misconception of religion.
Is FGC a religious requirement?
Today, many will cite religion as a main reason for practising female genital cutting. But FGC is not prescribed by any religion. The practice is said to have originated in 2,200 BC, before the advent of Islam and Christianity. FGC is practised by Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists alike.
FGC is also not supported by any religious text. In Islam, the law of Sharia protects children and their rights. The Muslim Women’s League upholds that the practice of FGC is in strict violation of the Qur’an (MWL, 1999). Likewise there is no basis for FGC within Christianity or Judaism. In fact, there are no guidelines for the cutting of female genitals in any religious text.
Nevertheless, there are some priests and imams who support FGC. This is a contradiction that creates confusion and makes working for an end to FGC even harder. Harnessing the influence of religious leaders is essential in establishing a movement for change.
In Senegal, religious leaders are often at the forefront of the movement to end FGC. There has also been a lot of positive movement from religious leaders in Somalia, who attempt to inspire change in their respective communities.
Once notions that FGC is linked to religion are dispelled, abandonment will be more easily achieved. Take a look at our blog to find out more on FGC and religion.
What is a social norm?
A social norm is an expectation that influences people’s behaviour within a social group. If someone questions this behaviour, they are likely to be punished through social sanctions. In the case of FGC, sanctions might be refusal of marriage or social rejection. These ensure that individuals conform to the social norm that has been put into place, even if they are aware of the negative consequences.
Like many harmful traditional practices, female genital cutting is a social norm that upholds broader moral norms. All communities aspire to positive moral norms – things like peace, wellbeing and security. Over the years, social norms such as female genital cutting have been constructed to uphold moral norms.
“Pluralistic ignorance” serves to reinforce these social norms. This means that even though specific individuals within a given community question a practice, they think they are alone in this feeling and will not feel able to talk to others about it. In other words, even though individuals know a practice has harmful consequences, the group does not recognise this, and the practice cannot change.
Once it is acknowledged that the practice is a social norm constructed to uphold moral norms, people realise FGC need not exist, and they begin to choose to abandon FGC. It is vital that this decision is a collective one.
Where does FGC come from?
Female genital cutting (FGC) is thought to have originated in the Nubia region of the Horn of Africa (now Egypt and Sudan) around 2,200 BC. Historians have noted that some ancient Egyptian mummies possess markings that indicate the practice.
According to some historical accounts, the practice began when one Pharaoh cut his harem of women in order to control them. When others wanted their daughters to marry into this social group, they cut their daughters too, so the practice was passed down into different social strata. The practice then spread in a westerly band across trade routes and ethnic lines to other countries in Africa, and East into Yemen.
In Western countries, clitoridectomy procedures (the removal of the clitoris) carried on until the 1950s to cure ‘illnesses’ such as hysteria, mental disorders, epilepsy, masturbation, melancholia, nymphomania and lesbianism (Webber 2003).