Stopping female circumcision: what role for the law?

April 7, 1999

By Margaret Allum

In February, a French court sentenced a Malian woman to eight years'
imprisonment for the “mutilation of minors” — the circumcision of 48 girls.
Although most had been circumcised more than 10 years ago, the defendant
was circumcising others up to the time of her arrest in 1994.


Twenty-six of the girls' parents were also tried as accomplices and
given sentences ranging from three years suspended to two years in jail.

Female circumcision — officially called female genital mutilation (FGM)
— is usually practised by Islamic people in parts of Africa, Asia and
the Middle East. Some migrants from these areas continue the practice in
North America, Europe and Australia. FGM is performed on girls between
a few weeks old and puberty.

In its most minor form, FGM involves an incision in the hood of the
clitoris or the removal of the hood. This is called sunna. The most common
form, clitoridectomy, involves the excision of the clitoris. In the most
extreme form, infibulation, both the clitoris and the labia minora are
removed and the flesh within the labia majora is scraped out. The vulva
is then sewn together, or pinned with thorns, leaving a small aperture
for the passage of blood and urine. This is kept open during the healing
process by the insertion of a small piece of wood, during which time the
girl's legs may be tied.

The procedure is usually performed without anaesthetic and often with
knives or razor blades that are unsterilised or rusty.

Medical risks include haemorrhage, tetanus, septicaemia, damage to the
urinary tract, severe pain and sometimes death. For many, the psychological
shock is great. Trapped menstrual blood and urine can lead to infection
and pain during sex and childbirth, and ongoing health problems.

An infibulated woman's vaginal opening must be opened up for intercourse
and childbirth to take place, then sewn up again.

Estimates of the number of women who have been mutilated in this way
range from 90 to 130 million. The United Nations Children's Fund estimates
that more than 2 million girls are circumcised each year, mostly in Africa,
and up to 95% of girls in some countries are circumcised.

Why it is practised

FGM is said to make a woman ready for marriage, by showing that she has
not been touched by another man, and by curbing her sexual desire.

Nawal Hassan Osman, founder of the Sudanese women's organisation Yed
El Marra (Women's Fist) toured Australia in 1995 and told Green Left
that the practice is “one way of oppressing women”. She said
that it “denies women enjoyment in their sexual life as well as creating
a lot of hazards, especially health-wise, during delivery and birth of
a child, and even before that”. She says it “ is not a traditional thing.
I can only speak about my area, but in my area many tribes do not practise
it ... it is looked upon as civilising. We inherited this from Egypt.”

Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi writes in The Hidden Face of Eve
that “circumcision of females aims primarily at ensuring virginity before
marriage, and chastity throughout” and says that the virginity of women
upon marriage is one of the most highly regarded honours for their male
relatives (and future husband). El Saadawi cites numerous examples of women
being beaten and killed by their fathers, brothers or husbands when it
is found (or presumed) that the woman is not a virgin on her wedding night.

Some state that girls are circumcised for health reasons — “because
it is cleaner” — although the link to moral purity seems strong. “I was
happy the day I recovered from the effects of the operation, and felt as
though I was rid of something which had to be removed, and so had become
clean and pure”, said a medical student quoted in The Hidden Face of

Religious beliefs are usually cited as the force behind the practice,
yet, as El Saadawi writes and cites from a number of studies, it was widespread
in some areas of the world before the Islamic era.

An Egyptian study in 1979 found: “Sacred books of all religions made
no mention of female circumcision. Any attributions to the Prophet's sayings
on the subject were not authenticated. The practice predated Islam and
Christianity and is unknown in the most religiously devout societies like
Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, while both Muslims and Copts practise it in

El Saadawi maintains that because female circumcision is used to control
a women's sexuality, the practice is ultimately a means of ensuring the
paternity of children, and therefore to ensure that a man's property is
passed on to his biological children.

Education or jail?

Governments have differed in their approach to legislation to outlaw this
barbaric practice.

Osman said that in Sudan there is a 1948 law forbidding FGM, but it
is not enforced. It is banned in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic,
Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea and Togo. Other countries such as Uganda discourage

In January the parliament of Senegal banned the practice in response
to a campaign by Senegalese women. An organisation called Tostan (Breakthrough)
had started a program of education of Senegalese women, not primarily around
the question of FGM, but in basic skills such as reading and writing.

Many studies have shown that the higher the education level of the community,
the less likely that FGM will be practised. Tostan found that as women
became more aware of their rights, the practice was stopped.

David Hecht, writing for Inter Press Service, is highly critical of
the move by the Senegalese government. He said that if this new piece of
legislation, which bans anyone from violating “the integrity of the female
genitalia”, or “influencing” others to do so, were fully applied “more
than one million Senegalese would go to jail”.