Rite of Passage, or Punishment?

An image commonly associated with FGC. Photo by Molly McHugh.

Written by Molly McHugh

Photos As Noted

Very few things induce my gag reflex more violently than the notion of someone slicing off the hood of my clitoris with a razor blade. While at a lecture about the practice of female genital circumcision (FGC) in Africa, my stomach flipped after the first slide. It was a hand drawing of infibulation—the most brutal of FGC practices, where the labia minora (the inner lips of the vulva) are removed and the labia majora (the outer lips) are sewn together, sealing the vagina.

This was followed by a slide of one of the instruments used: an old razor blade. My head started to reel. I groped my way to the door, trying to ignore the steady waves of nausea rolling through my body. I was half-listening to the speaker’s words about how in extreme cases women are sewn shut, only to be ripped open again on their wedding nights, like rusty zippers broken open until they split. And how sometimes reeds were inserted and how “the hole” eventually became the size of a toothpick, and how, and how… That’s when I found myself lying on the cold tile outside of the room.

While my reaction was the more physical than others’, the women in my class seemed to conclude the same: female genital circumcision is horrible, wrong, and must be stopped.

However, those most affected by FGC, generally African women, are not horrified by it. Rather, they accept it and even perform it.

This was followed by a slide of one of the instruments used: an old razor blade. My head started to reel. I groped my way to the door, trying to ignore the steady waves of nausea rolling through my body. Photo by Rick Olson.

Courtney Smith, a graduate student at the University of Oregon who studied FGC in Africa, explains its cultural significance. “Women perform circumcisions. It’s an occupation handed down generations.” She goes on to offer comparisons to American ideals of maturity. “I had a friend who told me how when she got her period for the first time, her mom took her out for pancakes.”

Though hugely different in physical implications, the sentiment of transitioning into adulthood is the same. “[When boys and girls are circumcised] they go out into the bush, do their own thing, and then they are men and women. They come back for a celebration.” However, Western “coming of age” celebrations rarely have such dangerous physical consequences.

There are three classifications of FGC: clitoridectomy, excision, and infibulation. A clitoridectomy is the removal of the clitoris and occasionally the clitoral hood. Excision also removes the clitoris as well as the labia minora. In some cases, only the labia minora are removed, leaving the clitoris intact. Infibulation—the least common method of female circumcision—is the removal of the labia minora and binding of the labia majora. The clitoris can be removed or left, depending on the village’s customs.

In severe cases, women suffer horrible diseases and crippling pain their entire lives. This may occur from menstruation, urinating after the procedure, sexual intercourse, or from infections caused by the poor operating conditions, which include no anesthesia and unsanitary surgical techniques. Often, surgical tools are no more than glass and razors, string to sew shut, and even mud and dirt to cake over the wound so that it “heals.” And while FGC has strong ties as a celebratory and positive tradition for the culture, the implications behind the “control” of a woman’s sexuality still linger. In many African cultures, the clitoris is viewed as what turns women into prowling, sexual creatures, unable to control their lust.

And while it might bother us that this is occurring in the world, the effects and reaches of FGC can be seen here in Oregon.

The first generation of women in Kembata, Durame Woreda, Ethiopia, who do not have to undergo female genital circumcision. Their mothers are not willing to let their daughters be cut because of their own experiences. Photo by Netsanet Assaye © 2005. Courtesy of Photoshare.org.

Lydia Olulono, a Nigerian refuguee residing in Portland, Oregon, is trying to save her two young daughters from the celebratory rite she went through. In an interview with TIME, Olulono expresses the confusing feelings between Eastern and Western approaches to FGC. At five, she underwent a clitoridectomy. And although not bitter, she is desperate to keep her daughters from undergoing the procedure. “When I had a baby here, I called home, and my senior sister was asking if they’d circumcised her,” Olulono told TIME. “I said no, they don’t do it in America here. It sounded so funny to her. She couldn’t believe that. She said that if we come home, they are going to do it for her no matter what.”

Olulono explains she originally intended for her daughters to undergo circumcision when they were of age, as African immigrants and refugees in the United States quietly practice in their communities. While this might sound horrifying, Carol Horowitz, a Seattle counselor who works with African women dealing with FGC, says, “If your only message is that this is barbaric, women who have been circumcised will be less likely to seek the medical care they need. They’re not doing it to their children to hurt them. They’re doing it because they love them. Until they got here, they never realized it could be any other way.”

FGC is performed by women on their daughters and approved by community members because parts of the female anatomy are viewed as unnecessary and disgusting. Smith offers, “African women feel that the clitoris is like a penis. Some cultures even believe in a myth that says if you didn’t cut off your clitoris or at least the hood, it would grow down to your knees. They believe it’s dirty and masculine.”

This conflict between tradition and dangerous surgery has recently become the topic of popular debate. Just last year, the reality show America’s Next Top Model featured a young woman named Fatima Siad who had undergone circumcision as a young girl in Somalia. In her many interviews since the show, Siad has spoken about the ordeal. However, to the shock and awe of women everywhere, she has hardly said a negative word about the experience. While she admits to have undergone some emotional turmoil because of her circumcision at age seven, in an editorial for the online magazine Orato, Siad writes, “I’m not here to judge or criticize our culture and say these people are so bad for practicing female circumcision. I think culture is very important…culture is sacred. I’m nobody to tell people that they shouldn’t do this or that—I’m trying to find a way to just talk about it.”

She goes on to suggest that there be a way for girls to better understand the procedure and for stricter health guidelines to be in place. She does however, call for it to end. While hardly a defense of FGC, Siad seems far from persecuting it. FGC is barely acceptable based on its classification as a rite of passage.

We go above and beyond the realm of political correctness to be accepting of other cultures. It’s difficult to determine female circumcision as unethical if the women subjected to it aren’t complaining. And while African women generally feel this is a rite of passage, its significance does not outweigh its consequences. “Menstruation, urination, and of course, sex, can become extremely difficult for women who have had circumcisions,” says Smith.

Additionally, because women willingly (or at least seemingly so) undergo and perform FGC, it’s difficult to point a finger. The myth that men force this on women and use it as a punishment is simply incorrect. Smith says, “Most men I spoke with didn’t even know what a clitoris is, or had sex with a woman who had one. They know that that is a ‘woman’s thing’ and have little to no knowledge of it.”

But ignorance is not bliss. Even though men are blindly unaware and women aren’t loudly objecting, female circumcision cannot be passed off as a celebration of maturity. Female refugees like Olulono are still unable to escape its grasp even here. Siad struggles with the circumcision that she, in recent years, has begun to process and regret.

Female circumcision, or mutilation as it has recently been called, has the potential to be a different kind of genocide—one that leaves our world with a generation of regretful, bitter, scared, and confused women.

Labeling it with a pretty idea like “rite of passage” diminishes the severity of its impact. It’s time to create a celebration of maturity devoid of scarring and mutilation, razors and glass, binding and mud: a girl should be allowed to become a woman with her genitalia intact.

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