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Illustration by Tala Nassar and Tom Abi Samra

Female Genital Mutilation in The Middle East and North Africa

The prevalence of FGM reflects an extreme form of patriarchy under which girls’ sexuality is exploited to dominate them.

Sep 30, 2018

The last class bell rings, signalling the start of Winter break. Middle school students run toward the bus, excited to decorate their Christmas trees or pack their bags to leave for vacations. But for some girls, this holiday is more than just a simple vacation to their families’ home countries — it is a turning point in their lives, or should I say transitioning point. Thousands of girls from countries like Canada and Ireland may be taken abroad — mostly to countries in North Africa and the Middle East — to undergo female gential mutilation.
According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. More than 200 million women and girls alive today have fallen victim to FGM, in over 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Countries like Egypt and Somalia have the highest FGM rates of above 90 percent while the UAE has an approximate rate of 34 percent. Such unbelievably high rates of FGM is not just a medical concern, but the practice also reinforces the systematic oppression of women and repression of their sexuality.
FGM is carried out mostly by traditional circumcisers who play important roles in community events such as childbirth, but do not have the professional medical training to carry out such procedures. Notably, there are four types of FGM that range from the partial or complete removal of the clitoris to infibulation — the narrowing of the vaginal opening by sewing over the outer labia. The lack of sanitation and proper medical care during these procedures makes the girls susceptible to infections and even hemorrhages, risking their lives. Girls also suffer from long term vaginal and urinary issues that cause extreme pain during intercourse, childbirth, menstruation and, in extreme cases, even urination.
FGM has no health benefits whatsoever. Rather, it is no more than a complete and utter violation of their basic human rights. Although many African countries have criminalized FGM and banned the procedure in hospitals and clinics, such policies have only resulted in girls undergoing the procedures in their homes at the hands of “traditional cutters,” making them more vulnerable to fatal medical mishaps.
However, the medical implications are not even the most horrifying aspect of the process. The conditions under which the procedures are carried out is not just unsanitary but also inhumane.
In makeshift clinics, mothers leave their daughters to be mutilated and purified. Here, these girls may be taken into a room where their arms and legs are tied or held down by two or three women to prevent them from moving. In some cases, women sit on these girls’ chests to shut their mouths and silence their desperate, painful screams. Some girls are even blindfolded, sparing them the sight of their cut tissues lying in a pool of blood between their thighs.
Believed by some to have originated about 2000 years ago in Ancient Egypt, this practice is often justified through religious reasons — especially in Islamic countries — but the Quran or the Sunnah make no verified or conclusive pronouncement in favor of FGM. It serves no purpose other than cutting out the impure and evil part of girls — the one responsible for sexual pleasure — in an attempt to purify girls by cutting out their so-called unclean parts and depriving them of sexual pleasure. One of the main motives behind this overt sexual repression is to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity, and keep girls in control by helping them resist sexual temptation. The prevalence of such a practice reflects an extreme form of patriarchy under which girls’ sexuality is exploited to dominate them.
In these environments, social pressures are so strong that mothers fear that their daughters will be ostracized if they do not undergo mutilation — in other words, if they are allowed the freedom to explore their sexuality and desires. FGM has become a leash in millions of girls’ lives that restricts them within the society’s rigid boundaries and expectations. They are stripped of their freedom and lose agency over the most personal and intimate aspect of their own lives — their sexuality and bodily autonomy — in the name of modesty and femininity. Sexual intercourse has been normalized as a pleasurable act for men but a duty that is necessary solely for purpose of reproduction for women.
The oppression of girls does not just stop at mutilation; girls are told not to talk about the procedure and are made to feel ashamed and embarrassed. They are forbidden to touch or even look at their sexual organs, so much so that many girls who undergo the process as infants do not even know what has been done to them. Talking about sexuality and FGM is considered taboo in most societies, resulting in a lack of proper information about the deadly consequences.
How long can we justify endangering the lives of hundreds of millions of girls and dominating them by suppressing their rights to freedom in the name of tradition and culture?
Aasna Sijapati is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
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