Genital mutilation is a practice that is still carried out in approximately 30 countries around the world. Most of these countries are in Africa and the Middle East, but the custom is also found in some countries in Asia and Latin America. There is a growing list of countries that prohibit genital mutilation, considering it a crime; in some places it is considered femicide.

By Flavia Estevan (Brazil) and Karla Mijangos Fuentes (Mexico)

This ritual, widely condemned by the international community, consists of the removal of parts of the vulva (clitoris and/or inner labia and/or outer labia) and, in the most radical cases, the exit of the vaginal canal and vulva is sewn shut, leaving a small passage for the exit of urine and menstrual blood.

Despite the efforts of various international health, feminist and women’s rights organisations, an estimated 200 million women and girls live with mutilated genitalia and, in some countries, more than 90 per cent of the female population is mutilated.

In addition to the severity of the procedure itself, it is often performed in unsanitary conditions, increasing the risk of infection and death. Currently, 37,000 girls and women die each year from genital mutilation.

As a result of international campaigns and appeals over the past 20 years, there has been a small reduction in countries where the practice is still carried out. In the 2000s, one in two girls was mutilated and in 2017, this figure dropped to one in three girls aged 15-19, according to a UN Women report. Despite this decline, it is important to be aware that this practice should not happen to any girl or woman, anywhere in the world.

In addition to international pressure, it is important to broaden the view on the issue, going deeper into the roots of this custom, in order to avoid the lack of dialogue typical of colonising positions. It is necessary to overcome prejudice and seek closeness, as is already happening, for example, through the migratory flows of mutilated people who, when migrating to other countries, encounter dilemmas such as the lack of access to health services, for fear of reprisals and discrimination.

Another fundamental point to bear in mind is that the practice is carried out in a context of structural machismo, that is to say that although it is carried out and promoted by women, it is a tradition that seeks nothing more than the control of women’s bodies. In this sense, to punish women for this practice is to continue perpetuating the machismo and violence that led them to this situation.

Historical background to genital mutilation

Among the data reviewed, there is no precise indication of the origins of this practice or custom, which is performed by Muslims, Copts and Christians alike. However, what comes to life in this review is that it continues to be a tradition that remains to this day, causing thousands of deaths of women, as historian Carlos Castañeda tells us in his work “Frontiers of pleasure, frontiers of guilt: on female mutilation in Egypt”.

The first conclusions Castañeda reaches is that genital mutilation is related to sub-Saharan influence and the development of early Christianity in Egypt, specifically because Jews were developing a Judeo-Christian community in the Land of the Nile.

As mentioned above, this practice is no longer part of a geographical area because migratory processes have also exported these customs through migrants.

Undoubtedly, this tradition must be approached with great caution, because beyond eradicating a practice, which from the very term itself points towards violence, it is a question of making an epistemological shift that encompasses the understanding and cosmovision of sexuality among the women who practice it.

For example, Castañeda shows us the sentiments of two women who were mutilated and who continue with this thinking and doing.

“We are mutilated and we insist on the operation for our daughters so that there is no mixing between men and women… A woman who is not infibulated causes shame to her husband, who calls her ‘you with the clitoris! People say she is like a man. Her organ will sting a man…” (testimony of an Egyptian woman). (Testimony of an Egyptian woman).

“The operation makes women clean, promotes virginity and chastity and saves young girls from sexual frustration by decreasing their sexual appetite”. (advocate for female circumcision in Kenya).

From these two experiences we can see that history is not only about the study of the origin of the practice, but also about how this custom transformed the way these women think about and inhabit sexuality and corporeality.

One of the explanations that Castañeda offers goes back to the 6th century AD, where the court physician of the Eastern emperor Justinian, Aetius of Amida, wrote in the Biblia latrika, vol XIV, ch. 106, the following

“Their clitoris increases in size and becomes indecent and shameful, so that continually the friction of their garments excites them and awakens in them the desire for copulation; therefore, taking into account the increase of its size, the Egyptians determined to cut it off, especially at the time when the girls are ready for their marriage.”

All these data that speak of a historical and legal justification of this practice, awaken in us a great interest in thinking from the corporal room of women who live or are about to live this violence, because we can observe that this tradition makes Egyptian women think that mutilation is what leads women to enjoy a full sexuality, although we can also account for a moral subjectivity that is concatenated with this representation of sexuality and women.

In this sense, Castañeda refers that women who are not mutilated are punished by the Egyptian women themselves, because they are thought and exclaimed to look like men, and they are also women who are punished for marriage, that is, they are rejected for marrying someone, and in the case of marrying and having children, the male child is verbally shamed for having an uncircumcised mother.

As we have been pronouncing throughout the text, there is no clear justification for the practice, however, the Nigerian physician Koso-Thomas (1987) refers to the main uses that the texts explain as follows: body cleansing; to improve the aesthetics of the body, as the clitoris “grows”; not to kill the child at birth, its fate if it touches the clitoris; to promote social and political cohesion of the community, as the traditional rules of the group must be respected; to prevent sexual promiscuity; to improve the male sexual act, because the clitoris causes premature ejaculation, and the man must control all aspects of the sexual act; to increase the woman’s marital opportunities. Linked to this last point, to maintain good health, preserve virginity and promote female fertility, as the clitoris produces substances that kill sperm. Furthermore, the ritual practice may have implied, as has also been interpreted, a kind of propitiatory sacrifice of the most erotic parts of the female body to achieve the protection or blessing of the divinity. (Castañeda 2003).

Within this explanation, we can also add that this practice is carried out by the oldest matrons in the village, because they are the ones who have the most experience and expertise to perform it. Castañeda explains that this is because among Egyptian villages there is the legend of the Oubangui, where there was the first circumcised man among them “Baganza”, who explained that his penis could no longer enter his wife’s unmutilated vagina. Consequently, his wife in despair went to a man from the same village to perform the mutilation, which resulted in her death. And from then on, this practice remained in the hands of the old matrons.

In addition to being a surgical intervention performed by women, they also had to take into account certain dates to perform it, for example, it is said to be two or three days before the new moon, or in times of flooding of the Nile, due to the fact that these dates are understood to be of high fertility.

The interest of writing this note lies in the fact that February 6th is the “International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation” and dates like this are important to generate debate and awareness about issues that only apparently happen far from our reality.