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On the trail of a taboo: female circumcision in the Islamic world

by Charles Foster

ACCORDING to the chatter at European dinner parties, female circumcision is a sub-Saharan African phenomenon; something done by shammanistic witch doctors in darkened jungle huts while the women wave the fetish and the drummers drown the screams. In fact it is practised widely in the Islamic world, and specifically Muslim justifications for the practice have developed.

The taboo which attaches to discussion of the subject is spectacular. There are few quicker ways of being evicted from an Egyptian cafe than by talking loudly about clitoridectomy. 'Yes, it happens', a nervous student in Alexandria said. 'All of us know of the sister of a friend's friend who was taken to a country clinic. And then it sometimes goes wrong, and sometimes the girls die. But perhaps it is all a story.'

It is not a story. Female circumcision is recognised by all writers on the subject to be widespread in Oman and South Yemen. It is well documented in eastern and southern Libya and in the far south of Algeria. It is rumoured to be common amongst Shi-ite communities ruled by Hizbollah in Lebanon. In Amman, just after the Gulf War, Palestinians referred to the practice when denouncing as medieval and unenlightened the Iraqi refugees who had fled to the city. The Iraqi Shi-ites, I was told: 'Eat their pigs and cut their women'. An insult is not a good basis for a thesis, but the constant association of the practice with perceived religious heresy and fanaticism is interesting and probably significant.

Fifty per cent of Egyptian and ninety per cent of north Sudanese girls are said to be circumcised. In Somalia and Djibouti the figures are thought to be almost one hundred per cent.(1) Many of these girls are Muslim. But the old tribal religions have mixed well with Islam. The chants intoned as the cuts are made are often confused cocktails of Koranic text and pagan spell.

A doctor in a Cairo hospital, who had worked a good deal in the south, said that it was: 'a significant cause of mortality amongst girls in some remote villages. I don't know whether they are Muslim. Who cares. It is a horrible thing. And if you want any more information, don't come to me'.

Morocco, in theory, was a good place to look. Modern writers have stated that the practice does not occur there. But its Islam has always been perfused with a good deal of folklore. It is on the main trade routes from West Africa. Traditions have been imported with the caravans of bananas and groundnuts. It is not far from Mauritania, where a high proportion of girls are circumcised. The Berbers in the south have copied and adapted the West African Negro practice of ink-tattooing the faces of their women. If they interfere with their faces, why not, I thought, with their genitalia? And Morocco also has a tradition of expressing religious enthusiasm in imaginative and very unpleasant physical ways. Devotees of Ben Aissa's Aissaoua cult pierced their cheeks and tongues with daggers and ate live scorpions. The Hamacha, founded by Moulay Idriss, celebrated by throwing cannonballs into the air and allowing them to land on their skulls, shattering them.

A contact met me at the corner of Marrakesh's central square, the Djemaa el Fna. 'Come with me', he said, 'and I will show you where the girls bleed'. He led me past the chained monkeys and the storytellers and the dentist's table with its thousand and eight molars, and on into the coppersmiths' souk behind the Moussin mosque. He knocked at a door. A very old woman answered. The contact introduced me, and I introduced myself. I had heard, I said, about her house. Could I talk to her? She screeched at the guide, spat at me, and slammed the door. The contact shrugged and apologised and asked for his twenty dirhams. There were no other places that he knew of, and I must understand that he could not help me any more. All he knew was that 'it' went on here. It would be unfair to tell tales about people. That resolution withstood the offer of twenty more dirhams. I called several more times at the house. The door was never answered. I tried to watch the incomings and outgoings, but a large group of large youths told me that it was not safe there any more, and I believed them.

Doctors at the various bases of the Croissant Rouge in the High and Middle Atlas, and along the seam where the Atlas becomes the Sahara, had seen cases of septicaemia following the operation. They would not, or could not, say whether the practice was widespread. They acknowledged that Muslim girls were involved. Drunks in a Fazzi bar mentioned the practice in the course of some lewd jokes. And so I left Morocco.

A Syrian doctor in Damascus told me some interesting things, strictly off the record. A bottle of surgical spirit was thrown at me in Port Said. An engineer, accidentally insulted, tried to tear up my ticket at Khartoum airport. I had to change hotels five times in Cairo. A Swedish anthropologist in Mombasa showed me some broken jam jar lids which had been used as scalpels in village ceremonies. And that is all I could get.

The Victorian writer Richard Burton did considerably better. His account is a triumph of scholarly audacity.(2) He dealt with the subject in his footnotes. They are all in Latin, so that unlettered readers will not be corrupted.

He wrote that female circumcision is an ancient custom amongst the Arabs, and quoted Sheikh al-Nawazir as saying that the practice was universal in Egypt and Hijaz. He was certainly right about the antiquity of the practice. The Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the first century AD, noted that it was common in Egypt, and it is certain that at least several centuries before Strabo, the operation was being performed on girls at puberty in Egypt. Pharaonic circumcision is, perhaps significantly, a name given to the extreme infibulation form of the operation.

The theological explanation given to Burton (presumably by Egyptian and Hijazi Arabs) relies on a story which occurs in neither the Bible or the Koran. The story says that Sarah, Abraham's wife, was jealous of Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl who had become Abraham's concubine and borne him Ishmael, the forefathers of the Arabs. To diminish Abraham's apparent love for Hagar, Sarah cut out Hagar's clitoris as she lay asleep. God then, for reasons which Burton does not note, ordered both Abraham and Sarah to circumcise themselves. So began the practice of both male and female circumcision.

The justification given to Burton by advocates of female circumcision was that it was a good prophylactic against unchastity. To excise the clitoris was to excise the seat of desire, and therefore excision reduced the risk of a man being shamed by his lecherous wife. It was not the wife's own soul which was the primary concern: she was not being protected from the moral damage her hormones could do to her. The protection of the husband's name was the great thing. It was recognised amongst the Arabs that circumcision of the wife could reduce the husband's own sexual sensation. This was seen as a price worth paying: better a sexually inert partner and a good name than a lascivious and amorously accomplished wife and the label of cuckold.

Burton railed against the practice with very un-Victorian assertions of male sexual selfishness and arrogance, and warned that the husband may be a victim of female circumcision also. A woman's desire and her delight in lovemaking will be reduced by her circumcision, he says, but she will become melancholic, cruel, immoral and insatiably extravagant.

It is impossible to say how 'Islamic' the practice is. Bullfighting is not a Christian practice simply because it happens in Catholic Spain, and the mere occurrence of female circumcision in Muslim countries does not indicate very much about the extent to which Islam has adopted the practice.

Although it is about the most undiluted of revealed religions, Islam has been conditioned by its people as well as its people being conditioned by it. And although the people cluster tightly around the core of the Koran. Islam does not speak with one voice. The western Muslim apologists, to be heard any Sunday afternoon at Hyde Park Corner, say that Islam liberates women: that it protects their true interests and prevents their exploitation. There are many answers to their sermons. Right or wrong, the view of women in Islam which was described by Burton is still the predominant view throughout the Islamic world. Steps to displace the view have been denounced as satanic attempts to overturn the natural order: attempts orchestrated by corrupt anti-Islamic western interests. The effect which this rhetoric has is obvious: even if the practice was not originally a significantly Islamic one, the fact that non-Muslims pour obloquy on it sanctifies it in a way that no ex cathedra pronouncement from Teheran could do.

The external ceremonial trappings of female circumcision are often overtly Islamic. Cutting of the prepuce of the clitoris is known in Muslim countries as 'sunna' -- the word used to describe sacred and binding Islamic tradition. Workers in Somalia and Djibouti who have seen the operation taking place say that, before the cutting starts, the operator prays, using the words: 'Allah is great and Mohammed is His Prophet. May Allah keep away all evils'. In urban areas eggs are spread out on the floor next to the girl as an offering to Allah. In rural areas the offering is often split maize.(3) Then the clitoris is excised. Full infibulation follows. It is significant that the practice is almost universal in Muslim northern Sudan: the non-Muslim south is relatively free from it.

As the curious story cited by Burton suggests, Islamic adoption and defence of female circumcision may be a result of confusion with male circumcision. There is a general consensus in the Muslim world that male circumcision was one of the commands which the patriarch Abraham agreed that he and his successors would be bound by.(4) Mohammed is said to have told the traditional practitioner of female circumcision, Om Atteya, to 'reduce but not destroy', (a moderation of attitude which probably explains why the severest forms of mutilation are not found in rigorously Islamic communities), but this dictum is regarded by most Muslim scholars as unreliable and not good authority for the proposition that the Prophet commanded or endorsed the practice. The few pillars of the Islamic establishment who have spoken out on the subject have agreed that, if there is a justification for infibulation, it is not to be found in inspired scripture.

The Muslim apologists who are heard by the West are, when pressed, quick to agree this. They point out that the custom is no longer practised to any significant degree in Saudi Arabia, the arbiter of Islamic orthodoxy in the mainstream Arab world, and would agree with the summary of the Muslim position given by Hassan Hathout and quoted by Dorkenoo and Elworthy, namely that: 'It is incorrect to assert that female circumcision is sunna ... in Islam. Only male circumcision is sunna in Islam, a tradition taken from the Prophet Abraham which remained and is still performed in Judaism'.(5)

If I had managed to burst or talk my way into the house behind the Moussin Mosque, it is fairly certain what I would have found there. I would have found a dirty clinic, a bloodstained table or stool, some anxious but enthusiastic mothers and a coven of grandmothers and, pinioned on the table or the stool, legs apart, a little girl being cut and scraped with a razor or a piece of glass. On the wall would have been photographs of the King and the Kaa'ba, and an elaborate calligraphic rendering of the Bas'm'Allah in a gilded frame. There would be anaesthetic, and the screaming would perhaps have been drowned by Lebanese pop music on the radio. It would not have been very nice.

The type of operation which would have been performed there is also fairly certain. The main form of female circumcision found in the Islamic world is infibulation or one of its variants. The Middle East is a conservative place. More exotic variants such as the dilation of the vaginal orifice by internal incision (found in Australian aboriginal groups), or the elongation of the labia (found in Caroline Islanders and in some regions of South Africa), are not found there. I suggest that this conservatism in matters of female circumcision is genuinely Islamic, stemming from the dictum of the Prophet which is mentioned above, and is not merely a function of the temperaments which happen to be possessed by those nations which happen to be Islamic. The conservatism seen in South East Asian Islamic communities (in Indonesia and Malaysia) and amongst Bohra Muslims in East Africa, India and Pakistan, all of whom are islands of relative restraint in oceans of brutal and imaginative variety, supports this contention.

Infibulation typically involves removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and the anterior two-thirds of the labia majora. There is then induced adhesion, either by stitching or by simple prolonged opposition and the formation of scar tissue, of the remaining labial flaps. A small posterior opening is left. The operation is performed, as elsewhere in the world, by women, and very often by sturdy matriarchal midwives. The age at which it occurs varies greatly. Fearful Sudanese mothers, weaned away from the practice by western education, lock their seven and eight year old girls away from proselytizing circumcisers in the Khartoum suburbs. The Jewish Falashas of Ethiopia (interestingly, because it suggests a confusion with the biblically enjoined brit mila), circumcise their daughters at a few days of age. Other communities perform the operation at puberty, shortly before marriage, or before the birth of the first child.

The physical consequences are severe and predictable and now much talked about. Infibulation is designed to prevent entry. It also prevents egress. Menstrual blood often dams up behind the artificial wall, causing spectacular urogenital tract infections. El-Dareer(6) describes how the increasing size of the abdomen from accumulation of several months' menstrual blood, combined with ammennorhea, can lead families to con-elude that the girl is pregnant. She is killed, having disgraced the family. Tetanus, profound bleeding and septicaemia are common sequelae. Deaths occur regularly. There is great reluctance to refer cases to modern hospitals. Many of the girls seen by the Red Crescent organisation are in the final stages of fatal infections. Their deaths and the outrage which follows discourage future referrals. Even for the fortunate girls whose wounds heal well, sexual intercourse and urination often remain painful. Neuromas very often develop where the dorsal nerve of the clitoris is divided. The result is permanent and agonizing hypersensitivity. There will be re-infibulation after the birth of each child.

If girls are not infibulated they will sometimes pay a terrible social price. They may well be unmarriageable. Male expectations create a market: mothers, fearful of the stigma of unmarried daughters, sustain it. And so, despite the protestations of its apologists, does Islam. Western commentators should think long and hard before launching into diatribes about the practices of peoples culturally distant from them. Very often the charges of arrogance, cultural imperialism, self-righteousness or simple nosiness brought against such commentators are made out. The pointless Morocco trip is a case in point. It was mere voyeurism. But the voices condemning female circumcision are not the voices of busybodies peering secretively from behind an international net curtain.

Taking all sensitivities into account, and acknowledging the danger of uncomprehending, patronising preaching, female circumcision is indefensible. There has been a lot of recent speculation about how it can be stopped, and the arguments about the best approach are complex. But some responsibility lies with Islamic leaders. The difficulties they face are colossal; but they should be urgently concerned, if only because the continuing Islamization of a barbarism threatens to give the lie to Muslim protestations about the place of women, and because Islam is being defamed by its assimilation of a clearly un-Islamic practice.


1. Hosken, Fran P.: The Hosken Report (1982).
2. Burton, Sir Richard F.: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (1855).
3. Dorkenoo, Efua, and Elworthy, Scilla: Female Genital Mutilation: Proposals for Change. Minority Rights Group International (1992), p.75.
4. Genesis 17 vv.9-14 and vv.23-27: cp. Koran: Sura 33:7.
5. Op cit: p.14.
6. El-Dareer, Asma: Female Circumcision and its consequences for mother and child. Yaounde, 12-15 December 1979.

© 1994 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
© 2004 Gale Group

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