Originally published in ElleAfrique Magazine
Female genital mutilation is one those terrifying realities that is still practiced openly today, mainly in Africa and parts of Asia, although globalization and massive migration has carried the practice to parts of Europe, Australia and the Americas. Its right up there with child brides and burying female children on the long and painful list of crimes against women. FGM is believed to keep girls ‘clean’, curb their outrageous instincts for promiscuity, make them smell nice, and look eternally beautiful for their husbands. It is also believed to be a solid Islamic teaching that all God-fearing Muslims must abide to. The fact that the practice has severe health and psychological complications, and that actually FGM doesn’t really prevent promiscuity after all, don’t seem to deter the practice much.
Sudan is on top of the list of countries still holding onto the practice. According to the latest Sudan Household Health Survey of 2010, 66% of women have undergone some form of FGM, while 72% of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 have been cut. The latter statistic is much more disconcerting than the former, as it shows that FGM is alive and kicking. Despite the usual argument in a typical patriarchal society that it is men who dictate and insist on this practice (like everything else wrong in the world), it is actually women who are mainly implicated in the practice’s refusal to die. Little girls are lured with new clothes, money and sweets, with henna on their hands and feet and a ceremony to celebrate their ‘cleansing’; while those who grow up ‘uncut’ are considered dirty and impure. The latter statement was actually used by a well-known MP as an argument against banning the practice by law, I kid you not.
FGM and Health
Around 10% of females die in the immediate period following FGM due to excessive bleeding leading to shock, and from overwhelming infection (Sharif et al, 2013), since the vast majority of FGM is carried out by traditional workers and midwives in rural areas, without medical supervision and in unsterile environments. The medical complications range in severity and duration and affect both the urinary and the gynecological systems of women; fistulas, cysts, recurrent infections, obstructed labour, urethral strictures, vesical stones, infertility and delay in diagnosing cervical cancer. The emotional and psychological complications are a whole other story. Many young women request defibulation (reversal) due to the severe pain and infection especially after marriage. On the other hand, the majority of women request refibulation after childbirth; and even if they didn’t someone else (mother, husband, etc.) will instruct and pay the midwife to do it.
FGM and Islam
Many defenders of FGM, especially in Sudan, fall back on its being considered an Islamic teaching. This particular argument has been debated and thrown back and forth between both extremes of opinion with each side using it for their own propaganda. The facts are that FGM is a pre-Islamic practice, and often is carried out in places where Muslims do not form a majority. There is no direct or clearly stated Islamic order or teaching that instructs the cutting of female genital parts in the Quran, and what evidence there is from the Sunna (teachings of the Prophet PBUH) is relatively weak and therefore cannot be used as a direct order. More compelling is the evidence that Islam prevents changing God’s creation; the only exception to this rule is male circumcision. What has been agreed upon by scholars, however, is that Islam does not ban FGM, but tolerates and potentially overrules it within terms that would make carrying it out legally almost impossible; i.e. if any cutting is to be done it cannot be in any degree of excess that would cause harm or prevent a woman from coital pleasure. It can only be done by a medical professional (in this case an OBGYN), and if so only in a prepared environment with sterile and specialised equipment. Combined, these directions cannot in anyone’s right mind be seen as Islam teaching and/or advocating for FGM. Several countries’ Islamic bodies have even signed Fatwas banning the severe form altogether.
FGM and Legislation
FGM has been known and fought for its severe health risks and complications, but since 1993 a new dimension was added when the UN General Assembly labeled it as a human rights violation against women that should incur criminal responsibility. The more extreme forms of FGM were outlawed in Sudan in 1946 during the English colonization of the country, and again in 1974. Both laws didn’t seem to make much of a difference as the practice continued, often openly, despite increasing awareness and raising the educational and economical level of the population. Promises to tighten the law on FGM have turned out to be nothing but fluff: an article banning the practice of FGM was actually dropped from the 2010 Child-Law, with nothing more severe than a 10 year jail sentence to the parents of a child who has died as a direct result of the practice in existence. Efforts are still ongoing to pass a strong and finalizing bill that will prevent FGM once and for all.
FGM and Activism
FGM is probably the most publicized form of activism for women in existence, as it comes in handy on so many different fighting fronts: political, religious, ethnic, and gender to name a few. Although not everyone always has women’s best interests in mind when fighting against FGM, any effort to raise awareness and help drive the practice out of existence are more than welcome. The majority of those leading this fight are international non-governmental organizations of various backgrounds. However, many local bodies for women empowerment exist, such as the Babikir Badri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies which plays a leading role in terms of research and capacity building. In fact, Ahfad University for Women (founder of the association) has been on the forefront of the war against FGM and other harmful practices, integrating its teachings into all undergraduate and postgraduate programs, especially in terms of counseling and community behavioural change. Much use is also made of social media sites which manage to spread the message farther and deeper on many levels, albeit restricted to internet users and generally youth. On the other hand, public national campaigns against FGM are being criticized by their not making as much noise as they should, sending a vague and barely understandable message for the exact same reason that the practice has been so difficult to criminalize. The topic is still a sensitive one to discuss and no one wants to tread on anyone else’s toes.
It is not enough for jeans-and-t-shirt-clad young men and women to show up in remote villages and show people embarrassing pictures of mutilated genitals and shout big medical terms at them in a condescending attempt to raise their awareness. Changing something as deep-rooted and multifaceted as FGM requires an integrated and sustained approach from the base upwards, and the most important targets are religious and traditional leaders, both men and women. Also, without real and genuine political support, it is unlikely that these campaigns will get anywhere.
The UNICEF has set a 5-year target from now to eliminate FGM in Sudan forever. If the current efforts are stepped up and everyone – and I mean everyone – is taken on board, it is not unlikely that this target can be met after all.