General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionBest of ABA Sections

FALL 1997

Individual Rights & Responsibilities

Female Genital Mutilation: The Modern Day Struggle to Eradicate a Torturous Rite of Passage

Robin M. Maher

The Pulitzer-prize winning photograph shows a young woman from Kenya, her back to the camera, head tilted down, legs bent at the knees. She is examining herself after undergoing a procedure known as female genital mutilation (FGM), in which her genitals were mutilated and removed. It is a modern day chastity belt that will leave this young woman with mental scars and physical pain for the rest of her life. At this moment of discovery, we are spared from seeing her face as she realizes for the first time what has happened to her. We are left to imagine her expression and the impact this procedure will have on her young life.

Confronted with such imagery, it is through twentieth century eyes and sensibilities that we in the United States view the practice of FGM, a custom with cultural and religious significance thousands of years old. FGM is practiced in over forty countries, including the United States, and has affected an estimated 80 to 120 million girls and women worldwide. Although widely practiced, public discussion of the subject by practicing members of the culture was largely taboo until recently, when women seeking to save themselves or their daughters fled their native lands to seek asylum and found themselves in the media spotlight. No longer an exercise in cultural relativism, lawyers, judges and medical professionals in the U.S. were suddenly confronted with the reality of FGM in the personhood of young women like Fauziya Kassindja, who won asylum in 1995.


Torture Cloaked in Tradition.

The term "female genital mutilation" generally describes three different forms of genital mutilation. The most common form is female circumcision, in which the clitoris is partially or completely cut away, often with razor blades or broken glass, and rarely with anesthesia. The most extreme form of FGM is infibulation, in which the entire genital area and outer tissues are cut away. The external sides of the vagina are then sewn together using catgut or thorns, leaving only a tiny opening for the passage of urine and for menstruation.

The procedure, often by female family members, is performed in nonsterile conditions, and frequently results in serious and sometimes fatal infections. In some areas in West Africa, dirt, ashes or pulverized animal feces are thrown into the wound to stop the bleeding, which contributes to the opportunity for infection, shock, and uncontrolled hemorrhaging. Following the procedure, the girl’s legs are bound together for as long as forty days, during which time, (if she survives), her wound heals and scars.

The long-term effects of this procedure include complications and pain with menstruation, urination, intercourse, and childbirth. It is no coincidence that the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world are recorded in regions where FGM is practiced. The scarring and complications associated with FGM frequently result in delayed and obstructed labor, tearing, and hemorrhaging. Unassisted childbirth is impossible following infibulation; many women and infants die during childbirth as a consequence of the procedure.

The stark details of the procedure are horrifying. Even stated simply, as they are here, without the anecdotal descriptions of the pain and suffering these women experience during and following this procedure, it is an appalling description. It is difficult, therefore, to imagine why a mother would choose to subject her daughter to such a painful ritual, particularly after having undergone the procedure herself.

Religion is one motivation, primarily among Muslim populations. These groups have the mistaken belief that their religion demands the practice; in fact, religious scholars have confirmed that there is no mention of FGM in the Koran. That does not stop many religious and secular leaders from claiming that it does, however.

A notable example is the Sheikh of Al-Azhar (a prominent Islamic university in Egypt), who publicly proclaimed recently that FGM had a place in the jurisprudence of Islam. Under pressure from leaders like the Sheikh, the Egyptian Ministry of Health issued a decree in 1994 that permitted hospitals in Egypt to perform the procedure for the equivalent of three dollars. Human rights organizations and Egyptian activists quickly organized a strong response to the decree, which essentially medicalized and legitimatized the practice. The minister ultimately revoked the directive a year later. But the controversy confirmed the strong presence of FGM in Islamic communities.

Lack of education is another explanation for FGM’s long tradition. Research has demonstrated a direct correlation between the education of women and a decline of the practice. This may be because educated women see alternatives to the traditional roles of wife and mother, thus diminishing the importance of preserving a woman’s status as a marriageable virgin.

But religious belief and poor education are only partial explanations. A more complete answer comes with understanding a core belief many communities have about women. This belief holds that women are fundamentally sexual creatures and naturally promiscuous; thus the purpose of FGM is to prevent women from succumbing to these impulses and to protect them against the sexual aggressions of others.

Infibulation is the ultimate expression of this purpose, forcing a new husband to cut his wife open before physical consummation of the marriage is possible. In purely economic terms, the practice also ensures a virgin bride who will bring a high price to the family at the time of her marriage.

Religions may tacitly or explicitly reenforce this belief about women. Those who have not undergone the procedure are viewed in some societies as "unclean" and promiscuous, and may be barred from entering certain worship areas. These women will be social outcasts—women that no man would take as a wife.

It is with this understanding that a mother’s motivation to inflict the procedure on her daughters becomes apparent. For women whose entire worth lies in their recognition as "mother" and "wife," as is the case in many societies where FGM is practiced, marrying is a simple matter of survival. Having a daughter who is marriageable—one who has undergone FGM—is therefore absolutely essential for her future and that of her children. Unfortunately, these social judgments and economic realities return mothers to circumcisers with their young daughters in hand.


"Western Imperialism" and Eradication Efforts. Although there is little question whether FGM is a human rights issue, there is much debate over how to address and eradicate the practice. Given the significant issues of societal values, tradition and religion involved, attempts toward eradication are often controversial. What right, after all, does one society have to pass judgment on another’s traditions?

Human rights law echoes this sentiment. The theory of universalism holds that there are human rights so fundamental to every human being that they transcend all societal, political, and religious constraints. Various human rights instruments have codified this theory. Among them is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the equal and inalienable right to liberty, dignity, and the security of the person. FGM has been identified by the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and other international human rights organizations as violative of these fundamental human rights and harmful to the health and well-being of women.

U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder has introduced federal legislation to criminalize the procedure in the United States. The bill also directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to collect data on the incidence of FGM in the U.S., to conduct education and outreach efforts to communities that traditionally practice FGM, and provide recommendations to medical schools for treatment of women who have been affected.

Although a previous bill failed to pass, a second bill introduced in this Congress was more successful. The Health and Human Services provisions have become law, and the criminalization provision is part of the Senate immigration bill, which has yet to be reconciled with the House immigration bill. This provision also contains an amendment introduced by Rep. Schroeder to notify immigrants and visitors upon entry to the U.S. of the legal and health consequences of FGM.

Robin M. Maher is Senior Counsel at Norwest Corporation in Minneapolis, where she practices employment law. She is a volunteer attorney for Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared in Human Rights, Fall 1996 (23:4).

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