Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Female circumcision
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Female circumcision

Female circumcision is a term that loosely refers to a number of procedures performed on the female genitalia and which are generally of a cultural, rather than medical, nature. It is a very nearly universal practice in parts of Africa and is frequently practiced in the Arabian Peninsula and Asia.

The practice is rejected within Western Civilization, where it is usually regarded an unacceptable and illegal form of involuntary body modification and is often called female genital mutilation (FGM).

Table of contents
1 Different forms
2 Areas of practice
3 Cultural background
4 Medical consequences
5 Female circumcision in popular culture
6 External links

Different forms

Some confusion occurs in discussing this topic as there are several distinct practices that are all generally referred to by this name.

In some cases, no actual genital surgery occurs, though it is simulated with a knife as part of a ceremony. Those that actually involve surgery, are usually divided into three major types.


Type I, "clitoridotomy" or "hoodectomy" (also sunna circumcision, after Islamic tradition) is the most limited and involves the removal or splitting of the clitoral hood. This type of female circumcision is most comparable to male circumcision. When it is practiced today for non-religious reasons, it is usually an elective surgery intended to enhance the sexual sensitivity of the clitoris, and considered only in cases where the hood is overgrown or cannot be retracted.

From the late 19th century until the 1950s, it was practiced not to enhance, but to control female sexuality, and was advocated in the United States together with more invasive procedures such as the removal of the clitoris and infibulation by groups like the Orificial Surgery Society until 1925. Specifically, doctors performing or advocating the procedure were concerned that girls of all ages would otherwise engage in more masturbation and be "polluted" by the activity, which was referred to as "self-abuse" [1].

Through the 1950s, some doctors continued to advocate clitoridotomy for hygienic reasons or to reduce masturbation, even as other procedures were increasingly believed to be a violation of genital integrity, and as such, a form of genital mutilation. For example, C.F. McDonald wrote in a 1958 paper titled Circumcision of the Female class="external">[1, "If the male needs circumcision for cleanliness and hygiene, why not the female? I have operated on perhaps 40 patients who needed this attention." The author goes on to describe how a two-year old was "cured" of frequent masturbation using the procedure.

Such views regarding masturbation became widely discredited by the 1960s as a result of the so-called "sexual revolution". A small minority of doctors has since advocated clitoridotomy of adults to increase sexual sensitivity, so as to increase sexual pleasure, rather than to decrease masturbation frequency.


Type II or clitoridectomy is more extensive and implies the partial or total removal of the clitoris, and sometimes also the labia minora. It has only rarely been performed in the English-speaking nations. [1]


The most complete form of female circumcision is Type III, which is also referred to as infibulation or pharaonic circumcision. It consists of a clitoridectomy, the removal of the labia minora, the cutting of the labia majora and then sewing together the cut labia majora to cover the vagina, leaving an opening to allow urine and menstrual blood to pass through. The sewn-together labia majora are opened by the woman's husband before sexual intercourse.

Other types of female circumcision

Other forms are collectively referred to as Type IV. This includes a diverse range of practices, including pricking the clitoris with needles, burning or scarring the genitals as well as ripping or tearing of the vagina. Type IV is found primarily among aboriginal tribes and isolated ethnic groups as well as in combination with other types. An example, sometimes referred to as excision, was practiced as an initiation rite among Australian Aborigines. It involved cutting or tearing the vagina of a pubescent girl to enlarge it, after which the girl engaged in coitus with several male tribal members.

Areas of practice

Prevalence of female cirumcision in Africa.

Female circumcision is today mainly practiced in African countries, especially in Muslim areas. It is common in a band that stretches from Senegal in West Africa to Somalia on the East coast, as well as from Egypt in the north to Tanzania in the south. In these regions, it is estimated that more than 95% of all women have undergone this procedure. It is also practiced by some groups in the Arab peninsula, especially in Yemen, but also in Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The practice can also be found among a few ethnic groups in South America, India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The practice is particularly common in Somalia, followed by Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Mali. Among ethnic Somali women, infibulation is traditionally almost universal. In the Arab peninsula, sunna circumcision is usually performed, especially among Arabs (ethnic groups of African descent are more likely to prefer infibulation).

Amnesty International estimates that over 130 million women worldwide have been the recipients of these procedures, with over 2 million female circumcisions being performed every year.

In modern times, the practice has spread to Europe and the U.S. due to immigration. Some traditionally minded families have the procedure performed while on vacation in their home countries.

Cultural background

A number of reasons are put forward for the practice of female circumcision. These include the belief that it moderates sexual desires in women. It is also believed that it is more hygienic. Frequently the practice is associated with traditional initiation rites. In some cultures it is believed that girls are born with both a male and a female spirit and it is necessary to remove the male spirit through circumcision for the girl to grow up to be a woman. Sometimes it is also defended on the grounds of similarity to male circumcision.

The operation is most often carried out by woman practitioners. Thus it has been attributed by some authors to a deep-rooted fear of elder women that the more attractive younger women might seduce away their husbands and thus leave them without support.

Many African Muslims believe that female circumcision is required by Islam. In fact the practice is mentioned nowhere in the Qur'an, although the Sunnah contains several references to the custom. In particular, Mohammed instructed one infibulator, "Yes, it is allowed. Come closer so I can teach you: if you cut, do not overdo it, because it brings more radiance to the face and it is more pleasant for the husband."

Sheikh Jad Al-Haqq 'Ali Jad Al-Haqq issued, in 1994, a fatwa stating: Circumcision is mandatory for men and for women. If the people of any village decide to abandon it, the [village] imam must fight against them as if they had abandoned the call to prayer.[1]

Many Arab Muslims interpret different passages as being in opposition to female circumcision, and believe the practice to be un-Islamic.

Female circumcision has proven to be an enduring tradition and a deeply imbued social tradition. For instance, prohibition of circumcision among tribes in Kenya significantly strengthened resistance to British colonial rule in the 1950s and increased support for the Mau Mau guerilla movement. During that period, the practice became even more common, as it was seen as a form of resistance towards colonial rule. To fight the practice it is therefore widely felt that it is necessary to work with local communities.

Medical consequences

Female circumcision is most commonly performed between the ages of four and eight. Although as with most surgery it should be performed under hygienic conditions and with the application of an appropriate anaesthetic, this technology has only been available for a relatively short time. Even today the procedure is usually carried out without anesthesia and under unclean conditions. As any surgical procedure, female circumcision can be extremely painful, and dangerous to health when not performed hygienically. Some argue that making the process illegal drives it underground and thus puts the recipients at greater risk. Many opponents of the practice argue that the deterrent effect of prohibition outweighs such risks.

When infibulation is carried out with shards of glass and other crude tools (which is, unfortunately, often the case), it is common for infection to occur, sometimes resulting in death or serious long term health effects. These include urinary and reproductive tract infections (caused by obstructed flow of urine and menstrual blood), various forms of scarring and infertility. First sexual intercourse can always be extremely painful, and infibulated women also need to open the labia majora carefully. Sexual pleasure through stimulation of the clitoris, almost universally regarded as an important part of typical female sexuality, is of course eliminated.

Prohibition has led to female circumcision being undertaken without any anaesthetic or sterilization, and by women with no medical training. The procedure, when performed without any anaesthetic, can lead to death through shock or excessive bleeding. The failure to use sterilised medical instruments can lead to infections and the spread of disease, such as AIDS, especially when the same instruments are used to perform procedures on multiple women.

Female circumcision is prohibited in most Western countries where it is not part of local culture and tradition, and there is a growing movement in the West to see it prohibited throughout the world. Some argue that this is an example of Western cultural imperialism. Proponents of a ban reply that human rights are universal and not subject to cultural exceptions, and that the practice is a severe violation of human rights.

Some have attacked the common Western practice of performing "corrective" surgery on the genitals of intersexuals as Western cultural equivalent of female genital mutilation.

Female circumcision in popular culture

The subject of female circumcision has been addressed by many prominent authors, singers and performers across the world. Some examples: Also, a documentary entitled "Warrior Marks" has been done on the practice by Walker, the author of The Color Purple. Ms. Walker subsequently wrote a book of the same name, which is about her travels and experiences while making the documentary.

External links