The News
Saturday 13 of July 2024

The Wound that Never Heals

Rural Egypt, home to Shaima Mahmoud,photo: Wikipedia
Rural Egypt, home to Shaima Mahmoud,photo: Wikipedia
In some cultures, it is believed that a girl who still has a clitoris poses a serious and potentially deadly threat for any man whose penis may come in contact with it

When Shaima Mahmoud was nine years old, her mother Sabah called the village midwife to come to their home and conduct an ancient ritual that has been practiced by rural Egyptians since time immemorial.

In her bedroom, Sabah, the midwife and another woman from the town held Shaima down as they cut her clitoris with a pair of rusty scissors.

Shaima screamed out in pain and, according to her mother, was unable to walk for the next two days.

Asked later why she inflicted this torturous mutilation onto her daughter after having endured the same process herself 25 years earlier, Sabah seemed to be at a loss for words.

“It’s a tradition,” she murmured from behind a black scarf that covered most of her face.

“I didn’t ask anyone about it. It’s just a tradition.”

Sabah’s timid reply reflects the cultural hurdles that feminist and human rights organization around the world face in trying to eradicate a custom of genital maiming that has been imposed on young girls and women in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia for at least the last two millenniums.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each day about 6,000 girls worldwide undergo feminine genital mutilation (FGM) — euphemistically known as “female circumcision” — and in most cases, the process is carried out without the benefit of anesthesia or proper hygiene.

The process is defined by the WHO as “the partial or total removal of external genitals for either cultural reasons or some other objective that is not therapeutic.”

It is in no way comparable to male circumcision.

In most cases, FGM involves the removal of the clitoris and lower lips, but in some instances, the entire area surrounding the vagina is cut away and the vaginal opening is sewn shut, leaving only a small hole to allow the flow of menstruation.

The WHO says that more than 200 million girls and women living in 30 countries have suffered FGM, and at least 20 percent of them suffer from severe infections, permanent urinary problems and/or sexual dysfunction as a consequence.

Other complications associated with FGM include fatalities as a result of shock, hemorrhaging or septicemia.

The process is generally carried out in less-than-sanitary conditions, with a midwife or local “circumciser” cutting away the external organs with a razorblade or scissors, but in some cases, a kitchen knife or even a piece of broken glass is used.

The instruments are often used repeatedly on various young girls, leading to an increase in the transmission of HIV and other infections.

The age at which the girls undergo FGM varies from culture to culture, but most of the time the mutilation takes place between three and 16.

There are any number of social and cultural justifications for the practice, including the misguided belief that an “uncircumcised” girl is more likely to be sexually promiscuous and that no one will want to marry her.

In some cultures, it is believed that a girl who still has a clitoris poses a serious and potentially deadly threat for any man whose penis may come in contact with it.

But folk legends and old wives’ tales aside, both the United Nations and the World Health Organization have declared that FGM is not only an assault against females, but a violation of fundamental human rights.

Most governments have officially banned the practice, but compliance is slack and enforcement of laws prohibiting FGM is practically nonexistent.

Moreover, FGM is primarily practiced in villages and remote regions where governments do not have easy access.

Consequently, the practice of female genital mutilation can only be effectively abolished through a grassroots approach that takes into consideration all aspects of a particular culture and tries to work within that system of beliefs to eradicate this barbarian custom.

Global awareness and public pressure by women’s and human rights organizations should also play a role.

The dirty little secret of female mutilation that takes place behind closed doors must be exposed, so that girls like Shaima will no longer have to suffer the pain and disfigurement of FGM.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].