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Female genital cutting (FGC) is the ancient cultural practice of removing portions of a girl’s genitalia. It occurs extensively in Africa on girls from infancy to puberty and is also known as female circumcision (FC) or female genital mutilation (FGM). In Arabic, the language of many proponents of genital cutting, the custom is known as tahara, cleanliness or purification. While practitioners affirm its value as an important and long-standing part of cultural identity, critics decry the practice as a violation of human rights that damages women’s health and perpetuates violence against girls.
The practice of genital cutting is a significant rite of passage for girls in the regions where it is observed. Girls must be cut to be accepted as responsible adult members of their communities and suitable marriage partners. The procedure is thought to make girls beautiful and clean and to enhance male sexual pleasure, increasing marital stability. Since it typically reduces female sexual desire, it is believed to ensure girls’ virginity and prevent infidelity among adult women.
Celebrations often follow the procedure and girls are given gifts and public recognition of their new status. Parents who do not cut their daughters are seen as inexcusably neglectful. For practicing communities, genital cutting of girls is an important part of cultural and ethnic identity. Many Muslims believe that female circumcision is a religious duty stipulated in the Qur’an, though prominent Muslim scholars have strongly condemned female genital cutting. Other religions engage in female cutting in Africa as well, including Protestants, Catholics, Coptic Christians, and Ethiopian Jews.
Female genital cutting occurs in several patterns, ranging from removal of part of the clitoris (Sunnah circumcision) to excision of all external genitalia leaving a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood (infibulation or Pharaonic circumcision). The practice occurs most frequently in Egypt, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea, where over 90 percent of all adult women have been circumcised. Other countries with genital cutting include Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. The practice has been carried to Europe and North America by African immigrants. The most common age for genital cutting is four to eight years old, though in some areas girls are cut at the marriageable age of fourteen to sixteen years old. Worldwide, as many as 140 million women or 5 percent of the world’s female population have been circumcised and an estimated three million additional girls are cut every year.
- Gruenbaum, E. (2001) The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective.University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.