Scar Tissue: Social Institutions and Female Genital Cutting in Africa
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
Home |
The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
MARTIN, C. L. (2002). Scar Tissue: Social Institutions and Female Genital Cutting in Africa. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 5. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Scar Tissue: Social Institutions and Female Genital Cutting in Africa

Sponsored by: LAVERNE WORTHY (
This paper is a review of the influence of social institutions on the practice of Female Genital Cutting in Africa. The effects of medicine, economy, family, religion, and government on the perpetuation of Female Genital Cutting are explored. A review of the literature indicated that the social structure of Africa plays a major role in reinforcing the practice. Additionally, Female Genital Cutting is so deeply woven into the fabric of some African nations, that removal may be unlikely. The strength of pressure on women to participate in the ritual of Female Genital Cutting may make western judgement of the practice unwise and unfair.

Female Genital Cutting (FGC), also referred to as Female Genital Mutilation, excision, circumcision, and Sunna, is performed on more than a million women and girls each year (Dorkenoo, 1994). There are various forms or degrees of the practice, ranging from the mild symbolic washing of the clitoral hood to complete removal of the external genitalia (Sobieszczyk & Williams, 1997). Infibulation, the most severe form of the practice, involves removing the clitoris, labia minora, and most of the labia majora using a variety of instruments, from jagged rocks to special razors. After scraping what is left of the skin to produce raw surfaces that will adhere, the edges are stitched, “glued” with various agents, or held together with large thorns. To be certain that the tissues will bond, the subject’s lower extremities are sometimes obligatorily immobilized. Permanent adhesion will form for the entire length of the genitalia; that is, all but where a miniscule aperture was created by inserting a sliver of wood or a matchstick, constituting the only opening for release of urine and menstrual fluid. This, as can be imagined, may cause great pain as well as prolonged menstruation and urination. Women remain in this state until they are married and deinfibulated by way of sharp implement or the insertion of the husband’s finger or penis (using the latter may take weeks). Though infibulation, also known as Pharaonic or Sudanese circumcision, is practiced less often on the whole than the other types of cutting, it is still the predominant form used in many countries of the African Horn, including Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia (Dorkenoo, 1994). Obviously, there are potentially serious physical and psychological problems created by this practice. There are many immediate complications of the surgery, such as shock, hemorrhaging, and tetanus, that are frequently fatal. Later, problems with childbirth, impaired sexual functioning, and perhaps even post-traumatic stress are likely to surface. Why then, do African women continue to view the tradition favorably, even forcing and tricking their own daughters into bearing the great pain and risk associated with FGC (Dorkenoo, 1994)? According to sociologist John Henslin (2000), “personal feelings and desires tend to be overridden by social structure” (p. 81). In essence, these women are doing exactly what is called for by their societies. They are doing what their families, religions, doctors, governments, and economies tell them to do. Africa’s social institutions act as a powerful reinforcement to perpetuate the tradition of FGC.

In many cultures, it is the purpose of family to regulate sex and reproduction, with a strong emphasis on duty, fidelity, and respect. Family structure in traditional societies, strictly organizes these functions (Henslin, 2000). Marriage and child bearing are essential to the vitality of such groups (Abusharaf, 1998). The family is extended, including the whole kinship group and even the community. If a woman does not play her part, in terms of FGC, she is ultimately breaking the family and cultural norms of chastity, cleanliness, marriageability, religious servitude, and preserving family honor. For this she can be killed. Alternatively, she may be shunned by the entire village, forced to leave her family and her home (Dorkenoo, 1994; Accad, 1993). Consideration of such factors makes it easier to understand why many women in African cultures embrace FGC. Cultural myths having a strong family dynamic may also create a reinforcing stimulus for FGC. Some tribes use FGC for birth control while others use it for fertility enhancement. According to other folklore, the intact clitoris may kill the woman’s sexual partner during intercourse, or kill her baby during the birth process. Another belief is that if the clitoris is allowed to develop, it will become very large, hanging phallic-like from the body. Men and women alike seek to avoid the believed effects of non-circumcision. It is important to recognize that, though seemingly preposterous, these notions are engrained in the culture and accepted by the entire community (Dorkenoo, 1994). Belief is reality; women can obtain the benefits and escape the tragedies by undergoing FGC.Another important family force perpetuating FGC is, perhaps surprisingly, the women themselves. Women are the guardians of the practice; they initiate, perform, and even demand that the procedures take place. Elderly women, who gain status because they no longer must be sexually controlled, have a particularly interesting role in FGC. These women exert their newfound power in the only areas allowed, primarily family affairs. They are especially involved in preparing the next generations by perpetuating the family’s (and community’s) values and traditions (Dorkenoo, 1994). By forcing their daughters or granddaughters to undergo FGC, they protect them from a lifetime of severe ridicule, from the labels of unmarriageable, unclean, and unchaste; from social death. (Dorkenoo, 1994; Abusharaf, 1998). What woman would not want to save her child or grandchild from such emotional pain?

A communal unity is formed and solidified by the social institution of religion and by religion’s practice of rituals (Henslin, 2000). “Religious beliefs,” writes Henslin (2000), “include not only values (what is considered good and desirable in life—how we ought to live) but also a cosmology, a unified picture of the world” (p. 343). Where then does the ritual of FGC fit into this picture? Rites are religious symbols which effectively hold the community together, giving a sense of purpose and identity to its followers (Henslin, 2000). The social glue, the guidebook of life, and the meaning of the universe are inextricably intertwined with religion, ritual, and thus, FGC. Cutting is not just an action, a practice, or a rite. It is inseparable from a social group’s way of life. In many ways, this can be understood clearly even in the west, where sacraments such as circumcision for Jews and Baptism for Christians are unquestioned within their respective groups. This may be especially true for FGC, which is believed to serve multiple purposes (aesthetics, chastity, health, etc.). In Africa, FGC is practiced by Muslims, Jews, Christians, and various tribal religions; however, FGC most commonly takes place in association with the Islamic faith (Abusharaf, 1998). In fact, Islamic faith is one of the most commonly cited reasons for participation in FGC, although FGC predates Islam, and is not practiced in most predominately Muslim countries. Some type of female circumcision may have been suggested by Mohammed, though it is not mentioned in the Koran, and infibulation is definitely proscribed. Still, many people believe that circumcision is a necessary religious tenet, and that to be a dutiful Muslim, a woman must have her genitalia surgically altered (Sobieszczyk & Williams, 1998; Walker & Parmar, 1993). Hicks (1993) argues that Islam “has been instrumental in embedding infibulation into the structural nexus of marriage, family, and social honor” (p. 3). She goes on to write that “because Islam permeates and indeed regulates all levels of the social, political, and legal system, its tenets are deemed sacrosanct. Consequently, as an institutional structure, it is virtually imperviousness (sic.) to the effects of external exposure” (Hicks, 1993, p. 25). That is, FGC cannot be separated from Islam, and Islam cannot be separated from society. Choices about FGC and other religious responsibilities are simply nonexistent for most women and their daughters, a circumstance unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. As Henslin (2000) notes, “religion is often so bound up with the prevailing social order that it resists social change” (p. 341).

Though there is much conflicting evidence, female circumcision may have had its beginnings as a medical or curative treatment in ancient Egypt. Dating as far back as the second century B.C.E., there is literature referencing a similar operation, performed on women whose clitorises were deemed too large. This surgery was considered beneficial for the women because an oversized clitoris was unattractive and would produce man-like sexual desire and erections. There is also evidence suggesting excision was a remedy for hermaphrodism. Today’s medical reasons for FGC include physical embellishment, cleanliness, fertility promotion, and maintenance of health (Accad, 1993; Hicks, 1993). As a social institution, the exerts a powerful influence on society because its practitioners are trusted and respected. They are assumed to be knowledgeable about human health and value the well-being of their patients (Delamater, 2000). In Africa’s many rural areas, where FGC is relatively common, medicine is combined with religion and folklore to create a powerful authority over society. Unfortunately, the ‘professionals’ in these areas are often untrained, and the job of circumciser may simply be passed down by family lineage. In most instances, these practitioners are respected by the entire community, they are well paid, and they are considered to be doing a great service to society (Walker & Parmar, 1993). Thus, it would be sensible for circumcisers to reinforce and promote FGC as a sound medical procedure, encouraging the practice, and prescribing it in a blanketed fashion. Medical reasons (like those given above), coupled with encouragement from the cutters, puts pressure on societies to continue FGC. Thus, it may seem quite prudent for women, from a medical or health standpoint, to participate.In Africa, economic conditions may also contribute to FGC practices. Communities in many parts of Africa, (including those that practice FGC), are primarily pastoral or nomadic; that is, they raise livestock and/or grow crops, and sometimes move from place to place (Hicks, 1993). Such an economy is relatively unstable, and its members often survive at subsistence levels (Abusharaf, 1998; Walker & Parmar, 1993). Circumcising brings money to the practitioners, and not just the rural midwives, but also hospital nurses who need the income (Accad, 1993). According to Efua Dorkenoo (1994), an African activist and frequently cited expert on the subject of FGC, “the current economic aspect of FGM and excisors is a modern development resulting from the introduction of cash into traditional subsistence economies” (p. 50-51). In fact, some plans to end FGC include alternative employment for cutters (Abusharaf, 1998). It seems that both the economic and social rewards for practitioners of FGC are self-reinforcing; and the local medical support of FGC is a strong influence on public opinion and action.

“For society to exist, it must have a system of leadership. Some people must have power over others” (Henslin, 2000, p.272). In postindustrial societies, we rely on written rules to keep order, but in Africa’s mostly preindustrial nations, authority generally emanates from custom and tradition (Henslin, 2000). African nations vary in governmental structures and legal policies. Some political issues directly affect the practice of FGC, such as attitudes of governing bodies, the existence (or nonexistence) of specific FGC laws, and the influence of law as a social institution on FGC. In very rural places laws may be unknown or difficult to enforce, and local customs may prevail regardless of law (Abusharaf, 1998; Sobieszczyk & Williams, 1997). In addition, governments may send mixed messages. They may criminalize FGC, and then repeal, or they may support FGC, and later ban its practice; as are the cases in Sudan and Kenya, respectively (Dorkenoo, 1994; White, 2001). As recently as 1997 in Gambia, where prevalence of FGC is estimated at 79%, the government issued an imperative commanding all media to always portray FGC in a positive light, and forbidding mention of any negative aspects of FGC (Censoring, 1997). Conversely, many African countries with high rates of FGC have adopted international treaties that guarantee protection for women and children; indeed, many nations have even developed their own anti-FGC laws. Unfortunately though these laws are often not enforced. Additionally, some nations with high incidences of infibulation (e.g., Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan) have no specific criminal laws regarding FGC (Rahman & Toubia, 2000). Since people often look to their government for guidance and protection, these types of policies are confusing at best, and at worst, they strongly reinforce societies’ resolve to continue the tradition of FGC.

Sociology reminds us that behavior is almost inseparable from social structure (Henslin, 2000), and thus, FGC may be a reasonable product of circumstance. “As the tradition of FGM became embedded within the culture…medical, clinical, and curative motivations probably mixed with ritual, social, and moral reasons to favor the continuation and spread of a practice that initially may have been narrowly performed” (Knight, 2001, p. 334). Finally, considering FGC in historical and cultural contexts, recognizing its exhaustive permeation of society, and keeping in mind the depth of its entrenchment in family, religion, medicine, economics, and government, it is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to make judgments on the ethics of its practice.

Abusharaf, R. M. (1998). Unmasking tradition. The Sciences, 38(2), 22-27. Retrieved February 10, 2002, from Ebscohost Academic Search Premier database.Accad, E. (1993). Excision: Practices, discourses and feminist commitment. Feminist Issues, 13(2), 47-69. Retrieved February 10, 2002, from Ebscohost Academic Search Premier database.Censoring the facts about fgm. (1997). Humanist, 57(5), 47. Retrieved February 10, 2002, from Ebscohost Academic Search Premier database.Delamater, J. D., & Hyde, J. S. (2000). Understanding human sexuality. (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw.Dorkenoo, E. (1994). Cutting the rose: Female genital mutilation: The practice and prevention. London: Minority Rights.Henslin, J. M. (2000). Essentials of sociology: A down to earth approach. (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.Hicks, E. K. (1993). Infibulation: Female genital mutilation in Islamic Northeastern Africa. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.Knight, M. (2001). Curing cut or ritual mutilation?: Some remarks on the practice of female and male circumcision in Graeco-Roman Egypt. ISIS: Journal of the History of Science in Society, 92, 317-338. Retrieved February 10, 2002, from Ebscohost Academic Search Premier database. Parmar, P. & Walker, A. W. (1993). Warrior marks: Female genital mutilation and the sexual binding of women. New York: Harcourt.Rahman, A. & Toubia, N. (Eds.). (2000). Female genital mutilation: A guide to laws and policies worldwide. London: Zed.Sobieszczyk, T. & Williams, L. (1997). Attitudes surrounding the continuation of female circumcision in the Sudan: Passing the tradition to the next generation. Journal of Marriage & Family, 59, 966-982. Retrieved February 10, 2002, from Ebscohost Academic Search Premier database.White, A. E. (2001). Female genital mutilation in America: The federal dilemma. Texas Journal of Women & the Law, 10(2), 129-209. Retrieved February 10, 2002, from Ebscohost Academic Search Premier database.

Submitted 4/23/2002 7:13:03 PM
Last Edited 4/23/2002 7:25:10 PM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

Rated by 0 users. Users who logon can rate manuscripts and write reviews.

© 2017 National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse. All rights reserved. The National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse is not responsible for the content posted on this site. If you discover material that violates copyright law, please notify the administrator. This site receives money through the Google AdSense program when users are directed to useful commercial sites. We do not encourage or condone clicking on the displayed ads unless you have a legitimate interest in the advertisement.