What are the origins and reasons for FGM?


19 February 2013

Blog by 28 Too Many's Research Coordinator.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a harmful traditional practice that involves the cutting or removal of the external genitals.  It is typically found in traditional group or community cultures with patriarchal social structures.  The reasons for the practice are complex and the origins are often lost in the mists of time.  What is clear, however,  is that FGM is a manifestation of deeply entrenched gender inequality, a fact recognised by the WHO.

So, what do we know about the origins of FGM?  Although the origins are obscure there has been anthropological and historical research to help us understand how the practice came about.  Although FGM is practised in some communities in the belief that it is a religious requirement, research shows that FGM pre-dates Islam and Christianity.  Some researchers have traced the practice to Egypt in the fifth-century BC and argue that the geographical distribution of FGM suggests that it originated on the west coast of the Red Sea.

Egyptian mummies show women infibulated and this is supported by a Greek papyrus in the British Museum dated 163 BC.  A Greek historian and geographer in the second-century BC reported that a group along the eastern coast of the Red Sea cut their women in “Egyptian style” and that another group “cut off in infancy with razors the whole portion that others circumcise”.  Curiously, today FGM is referred to as “Pharaonic circumcisions” (i.e. Egyptian) in Sudan and “Sudanese circumcision” in Egypt.

There certainly appears to be a link between FGM and slavery.  In 1609, dos Santos reported that a group near Mogadishu, Somalia “had a custom to sew up their females, especially young slaves to make them unable for conception which makes them sell dearer, both for their chastity and for better confidence which their masters put in them”.  Browne reported in in 1799 that Egyptians practised female circumcision and infibulation to prevent pregnancy in women and slaves.  Egyptians raided and traded the Black south for slaves from dynastic to Byzantine times and Sudanese slaves were exported through the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf before the rise of Islam.

Other anthropologists believe that FGM was practised among Equatorial African herders to protect young female herders from being raped, or an “an outgrowth of human sacrificial practices, or some early attempt at population control”.

Today, FGM is an entrenched practice that occurs in the “African Sudanic belt” between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator, from the West Atlantic Coast across to Egypt down to Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa.  The practice is spread across wide cultures and it is suggested that the practice may have arisen independently among different groups.

The reasons why FGM is practised today are a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities.  According to WHO, they include:

- Where FGM is a social convention, the social pressure to confirm is a strong motivation to continue the practice.

- FGM is often considered necessary part of raising a girl properly and preparing her for marriage/adulthood.

- FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour.

- FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty.

- Although no religious scripts prescribe the practices, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support.  Religious leaders take varying positions with regard to FGM: some promote it, some consider it irrelevant and other contribute to its elimination.

- Local structures of power and authority can continue upholding the practice.

- FGM is often considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation.

- In some societies, recent adoption of FGM is linked to copying the traditions of neighbouring groups, or part of a wider religious or traditional revival movement.

- In some societies, FGM is practiced by new groups when they move into areas where the local population practice FGM.

With 140 million African women having undergone FGM and 3 million girls in Africa being at risk annually of FGM, the practice remains an issue for many.  However, FGM does not just happen in Africa, with communities in the Middle East, Asia and diaspora communities in the UK, US, Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand being affected.  Please join us to help eradicate FGM.

For further information:  Ann-Marie Wilson, How methods used to eliminate foot binding in China can be employed to eradicate female genital mutilation, Journal of Gender Studies (May 2012).

Mackie, G, Ending footbinding and infibulation: a convention account, American Sociological Review, 61 (6), 999-1017 (1996).

WHO, Female Genital Mutilation Factsheet No. 241, Updated February 2013

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