In the west we snip the tip of an infants’ penis, call it circumcision and deem it a normal practice. In parts of Africa the cultural trend, female genital mutilation, is to snip the clitoris of a young woman. Both of these practices remove a functioning and non-threatening portion of genitalia, yet they are often viewed very differently in the public eye—especially as great efforts are made to make FGM illegal, so what’s the real difference?
What is Female Genital Mutilation?
The World Health Organization classifies any removal of the external female genitals as female circumcision or FGM, female genital mutilation. It is estimated that at least 140 million women across the globe have experienced some form of FGM, 101 million of these women in Africa, where the procedure is most popular. It also is popular in Asia and the Middle East, according to the World Health Organization, in societies where ritualistic rites of passage are common for youth entering into adulthood.
There are many different types of FGM, depending on how much of the outer clitoris and surrounding vaginal tissues are actually removed. The procedure can take place anywhere from birth on through the onset of puberty and typically involves using non-sterile items—like an old sharp knife or a piece of fresh-cut glass to make the incisions.
The reason for removing the ‘feel good’ part of the female genitalia is based on a belief that women with a full clitoris are not to be trusted and must be controlled and kept pure. For the most part, FGM removes the ability for women to enjoy sex as much as men, if at all. In fact FGM can make sex a forever painful and dangerous activity. The cultural implications outweigh the many risks associated with female gentile mutilation, making the trend a continued aspect of certain African cultures. It should be noted that as of 2012, in Kenya the Maasai, one of the oldest cultures in Africa, have ended their use of FGM as a part of the ritualistic rite of passage for females entering adulthood. Additionally, FGM is illegal in Kenya as well as other parts of Africa.
Negative side effects include extreme pain for the young women during, and long after, the procedure. FGM is most often performed in unsanitary conditions, leaving some girls with terrible infections and life-long reproductive health issues. These problems can stretch to include chronic urinary complications in the case that the urination hole is blocked or distorted due to faulty incision. Keep in mind, doctors do not perform these procedures.
With so many negatives, it’s difficult to understand how the practice continues. However, in cultures dominated by men, FGM has been coined the only way to prove purity and be eligible to wed. Since the gender inequality in Africa makes it so a woman needs a husband, the procedure is practically impossible to avoid.
Western Male Circumcision
Many argue that there is no difference between FGM and the Western practice of male circumcision. Many against FGM are also against male circumcision for similar reasons. Circumcision is very common in the West; it is the process of removing the foreskin covering the head of the penis usually in infancy. In Judaism, this process is performed at a ceremony called a Brisk, where family and friends come watch and celebrate the circumcision.
Circumcision benefits include less risk for infection, better hygiene, and the idea that a circumcised penis looks better by western standards. In fact uncircumcised men often feel embarrassment and shame over their intact hood. Some even undergo a circumcision later in life, despite the extreme associated pain, just to feel accepted.
While it’s argued by the American Academy of Pediatrics that the health benefits of male circumcision outweigh the potential negatives, there are those that widely disagree. Arguments against male circumcision include, removing nearly half, 3-5 inches, of the total penis skin is far from necessary—especially since there are a lot of nerves and blood vessels in this part of skin, causing some to argue sexual pleasure is decreased after circumcision.
So What’s the Difference?
Both practices are socially constructed, created by humans to fulfill some sort of purpose. In both instances a part of the human body is removed. In either instance the child remains unable to voice their opinion over the matter, and in the end it’s the child that will be largely affected. While circumcision seems completely normal to Westerners, female genital mutilation can make our stomach turn inside out. Is that because the practice itself is so much more horrifying or because we are not familiar with it?