In Africa, The Middle East & Far East


Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a destructive, invasive procedure that is usually performed on girls before puberty. Part or all of the clitoris is surgically removed. This leaves them with reduced or no sexual feeling. Orgasms are sometimes impossible to experience later in life. Many health problems result from the surgery.

FGM originated in Africa. It was, and remains, a cultural, not a religious practice.

Among individuals and groups opposed to the mutilation, it is seen as a method of reducing the sexual response of women in order to make them less likely to become sexually active before marriage or to seek an extra-marital affair after marriage.

To some who promote the operation, it is seen as a cultural requirement that has health benefits and makes women more physically beautiful. These views are not shared by the rest of the world.

The operation is forced on approximately 6,000 girls per day, worldwide -- about one every 15 seconds. Since FGM is practiced when the girls are young, they are unable to give their informed consent.

FGM: A cultural not a religious practice:

This mutilating operation is often associated mainly with the religion of Islam. This is incorrect. FGM is primarily a social practice, not a religious one. Female genital mutilation predated Islam. It originated in Africa and remains today a mainly African cultural practice. Some indicators of this are:

bulletIt is widely practiced in countries where the predominant religion is Christianity: Examples are Ethiopia and Kenya.
bulletIn multi-faith countries, it is often forced on girls whose families follow  all faiths: Animism religions, Christianity, and Islam. For example, it is frequently practiced among both Muslims, Christians and Animists in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. 3
bullet FGM was once practiced by Ethiopian Jews (a.k.a. Beta Isreal; formerly known by the derogatory term "Falashas"). 9, 16, 17,19 This practiced was apparently discontinued some time ago. A pediatrician who works in the Beta Israel community claims that they no do not practice FGM in Israel. Also, their daughters who were born in Ethiopia were not mutilated. 22
bulletFGM has spread to countries in or near Africa (e.g. Egypt) which are Muslim. But FGM is rare or nonexistent in many other Muslim countries. Examples are Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Also, It is not done in the Maghreb countries of Northwest Africa.
bulletFGM is only occasionally found in Indonesia and other predominately Muslim countries in Asia.

One of the motivations for this essay is the misperception by many people that the practice is a religious one. That belief has led to unjustified religious intolerance against Muslims.

What It Is

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is practiced in many forms:

bulletSunna circumcision in which the tip of the clitoris and/or its covering (prepuce) are removed.
bulletClitoridectomy where the entire clitoris, the prepuce and adjacent labia are removed.
bulletInfibulation (a.k.a. Pharaonic circumcision) which is a clitoridectomy followed by sewing up of the vulva. A small opening is left to allow urine and menstrual blood to pass. 1 A second operation is done later in life to reverse some of the damage. In some cultures, the woman is cut open by her husband on their wedding night with a double edged dagger. She may be sewn up again if her husband leaves on a long trip.

Because of poverty and lack of medical facilities, the procedure is frequently done under less than hygienic conditions, and often without anesthetic by other than medically trained personnel. Anesthesia is rarely used. Razor blades, knives or scissors are usually the instruments used. The In the rural Mossi areas of Burkina Faso, group female circumcisions are scheduled every three years in many villages. Girls aged from 5 to 8 are assembled by their mothers into groups of up to 20. The circumcision "uses a knife-like instrument, the barga, reserved specifically for this purpose; after each operation she simply wipes the knife on a piece of cloth, sometimes rinsing it in water first." 2 In some areas of Africa, FGM is delayed until two months before a woman gives birth. This practice is based on the belief that the baby will die if she/he comes into contact with their mother's clitoris during birth. We are unaware of any medical evidence to support this belief.

Side effects of the operation can include: hemorrhage, shock, painful scars, keloid formation, labial adherences, clitoral cysts, chronic urinary infection, and chronic pelvic infections. Later in life, it can cause kidney stones, sterility, sexual dysfunction, depression, and various gynecological and obstetric problems.

In which countries is it practiced?

Unfortunately, few statistical studies have been made; only rough estimates are available of the frequency with which FGM is performed. In some countries, the practice is near universal. One source 1 estimates that 90% or more of the girls in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan (North) have been mutilated. The same source indicates that over 50% of the girls in Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria and Togo have been operated on. The FGM Education and Networking Project maintains a regularly updated list of countries, population groups, and the types of operation performed. There are over 30 million mutilated women currently living in Nigeria, and about 24 million in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Various groups estimate that from 114 to 130 million women worldwide have had the operation. FGM is outlawed in some countries where it had been widely practiced, such as Kenya and Senegal. It is criminalized in some western countries, where it is normally practiced only by a small number of recent immigrants.

Why it is Done?

The justification for the operation appears to be largely grounded in a desire to terminate or reduce feelings of sexual arousal in women so that they will be much less likely to engage in pre-marital intercourse or adultery. The clitoris holds a massive number of nerve endings, and generates feelings of sexual arousal when stimulated.

Uncircumcised women in countries where FGM is normally performed have difficulty finding a marriage partner. Men typically prefer a circumcised wife because they are considered more likely to be faithful. Other claims in support of FGM are:

bullet The clitoris is dangerous and must be removed for health reasons. Some believe that it is a poisonous organ, that can cause a man to sicken or die if contacted by a man's penis. Others believe that men can become impotent by contacting a clitoris, or that a baby will be hydrocephalic (born with excess cranial fluid) if its head contacts the clitoris during birth. Some believe that the milk of the mother will become poisonous if her clitoris touches the baby during childbirth.
bulletBad genital odors can only be eliminated by removing the clitoris and labia minora.
bulletFGM prevents vaginal cancer.
bulletAn unmodified clitoris can lead to masturbation or lesbianism.
bulletFGM prevents nervousness from developing in girls and women.
bulletFGM prevents the face from turning yellow.
bulletFGM makes a woman's face more beautiful.
bulletIf FGM is not done, older men may not be able to match their wives' sex drive and may have to resort to illegal stimulating drugs.
bulletAn intact clitoris generates sexual arousal in women which can cause neuroses if repressed.

These claims appear to have little support outside of countries where FGM is common.

The fear of AIDS has been used by both sides of this issue. Shiek Badri stated in 1997-JUN: "Those who are not circumcised get AIDS easily" But opponents to the practice sometimes claim that AIDS is spread by the unhygienic practices during the procedure itself.

The procedure has been banned in several African nations, including Burkina Faso, Djibouti, the Central African Republic, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, and Togo. 20

Debate Among Muslims:

As noted above, FGM is a social custom, not a religious practice. However, in those Muslim countries where it is practice, FGM is often justified by two controversial sayings of the Prophet Mohammed that seem to favor sunna circumcision. The authenticity of these sayings are unconfirmed, and some scholars have refuted them. Even if true, they only permit the practice; they do not mandate it.

FGM has probably been performed for at least 1,400 years (some references estimate 2,000 years), and started during what Muslims call "al-gahiliyyah" (the era of ignorance). The Qu'r'an, Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Christian Scriptures (New Testament) is silent on the subject. The Sunnah (the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammed) contain a number of references to female circumcision:

bulletA discussion was recorded between Mohammed and Um Habibah (or Um 'Atiyyah), a woman who performed infibulation on slaves. She said that she would continue the procedure "unless it is forbidden and you order me to stop doing it". He replied (according to one translation): "Yes, it is allowed. Come closer so I can teach you: if you cut, do not overdo it, because it brings more radiance to the face and it is more pleasant for the husband." This passage states that the least invasive form of circumcision is allowed. It does not say that it is to be encouraged or is compulsory. The Muslim Women's League comments on this passage: "This is known to be a "weak" hadith in that it does not meet the strict criteria to be considered unquestionable (classified as mursal, i.e. missing a link in the chain of transmitters in that none was among the original Companions of the Prophet.) In addition, it is found in only one of the six undisputed, authentic hadith collections, that is in the Sunan of Abu Dawud (Chapter 1888). 23 
—— Mohammed is recorded as speaking of the sunna circumcision to the Ansars' wives, saying: "Cut slightly without exaggeration, because it is more pleasant for your husbands". Again, this appears to be related to the least intrusive method of circumcision.

However, these passages are regarded by many Muslims as having little credibility or authenticity. The Muslim Women's League comments: "According to Sayyid Sabiq, renowned scholar and author of Fiqh-us-Sunnah, all hadiths concerning female circumcision are non-authentic." 23 An extensive analysis of classical Muslim authors is available online. 24

Many Muslims see passages in the Qur'an which, by implication, oppose FGM. they reason:

bulletGod apparently created the clitoris for the sole purpose of generating pleasure. It has no other purpose. There is no instruction in the Qur'an or in the writings of the Prophet Mohammed which require that the clitoris be surgically modified. Thus God must approve of its presence. And so, it should not be removed or reduced in size or function.
bulletThe Qur'an promotes the concept of a husband and wife giving each other pleasure during sexual intercourse. For example:
bullet"It is lawful for you to go in unto your wives during the night preceding the (day's) fast: they are as a garment for you and you are as a garment for them." (2:187)
bullet"...and He has put love and mercy between you." (30:21)

Mutilated genitalia reduce or eliminate a woman's pleasure during the act.

Nawal El-Saadawi, a Muslim victim of infibulation, stated:

"The importance given to virginity and an intact hymen in these societies is the reason why female circumcision still remains a very widespread practice despite a growing tendency, especially in urban Egypt, to do away with it as something outdated and harmful. Behind circumcision lies the belief that, by removing parts of girls' external genitals organs, sexual desire is minimized. This permits a female who has reached the dangerous age of puberty and adolescence to protect her virginity, and therefore her honor, with greater ease. Chastity was imposed on male attendants in the female harem by castration which turned them into inoffensive eunuchs. Similarly female circumcision is meant to preserve the chastity of young girls by reducing their desire for sexual intercourse." 4

Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, head of the al-Azhar Islamic Institute has stated that the practice is un-Islamic. The Health Minister of Egypt, Ismail Sallam, announced the ban on FGM in 1996-JUL. This was upheld by a junior administrative court in Cairo.

Sheik Youssef Badri, a Muslim fundamentalist, took the health minister to court. In 1997-JUN, an Egyptian court overturned the country's ban on FGM. Eight Muslim scholars and doctors had testified that the ban exceeded the government's authority and violated the legal rights of the medical profession. Sheik Youssef Badri commented: "[Female] circumcision is Islamic; the court has said that the ban violated religious law. There's nothing which says circumcision is a crime, but the Egyptians came along and said that Islam is a crime." About 1997-JUL-6, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel interviewed Sheik Badri. He claimed that many Muslim women are pleased with this victory of Islam over its enemies. When it was pointed out to him that parents in Morocco and Algeria do not practice FGM, he replied that the clitoris in Egyptian girls was larger than in those countries and had to be cut back to a normal size. He quoted a French study which showed that circumcised girls are less likely to catch AIDS. * He believes that the United States is spreading misinformation on the health risks of FGM.

* Author's note: This may be true; victims of FGM are probably less likely to be sexually active.

The government appealed the case to Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court. They ruled that the operation is not required by Islam, and that "female circumcision is not a personal right according to the rules of Islamic Sharia (law)." Thus, FGM is subject to Egyptian law. They prohibited the procedure, even if it is done with the agreement of the child and her parents. However, gynecologists will be able to approve the surgery if it is needed for health reasons.

Fatwa are published opinions by Muslim religious scholars. They are non-binding in law. But Muslim believers are expected to follow them. In Egypt, a number of Fatwas have been issued by the influential Egyptian Fatwa Committee on FGM:

bullet1949-MAY-28: They decided that it is not a sin to reject female circumcision.
bullet1951-JUN-23: They stated that female circumcision is desirable because it curbs "nature" (i.e. sexual drive among women). It stated that medical concerns over the practice are irrelevant.
bullet1981-JAN-29: The Great Sheikh of Al-Azhar (the most famous University of the Islamic World) stated that parents must follow the lessons of Mohammed and not listen to medical authorities because the latter often change their minds. Parents must do their duty and have their daughters circumcised.

Reaction by the rest of the world

The United Nations has supported the right of member states to grant refugee status to women who fear being mutilated if they are returned to their country of origin. Canada has granted such status to women in this situation. A judge of a Canadian Federal Court declared it a "cruel and barbaric practice."

In 1994 CNN broadcast footage of the circumcision of a 10 year old Egyptian girl by an unskilled practitioner. This program drew international attention to the operation. A 500 million dollar lawsuit was brought against CNN for allegedly damaging Egypt's reputation, It was rejected by the courts.

In the West, the procedure is outlawed in Britain, Canada, France, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. A US federal bill, "Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation of 1995" was passed in 1996-SEP. Section 273.3 of the Canadian Criminal Code protects children who are ordinarily resident in Canada, (as citizens or landed migrants) from being removed from the country and subjected to FGM. In the US and Canada, the very small percentage of immigrants who wish to continue the practice often find it impossible to find a doctor who will cooperate. The operation is often done in the home by the family.

Legislation against FGM can be counter-productive in some cases. It might force the practice deeply underground. Women may not seek medical care because their parents might be charged.

UN Activity

In 1958, the Economic and Social Committee of the United Nations invited the World Health Organization (WHO) "to undertake a study on the persistence of customs involving ritual practices on girls and on the measures in effect or planned to put an end to those practices." 5 The WHO responded that "the ritual practices in question, resulting from social and cultural conceptions, are not within the WHO's jurisdiction." 6 They subsequently changed their position. 7 In 1989, the Regional Committee of the WHO for Africa passed a resolution urging participating governments "to adopt appropriate policies and strategies in order to eradicate female circumcision" and "to forbid medicalization of female circumcision and to discourage health professionals from performing such surgery."

In 1980, UNICEF announced that its anti-FGM program is "based on the belief that the best way to handle the problem is to trigger awareness through education of the public, members of the medical profession and practitioners of traditional health care with the help of local collectives and their leaders." 8

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is ambiguous about FGM. On one hand, Article 24, paragraph 3 states: "States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.". But Article 29 paragraph 1.c calls for: "The development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own."

Sources of additional FGM information:

bulletAfrol.com has a "Women and Gender" section that deals extensively with FGM. See: http://www.afrol.com/Categories/Women/msindex.htm 
bulletRising Daughters Aware is an agency centered in California. "...the RDA provides free information and  services for FGM affected women, their physicians, other health care providers,  social workers, counselors and attorneys." See: http://www.fgm.org/  
bulletThe Feminist Majority Foundation has a site called "Feminist News Stories on Female Genital Mutilation" which carries current news on FGM. See: http://www.feminist.org/news/newsbyte/fgm.html
bulletThe Egyptian Task Force on FGM was formed in 1994 from a number of Egyption non-governmental organizations (NGOs) See: http://www.ncpd.org.eg/TFGs/fgm-tfg.html 
bulletLibrary Medi@ Project has produced a video on FGM. See: http://www.librarymedia.org/female.html 

Books on FGM:

bullet"Female Genital Mutilation: A joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA statement," WHO, (1997). Read reviews or order this book savely from Amazon.com online book store
bulletEmmanuel Babatunde, "Women's rites versus women's rights: A study of circumcision among the Ketu Yoruba of South Western Nigeria," Africa World Press, (1998). Review/order this book
bulletWaris Dirie & Cathleen Miller, "Desert flower: The extraordinary journey of a desert nomad," William Morrow, (1998). Review/order this book
bulletEfua Dorkenoo, "Cutting the rose: Female Genital Mutilation: The practice and its prevention," Minority Rights Publications, (1995). Review/order this book
bulletHanny Lightfoot-Klein, "Prisoners of ritual: An odyssey into female genital circumcision in Africa," Harrington Park Press, (1989). Review/order this book
bulletF. Kassindia, L. Bashir, "Do they hear you when you cry?" Delta, (1999). Review/order this book
bulletAlice Walker, et al., "Warrior marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the sexual blinding of women," Harvest Books, (1996) Review/order this book
bulletAlice Walker, "Possessing the secret of joy," Washington Square Press, (1997). Review/order this book


  1. The Female Genital Mutilation Research Homepage contained a complete review of FGM. The web site appears to have been abandoned. 
  2. B. Taverne, "Ethics and communication strategy: female circumcision and AIDS in Burkina Faso", (1996). On line at: http://melusine.mpl.orstom.fr/sida/btarang1.htm
  3. Sami A. ALDEEB ABU-SAHLIEH, "To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah: Legitimization of Male and Female Circumcision" Available on line at: http://www.hollyfeld.org/fgm/refer/mutilate.html
  4. Nawal El-Saadawi, "The hidden face of Eve, Women in the Arab World," translated and edited by Sherif Hetata, Zed Press, London, 1980, P. 33.
  5. United Nations, 26th Session of the Economic and Social Committee, 1029th Plenary Meeting, 1958-JUL-10.
  6. WHO, 12th World Health Assembly, 11th Plenary Meeting, 1959-MAY-28.
  7. WHO, Resolution of the Regional Committee for Africa, 39th session, AFR/RC39/R9, 1989-SEP-13.
  8. UNICEF, Department of Information, "Position of UNICEF on Female Excision", 1980-SEP-23, Page 1.
  9. Research, Action and Information Network for Bodily Integrity of Women (RAINBO) specializes in programs to eliminate FGM. They list many books and reports for sale at low prices. They also loan videos. See: http://www.rainbo.org/
  10. Scilla McLean, et al, "Female circumcision, excision, and infibulation: the facts and proposal for change", Minority Rights Group, London UK, (1980). 20pp.
  11. Efua Dorkenoo, "Cutting the rose: female genital mutilation: the practice and its prevention", Minority Rights Group, London UK, (1994).
  12. Esther K. Hicks, "Infibulation: female mutilation in Islamic northeastern Africa", Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, (1993).
  13. "Female genital mutilation", World Health Organization, Geneva, (1997).
  14. "Egypt Upholds Ban on Female Circumcision", Associated Press, 1997-DEC-29
  15. Volker Rudolf Schmidt has a Web site devoted to FGM. Most of the text is in German, but he lists many organizations in English. See: http://www.home.sis-online.com/dotto/
  16. Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahleih, "To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah,"   at: http://almashriq.hiof.no/general/600/
  17. Wolf Leslau, "Coutumes et croyances des Falachas (Juifs d'Abyssinie)," Institut d'Ethnographie, Paris, (1957), Page 93.
  18. "Female genital mutilation," Amnesty International, at: http://www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/femgen/fgm1.htm
  19. "FGM: Religion," Amnesty International, at: http://www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/femgen/fgm1.htm#a11
  20. "28 on trial in France for female genital mutilation," Reuters, 1999-FEB-2
  21. Kim Gaines, "Female Genital Mutilation: An inhuman imperative," at: http://www.minorities-jb.com/african/lifestyles/mutilate1011.htm 
  22. Private Email, received 2000-DEC-30.
  23. "Position paper on Female Genital Mutilation/Female Circumcision," Muslim Women's League, at: http://www.mwlusa.org/pub_fgm.html 
  24. Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, "Religious arguments about male and female circumcision," at: http://www.hraic.org/

Copyright © 1998 to 2001 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1998-MAR-13
Last update: 2001-NOV-13

Author: B.A. Robinson

ORIGINAL SOURCE: http://www.religioustolerance.org/fem_cirm.htm