Female circumcision brings up many questions:
Do we have the right to judge the customs of other societies and if so,
on which criteria?
Can we remain indifferent, in the name of "difference", to mutilations
inflicted upon young children?
Must we make a distinction between the different kinds of circumcision?
Must we forbid circumcision immediately and completely or progressively?
May the practice be allowed in hospitals on a temporary basis?
I. TO JUDGE OTHERS' CUSTOMS
The Muslim circles in favour of female circumcision see an imperialistic
action in the Western campaign against it. Al-Sukkari writes that, if some
are trying to forbid it, "it is because the West has succeeded in imposing
secular materialistic views on our sciences, our tradition, our artistic
culture" 146. Imam Shaltut who accepts the idea of forbidding
female circumcision if proven harmful, underlines the fact that it should
not be prohibited under pressure from others - a polite nod toward the
West - , but only if proven harmful 147.
Jomo Kenyatta, late President of Kenya, used to say: "Excision
and infibulation unite us tightly; they prove our fecundity" 148.
To which Pierre Leulliette replies:
Millions of children between the age of 2 and 14 are horribly tortured
in an atmosphere of collective hysteria, in contempt of their genitalia,
in scorn of their bodies, in defiance of their lives... That barbarian
culture! Is it not the lowest manifestation of the unlimited, omnipresent
phallocracy? Those mutilations! Aren't they first and foremost an example
of man acting out his most secret hatred and deepest fear of woman 149?
This problem is now on the agenda of international organizations.
On July 10, 1958, the Economic and Social Committee of the United Nations
invited the 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" 150
. The answer was clear:
"[The World Health Assembly] believes that the ritual practices in question,
resulting from social and cultural conceptions, are not within the WHO's
. And this, in spite of an overwhelming
report prepared by the WHO's very own Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office
In a communication on excision dated September 23, 1980, UNICEF
explained that its approach to eradicating a 2000 year old cultural and
traditional practice "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 collectivities and their leaders" 153.
In 1984, the Inter-African Committee stipulated that "for understandable
psychological reasons, it is the black women who should have the say in
the matter". This committee asked for restraint, in order that the project
might be successful, claiming that "the wave of uncontrollable and violent
denunciations of those mutilations on the part of Western countries" was
doing more harm than good 154. On the subject of legal
prohibition, this same committee, in 1984, warned against "untimely haste
which would result in rash legal measures that would never be enforced"
155. As for the health professionals, they were quite
satisfied with themselves in condemning "the medicalisation and modernisation
of the female circumcision procedure, as non-conform to medical ethics"
and to advise that "no medical or paramedical personnel be allowed to practice
it", for the same reason 156.
This problem is puzzling for the Western countries. Dominique
As soon as the first preliminary investigations of cases on excision
started [in France] (the Press mentions them as early as 1982-83), the
Justice Department was put in an awkward position and has been ever since
This perplexity is due to the principles of the French penal code.
Indeed, the parents have no intention to do violence to their children
or to batter them, but rather intend to respect a custom, without the application
of which their daughters, once adults, would not be able to integrate into
their country of origin 158
. On the other hand, in practice,
it is easy for a couple who want their daughter excised to take her back
to her country of origin, paralysing the law of the adopted country. Last,
but not least, even if the countries of origin adopt some laws against
those practices, those laws would not be able to defeat a massively accepted
practice, which has become an integral part of that society 159
II. RIGHT TO DIFFERENCE OR
This debate about the right to be different was settled in favour of the
girl's right to physical integrity (but not the boy's).
The WHO gave up its above mentioned reservations of 1959. It became
involved in 1977 in the creation of the first Workshop on female excision.
In February 1979, its Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office organized in
Khartoum the first International Seminar on Traditional Practices affecting
Women's and Children's Health. This Seminar recommended that specific national
policies be adopted in order to abolish female circumcision 160.
In June 1982, the WHO made a formal declaration of its position on excision
to the Committee of Human Rights of the United Nations. The WHO approved
the recommendations made at the Seminar in Khartoum and added: "It has
always been the WHO's opinion that female circumcision should never be
performed by health professionals in any situation under any conditions,
be it in hospitals or other specialized settings" 161.
The most recent stand was taken in 1989: the Regional Committee of the
WHO for Africa passed a resolution urging the participating governments:
to adopt appropriate policies and strategies in order to eradicate female
to forbid medicalisation of female circumcision and to discourage health
professionals from performing such surgery 162.
A turnaround was also made by the Inter-African Committee. Whereas in 1984,
it had warned against promulgating laws against female circumcision, it
requested such laws in 1987, because "neither the efforts nor the research
nor the campaigns ever had any real impact" 163
years later, it reinforced its position, requesting promulgation of specific
laws "forbidding the practice of female genital mutilations and other sexual
abuses and making provision for sentencing anyone guilty of such practices".
This law should provide "an especially severe punishment for health professionals"
Some Western countries have timidly followed in the footsteps of the
two above-mentioned organizations.
For instance, in 1981, France adopted article 312, paragraph 3
of the Penal Code, stating:
When acts of violence or privation have been habitually inflicted,
the sentence to be imposed upon the guilty party shall be: life imprisonment
if there is mutilation, amputation, deprivation of the use of a limb, blindness,
loss of an eye and other permanent disabilities or death, even if the guilty
party did not intend such a result.
This article is invoked against female circumcision even though the
word is not mentioned in the text. In Sweden, a 1982 law forbids any operation
on an external organ aiming at mutilating it or altering it definitely,
whether or not consent is given165. Great Britain did the same in 1985
In Switzerland, article 122 of the Penal Code stipulates:
Anyone who has mutilated a person's body, one of the limbs or one of
the important organs, or rendered the limb or the organ unfit to function,
will be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years reclusion or to between 6 months
and 5 years of imprisonment.
Moreover, in 1983, the Central Committee for Medical Ethics of the
Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences took a very firm position against female
circumcision and its practice by medical professionals 167
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is not clear about it. 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
No definition is given of the expression "traditional practices detrimental
to the health of children". The travaux pr,paratoires are of no help either.
The definition therefore is left up to the Member States. Those States
will surely not hesitate to quote article 29 paragraph 1.c of this Convention:
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.
Lastly, let us point out the London Declaration born out of the
First Study Conference on Genital Mutilation of Girls in Europe/Western
world (London, July 6-8, 1992). This Declaration states: "Any form of genital
mutilation or genital injury to the girl child is a violation of her basic
human rights, and must be abolished". It asks national groups and individuals
to "promote a framework for legal action, based on either specific anti-FGM
[female genital mutilation] or on general laws against the injury to the
body of the child". This Declaration "urges all governments and all health
authorities to stand firm against any attempt to medicalise the genital
mutilation of or genital injury to the girl child" 168.
III. DISTINCTION BETWEEN
DIFFERENT FORMS OF CIRCUMCISION
One must reiterate here that a distinction is wrongfully made at the medical
and intellectual level between male circumcision, which is generally accepted,
and female circumcision. Neither the WHO nor the Inter-African Committee,
nor UNICEF, nor the London Declaration, nor the Western laws forbidding
female circumcision make any mention of male circumcision. It is not mentioned
in the travaux pr,paratoires to article 24, paragraph 3 of the Convention
for the Rights of the Child either. Female circumcision is sometimes mentioned,
but never male circumcision 169.
One might have logically expected that those Western organizations
and laws would draw a distinction between the different forms of female
circumcision, in as much as minimal female circumcision can be compared
to male circumcision. But this is not the case as already seen. During
the above mentioned Conference of European Studies on Female Genital Mutilation,
the Netherlands tried to have such a distinction made, to no avail; the
WHO vetoed it. Doctor Mehra, representing the WHO, explained to me that
this organization fears it would be impossible to control the practice
if one permitted one particular form 170.
This firm attitude opposed to all forms of female circumcision
is not shared by Muslim law. The latter makes a distinction between the
permitted female circumcision called sunnah, while other forms, though
widely practiced, are condemned by religious circles. This distinction
seems also to apply in Muslim countries.
In Sudan, a law of 1946 classified infibulation as an infraction
punishable by a fine and imprisonment. It was abrogated under public pressure
and replaced by an authorization for professional midwives to practice
On an undated flyer, written in Arabic, the Sudanese Association
of Struggle against Traditional Practices states:
Female circumcision (khafd) is an attack on the physical integrity and
an alteration of the human being created by God in the very best way and
in the very best form.
Female circumcision is a savage butchery that divine religions do not allow.
Female circumcision is neither a duty nor a sunnah, but a practice of the
pre-Islamic era (al-gahiliyyah: the era of ignorance) against which the
Prophet warned us in his narration: "Cut lightly and do not overdo it as
it is more pleasant for the woman and better for the husband".
Female circumcision does not protect chastity which is better guarded by
education promoting good morality and healthy teaching of Islam.
Female circumcision preceded religions and is practiced by many peoples
of different religions and beliefs of which only the Sudan, Egypt and Somalia
Therefore, stop circumcising girls.
This organization, while rejecting female circumcision in general, seems, in
the 3rd paragraph, to propose the sunnah, instead of the pharaonic circumcision
now prevalent in Sudan. A document prepared by the National Committee of Social
Assistance in collaboration with UNICEF-Khartoum is doing the same. This document
explains that the light form of circumcision is named sunnah which means it
is conform with the tradition of Mohammed: it is a way of legitimating it rather
that eradicating it 172.
A similar attitude is adopted in Egypt. This country has promoted
a governmental decree (No. 74-1959) regarding female circumcision. The
text is far from clear. It states:
- It is forbidden for physicians to perform the surgical procedure of female
circumcision. If one wishes it, then only partial circumcision may be carried,
but not total circumcision.
- Female circumcisions are forbidden in the clinics of the Ministry of Health.
- Certified midwives have no right to perform any surgical procedure whatsoever
including female circumcision 173.
This text is taken from a recent collective report on the woman's life and her
health. The authors state that this text is not good as it does not forbid female
circumcision. A law should be promulgated to abolish once and for all any kind
of female circumcision 174
Egyptian juridical works and anthologies of law pertaining to public
health never mention this decree. One never finds any judgements on
it. On the other hand, the Egyptian courts have convicted a barber for
having practiced circumcision on a boy who consequently died. Contrary
to the physician, the judgement states, the barber is not protected
by law if the result of his action is death or disability. The judge
refused to consider laudable or charitable intentions or the absence
of criminal intent. In this case, the Court applied article 200 of the
Penal Code which makes provision for 3 to 7 years of forced labour or
imprisonment in cases of voluntary injury without intention to kill,
but in fact causing death 175. In another judgement,
the Court of Cassation stated that a midwife has no right to practice
circumcision, the right to perform surgery being reserved to physicians
only, in pursuance of the first article of law 415/1954. The Court added
that any attack on physical integrity, except in cases of necessity
authorized by law, is punishable, unless the acts are performed by a
physician. The midwife had circumcised a boy and mistakenly amputated
his glans, causing permanent disability that the Court estimated at
25%. The midwife was sentenced to 6 months forced labour, suspended
on condition of good behaviour during 3 years 176.
IV. TEMPORARY AND PREVENTIVE
Everybody agrees that legal measures will never be enough to stop female
circumcision. A conscious awareness must be raised among the victims themselves.
First, one must try to understand the reasons for those practices. In the
meantime, in order to avoid the worst, shouldn't they be permitted to be
performed in hospitals, in a less severe form?
1. Provision of medical care
As we have noted above, the WHO, the Inter-African Committee, the Declaration
of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences and the London Declaration all
dismiss this possibility as ethically wrong. They even ask for strict sanctions
against members of the medical profession who perform female circumcision.
This attitude may be open to criticism. A radical legal prohibition
will only encourage female circumcision to go underground. It will then
be performed by persons without proper knowledge of the possible complications,
thus endangering the woman's health. The Senegalese representative raised
the issue while the Convention on the Rights of the Child was being drawn
up. Thus the actual phrasing of article 24, paragraph 3177.
Dominique Vernier is of the opinion that the medicalisation of
circumcision as is practised among the urban intellectual elite of some
African countries and in some Italian hospitals, in spite of the physicians'
hostility, should be accepted. She suggests that symbolic excision be substituted
for de facto excision as it is done in Guinea, where the blacksmith's wife
performs a light cut sufficient to draw a few drops of blood. This is a
way to respect the ritual without mutilating the child 178.
Medical care implies the risk of legalising and perpetuating female
circumcision especially because of the economic repercussions. During the
U.N. Seminar in Ouagadougou, some mentioned that the medical profession
takes the place of the traditional matrons and excises in hospitals in
order to make a financial profit and, by reducing health risks, they perpetuate
the practice: a guarantee of making money. Their greed, having no limit,
leads them to ignore the horror behind each sexual mutilation. Well aware
of the trust and respect given to them by the masses, they abuse the naive
parents and reassure them that the custom is well grounded. According to
those at the Seminar, one must fight against such a tendency which is only
going to add a new legitimacy to excision 179.
A. Gaudio and R. Pelletier see in female circumcision "an expression of
male power" 180, "a demonic desire to control female
sexuality, an endless tyranny of the dominating male behind the alibi of
Nawal El-Saadawi, a victim of excision, explains why female circumcision
still goes on in Arab society under the male iron will:
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 honour,
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 182.
She adds that female circumcision is a means of dominating women in a patriarchal
society where a man can have more than one wife. The society uses various
means to sexually bind her to one man and to control who is the father
of her children 183
For Doctor G,rard Zwang, the motive behind circumcision is "metaphysical
guilt". It is the motivation "for all the sexual mutilations which human
beings have inflicted upon themselves since they discovered the stone knife
and the metal blade, a motivation which renders any non-religious, non-metaphysical
consideration null and void":
As a result of metaphysical culpabilization, men present sacrifices
to gods, divinities, spirits: any earthy pleasures, carnal desires, organs
destined to provide pleasure. In order to be among the "chosen ones" in
another life, be it extra-, or supra-, or infra-terrestrial, which follows
automatically (!) upon death. That is the origin of fasts, Lent, Ramadan,
prohibited foods; that is the origin of ordinances restricting sexual life:
chastity, abstinence, continency, reshaping of genitalia (circumcision,
excision, infibulation, subincision, hemicastration, etc...)
Economics can also explain why circumcision is still going on, to take
an example mentioned above, when it is performed in hospitals. It is also
evident among traditional circles where midwives are not about to give
up so lucrative a practice 185
. In some areas, the profession
of exciser is inherited from mother to daughter and the economic survival
of the family depends upon it. If the practice were to be eradicated, it
would remove the family's only source of income. Accordingly, some have
recommended retraining women who practise excision; as matrons, they can
give up practicing excision and still earn a living 186
Economics plays a role in male circumcision as well. In Canada, where medical
insurers in some Provinces refuse to reimburse the costs of circumcision,
it appears to be becoming less common 187
Also, the dowry is higher if the girl is a virgin at the time of her
marriage. Virginity is a money-making asset. That is why some nations are
so keen on infibulation 188.
Nawal El-Saadawi states that the girls with whom she talked were not aware
of the prejudice caused by their circumcision. Some even thought it was
good for health and hygiene, especially because, in their language, the
word taharah means purification.
Girls believed that the purpose of the surgery was just that: purification.
People would not speak ill of them, they would behave and their husbands
would not be disgusted. After healing had taken place, they had the inner
satisfaction of being purified. Nawal El-Saadawi got the same type of response
from her medical students who had never been taught, be it by teachers
or by textbooks, the sexual function of the clitoris. No question was ever
put in exams on the role of the clitoris. The clitoris was considered unimportant
According to the testimonies gathered by Wedad Zenie-Ziegler from Egyptian
women, peasants practice female circumcision because "it has always been
done": they do not know why 190. "The idea that it could
be a mutilation is foreign to them" 191.
Wedad Zenie-Ziegler adds that women will "make efforts to perpetuate
this ritual as long as they do not understand the uselessness of the sacrifice
and that it is part of an immense conspiracy aimed at subjecting them to
male domination" 192.
Index | Chapter1
| Chapter 2 | Chapter
3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter
5 | Conclusion
146 Sukkari: Khitan, op. cit., p. 41.
147 Shaltut: Khitan al-banat, op. cit., p. 89.
148 Gaudio and Pelletier: Femmes, op. cit., p. 59. See
Kenyatta, Jomo: Au pied du mont Kenya, Maspero, Paris, 1967, pp. 96-110.
Page 98, one reads: "...clitoridectomy - as indeed circumcision among
Jews -is a bodily mutilation, viewed somehow as the condition sine
qua non for receiving a complete religious and moral education".
149 Cited by Gaudio and Pelletier: Femmes, op. cit.,
150 United Nations, 26th Session of the Economic and
Social Committee, 1029th Plenary
Meeting, July 10, 1958.
151 WHO, 12th World Health Assembly, 11th Plenary Meeting,
May 28, 1959.
152 Text of this Report in Terre des Hommes: Les mutilations
sexuelles, op. cit., pp. 9-12.
153 UNICEF, Department of Information, Position of UNICEF
on Female Excision, Sept. 23, 1980, p. 1.
154 Rapport sur les pratiques traditionnelles, Dakar,
1984, p. 67.
155 Ibid., p. 71.
156 Ibid., p. 7.
157 Vernier, Dominique: Le traitement p,nal de l'excision
en France: historique, in Droit et Culture, Vol. 20, 1990, p. 193.
158 Ibid., pp. 193-194.
159 Giudicelli-Delage: Excision, op. cit., p. 211.
160 Traditional Practices affecting the Health of Women
and Children, Report of a Seminar, Khartoum, February 10-15, 1979,
161 WHO's position relative to female circumcision, op.
162 WHO, Resolution of the Regional Committee for Africa,
Thirty-ninth session AFR/RC39/R9, Sep. 13, 1989.
163 Report on Traditional Practices, Addis Abeba, p.
164 Ibid., pp. 8-9.
165 Law No. 316 (May 27, 1982) forbidding female circumcision,
in Recueil International de la Legislation sanitaire , 1982, p. 770.
166 Law of July 16, 1985, forbidding female circumcision,
in Recueil international de la Legislation sanitaire, 1985, pp. 1043-1044.
167 This declaration, formulated after Mr. Edmond Kaiser's
intervention, states: We ask every physician in a hospital or private
practice to be very attentive to the content of the following Declaration.
The Central Committee for Medical Ethics of the Swiss Academy of Medical
- attentive to the fact that some parents coming
from countries where ritual practices of sexual mutilation are
performed on women, are trying to get their children admitted
into our hospitals orday surgery clinics in order to have those
types of surgery performed,
- preoccupied by the fact that one might be tempted to accede
to such demands for reasons of misconceived compassion or other
badly thought out reasons,
- convinced that such procedures, performed according to customs
in opposition to our ethical principles concerning minors unable
to judge by themselves, are cruel and degrading, and convinced
that they contradict the eminently personal right to physical
integrity and as such constitute an infraction automatically prosecuted
as serious bodily assault according to article
122, numeral 1, paragraph 2 of the Swiss Penal Code, declares:
- Anyone, be it a physician and practicing in clinical conditions
beyond reproach, who performs sexual mutilations on children and
teenagers of the female gender, is guilty of serious deliberate
bodily assault according to article 122 of the Swiss Penal Code.
This person therefore must be prosecuted automatically.
- Moreover, this person violates the fundamental rights of a human
being in performing a degrading and cruel procedure on a minor
incapable of judgement and who is unable to enforce her own claim
to the right to physical integrity.
- Whoever collaborates in such a procedure becomes an accomplice
under the criminal law and, generally speaking, is guilty of the
violation of human rights.
- The guilty parties and their accomplices, doctors and auxiliary
nursing staff, are moreover violating in the most serious way,
the moral principles applicable to the exercise of their duties.
(Declaration published in Bulletin des m,decins suisses, Vol.
64, 1983, notebook 34, 24.8.1983,
168 Document provided by Dr. Leila Mehra of the WHO.
169 The U.N. Convention on the rights of the Child,
a guide, op. cit., p. 351.
170 Meeting of January 12, 1982.
171 Rapport sur les pratiques traditionnelles, Addis
Abeba, 1990, pp. 63-68.
172 Al-khifad al-far'uni, ma lahu, wa ma 'alayh , Al-Maglis
al-qawmi lil-ri'ayah al-igtima'iyyah & UNICEF-Khartoum, May
1979, pp. 10-11. One can see the same problem in another document
against circumcision: Al-Dareer, Asma' 'Abd-al-Rahman: Murshid muharabat
al-khifad, Khartoum, 1982, p. 5.
173 According to another source, a decree from the
Ministry of Health on June 24, 1959, created a committee in charge
of studying female circumcision in Egypt as well as its religious,
sanitary and social aspects. This committee then took the decision
mentioned above, but the first paragraph should be read as: "It
is forbidden for anyone but a physician to practice excision". .
. .A fourth paragraph is added: "Excision as it is practiced in
Egypt today has harmful consequences for women before and after
marriage. As the religious authorities have decided that it is contrary
to Islamic dogma to practice total excision of sexual organs, it
is not therefore a ritual of Islam" (Report on Traditional Practices,
Dakar, 1984, p. 88).
174 Farah: Hayat al-mar'rah, op. cit., p. 39.
175 Magmu'at al-qawa'id al-qanuniyyah 1931-1955, Penal
Division, March 28, 1938 Session, vol. 2, p. 824.
176 Qararat Mahkamat al-naqd, Penal Division, March
11, 1974 Session, Judicial Year 25, p. 263.
177 The U.N. Convention on the rights of the Child,
a guide, op. cit., p. 351.
178 Vernier: Le traitement p,nal, op. cit., pp. 198-199.
179 Rapport du S,minaire des Nations Unies relatif
aux pratiques traditionnelles, op. cit., pp. 7 and 10.
180 Gaudio et Pelletier: Femmes, op. cit., p. 53.
181 Ibid., p. 57.
182 El-Saadawi: The hidden, op. cit., p. 33.
183 Ibid., pp. 40-41.
184 Zwang, G,rard: La fonction ,rotique, op. cit.,
185 El-Saadawi: The hidden, op. cit., p. 41.
186 Rapport du S,minaire des Nations Unies relatif
aux pratiques traditionnelles, op. cit., pp.10-11.
187 NOCIRC Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1991, p. 3.
188 Rapport du S,minaire des Nations Unies relatif
aux pratiques traditionnelles, op. cit., p.9.
189 El-Saadawi: The hidden, op. cit., pp. 34-35.
190 Zenie-Ziegler: La face voil,e, op. cit., pp. 62-63,
191 Ibid., p. 137.
192 Ibid., pp. 137-138.