Estimates suggest that out of the 140 million people in the world whose clitorises have been removed via Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), 100 million are African. Three million African girls and women are at risk of undergoing the procedure annually. The countries with the highest rates are Sudan and Somalia, which unsurprisingly are two out of nine African countries that do not have a law prohibiting FGM. (Cameroon, DRC, Gambia, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria and Sierra Leone are the remaining seven.)
Just to be clear, there are different types of procedures from partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy) to removal of both the clitoris and the labia minora (excision) to the narrowing and repositioning of the labia- minora and/or majora, with or without excision of the clitoris (infibulation). I’m referring to them all by FGM. Not because of a tradition of western feminists calling it FGM, as some African scholars have taken issue with, but because of a tradition of African feminists doing so.
The most common causes given for FGM are “a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities.” But that leaves me wondering still, why? Yes, social, cultural and religious factors keep the practice alive, but what is at the root of it – why do social factors dictate that a woman is more desirable after she’s undergone FGM and why do people use religion to justify it?
To get to the bottom of it, we must ask, what makes the clitoris in itself so dangerous that millions of women are prevented from owning one?
I’ll tell you what. The clitoris is the only human body part that exists purely for the sake of pleasure. Unlike the penis, which is responsible for urination and whose reproductive function is tied to sexual pleasure, a woman’s clitoris has nothing to do with babies or pee. In other words, the scientific reason for the clitoris is simply to enable a woman’s orgasm. Of course this is a problem. Why is this a problem? Well, because it means that female anatomy is at direct odds with the idea that women’s primary sexual role is reproduction. A woman’s biology presents a threat to the myth that a woman’s ultimate role is mothering, a myth which people are so fond of that to challenge it can be to risk your life.
I’m not saying that FGM is not intertwined with cultural/religious factors or that motherhood is not an essential aspect of womanhood. But when looking at the underlying causes of FGM, the relationship between sexuality and motherhood is key. It is not coincidental that many FGM practitioners believe that the clitoris is dangerous during childbirth, or, that FGM is a pre-requisite for the good health of a baby, or, that an unexcised woman cannot conceive. Such beliefs are demonstrative of the fear of women’s anatomy bringing her pleasure beyond procreation. I think this is significant.
What do you think? Would love to hear your thoughts as always.
Suleiman Haruna says
Honestly, this makes a lot of sense. People tend to rally round the assumption of lechery (?) for any uncircumcised woman. But pray, how many women of ‘easy virtue’ have been found to be uncircumcised?
Hi Suleiman, I’m curious to hear more about the assumptions that you’ve heard people make about uncircumcised women if you don’t mind sharing. Are these comments made casually etc.
Suleiman Haruna says
Where I live, FGM is almost dead. There are extreme places where adult women, sometimes living in the US and Europe are known to return home and get circumcised. They see it as a part of life and not as a problem. Some of them are known to prostitute. But the key question is what happens afterwards? Are they able to get back to their trade? The place is Benin in Nigeria. Please do some research on that.
Strange how we sometimes take our cultural/ traditional/ religious beliefs and practices for granted. As in, never questioning them or seeking the root causes for them. #pondering#… The struggle to free, educate and empower the woman is yet to get off the ground
Hi Akhumo, thanks for your comment. Long road ahead indeed. It seems that if our societies avoid eliminating oppressive customs we will in that same process avoid strengthening just customs too. Two sides of the same coin,
These are not oppressive systems for all women. And circumcised women are not all saying the same things. Please stop speaking for all women. Western women get to alter the appaearance of their genitalalia, even if it isn’t for sexual pleasure, so should African women. And there are so many genital cosmetic procedures performed on young girls in the U.K./U.S. because of the rise in the porn industry which creates unrealistic expectations of the appearance of the vagina. No one polices them to the degree African women are policed. These gendered assumptions that any form of cutting/pain to a woman’s/girl’s body is wrong also need to be rectified. And the racialized assumption that non-Western women can’t have the right to choose what they want to do with THEIR bodies is also primitive and ignorant. Education works both ways.
Mimi Brooks says
It's removal is Satan's way of getting back at Eve and the sons of Adam. He doesn't want anyone to belive that God created Sex and pleasure for women to be empowered emotionally. It's a horrible practice that should stop. 140 million women is just far too many to ignore that this is a crisis and not a mere cultural problem. SMH
Tanaisha Rayshawn says
This just made me sick to my stomach!
Tolu OMoyele says
For the love of the Clit….Hmm interesting….
Glenn Gannon says
I might just pass on this one Tolu lol
Tolu OMoyele says
its sickening…..however, this is the time to ask the questions… Minna Salami is one incredible writer and a true African ambasador
Nicholas. X. W. Williams says
Nicholas. X. W. Williams says
I feel for the girl that won't be able to enjoy pleasing her husband.
Tee tee says
Hhahahaha there is something ironic in this comment. Never mind her own personal pleasure, but sure let’s worry primarily for her husbands. Forgetting that many who do this, do so for reasons dating and relating to patriarchy and the need to control a woman’s agency / pleasure / or being in however a small way.
Hmmm yeah, no, try that again, shall we?
Afro Narratives says
Thank you Tee tee. I read Nicholas’ comment and thought to myself ‘he’s made it about men – he just ignored the fact that the article is about ‘her’, her sex, her sexuality, her clitoris, her pleasure but no Nicholas just made the husband and by extension men and their pleasure the focus’. One step forward, five steps back.
The comment misses the entire point of the article which you Tee tee have addressed – thanks.
Tee tee says
I wanted to just give a side eye comment like this **__** but i figured it’d make little sense so one or two words instead. That was glaringly missing the point of this article. I suppose many men think like Nicholas, a woman’s pleasure is default tied to a man’s. I wonder how masturbating and lesbians come in to this train of thought. Neither of these require men sexually necessarily? Sorry for going off tangent, Nicholas, you may need to have a re-think.
And herself of course!
Swaye Kidd says
why cut off the one thing that gives pleasure to a woman still baffles. Belief systems and ignorance are motivation for such heinous crime
Lee Pinkerton says
A very interesting post, but you stopped just as it was getting interesting. Why is the thought of women actually 'enjoying' sex a threat to the patriarchy? I would have loved to have read more. In a part 2 maybe?
Well, one of the reasons for this is that if a woman enjoys sex, then there’s nothing to stop her from going around and having sex with whomever she pleases. It’s a way to ensure paternity, because (apparently) women are untrustworthy and will deceive men into taking care of children that aren’t theirs.
Great article once again, Minna.
Thank you Doreen.
The fear of women enjoying sex is extreme. And it’s worth pointing out how wonderful the female body is in the sense that, luckily, since the clitoris extends beyond the top of a woman’s vulva, depending on the extent of the mutilation a woman can still experience sexual pleasure anyway.
And great point about paternity, this really is tied, controlling motherhood/sexuality to ensure the status quo of fatherhood.
Jeanetttes daughter says
Consider social malice, male envy and punishment as reasons,also. As inhumane as that may seem, there is no end to the things human beings do and have done to others in the name of nothing more than maintaining a cruel and profitable habit or tradition. No one asks why the tradition and the cruelty answer just seems entirely too simplistic, but maybe there is an element of unreason going on here that needs to be explored as well – a kind of mass or social neurosis or psychosis. The reason I bring it up in this context is because this so-called traditional (and ancient) practice was adapted in the early twentieth century by medicine in the West to stabilize “hysteria” in women. Simply put, remove the clitoris, a bundle of nerves that exists as far as we know purely for pleasure, and the hysterical woman will calm down. Now why is it that a pleasure center was related to “hysteria” in western women?
A woman going around and having sex with many men is of course usefull to have a stronger more healthy genepool. The men were expendable. They die in wars with other tribes. Only the strong ones who survived were allowed to make children. Like wolves do.
Sometimes the tribe lost a war and was enslaved.
The women were raped, taken as concubines or wives. Again the stronger genes survived. I know this sounds fascist and not politically correct, but thats how nature works. Whe are just vehicles for “our” genes.
I think the sexual mutilation started in desert regions.
To survive the males had to travel for many months with caravans or went to rob and kill.
They left their women at home. Of course they did not want to have their women pregnant from other men. So they decided to take all their sexual pleasure away.
The same happened in Europe. They locked their women in metal chastity belts and took the key with them when they went on the crusades.
It is all about male status, material possessions and landownership.
On Tahity. the french legionairs have all the teeth of their wives/concubines pulled out and give them a dental prothese. When they leave for a longer time, they take the teeth of their women with them to make them unattractive for other men.
Tee tee says
It is because because it threatens the idea of female docility and perhaps that its power (the feminine and erotic) that is, will equal the same as men? Screwed up, but the bottom line is, that they wish to control full stop. She can have pleasure just not too much of it #sarcasm considering the procedure causes death in many cases or deep trauma.
chic therapy says
This was painful to read and it made me sick to my stomach.The key to issues like these is EDUCATION!
Long time, nice to see you @chictherapy
Yeah education’s key and the good news is that FGM is decreasing in most parts of the continent but obviously still way too high.
Carolyn Moon says
Hi Minna, as usual your posts are thought provoking and you’re not afraid of controversy which is one of the hallmarks of an interesting and good blog. The phrase ” cultural imperialist” has been misused to describe how I feel about this subject. For the most part, I respect most cultures of the world although I don’t always agree with their practices. In this case, the inhumanity of the act and the pain involved as well as the subjugation of women in my opinion to breeders and nurturers as their worth to a society; remains daunting. It lends to a sense of powerlessness and emotional fatigue. It also advocates that women aren’t supposed to feel sexual gratification and that’s a domain exclusively for males. Some women are complicit in this given the male dominated societies they were and are reared in to this day. When Alice Walker wrote about this issue; she met resistance from women as well as men. I see it is a monumental task to completely end this practice. The awareness must start from within and possibly as we become more connected globally; matters of sexual gratification, promiscuity and cleanliness can be addressed by options other than removal of body parts!!! Peace…
Hi Carolyn, thanks for your comment. Yes there are people who are too busy reacting to western imperialism to hold a dialogue *within* our communities to consider FGM. While I think context is everything, there are no excuses for it. None.
Zara Chiron says
This is something that I cannot even begin to wrap my head around.
I will never be able to understand it. To be honest. I don’t even want to understand it. I don’t think this practice needs to be understood. It just needs to end.
So many young girls die every year having this monstrous and unnecessary act performed on them.
I could not even look at the image. It just makes my blood boil and my heart ache!
Nobody could ever come up with a good enough explanation, reason or justification as to why this practice is something positive and needs to continue. Nobody!
Nadra McClain says
Every time I read about this, I feel an incredible sadness for those poor girls who are undergoing this torture………..and for what? Is it for the man to beat his chest with pride that his wife is damaged both emotionally and physically, and that she could quite possibly die during childbirth? I have never been given a good explanation for this practice, because there is none.
Sherri Gunder says
omg, my friend in the health comm program did a psa on female circumcision and needless to say I was depressed for a very long time. so sad. no excuse for this type of mutilation.
Josie Alvarado says
Anthony Walker says
I am not sure that was how it all started.
For years I have been stuck on the issue that women’s circumcision is not okay but men’s circumcision is. Male circumcision is even now being practised in many African countries as a way of preventing HIV infection as the penis becomes less sensitive and develops a thicker skin. This is from the UN and NGO’s etc, NOT cultural practices. I have therefore questioned whether I would do my own son. Is it up to my husband only? If all you are doing is taking off the foreskin then is that type of female circumcision okay, but going that not? To me one cannot be abhorrent whilst the other not but I have no answer for that yet aside from the fact that I find FGM unecessary and often absolutely inhumane.
Apparently it happens all over Northern Ghana but you’d never know because it’s not even discussed or mentioned. I’ve never seen nor heard of it in all my years there but statistically and culturally it exists in a level that includes the clitoris only, not the labia majora etc. That’s my understanding anyway.
I have always thought it began with men’s fear of women’s pleasure. It can be such a powerful thing and that is a problem where patriarchy is concerned.
Good point. But the equivalent of the male foreskin is the clitoral hood though not the clitoris itself. Some women take off the hood to enhance pleasure, hoodectomy it’s called.
There is a ritualistic element to some circumcision practises that could be beautiful to preserve, the initiation to adulthood, sexuality and all that. Through dialogue that element alone could be modernised but there is so much control of women’s bodies involved that I wonder if that’s possible anymore.
Joyce Thomas says
This is taking ignorance and fear to a tragic and inhumane level.
It is a sad state of affairs to consider that in the grand scheme of things the governments are led by individuals who are supposedly “educated”. Surely there needs to come a point where common sense and Science challenge certain aspects of our cultures, traditions and belief systems.
As a young black Zulu woman, whose roots are deeply embedded in strong cultural and tribal traditions, I have questioned these with basic aspects of my (very limited) Scientific knowledge as well as aspects of other cultures and how they explain our carry out their practices.
The gist of my conclusion? Age-old traditions and practices are based on the environment and existence (or lack thereof) of information and reasons as to why things are what they are.
Sadly, women have been classified as being beneath their male counterparts, and if anything shared the status of children in the African household to a certain extent, and this mentality has been embedded in them and the way they carry as well as see themselves.
Sex and sexuality remains taboo in many households to date. It is something we are all aware of but seldom ever talk about, but one clear message is almost always tangible: women dare not enjoy sex or even express this verbally and openly. it is almost an abomination to do so, yet at the same time in preparation for marriage you are advised by elderly women that you need to avail yourself for the pleasure of your intended.
So who is really to blame when said women have multiple partners or “sleep around”? Question is, who are they sleeping with? Men who also just happen to sleep with numerous other women themselves.
Forgive me as I digress, but this does take me the stigma Sex Workers face each day. If there is no market for sex, then I sincerely doubt these women would avail themselves for gain. It is the demand that creates the market. So if nobody wanted (to buy) sex then nobody would sell it either!
N Amma Nicky says
Lee, exactly my thoughts. Great catch.
N Amma Nicky says
I try to stay away from topics such as FGM, rape, domestic violence these days because reading and hearing about them just pisses me off! But it's the anger that leads to a voice that drives change, so I can't give up now. But these things just break my heart. To answer your question, I agree with everything you wrote. You looked at it from an analytiacl angle I hadn't before now. Good food for thought.
N Amma Nicky says
I try to stay away from topics such as FGM, rape, domestic violence these days because reading and hearing about them just pisses me off! But it's the anger that leads to a voice that drives change, so I can't give up now. But these things just break my heart. To answer your question, I agree with everything you wrote. You looked at it from an analytical angle I hadn't looked at before now. Good food for thought.
I love that you’ve addressed the fact that a woman’s pleasure is almost a taboo ( especially in africa) and how FGM in part amplifies that. In the words on Nina Simone ‘It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day’, sex should no longer be hubristic, hedonistic, authoritative and sidelined when it comes to women, we are human beings too and we deserve pleasure.
Please do more research before jumping to such conclusions about an entire CONTINENT. Genital modifications in particularly Africa are perceived by many cultures as MODIFICATIONS—like ear piercings, tribal marks, etc. many African cultures do not have a fixation on the genitals like the Western world, all modifications to the body are weighed equally. There are definitely cultures that perform genital procedures on girls to control sexual pleasure, but that doesn’t mean that even within those cultures, the sexual pleasures of circumcised women/girls were affected. If you look at the research on this topic, women/girls still feel sexual pleasure for the most part, overall. Please do the necessary research. And I think it’s interesting that Western cultures have given us this fixation on allowing women to experience sexual pleasure and you’re actually jumping on board even though Western cultures are very oversexed and hyper-sexual and typically REDUCE women to sex objects. So be careful with this notion of sexual liberation because it can be heavily exploited by Eurocentric constructs of female sexuality. At least in African cultures, African women are viewed as MORE than just their genitals. I think that is worth being proud of.
Justin Case says
Males start out as female is the womb. If you ever read evolutionary biology, the clitoris has the same muscle structure as the penis. The clitoris becomes the penis for a to be male fetus. So, the anatomy is basically the same for both and provides pleasure. As for why people are afraid of female exploration of sexuality is something I do not understand, since many women do not even know that can have clitoral orgasm.
I have a girlfriend in which her libido was so high such that sex is so frequent and occurs at almost any slightest opportunity. Clitoral stimulation enhances her sexual feeling significantly. She wasn’t circumcised. Though, I enjoyed it too but I think the impulse is too much for her. My previous girlfriend was a like a pack of wood during sex. She was circumcised as a baby. I didn’t like the experience
But let me make it clear that I am not a feminist and I do not intend to be one. I question almost all basis of feminist ideology. However, I don’t subscribe to FMG.
Lik Yon Bunseth says
After reading this article, I started to have the urge to beat those sick f**ks! Seriously, this is just horrible!
ismail jabbar nguka says
it makes me wonder. Im bout to marry a lady whose undergone the procedure and i dont know how it will be between us.
Im so baffled afraid too
Ismail, congrats on your wedding to be. I hope that you and your wife will together be able to heal any trauma she has gone through, I can only suggest that you make it clear to her that she can talk to you if and when she needs to. Best wishes.
Eddy Mokaya says
Long road ahead, I believe it should start with Educating our young ones. The Girlchild and Boychild should be taught about sexuality in Equal measures in order to have a society that one is not fighting the other over the superior of the other. It is sad that up to this time and age negative masculinity is the trend evrywhere is society. “Just an opinion”.
Thanks for writing this article. Our pleasure is our power. Beautiful. Much love for women feeling good and for the fight to protect and develop women’s rights world-wide. One Love, Kazoo Studios
Miss Cake says
This is exactly the discussion we need to be having. Why is female sexual pleasure so dangerous to so many people? It’s not a problem reserved for the cultures that practice FGM. I don’t think we will end FGM until we get to the bottom of this question.
Random Guy says
Yet no one cares about male circumcision…
Nemes Mallya says
Recently,,,older women are the onces who keeps on insisting on the continuation of FGM because they believe it to be the reason why their settled to their husbands and they did not play around as how it is now days…Where i am FGM is secretly done,,thanks to government strict laws…
FGM as is commonly understood is the removal of the prepuce (hood), as much of the clitoris as can be seen, the labia minora and possibly majora.
FGM equivalent to MGM (circumcision) is the removal of the hood “only.”
Actual removal of the entire clitoris would require opening the crotch to both sides of the vagina. This cannot be done by Arab grannies using dull, rusty razors, sharp rocks or broken glass.
This is not correct. Gender is “programed” in the DNA of each nucleated cell of the body. Gender is determined by the genes of the sperm cell that fertilizes the ovum.
It could as well be said that the clitoris is a leftover from the early differentiation process.
You don’t need to be a feminist to be opposed to mutilation and mayhem.
Shawn Carter says
This stuff is stupid, torture, inhumane and disgusting.
Gene Smith says
Seems to me that if this god some of you believe in designed our bodies what gives us the authority to change it? Aren’t we perfect as born?
Paul Eric says
Let me start by stating I am flat out against FGM. It is a “barbaric” practice. However, that’s my personal and socio-cultural prejudice. I do NOT understand why women perform it on their daughters and other women! I was appalled at the case of the Muslim women surgeons in Detroit, MI on trial for performing this procedure! It was a secret even to men in their circles! The case will yield some landmark rulings! I don’t know why certain African tribes and cultures still practice it – but I suspect it is simply a part of our pre-modern societies. I would be just as appalled at medieval medicine being practiced in the Western world today. My point of this post however, is to state that it pains me to see how intellectually “out-gunned” afrofeminists (and generally africa’s intelligensia) are by some of our malicious Western counterparts: for instance, how did this practice come to be labelled FGM (mutilation)??! It is “circumcision” – a more neutral term. But when Western Women choose voluntarily to have vaginal plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons (Labiaplasty, vaginaplasty, vaginal reconstruction, etc) this is not termed “circumcision”, let alone “mutilation”. Clearly, there is “reconstructive” surgery to enhance what may have been lost. But this is merely “technological advancement” over the African practice which is still at a primitive level; like we still are in so many other areas! But the imperial culture has portrayed African/Muslim FGM as a kind of Rorschach Test of African patriarchy and “controlling” masculinity! I repeat: this “domineering”/”controlling” mantra is more fiction than reality. Sure there are alpha males in every society and culture – but African women have created the world they live in by virtue of being first and foremost mothers and co-wives/mistresses. They have utmost agency. When someone convinces me that a sexually liberated African woman with a healthy clitoris intact and as many sexual partners as she wants to have, is the solution to Africa’s food insecurity, health crisis, energy deficiency, infrastructural decay and absence, poor governance, massive and petty financial corruption, etc. then I will put sexual liberation front and center of my thought life. 1 FGM case in my view is one too many in the world. But let’s be clear – 100 million? Really? Is that just a propaganda number? I notice how it says 100M africans and 40 million elsewhere (I presume Muslims)! How did they get these figures? Oh, Muslims are not as evil men as Africans are, is the subtext!?
The tribes that still practice this are NOT even twice that number in the whole continent (and if they are it would mean ALL their women were circumcised!). Let us educate patiently and “live & let live”.
I believe that picture shows a woman cutting the girl – do women see each other as just “meat” for sale in the sexual and marital market? Is the woman just dressing up her investment for the “meat” market! My point in this harsh critique is mental worldviews and social perceptions are not just manufactured by evil men; we also have evil women!
Do you also think clitoris/labia piercings done in tattoo shops legally or plastic surgeries done on genitals of women and girls as young as 12 legally in so-called advanced societies like the U.S. and U.K. are also barbaric? What about sex-change operations that are slowly becoming normalized? Why should other people in countries we consider advanced be allowed to modify their genitals and their children’s genitals under the guise of “plastic surgery” or “cosmetic enhancement” when African women or non-Western women are demonized for doing the SAME THINGS?
I know this is kinda old but a great article to see how primitive some countries and people are.. And yes I do mean the religions too.. They hold people and their intellectual development back.. If it was upon me I would forbid any religious behavior that would bother other people as its not only annoying for others but also dangerous.. We cant really say that no one ever killed anyone because of some religious believes, removing clitoris is only the least of the problems..
Mimi Litambola says
You got me thinking of her age at the time of undergoing the procedure. I always thought too about the procedure being done before she hit puberty. Perhaps its a way of preventing her to 1. discover that part of her body and it sensual powers (?). 2. A belief that suggest that perhaps upon discovering she is lured to thinking, feeling and eventually acting out in sexual activities (?).
what do you think?
Hello there! I came across your blog and thought it interesting that you framed female circumcision/genital cutting/genital modification as “FGM.” When Africans themselves say things like “customs like these need to die,” sometimes I wonder if they also want female genital alteration procedures in the West to die or sex-change surgeries (cutting off portion of the male penis/testicles) in the West to die, as well. Why should African women abandon their genital procedures when genital procedures even in countries we consider advanced are allowed to persist? And if procedures are dangerous for women/girls in Africa, why not push to make them safer like we do cosmetic surgeries, rather than wishing for them to end? Any non-medical procedure (breast implants, face lift, clitoris piercing, etc) can be dangerous and harmful if not made safer. And girls aside, shouldn’t procedures be made safer to give African women THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE what to do with OUR bodies? If an African woman wants to get a procedure done to her body, whether it is breast implants in America or genital modifications in Africa, it should be HER CHOICE. You’ve also made many generalizations in your article regarding the practice that frame Africa as a monolith when it is much more diverse. And I’m happy to provide you more insight.
The clitoris should be removed immediately after childbirth. It serves no purpose.
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