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The Dark Side of Custom

By 30 August 2011 10 Comments

“I was only seven years old when my aunt told me she was taking me shopping to buy some crayons. Little did I know what the actual purpose of our shopping trip was. With the crayons clutched tightly in one hand and my aunt’s finger in the other, I was taken to a dingy old place. And before I knew it, an unfamiliar old woman subjected me to an extremely invasive procedure. No one talked to me about it or prepared me for this. I clearly remember being very scared, but I quietly let that old woman continue with what she was doing. Although it wasn’t painful, I felt embarrassed, shocked and sick, all at once. We never brought it up at home. It was only when I grew older that I realised that each of my female cousins had gone through the same experience: female circumcision.”

The woman who shared the above story with Newsline spoke only on the condition of anonymity. She is one of the thousands of women across the country whose genitalia were mangled in their youth.

Common among specific communities in the country, female circumcision may be either an invasive procedure or a gentler symbolic moment. For the fortunate, it is carried out under hygienic conditions by a certified doctor. But most females undergo the process in an obscure place under the care of uncertified, clandestine practitioners.

Female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation and female genital cutting) refers to a variety of operations involving the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia. The reasons behind this painful procedure have cultural and religious roots. In many cultures, it is considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage.

Female genital mutilation is also often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking it to virginity and marital fidelity. As the procedure is believed to reduce a woman’s libido, it represents an attempt to control female sexuality and help women resist “illicit” sexual acts.

Dr Shershah Syed, an obstetrician/gynaecologist who devotes his practice to helping underserved women in Pakistan, confirms that he has come across cases in urban Pakistan where women have undergone the procedure.

“In Pakistan, with growing awareness [of the effects of female circumcision], they are now doing it merely symbolically, with only a bit of skin being removed. But even so, I find it to be in clear violation of human rights. There is absolutely no scientific evidence supporting any medical benefit of the procedure. In fact, it can lead to health complications,” says Dr Syed.

Such complications include urinary tract infections, infertility and scarring. Cysts may also develop, and the World Health Organisation has found that the practice increases the risk of infant mortality. Also significant is the reduction in how much sexual pleasure circumcised women can experience. With such consequences for a practice often carried out without the consent of the women in question, female genital mutilation is considered a serious human rights issue. Concerted international efforts to condemn the practice include February 6 being marked as “International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation” by the United Nations.

But some communities see the practice as an integral part of their culture. “I have two daughters and five nieces, all circumcised by doctors. I do not consider it a human rights violation because, according to our religious teachings, it has been divinely ordained. My faith dispels any doubts that some might put in my mind,” says Shaheen Abdullah. Recalling her experience, Abdullah says, “The procedure literally took all of one second. The sweet, gentle lady who had done it later comforted me. It was not painful at all. [And it has not] negatively affected my physical urges.”

It is also argued that female genital mutilation can be modernised and made less dangerous with the help of quality doctors and equipment. Dr Zahra Ali of the Bohra community, in which female circumcision has been carried out for generations, confirms that female genital mutilation is considered a religious obligation among her Bohra peers, while noting the increased safety of the process.

Ali explains, “Earlier, the practice was carried out by untrained daais (traditional birth attendants) who did it in a crude manner and, until a few decades ago, the entire clitoris of the woman would be removed. But over time I have seen a change in the mindset. Now, doctors in the community are taught the entire procedure and it is performed very hygienically.” The introduction of such professional practices to limit risks evinces the community’s desire to continue with the female circumcision they see as compulsory.

Dr Ali also adds that the practice these days is generally done for purely symbolic purposes, which she claims does not harm the woman physically or in terms of her libido. She concludes by stating, “The insidious way in which it was done earlier was painful and denied the women of a basic right. But now, things are much better.”

However, Dr Ali did admit that some members of the Bohra community still employ uncertified daais for the procedure, instead of seeking a qualified doctor. But her claim that female circumcision has medical benefits is undercut by Dr Syed, who categorically states that the procedure “has no health benefits.”

Concerns about the mental well-being of children subjected to this procedure are also starting to manifest themselves. Asma Pal, a counsellor, feels that “More than the act itself, the method adopted could cause serious psychological damage. A seven-year-old will retain the memory of being accosted literally and violated, which can result in long-standing physical intimacy issues.”

The risk of force is indeed high. While explaining why the procedure is generally carried out when girls turn seven, Dr Ali reveals that a key consideration is that “at that age, the girl is young enough to be held down forcefully if she tries to resist.”

Dr Uzma Ambareen, a psychiatrist, cautions that “the child should be forewarned if the family decides that this has to be done, or it could have traumatic effects later in her life. And upon reaching adulthood, this issue should be discussed to determine any psychological damage to the woman.” The risk of lifelong psychological scarring thus appears to be serious.

Journalist, activist and founding member of non-governmental organisation Shirkat Gah Najma Sadeque sees female genital mutilation as a “violation of human rights.” Sadeque emphasises the need for greater awareness about girls being coerced into having the operation. “The lack of awareness about the fact that this is practiced in Pakistan is surprising in itself,” she tells Newsline.

One woman Newsline interviewed went through female genital mutilation as a child and has never talked about it since. She says, “If you believe in it and it doesn’t harm you, I don’t see it as a human rights violation. But we need to question the practice. Whenever I have questioned it, I have received satisfactory answers from the religious elders of my community.” Perhaps the time has come for more women to stand up and seek their own answers.


(Some names have been changed or withheld to protect the privacy of the subjects).


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  • Zeinab said:

    It is sad to see public opinion moving against female circumcision in Pakistan. I’m Egyptian and am pleased to say the custom remains popular in my homeland. People wrongly suggest that removing the clitoris takes away a woman’s libido. In fact it improves it, since it means she can experience pleasure only from intercourse with her husband, and not from impure acts.

  • Yeoman Roman said:

    \since it means she can experience pleasure only from intercourse with her husband, and not from impure acts.\

    Who owns her genitals? Who owns a mans genitals?

    Truly, if a woman is the property of a man, then it does not matter what her concerns are, whether she has rights or not. The choices are made for her by others who do not \trust\ her ability or choices. She is only a \partial\ person, -she’s really property.

    If she is NOT the property of a man and has rights of her own, to her body, to security of body and person, to choosing things in life, then she would have the freedom to choose \pure’ acts, as much as she chooses anything else.

    Sex does not make people dirty. Coercion and abuse are dirty, -not sex. Maybe you think intercourse is \pure\…. (In what position is intercourse \pure\, may I ask?) but the idea that we have to sexually damage and mutilate people to force them to behave, is just silly. And sad.

    Your culture mutilates women, we in America mutilate men. Mutilation is bad, sexually crippling and a human rights violation. Religions reduce sexual pleasure, because they simply have trouble competing with it. -Direct experience is empowering. They are less likely to believe the religious leaders of their communities, have all the answers. True for Islam, true for Judaism. They both fear and dislike sex and sexual pleasure, it is a threat to their control of people.

  • Cyn said:

    The same sort of barbarity is inflicted on countless males across the world. Forced genital cutting needs to STOP. What’s wrong with people?

  • clumsygirl said:

    Understand female orgasm from difference between Male & Female Circumcision


    Today, people are still entangled in the problem that the real female orgasm is vaginal orgasm from G-spot or clitoral orgasm. Such a simple, easy and instinctive physiological problem actually has deceived all women for so many years. Today I take you to close the truth of female orgasm from the other cruel side.

    Circumcision is divided into female circumcision and male circumcision. Male circumcision is the surgical removal of some or all of the foreskin (prepuce) from the penis. Female circumcision is female genital cutting including the clitoris, labia majora and labia minora. But the same circumcisions bring the different results to men and women. I don’t know male circumcision is beneficial for men or not, but at least not affect the male orgasm. Then look at the popular female circumcision in African tribes, in total it’s estimated that as many as two million girls a year are subjected to genital mutilation.

    I need to ask why women suffer cruel circumcision. In fact, woman implemented circumcision is as “asexual person.” She is never going to have any lust, and in her whole life she can never experience sexual pleasure. I need to ask another philosophical question. Since vaginal G-spot only can give women real orgasm, why did women suffer cutting clitoris, labia majora and labia minora, but not G-spot? Circumcised Women have no any differences from castrated eunuchs in the court of ancient China, and eunuchs have been cut off the penis, testicles, and scrotum. In essence, circumcised female are as same as eunuchs and never going to have an orgasm once. Circumcision makes women lose only one organ which is only able to collect the sexual pleasure – the clitoris. Women lost the rights to orgasm, leaving only the vagina, and became male orgasm’receptacles and reproduction’tools.

    G-spot never exists, and do not be deceived by absurd theory. Only clitoris can bring female an orgasm. Female Circumcision makes me even more convinced that there must be some organ in labia majora.

  • Zeinab said:

    Yeoman Roman, a girl belongs to her father until she marries, then to her husband. So yes, I agree with you that her pleasure is not important, or rather she should derive her pleasure from serving her husband and children, and not herself.

  • Saira said:

    Wow Zeinab. Just because you hate your sex and your gender does not mean all women, or even all women from Muslim backgrounds hate theirs too. You are no better than Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman, the anti-women contingent of right-wing Americans.

  • shakil salim said:

    @ zeinab, your misogynistic comments are most sickening.A girl doesn’t belong to anyone except herself.A girl is a human and just as much a human as your father and husband.She is not cattle to be bought and sold.
    A girl has all the right in the world to derive pleasure from life.She is not a slave to anyone: not to her father,not to her husband nor to her children.
    female genital mutilation is a barbarity belonging to the dark ages and is indicative of a mentality fearful of female sexuality.Insecure,weak and diffident men are the ones championing this savage practice.

  • Disgusted said:

    Zeinab: you are a despicable person and you ought to be ashamed to promote this sick, perverse practice on *children* without even their consent. I cannot comprehend how you could think a normal sexual attitude involves taking a blade to a child’s genitals.

    If there was an ounce of justice in this world, your dick would be sliced off by the ignorant, pervert butchers you’d subject these little girls to.

  • Nobull said:

    @zeinab you are one sick horrible excuse for a human. How on earth do people like you get so brainwashed by religion?

  • Ben Finney said:

    If an adult male or female, in full knowledge of what the procedure entails, and without any physical or psychological coercion, chooses to have some trained surgeon take a blade to their genitals in sanitary conditions, I say more power to that person for making an informed choice about their own body.

    If any adult takes it on themselves to do this to a child, there had better be a compelling reason why *not* doing it is a demonstrable high risk to the child’s heath.

    If any person does this to a healthy child’s genitals, we must condemn the act and publicly shame every adult involved, including the “cultural leaders” who encourage the hideous practice.

    I hope to live to see the day when people who justify barbaric practices like genital mutilation of children are shunned worldwide, the way slaveholders and cannibals are shunned. If it’s done in the name of any religion, so much the worse for religion.