FGM is a complex multifaceted practice deeply rooted in a strong cultural and social framework. It is endorsed by the community and supported by loving parents with what is believed to be the best interests of a young girl at heart. FGM can only be understood within its cultural context, for in the societies where it is practised - despite its harmful physical affects - FGM provides women with many social and cultural benefits.
The beliefs sustaining the practice of FGM vary greatly from one ethnic group to another, although there are many common themes. Some of the most common beliefs, are outlined in the following sections.
For many societies, FGM is quite clearly about curtailing a woman's sexuality and preventing her from engaging in promiscuity. The most frequently offered reason for why FGM is performed relates to the attenuation of a woman's sexual desire - to prevent her from being oversexed.
In societies where virginity is an absolute pre-requisite for marriage and where any type of promiscuity or extramarital relationship may lead to the most severe penalties, FGM is believed to safeguard the morality of women, preserve their virginity, prevent them from being oversexed, and save them from temptation and disgrace. In times of war FGM is also thought to protect women from rape.
FGM is also closely associated with family honour, which is of vital importance in the Horn of Africa. If a woman loses her honour, the entire family is dishonoured. The most dishonourable experience for a man is the sexual impropriety of a female member of the family, and once lost it cannot be restored. Coupled with the belief that women who have not undergone FGM are oversexed and impure, 'honour' is supported and sustained largely through the practice of FGM.
FGM is also believed by some to promote fertility and increase a man's sexual pleasure, both of which enhance a woman's attractiveness in marriage.
Many groups that practice FGM come from patriarchal societies. In these societies, resources and power are passed down and held solely under male control, with a woman's access to land and to economic resources being exclusively through her husband (or the male members of her family). In order for a woman to be eligible for marriage it is essential that she is a virgin. The association between virginity and FGM is so strong, that an uninfibulated or unexcised girl has virtually no chance of marriage, regardless of her virginity. Her access to land and future resources are therefore dependent on her having undergone FGM.
Many societies practising FGM are also patrilineal, whereby a woman represents and retains her father's lineage and her marriage is not only a union of two people, but an alliance of two lineages. This alliance strengthens clans and clan relationships with other groups and a woman who has not undergone FGM brings great shame and dishonour to her father's lineage. FGM is therefore vital not only to a husband as proof of his future bride's virginity - but also to the bride's family or lineage.
Many of the women affected by FGM come from rural areas and have had limited access to reproductive health education. Many myths about FGM, particularly those relating to hygiene and aesthetics have been passed down from generation to generation without being questioned and are subsequently held on to with tenacity. These include the following:
While the practice of FGM remains in the female sphere and women are commonly considered the excisors and the perpetrators of the practice, the underlying role of men cannot be over emphasized. FGM is universally considered a practice resulting from patriarchal societies and the subsequent powerlessness of women. It is considered to be rooted in male dominated societies that have attempted to subjugate women and repress their sexuality.
In the Horn of Africa, FGM is also considered to play a significant role in men's sexuality. A narrowed vaginal opening is believed to enhance a husband's sexual pleasure and the challenge of penetrating a tight opening is considered to be linked to a man's virility. A man will commonly refuse to marry an uncircumcised woman, and in some cultures women may request to be reinfibulated after childbirth for fear that they will not satisfy their husband, or that he may take another younger "tighter" wife.
In some societies where a man has several wives, it is also said that since it is physically impossible for him to satisfy them all, FGM helps by making the wives less sexually demanding.
FGM has been reported to be practised by followers of many different religions: Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Animists and Christian Coptics. It is important to stress that there is no basis in any of the various religious texts for FGM, and FGM predates most modern religions - including Christianity and Islam. The association between FGM and religious obligation is assumed to be the result of historic concurrence and incorrect interpretation and teaching of religious texts.
One commonly held misconception about FGM is that it is prescribed within the Islamic religion. Whilst it is practised by many Muslim communities in the genuine belief that it is demanded by Islam, there is no sustainable evidence to suggest that it is an Islamic religious requirement. The Koran does however encourage women's chastity and modesty as important virtues, and various religious leaders have used this and interpretations of the Hadiths to support FGM.
Another significant factor in the continuation of the practice of FGM is the status and vested interests of circumcisors within affected communities. The role of circumcisors varies within the ethnic groups practising FGM. In Somalia for instance, they have no special respect, while in West Africa they wield much power and have considerable status within traditional power structures. In Sierra Leone, the circumcisors are considered to be priestesses by their followers - they control the 'secret societies' and commonly have extended roles as counsellors and consultants in mother and child care. In Mali, they are often the gatekeepers of traditional power bases for women, feared and respected by women and the community at large. FGM is an irreplaceable source of revenue for the circumcisors and any challenge to FGM not only threatens this revenue, but is also perceived as an attack on the respected older women of the community.
In many societies the practice of FGM is considered a vital part of a young girl's social development and initiation rites - an anticipated step in her passage into womanhood. In some regions, such as in Northern Sudan, Kenya, and Mali the practice is commonly accompanied by ceremonies, celebrations, and coming-of-age rituals. Specific periods of the year, such as after harvest, are designated for the event and there are songs, dances, and chants intended to teach a young girl her duties and the desirable characteristics of a good wife and mother. The event is rich in ritual and symbolism and can last up to 2-3 weeks. There are special convalescent huts for the girls where they remain until they are healed and then emerge to be adorned with special clothes and gifts.
However, the ceremonial aspects of FGM are noted to be falling away with urbanisation, and with FGM being performed at a much younger age it is having much less to do with entry into adulthood - undermining the hypothesis that it is an initiation rite.
Whether the practice is shrouded in rituals and celebrations, or whether it involves a visit to the local midwife, FGM is an integral part of a girl's social development. The practice is deeply embedded in the social norms of the community and there is immense social pressure on all young girls to conform. A girl who does not undergo FGM is likely to be severely socially penalised, and is often despised, taunted, ostracised and made the target of ridicule. No one in her community may want to marry her, and what is clearly understood to be her life's work - marriage and childbearing - will be denied her.
For a woman living in a patriarchal society with no access to land or education and no effective power base, marriage is her main means of survival and access to resources - and FGM is her pre-requisite for marriage. With the beliefs surrounding FGM deeply embedded from childhood, the social approval associated with FGM and the sanctions women face if they don't undergo FGM - the benefits of FGM would seem to outweigh the physical difficulties. FGM is inevitably viewed in a very positive light and this can explain why women continue to cling to the tradition, colluding in their own daughters' circumcision.