“LONDON clinic circumcising women”! Not long ago headlines like this startled the public in England and other lands. Readers learned that doctors in prestigious Harley Street, London, had been performing an operation that most persons had never heard of: female circumcision.
Yet female circumcision is common in some other parts of the world—particularly Africa. The custom is at least 2,000 years old and has been practiced at one time or another on all five continents. Estimates of the number of women alive today who have been circumcised run as high as 70 million.
If you live in a land where female circumcision is not practiced, perhaps you wonder what this custom is and why people do it. If it is practiced where you live, you may have wondered: ‘Should I let my daughter be circumcised?’ Neighbors, relatives, and the sheer weight of a long, long tradition can pressure parents to go along with the custom. Yet the operation entails risks. Hence, parents, before consenting to the operation, need to give the matter much thought. They should find out exactly what the operation is, what it is meant to accomplish, and what the risks are. So what is female circumcision?
What Is It?
Really, the term is a misnomer. “Circumcision” means “cutting around” and refers to the operation on a boy. For a girl, the operation is more an “excision,” that is, a partial or a total cutting off of the clitoris, perhaps also cutting away the labia minora, the inner lips of the vulva. This operation, performed on girls from one week old to ten years or more, is the milder form of female circumcision.
But there is a more severe operation known as infibulation. Here is a description of infibulation being performed on a little girl in Djibouti: “The old woman takes her razor and excises the clitoris. The infibulation follows: the operator cuts with her razor from top to bottom of the small lip [of the vulva] and then scrapes the flesh from the inside of the large lip . . . Then the operator applies a paste and ensures the adhesion of the large lips by means of acacia thorns.” (From Minority Rights Group, Report No. 47, quoted in The Economist.) The scar tissue closes the vagina almost completely, and when the girl gets married, it has to be opened again, perhaps with a razor blade.
The Operation Is Dangerous
Both operations are painful and dangerous. Recently, a Malian had to appear in court in France when his three-month-old daughter almost died after he had performed excision on her. How many children die because of the operation? Statistics are not available, but fatalities must be common, since the operation is generally performed by women having no knowledge of proper hygiene and is often done without using anesthesia. In 1982, newspapers reported that President Moi of Kenya outlawed the practice in his country after the death there of 14 little girls.
If a girl survives the operation, there are further hazards. A UNESCO report lists some of them: severe shock from fear and pain; uncontrolled bleeding; tetanus and other infections; painful menstruation during adolescence; infection when the scars are broken after marriage; difficulties during childbirth. The magazine World Health adds: “The permanent changes in the female genitalia, the growth of dermoid cyst and the development of bladder fistulae, as well as other pathological conditions . . . may affect normal sexuality and interfere in marital relationships, and can lead to infertility or result in divorce.”
Yes, this is a risky procedure. So why do parents do it?
‘It Has Always Been Done’
In some places, the practice is accompanied by superstitious rites, but seemingly no religion specifically commands it. It is observed by members of different religions, including those of Christendom.
Some view the operation as needed to calm a woman’s sexual inclinations or to make her truly feminine (the clitoris being viewed as a mannish organ). An Egyptian mother explained it this way to a researcher: “We are circumcised and insist on circumcising our daughters so that there is no mixing between a male and a female. The woman must be truly female, and the man must be male. Every woman must be circumcised in order not to be oversexed and constantly in a state of excitement.” She went on: “It is shameful not to be circumcised. We are not foreigners; only foreigners do not get circumcised.”
The Ivory Coast magazine Ivoire Dimanche suggests that female circumcision is an initiation rite: “Excision became a social act by means of which the young girl joined the group of women, or simply became a woman.” Female circumcision is also thought to have health benefits. Two Nigerian women approached a doctor in England asking him to circumcise them. One had been unable to conceive a baby, and the other had had to have her baby through a cesarean section. Both felt the reason for their problems was that they had not been circumcised as children.
Some insist that female circumcision is necessary for hygiene, while others maintain that it preserves a girl’s chastity. It is also said that a woman’s external genitals are “dirty and ugly,” and circumcision is “an effort to obtain a smooth, and therefore clean, body.” Supposedly, a man would not want to marry an uncircumcised girl. Yet, often it is not men but women who insist on preserving the custom. Usually, it is arranged for by mothers or by female relatives and performed by a local woman. The Sunday Times Magazine reports that in the Sudan, where the operation is illegal, it is “carried out by an illegal conspiracy of woman and woman.”
The truth is, the original reasons for female circumcision have long since been forgotten, and probably the major reason why it is still practiced is that ‘it has always been done.’ If parents fail to circumcise their daughters, the grandparents may find ways to get it done. Uncircumcised little girls may ask their parents to circumcise them so that they can be like everyone else.
International groups such as the World Health Organization and UNESCO strongly discourage female circumcision, but some view their efforts as an intrusion into their personal affairs. Two African women told the newspaper The Globe and Mail: “It represents a rite of passage for girls and should continue. It’s our business, and we will decide what to preserve and what to be rid of.”
The Christian Stand
Parents must weigh all these views when determining their own feelings about female circumcision. For Christian parents, there is another question: Is female circumcision in harmony with Bible principles?
According to Scripture, every male Israelite had to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant between Jehovah and the children of Abraham. (Genesis 17:10-14; Leviticus 12:2, 3) However, the sons of Christian parents are not required to be circumcised. (Galatians 5:6) Hence, daughters of Christians are certainly not required to undergo either excision or infibulation. Is female circumcision, then, merely a matter of conscience?
Well, some governments have banned it. In those lands Christians should obey the law and not circumcise their daughters. (Romans 13:1-5) But what if female circumcision is customary and not against the law? Remember, female circumcision is dangerous. Little girls die because of it. According to the Bible, when we deliberately put someone’s life unnecessarily in danger, we could become bloodguilty. (Compare 1 Chronicles 11:17-19.) Christian parents would not want to incur bloodguilt by risking their daughters’ lives in this way.—Psalm 51:14.
Female circumcision is also very painful. The mental and physical suffering that it causes can last through the teen years right into marriage and childbirth. Is this the way loving parents treat their children? No. Christian mothers ‘cherish their own children.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:7) Christian parents ‘give good gifts to their children.’ (Matthew 7:11) Female circumcision may be an ancient tradition, but it is not a ‘good gift.’
Doctors can find no health benefits in the operation. Neither is it necessary for hygiene. For the Israelites, personal cleanliness was a part of their worship, and yet Jehovah did not tell them to circumcise their daughters. What about preserving a girl’s chastity? Again, Jehovah commands Christian women to be modest, but he did not say that circumcision was necessary for this. (1 Timothy 2:9) Furthermore, there is no evidence at all that the operation makes a girl more feminine. In fact, it scars and disfigures her sexual organs.
True, female circumcision is a long-standing custom, and customs may be respected when they do not violate a Christian’s conscience. But would it not violate your conscience to subject your daughter to unnecessary suffering? This was the feeling of one Christian elder in the African country of Burkina Faso.
He went to his native village for a visit, and while he was there, his parents urged him to bring or send his nine-year-old daughter to the village so that she could be circumcised. Kindly, but with firmness and courage, the Witness explained the medical and Scriptural reasons for not adhering to this custom. Although it caused some friction in the family, he stood firm for his principles and protected the child from being circumcised. The Witness family decided that their children would not be sent unaccompanied to the village so that they could not be pressured to conform to customs contrary to the wishes of their parents.
This mature Christian showed how knowledge combined with deep love gives parents the courage and wisdom to do what is right for their children. Other Christian parents do well to follow his example.
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Doctors can find no health benefits in the operation
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Female circumcision may be an ancient tradition, but it is not a ‘good gift’
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Would it not violate your conscience to subject your daughter to unnecessary suffering?