A group of Muslim scholars have declared female genital cutting to be incompatible with Islam. Millions of girls have their genitals cut in what is a long-standing cultural practice in some parts of Africa and the Middle East. I use the term “genital cutting” because I don’t think “female circumcision” accurately conveys what this procedure is; I’m tempted to use “female genital mutilation,” because I don’t think “cutting” quite gets the point across either, but some women who have had their genitals cut oppose the use of that term. So “cutting” it is. And we should all be clear on exactly what that means:
Fatima’s scream is as blood-curdling as it is heart-wrenching. The little girl, who looks to be about eight years old, screams in a panic, initially in fear and then because she is unable to bear the pain she is experiencing. She is lying on the floor of a dirty hut somewhere in the Ethiopian desert. Her body is contorted with pain as she screams, cries and finally lies there whimpering. Her new, green floral dress is soaked in blood.
Two men and her mother press the delicate child against the floor and pull apart her thin little legs. An old woman crouches in front of Fatima, holding a shiny razor blade and a thick, threaded darning needle. Today is the day Fatima will become a woman, a decent woman.
The purpose of the thick darning needle is to lift the lips of the vulva to facilitate cutting them off. The old woman moves the razor blade into position. First she slices off the small lips of the vulva and then the clitoris. There is blood everywhere. The girl arches her small, sweat-soaked body. The old woman repeatedly pours a milky liquid onto the wound to prevent infection. Then the grandmother comes into the hut, pokes at the wound and tells the old woman to make a deeper cut. The process starts all over again. Fatima’s screams become almost unbearable. If the sight of this girl under female circumcision is so difficult to bear, how can she possibly stand the pain?
Finally the deed is done. The wound is sewn shut with thorns, leaving only a tiny opening. A straw is inserted into the small opening to prevent it from closing. Then Fatima’s legs are tied together with a rope to allow the wound to heal. She will lie in bed, her legs tied together in this fashion, for several weeks.
The old woman completes her barbaric task with a slap on her subject’s behind. Fatima is now a woman.
Today, about 6,000 girls will have their genitals cut. That’s 2 million a year. Somewhere between 100 and 140 million women are “circumcised.”
Female genital cutting often results in infection, sterility, difficulty during childbirth, and death. The vast majority of women in Egypt have had their genitals cut; the fact that so many well-known Muslim scholars, academics and doctors declared that the practice is not sanctioned by Islam is a huge step in the right direction. And it should give us all something to be happy about today.