Breaking Their Silence: Victims of Female Genital Mutilation Speak Out
Most immigration talk is dominated by the issue of illegals, but some legal immigrants can also bring problems into our country. A practice called female genital mutilation (FGM), predominantly seen in Muslim-controled countries, is now an issue in the United States.
Worldwide, an estimated 6,000 girls are subjected to the practice each day. For centuries, women performed FGM on family members or neighbors, anywhere from infancy to puberty. The practice is most common in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
Many girls do not survive the ordeal due to bleeding and infections and those who do are scarred both physically and emotionally for life.
Female genital mutilation is the cutting off or, in fewer cases, the mutilation of the external female genitalia. This procedure is often done without anesthesia using dull and dirty razor blades or scissors.
Female genital mutilation is unspeakably painful for its young victims.
To make matters worse, often the vagina is sewn closed until marriage. And sometimes, a girl's legs are bound together for a period of time during which scar tissue grows over the vaginal opening.
In either case, only tiny holes remain for urination and menstruation, causing a number of health problems, such as constant pain, urinary tract and bladder infections, kidney problems including kidney failure, irregular periods, cysts and infertility.
In addition, childbirth can be life-threatening to both the mother and baby, and sexual intercourse is often excruciating.
Three Methods of Genital Mutilation
Female genital mutilation is usually performed in one of three ways:
- Clitoridectomy: removing part or all of the clitoris.
- Excision: removing part or all of the clitoris and the inner labia (the lips that surround the vagina), with or without removal of the labia majora (the larger outer lips).
- Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia.
Female genital mutilation is commonly referred to as "female circumcision," but a more accurate term is "female castration" because victims typically lose the ability to become sexually aroused. As a result, they're not tempted to engage in premarital or extra-marital intercourse.
Female genital mutilation was performed before Islam came into existence and it's not dictated by the Koran, Islam's holy book. However, FGM is largely practiced by Muslims, although not exclusively.
There appears to be some disagreement within the Muslim community about whether the practice is tied to their faith.
Sheik Yousef Al Badri, of Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, addressed the issue in a film called "Honor Diaries," a documentary about abuses against women such as FGM, forced marriage and honor killings.
"Circumcision is the reason why Muslim women are virtuous, unlike Western women who run after their sexual appetite in any place with any man," he says in the film.
Elsewhere in the documentary, Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a physician and the author of In The Land of Invisible Women, says, "Female genital mutilation is not advocated in Islam in any way, shape or form. It doesn't appear in the Koran, but has very much been adopted by some Muslim societies."
A Matter of Honor?
Paula Kweskin is the film's producer and a human rights attorney.
"I do believe it's an element of the honor system," she said. "And I think if we can break down the honor system, we will break away issues like FGM and child marriage and forced marriage and honor killings because these things are all linked together."
She says the purpose of her documentary is to educate the public about a topic unfamiliar to many people.
"We really believe in education and getting the message out. A lot of times when communities learn about just how harmful the practice is, they stop," she said. "We've seen that in Africa and we've seen that in other parts of the world. A lot of times it's just a lack of education and a lack of understanding, and it is a tradition that's passed along, so it's very hard to break tradition and break that cycle."
"Not all of them are Muslim, but the majority of the women who have been subjected to this mutilation are Muslim," Ali said.
"Not a day goes by where people who are Muslim, use their faith, using the guidance of the (Muslim) Prophet Mohammed and what they read in the Koran, to engage in violence and in oppression, and to justify that in the name of religion," she continued.
FGM Invades the West
Currently there are an estimated 140 million victims worldwide, including in some places that are not predominanly Muslim or Arabic, such as Canada, Western Europe and America.
An astounding half a million girls and women in the United States have either undergone female genital mutilation or are at risk of having it done to them.
Many live in New York City, New Jersey and other places with immigrant populations from countries where "cutting," as it's called, is commonly practiced.
Recently, FGM survivors marched at the U.S. Capitol to raise awareness, including Frances Cole, who described her experience.
"I was 11 years old at the time, and I was told that we, my sister and I -- she was 13 at the time -- we were told that we were going somewhere to be made into women," she recalled.
FGM survivor Mariam Bojang, who also marched on Washington, found it difficult to describe the torturous event.
"The experience of FGM is, oh my, I don't even think there is a word on earth I can describe it with. It's cruel, gruesome, no one on earth, I wouldn't even wish it on my enemy, that's how gruesome it is."
Congress passed legislation making it illegal to perform female genital mutilation in the United States and making it a crime to take girls out of the country to do it, a practice known as "vacation cutting." Twenty-four states have enacted similar legislation.
Shelby Quast is the director of the America's Office of Equality Now, an organization working for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls around the world that is dedicated to ending female genital mutilation in a generation.
She says people who suspect FGM or have evidence of it need to take action.
"Counselors, teachers, the medical community, police, whoever really are front-line professionals that might engage with girls who are at risk they have a responsibility to report this as a form of violence against children," she said.
She says there are a number of reasons FGM is performed.
"Many of those are based in patriarchy, based in controlling their sexuality," Quast explained. "A lot of it's for myths, mythical reasons, myths that her body parts might grow to represent a man's if they're not cut off."
Other reasons include the belief that female genitalia are dirty and ugly and a prerequisite for marriage.
Breaking Their Silence
Discussing female genital mutilation is generally taboo, although courageous victims speaking out, like Frances Cole, could become powerful agents of change.
"So I just hope that other women who've gone through female genital mutilation speak up," she said. "Nothing's going to happen to you. Even though I've been told I'll be stoned to death, I'm still not afraid to talk."
Bojang says that victims speaking openly about their ordeal promotes healing.
"I had scary nightmares, like of people chasing me and then kidnapping me to do something to me," she recalled. "But once I started talking about it, you know I was one of these people who would crawl up in their own little corner and not talk to anyone, but look at me today. I'm brave enough to stand here and talk to the whole world."
Victims of female genital mutilation should know there are treatments to repair some of the damage to their bodies. Gynecological surgeon Dr. Marci Bowers is one of the few physicians performing them.
"Surgical treatment, defibulation, or removal of the scar tissue is important, especially when it comes to pain and where it comes to blocking outflow and allowing childbirth," she explained.
"But also the newly minted surgical procedures that are proven to work are to restore sexual function," she added.
While these treatments will improve a woman's quality of life, the hope is that one day soon they won't be necessary -- in the United States or any place else in the world.