REASONS FOR THE PRACTICE
One of the most common explanations for continuing the FGM/C practice is local custom. Women themselves are sometimes unwilling to give up the practice, as they see it as a long-standing tradition passed on from generation to generation. The practitioners are often unaware of the real implications of FGM/C and the health risks that it poses. Family honour, cleanliness, protection against spells and the insurance of virginity and faithfulness to the husband are used as rationales to continue the practice.
Additional factors underlying the practice include:
Sociological and cultural:
As an initiation for girls into womanhood,social integration and the maintenance of social cohesion. FGM/FGC is seen as part of a girl’s initiation into womanhood and as an intrinsic part of a community’s cultural heritage/tradition. Various myths exist about female genitalia (e.g. that if uncut the clitoris will grow to the size of a penis; FGM/FGC would enhance fertility or promote child survival, etc) and these serve to perpetuate the practice. In some societies where female circumcision marks the entrance into womanhood, the clitoris and labia are considered the "male" parts of the female body, and thus must be removed for a girl to fully become a woman.
In "Warrior Marks", Alice Walker asks the women in a village why they allow their daughters to be mutilated. The answer always comes back: "It's tradition." What does this tradition mean to the women in this culture?
Circumcision defines who is in the cultural group. In societies where most women are circumcised, those who are not are seen as outsiders or otherwise socially unacceptable. Uncircumcised women are seen as unmarriageable, and many societies have no place for unmarried women.
Belonging to part of a group is desirable for most humans; we depend on our association with others, such as our family and friends. It is difficult to break with tradition, as it often causes us to become outcasts from our chosen groups. Breaking with the tradition of FGM in these societies is not a simple choice for women, so many continue to follow tradition even when the pain dictates otherwise.
Hygienic and aesthetic:
In some communities, the external female genitalia are considered dirty and ugly and are removed ostensibly to promote hygiene and aesthetic appeal. Improved cleanliness is one of the claimed benefits of female circumcision. In some societies, the word for female circumcision also refers to "purification" or "cleansing."
To control or reduce female sexuality. FGM/FGC is carried out as a means to control women’s sexuality (which is argued to be insatiable if parts of the genitalia, especially the clitoris, are not removed). It is thought to ensure virginity before and fidelity after marriage and/or to increase male sexual pleasure.
The practice of infibulation, where a woman's genitals are sown together, helps to ensure virginity in young girls, and fidelity in wives. Women who are uncircumcised are not trusted to be in control of their own sexuality. In strongly patriarchal societies, it is important that the identity of a child's father is known, so that the father's wealth can be passed only to his children.
In the belief that it enhances fertility and child survival. Local custom has dictated that uncircumcised women cannot handle food or water, and may be poisonous to men or babies that come into contact with the clitoris. The use of clitoridectomy to relieve health problems was also used into the twentieth century in the United States, often to alleviate hysteria or excessive masturbation. Despite the perception that uncircumcised women are unclean or unhealthy, many consequences such as infections, scars, and infertility supposedly result from FGM as well.
In the belief that it is a religious requirement. Although FGM/FGC is not sanctioned by either Islam nor by Christianity, supposed religious prescripts (e.g. the mention of ‘Sunna” in the Koran) are often used to justify the practice.
FGM is often associated with Islam, as some societies that practice FGM are Muslim and use religious sayings to support the practice. However, FGM is not a Muslim tradition. FGM is not practiced by the majority of Muslims, and some Christian, Jewish, and Animist societies do practice FGM. This practice predates Islam, although the exact date of the first recorded circumcision varies between 1400 and 4000 years ago.
However, many who practice FGM still do so because they believe it is a Muslim tradition. Although the Qur'an (the Muslim holy book) does not specifically mention female circumcision, other sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed seem to support circumcision, at least sunna circumcision. Some Muslims who oppose the practice use parts of the Qur'an to conclude that circumcision is wrong. Dissent still exists within the Islamic faith about the status of female circumcision; however those who support it still use religious freedom as an important reason to continue the practice.
In many communities, FGM/FGC is a prerequisite for marriage. Where women are largely dependent on men, economic necessity can be a major determinant to undergo the procedure. FGM/FGC sometimes is a prerequisite for the right to inherit. FGM/FGC may also be a major income source for practitioners.
FGM may may also be a major source of income for circumcisers.Various cultures offer many justifications for these practices. A girl who is not “circumcised” is considered unclean in some communities and therefore unable to marry. A girl who does not have her clitoris removed can also be considered a great danger and, ultimately, fatal to a man’s health.
WHY THE FGM CONTINUES
In every society in which it is practised, female genital mutilation is a manifestation of gender
inequality that is deeply entrenched in social, economic and political structures. Like the nowabandoned foot-binding in China and the practice of dowry and child marriage, female genital mutilation represents society’s control over women. Such practices have the effect of perpetuating normative gender roles that are unequal and harm women. Analysis of international health data shows a close link between women’s ability to exercise control over their lives and their belief that female genital mutilation should be ended.
Where female genital mutilation is widely practised, it is supported by both men and women, usually without question, and anyone departing from the norm may face condemnation, harassment, and ostracism. As such, female genital mutilation is a social convention governed by rewards and punishments which are a powerful force for continuing the practice. In view of this conventional nature of female genital mutilation, it is difficult for families to abandon the practice without support from the wider community. In fact, it is often practised even when it is known to inflict harm upon girls because the perceived social benefits of the practice are deemed higher than its disadvantages. Members of the extended family are usually involved in decision-making about female genital mutilation, although women are usually responsible for the practical arrangements for the ceremony.
Female genital mutilation is considered necessary to raise a girl properly and to prepare her for
adulthood and marriage. In some societies, the practice is embedded in coming-of-age rituals, sometimes for entry into women’s secret societies, which are considered necessary for girls to become adult and responsible members of the society. Girls themselves may desire to undergo the procedure as a result of social pressure from peers and because of fear of stigmatization and rejection by their communities if they do not follow the tradition. Also, in some places, girls who undergo the procedure are given rewards such as celebrations, public recognition and gifts. Thus, in cultures where it is widely practised, female genital mutilation has become an important part of the cultural identity of girls and women and may also impart a sense of pride, a coming of age and a feeling of community membership.
There is often an expectation that men will marry only women who have undergone the practice.
The desire for a proper marriage, which is often essential for economic and social security as well
as for fulfilling local ideals of womanhood and femininity, may account for the persistence of the
practice. Some of the other justifications offered for female genital mutilation are also linked to
girls’ marriageability and are consistent with the characteristics considered necessary for a
woman to become a "proper" wife. It is often believed that the practice ensures and preserves
a girl’s or woman’s virginity. In some communities, it is thought to restrain sexual desire, thereby ensuring marital fidelity and preventing sexual behaviour that is considered deviant and
Female genital mutilation is also considered to make girls "clean" and beautiful. Removal of genital parts is thought of as eliminating "masculine" parts such as the clitoris, or in the case of infibulation, to achieve smoothness considered to be beautiful. A belief sometimes expressed by women is that female genital mutilation enhances men’s sexual pleasure.
In many communities, the practice may also be upheld by beliefs associated with religion. Even though the practice can be found among Christians, Jews and Muslims, none of the holy texts of any of these religions prescribes female genital mutilation and the practice pre-dates both Christianity and Islam. The role of religious leaders varies. Those who support the practice tend either to consider it a religious act, or to see efforts aimed at eliminating the practice as a threat to culture and religion. Other religious leaders support and participate in efforts to eliminate the practice. When religious leaders are unclear or avoid the issue, they may be perceived
as being in favour of female genital mutilation.
The practice of female genital mutilation is often upheld by local structures of power and authority
such as traditional leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, elders, and even some medical
personnel. Indeed, there is evidence of an increase in the performance of female genital mutilation by medical personnel. In many societies, older women who have themselves been mutilated often become gatekeepers of the practice, seeing it as essential to the identity of women and girls. This is probably one reason why women, and more often older women, are more likely to support the practice, and tend to see efforts to combat the practice as an attack on their identity and culture. It should be noted that some of these actors also play a key role in efforts to eliminate the practice.
Female genital mutilation is sometimes adopted by new groups and in new areas after migration
and displacement. Other communities have been influenced to adopt the practice by neighbouring groups and sometimes in religious or traditional revival movements. Preservation of ethnic identity to mark a distinction from other, non-practising groups might also be important, particularly in periods of intensive social change. For example, female genital mutilation is practised by immigrant communities living in countries that have no tradition of the practice. Female genital mutilation is also occasionally performed on women and their children from non-practising groups when they marry into groups in which female genital mutilation is widely practised.
Decisions to perform female genital mutilation on girls involve a wide group of people who may have
different opinions and varying degrees of influence. This is even true for the practice of reinfibulation in adult women. In periods of change, female genital mutilation can give rise to discussions and disagreement, and there are cases in which some family members, against the will of others, have organized the procedure. Furthermore, both individuals and communities can change ideas and opinions several times. Decision-making is complex and, to ensure that families who wish to abandon the practice can make and sustain their decision so that the rights of girls are upheld, a wide group of people have to come to agreement about ending the practice.