Central religious beliefs and cultural principles

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Critically examine both the central religious beliefs and the cultural principles that underpin the practice of female circumcision

This essay will focus on examining religious beliefs and the cultural practices which take place in female circumcision. The reasons behind the religious belief and cultural principles will be outlined to obtain a better understanding of why the procedure of female circumcision takes place. The focus point of the discussion will be examined thoroughly both from the religious and cultural view. To begin this essay a clear definition will be presented of female circumcision, this will lead to the cultural views on why it takes place; this will then be followed by the religious views on this topic. In order to critically evaluate the whole topic the discussion of human rights is necessary to highlight the thoughts of individuals for and against the procedure of female circumcision. The main focus area that will be looked at is northeast Africa and how they practice this act.

Many people in the northeast of Africa carry out the act of female circumcision. A clear definition of female circumcision is the removal of the female genitals; this basically means the cutting of the clitoris. This is an area in which women receive pleasure during sexual intercourse; the delicate area is removed so that the woman receives no pleasure. It is seen for only the man to receive the pleasure (Rahman & Toubia, 2000).

Mansata, a former female circumciser in Gambia, 2000 has stated that; "Changing traditions and behaviors that have such long histories is not easy. When one does not understand a problem it is not easy to appreciate it. If you do not understand your health, you cannot appreciate the problems of female genital cutting, and if you do not continue to educate people they will not understand. All we are seeking is knowledge. Knowledge will change people's attitudes (Abusharaf, 2006:1)."

Female circumcision also referred to as female genital mutilation is a familiar cultural tradition in many parts of the world, especially Africa and Asia that was established hundreds of years ago. There are different types of female circumcisions, spanning from clitoridectomy, to cutting and infibulations. Infibulation consists of the removal of the entire clitoris, the whole of the labia minora and much of
the labia majora. The sides of the vulva are sewn or held together by long
thorns. A small opening the size of the tip of a matchstick is left for
the passage of menstrual blood and urine. (Hicks, E.1996). The procedure itself can be performed in a medical environment with anaesthetic and sterile instruments. This is if the family can afford it. It is by large carried out in an unhygienic setting and the instruments used are generally sharp rocks, kitchen knives, and sharp pieces of glass or even teeth (Barstow, 1999).

This does then pose the question of why this procedure is still carried out, if we look into the cultural and religious reasons we can see varying information with regards to justification of the necessity for women to be circumcised.

Although female circumcision is a harmful and sometimes fatal practice, it is defended in societies that practice it on cultural, religious and/or traditional grounds.

By looking at the cultural reasons behind female circumcision one may grasp an understanding of why this act is carried out. There are a vast amount of different cultural reasons as to why this process takes place. In African communities genital cutting is seen as an initiation into adulthood and is normally preformed on women before they reach the age of puberty. In some cases young girls leave home for a while until the process is complete. They then return home to start a new life in adulthood. If a woman is not circumcised she would have been seen to have dishonoured the family and the family would have a low status in society. A circumcised woman is seen as worthy of marriage, she is accepted by society as a virgin and is regarded as a moral person who is likely to be faithful. The clitoris itself is viewed as harmful to the woman it can make her infertile. It is claimed to harm her or even kill her unborn child. Some communities even believe it could harm their husband (Ham, A & Bainbridge, and J).

With strong views like this it is clearly a difficult job to discourage the process of female circumcision; these views have clearly been embedded in society over hundreds of years. Maybe because the process is regarded as important symbolically, it should be approached with extreme caution. Even though many have argued that female circumcision is mans way of oppressing woman, it has been argued that this is misconstrued simply because the process is widely carried out by woman midwives therefore being the fault of women in these communities striving for social gratification (Shell-Duncan, Hernlund).

If we look at it in this context it is clear there is a lot of pressure on women to be circumcised. For instance if all the women in a certain village or community were circumcised and it was the only way to obtain marriage it may be understandable why the process is accepted because of the immense pressure placed on the women to conform to societies approval. Also because of these pressures and fear from being outcast. More women are likely to come forward for circumcision; they may feel being a social outcast is more damaging then the process of circumcision. In a study conducted in 2005 by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) the communities practicing female circumcision were interviewed to gain an insight into the culture behind the act. A female circumcision practitioner from Mandera says,

"If the girls are not circumcised, [they] will bring shame to [their] mother and also to [their] relatives. A lady whose daughter is not circumcised is pointed [at] by others." (USAID, 2005 pg 8)

The study goes on to discuss all the factors mentioned above, as well as the requirement to be circumcised before marriage and how it affects the women.

"They practice it to safeguard the virginity and avoid shame later when the lady is married. Families used to be abused as a result of this. It has happened in some instances that after a wonderful wedding once a man realises that a lady is not circumcised, that following morning the man left and divorced the lady. The stitching is done due to fear from men, just to satisfy the men who do not trust women." (Mandera District Women's leader, USAID, 2005 pg8)

This statement also clarifies the reasoning of the need to sew the sides of the vulva together and thus why it is referred to as female genital mutilation.

Each of the three major religions of the world: Christianity, Judaism and Islam, has its own unique practices that may or may not be accepted by the other religions. In regards to the practice of female circumcision, none of the three religions require it at all. Female circumcision is not a Christian practice; however it was once proposed, but shortly after rejected, that trimming the clitoral hood would prevent masturbation (Skaine. R 2005). According to Pastor Afrim Adly Khali "our bodies are a gift from God; man does not have the right to mistreat his body, because it does not belong to him" therefore any occurrence of female circumcision or mutilation is wrong (Womankind conference 2006). As with Christianity, Judaism completely forbids female circumcision practices because "the body of a person belongs not to the person but to God" and there is no mention of female circumcision in any Jewish religious text (Skaine. R, 2005 pg 118). Female circumcision practices are also not mentioned in the Qur'an, the Islamic holy book but they are mentioned in one of the hadiths. However, this particular hadith has been found to be "weak and inauthentic"

Um Atiyyat al-Ansariyyah said: A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (pbuh) said to her: Do not cut too severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband. (Sunan of Abu Dawud (Chapter 1888).

This hadith does not invoke female circumcision and also there is no reference of what type of circumcision is being carried out, (Roald, A.S 2001) "good Muslims need not follow every detail of every hadith". Also, female circumcision has origins in Saudi Arabia dating before the establishment of Islam. It can be argued that the sole effect required from female circumcision, to reduce sexual satisfaction for the woman during sexual intercourse, goes against what the Quran teaches. In fact the Quran teaches the opposite as it promotes husband and wife giving each other pleasure through sexual intercourse.

"It is lawful for you to go in unto your wives during the night preceding the (day's) fast: they are as a garment for you and you are as a garment for them." (Quran 2:187)

Mutilated genitalia eliminate or reduce the woman's pleasure during the act. The Quran also forbids any mutilation or modification of the body such as female genital mutilation, tattoos, piercings or anything else that alters the human body created by Allah.

The Qur'an (An-Nisa': 119) states that Satan will try to trick humans into body modification: "And I will surely lead them astray, and arouse desires in them, and command them and they will cut the cattle's ears, and I will surely command them and they will change Allah's creation."

Islam, Judaism and Christianity all teach equality and "advocate a woman's right to sexual fulfilment, whereas female circumcision is clearly a means of destroying this" (pg 21). Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia's articles on the "background and history" of female circumcision - state that female circumcision is not a religious practice, rather it is culturally based. The practice was common before the advent of the major world religions. People of different religious backgrounds in Africa practiced female circumcision (Toubia, N, Rahman. A, 2000)

Although these procedures are customary in the areas they are practiced, female circumcision has developed a human rights argument resurfacing in recent years because the procedures provide no purpose. Female circumcision is seen by many countries as an unethical practice that ought to be outlawed throughout the entire world. Female circumcision, specifically infibulation, is believed to have started in Arabia and then spread to Africa. Female circumcision has never been considered a hygienic practice because most of the procedures make hygiene more difficult. The single purpose of the practice is to make sexual contact non-pleasurable for the woman, no matter what the motive is. While female circumcision procedures serve their purpose, to take away sexual satisfaction, every adverse affect outweighs the goal. The World Health Organization published an official report in 2006 that discussed the effects of childbirth from a woman that had been circumcised. The World Health Organisation concluded that "female genital mutilation can adversely affect birth outcomes" and that "an additional one to two babies die per 100 deliveries as a result of the practice" in Africa (Australian National University). However, future problems aren't necessarily the biggest issue. Female circumcision procedures are described as unnecessary medical procedures that put women in a state of discomfort and they are very dangerous.

There are many consequences to female circumcision including, but not limited to, "scarring, infertility, painful sexual intercourse, rupture of the vaginal walls, chronic uterine and vaginal infections, bladder incontinence, dysmenorrhoeal and obstruction of the flow of menstrual blood" (Skaine, R, 2005 pg 23). In places where female circumcision is illegal, such as Segal, the procedures have not ceased to exist. Therefore, women and girls are often undergoing female circumcisions from unlicensed doctors and sometimes with unsterile equipment. Even if nothing goes wrong physically, there is a risk of psychological and social trauma. According to a World Health Organisation study in Sudan, female circumcision may leave lasting psychological effects. This study concluded that many women feel incomplete and they are more likely to have anxiety and depression (WHO 2000 pg 152). Ultimately, this shows there is no positive effect on the female anatomy or psyche from female circumcision.

Female circumcision as an expression of the discrimination that women face in an unequal society cannot be seen in isolation. It needs to be recognized as inextricably linked to women's lack of decision-making, political participation, poverty and illiteracy... Female Genital Mutilation can be seen as a central pillar of a society where women and men are unequal; a form of male tyranny over women's bodies and, indeed, a form of violence against women (pg 29-30).

Female Genital Mutilation is still an "expression of the discrimination that women face in society" even after the great lengths women have gone to over the centuries to in order to achieve equality (Skaine R, 2005 pg 46).

However, individual countries have begun to make Female Circumcision practices illegal. The more industrial nations of Asia and Africa have moved forward in outlawing female circumcision because they are image conscious and they want to be respected. In Kenya "a law was passed in 1998 prohibiting the practice of female circumcision on girls younger than 18, on the basis that 18 year olds can decide for themselves. In the United States, sixteen states have criminalized female circumcision practices, one state rejects female circumcision on girls under eighteen and four other states prohibit it regardless of age.

It is actively argued that female circumcision will continue to be a worldwide concern. Developed nations are encouraged to help the countries "lagging behind" to smooth the progress of eradicating female circumcision (Skaine, R, 2005 pg 79). The frequency of genital cutting in individual countries makes the practice seem irrelevant in many parts of the world; however the practice is a worldwide human rights concern. A person's body should not be deformed, unless for hygienic or medical reasons, without the individual's permission. This brings the process closer to plastic surgery where amendments are made to certain parts of the body with the request or consent of the individual concerned. This then raises the issue of why it is acceptable to circumcise a male infant and not a female; it is however clear that male circumcision is far less invasive. As explained earlier female circumcision requires the clitoris to be amputated to deny sexual pleasure. A male circumcision simply removes some foreskin around the crown of the penis. If a male circumcision was carried out in the same process as a female circumcision it would require the removal of the penis leaving just the testicles. If it is viewed the other way round as a woman circumcised in the same way a man is, some of the hood surrounding the clitoris would be removed, this isn't seen as beneficial either and considering it is usually performed by unskilled relatives with a kitchen knife or piece of glass. It can easily be classed as torture.

It is clear that female circumcision is a cultural and not a religious practice, as some might misconceive. Also we know why it is practised and whom it affects. It is hard to pass laws or to ensure female circumcision is stopped. If there are any supporters of this act they do not support it actively which seems to suggest it is not right and women do not benefit from it. It has serious consequences on the victims, both physically and emotionally, and it has direct and lasting complications. It is apparent. From the fact it is illegal in many countries, that it is recognised and condemned. Making the act illegal has not necessarily stopped people from carrying it out in their own homes and therefore causing more problems for the young girls involved. They are given no anaesthetic to numb the pain and the instruments used are not hygienic or sterilised. Educating the community is seen as the only hopeful way to stop the procedure but even then it may take a long time before all communities reject the cultural beliefs they have practised over hundreds of years.