Female Circumcision – Taking Away A Piece of Me
By Farahnaz Zahidi
Originally published in “Newsline”.
“I was seven years old. One day, I was told that I would be taken shopping to buy crayons, just as a special treat. I did get the crayons and was very happy. But with the crayons tightly clutched in one hand and my other hand clasping my aunt’s finger who led the way, I was taken to a dingy old place. A strange old woman violated me though I did not even know that I was being subjected to the traditional custom of genital mutilation. I was just seven! Nobody, not even my mother who was not with me at the time, told me or prepared me for this. I clearly remember being scared and afraid, but I let her do whatever she wanted to do with me quietly….The feelings were of shock, embarrassment and sickness. I don’t remember it being a very painful procedure though. Even when I came back, I did not question my mother….I never even spoke to her about it and neither did she. When I grew up, I realized that it was not just me. All of my peer female cousins had gone through the same. It was called circumcision but I don’t know what it was! I don’t know what I lost that day. I don’t know what I have missed out in life. I will never find out. But I do know one thing for sure. I will never put my daughter through it. Never!”
The above is a real life account. Of a real person – a woman. A woman who shared this memory only on condition of anonymity. Not an African woman or an Egyptian woman as the term Female Genital Mutilation might suggest to you, but a Pakistani woman. Yes, Female Circumcision is done in Pakistan too. Sometimes invasively, and sometimes merely symbolically in a gentler manner. Sometimes hygienically by a certified medical doctor and often by an unskilled traditional practitioner in obscure places. And almost always in a secretive and clandestine manner. It is an unspeakable. Something not discussed even between mother and daughter, but done nevertheless. In Pakistan, it is not a common practice, but is done in isolated communities, who guard the tradition with life.
Female Circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is also known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC). The term refers to a variety of operations involving partial or total removal of female external genitalia.
In 2007, the World Health Organization classified FGM into four broad categories:
1. Clitoridectomy: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the clitoral hood.
2. Excision: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.
3. Infibulation: Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and placing together the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris.
4. Unclassified: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes, for example, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.
(Source: World Health Organization, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation, An Interagency Statement, Geneva: WHO, 2008: 23)
The causes of FGM are a mix of cultural, religious and social factors. Perpetuation of this practice is often due to social pressures. In many cultures, it is considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking it to virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is believed to reduce a woman’s libido, and thereby is further believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts.
When asked about his opinion on the matter, Dr Shershah Syed, an obstetrician-gynaecologist who devotes his practice to helping underserved women in Pakistan, confirms that he has come across cases in urban Pakistan where women have undergone the procedure. “In Pakistan it is not done very invasively, and now with growing awareness, they are doing it merely symbolically with only a bit of skin being removed. But even then, I find it to be in clear violation of human rights! This is a cultural custom in specific communities who consider it a part of religion. There is absolutely no scientific evidence supporting any medical benefit of the procedure. It can lead to health complications,” says Syed. Side effects can include severe pain, hemorrhage, tetanus, infection, infertility, cysts and abscesses, urinary incontinence, and sexual as well as psychological problems.
* Dr. Zahra Ali belongs to the community in which Female Circumcision has been done since generations, and still continues. When asked, she confirms that this is something that has been the done thing in her community, and is considered a religious obligation. “Earlier,” says Ali, “it was mostly done by untrained daais (traditional birth attendants) who did it in a crude manner. Also, in the previous generations, even a few decades ago, the entire clitoris of the woman would be removed. But over time, I have seen a reform. Now doctors like myself are taught the entire procedure and it is performed very hygienically. Now we only remove the skin, just for symbolic purposes, which does not harm the woman in any way, and also does not affect her libido. It is done under local anesthesia, is pain free and very cheap.” But Ali admitted that the not-so-aware members of her community still get it done by the daais. “I agree that the insidious way in which it was done earlier was painful and denied women a basic right. But now things are much better.” Ali claimed that female circumcision has medical benefits, but research yielded no recorded benefits. “It has no health benefits what so ever,” says Dr Shershah categorically.
When Dr Zahra Ali was asked why the procedure is usually done at the age of seven, she said that apart from other reasons, one reason is that “at that age the girl can be small enough to be held down forcefully if she tries to resist.” Asma Pal, Counselor, feels that “more than the act itself, the method adopted could cause serious psychological damage. A seven year old would retain the memory of being accosted literally and violated, which would result in long standing physical intimacy issues.”
Dr. Uzma Ambareen, a renowned Psychiatrist, feels that “the child should be forewarned simply and gently, if at all the family decides that this has to be done, even if just symbolically, otherwise it can have traumatic effects later. Upon reaching adulthood, this issue should be discussed to determine any psychological damage to that woman.”
But not everyone has had a traumatic experience. * Shaheen Abdullah says, “I have two daughters and five nieces, all circumcised by doctors. I do not consider it a human rights violation because, according to our teachings, it has been divinely ordained. My faith dispels any doubts that some might put in my mind.” Recalling her own experience, Abdullah says, “The procedure took all of one second, and the kind, sweet, gentle lady who had done it comforted me later. It was not painful at all. Neither has it negatively affected my physical urges.”
Journalist-activist and founding member of Shirkat Gah, Najma Sadeque, finds it a “violation of human rights. Awareness needs to be increased about this issue, and the media needs to play its role in this. The lack of awareness about the fact that this is practiced in Pakistan is surprising in itself.”
While some see it as part of their faith, others see it as a denial of human rights, even if done merely symbolically. As * Hajra Husain, another woman who had it done as a child and never talked about it since, says, “If you believe in it and it doesn’t harm you, I don’t see it as a human rights violation. But we need to question more. Whenever I have questioned, I have gotten satisfactory answers from the religious and social elders of my community. We simply don’t question enough.” Perhaps, it is time.
(* = Names changed to protect privacy)