From Discovery News
December 10, 2012
United Nations Member States recently approved the first-ever draft
resolution calling for a global ban on female genital mutilation/cutting
Hailed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a major step forward in protecting
women and girls and ending impunity for the harmful practice, the text is
expected to be endorsed by the UN general assembly this month.
How did the practice begin anyway?
Although theories on the origins of FGM abound, no one really knows when, how
or why it started.
"There's no way of knowing the origins of FGM, it appears in many different
cultures, from Australian aboriginal tribes to different African societies,"
medical historian David Gollaher, president and CEO of the California Healthcare
Institute (CHI), and the author of "Circumcision," told Discovery News.
While the term infibulation has its roots in ancient Rome, where female slaves
had fibulae (broochs) pierced through their labia to prevent them from getting
pregnant, a widespread assumption places the origins of female genital cutting
in pharaonic Egypt. This would be supported by the contemporary term "pharaonic
The definition, however, might be misleading. While there's evidence of male
circumcision in Old Kingdom Egypt, there is none for female.
"This was not common practice in ancient Egypt. There is no physical evidence
in mummies, neither there is anything in the art or literature. It probably
originated in sub-saharan Africa, and was adopted here later on," Salima Ikram,
professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, told Discovery
Historically, the first mention of male and female circumcision appears in
the writings by the Greek geographer Strabo, who visited Egypt around 25 B.C.
"One of the customs most zealously observed among the Egyptians is this, that
they rear every child that is born, and circumcise the males, and excise the
females," Strabo wrote in his 17-volume work Geographica.
A Greek papyrus dated 163 B.C. mentioned the operation being performed on
girls in Memphis, Egypt, at the age when they received their dowries, supporting
theories that FGM originated as a form of initiation of young women.
Other writers later explained that the procedure was carried for less
According to the 6th century A.D. Greek physician Aetios, the cutting was
necessary in the presence of an overly large clitoris.
Seen as "a deformity and a source of shame," the clitoris would produce
irritation for its "continual rubbing against the clothes" thus "stimulating the
appetite for sexual intercourse."
"On this account, it seemed proper to the Egyptians to remove it before it
became greatly enlarged, especially at that time when the girls were about to be
married," Aetios wrote in The Gynecology and Obstetrics of the Sixth Century
According to U.S. historian Mary Knight, author of the paper "Curing Cut or
Ritual Mutilation?: Some Remarks on the Practice of Female and Male Circumcision
in Graeco-Roman Egypt," medical motivations probably mixed with ritual, social
and moral reasons to favor "the continuation of a practice that initially may
have been narrowly performed and whose original motivation most likely had long
Many centuries later, 19th century gynaecologists in England and the United
States would perform clitoridectomies to treat various psychological symptom as
well as "masturbation and nymphomania."
"The surgeries we see in Victorian England and America were generally based
on a now discarded theory called 'reflex neurosis,' held that many disorders
like depression and neurasthenia originated in genital inflammation," Gollaher
"The same theory was behind the medicalization of male circumcision in the
late 19th century," he added.
It is only relatively recently that FGM has been recognized internationally
as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
Sweden was the first Western country to outlaw FGM, followed in 1985 by the
UK. In the United States it became illegal in 1997, and in the same year the WHO
issued a joint statement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and
the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) against the practice. FGM is a crime
in many countries now.
Last week the head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation also called for
abolishing female genital mutilation.
"This practice is a ritual that has survived over centuries and must be
stopped as Islam does not support it,"Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu
said at the intergovernmental organisation's 4th conference on the role of women
in development, in Jakarta, Indonesia.
An estimated 140 million girls and women now alive have undergone the
mutilating procedure in 28 African countries, as well as in Yemen, Iraq,
Malaysia, Indonesia and among certain ethnic groups in South America and some
immigrant communities in the West.
About three million girls in Africa are said to be forced to undergo the
procedure each year. The cutting is often done without anaesthetic, in
conditions that risk potentially fatal infection -- often using scissors, razor
blades, broken glass and tin can lids.
Although not legally binding, the UN resolution carries considerable moral
and political weight.