A girl sits looking tentative

Anthropology: Female Genital Mutilation and Its Gender Roles

This article will be discussing sensitive subjects regarding ritual genital mutilation of females. Some readers may find details disturbing. 

A six-year-old girl prepares mentally for the excruciating pain she will endure. She hears screams coming from the tent. It is the screams of other young girls just like her. Her sister, only eight at the time, went into the tent. Scared to death, the girl runs away. But a group of boys quickly catch and carry her back. One of them is her older brother. Those in the tent tie her body down with rope and give her no anesthetic for the razor blade. The procedure she undergoes has many names. The cut. Female circumcision. And widely, female genital mutilation. Unfortunately, her story is one of millions as female genital mutilation remains prevalent due to deep-seeded cultural beliefs.


According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation or FGM is all procedures that involve the cutting of external female genitalia. The external genitals are either partially or fully removed. It also encompasses any acts of injury to female genitals that are nonmedical in nature. The WHO labeled it ‘mutilation’ to exhibit the cruelty of the old tradition. Humanitarian organizations link it to the violation of girls’ and women’s basic human rights. With more information coming to light about the act, world organizations and governments have labeled FGM as harmful and abusive. As a result, they have made various attempts at eliminating FGM once and for all.

Where does FGM happen?

Map of the world featuring the percetage of females aged 15-49 with FGM
Image source: UNICEF

There are international efforts to end this type of operation. Yet, people still perform female genital mutilation throughout the world today. FGM is a global occurrence. African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries have the highest rates of cases. However, there are cases in most areas of the world. Europe and the Americas have had FGM history. This is mostly due to migration. A strong factor impacting who receives FGM is ethnicity. The girls and women affected by FGM are commonly from the same ethnic groups, no matter the country they currently reside in. Therefore, as family members move to new areas, they bring with them traditions. This includes FGM. There are also records indicating that indigenous tribes in regions like Latin America practiced FGM in the past.

When Does FGM Happen?

Baby is crying as a woman is about to perform FGM
Image source: The Scottish Sun

The ritual itself can take place within a wide age range. Babies as young as a few days old can be subjected to the cut. Or it can happen to young women preparing to be married. Some communities even wait until a woman has her first pregnancy. Usually, the procedure is carried out before the girl reaches puberty. Currently, the average age has decreased most likely as a direct result of anti-FGM legislation. Parents find it easier to discreetly perform the circumcision when the child is younger and still not attending school.

How Does FGM Happen?

An elder of the community or a female relative is responsible for performing the FGM on the young girl. There has been a rise in medical professionals performing FGMs. In Egypt, professionals cut more than one-third of young girls. Supporters of FGM have argued that this offers a safe way to continue the tradition. However, several health and women’s rights organizations have denounced the medicalization of FGM. They believe that FGM must be eradicated due to long-term medical effects and trauma. This is regardless of who performs it.

Once the procedure begins, the adults restrain the young girl as many are physically resistant to FGM. They give her no anesthetic for the pain. The elder would use a razor blade or anything with a sharp edge such as a knife, scissors, or even a piece of glass. Afterwards, they bind the girl’s legs with rope to prevent movement as the wound scars over.


Early Evidence of FGM

Similar to its male counterpart, female circumcision has been present in various cultures for hundreds of years. The exact origin of the practice remains unclear. Yet, there is evidence that shows FGM’s lengthy history. Anthropologists have discovered Egyptian mummies with signs of infibulation. This is a form of female genital mutilation. Archeologists dated the mummies to be from the fifth century BC. This means that the tradition of FGM precedes major modern religions such as Christianity and Islam. The findings corroborate records left by the famous Greek historian Herodotus when he visited Egypt. He wrote that both female and male circumcision were popular among Egyptians as well as neighboring communities.

A few centuries later would see FGM enter the Greek world. As a second-century CE physician, Soranus would write one of the first descriptions of the FGM process in his medical work called Gynaecology. He was concerned about the excessively large clitoris of a woman. At the time, such a characteristic was a deformity for a woman, as a large clitoris resembled a man’s own genitals. Moreover, people associated a larger clitoris with venery. This means sexual desire. Because of this, Soranus recommended the cutting of the clitoris’ tip in his writings. His works were so popular that several centuries later Arabic physicians would describe the same suggested procedure.

The Slave Trade

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the slave trade within African countries contributed to the rise of FGM. It became a custom in Somalia to cut young female slaves. Slavers gave the same treatment to Egyptian slaves. For slave holders, circumcising female slaves would result in an increase in their selling value. They thought of FGM as a sign of chastity for a girl. Many further believed that circumcision and infibulation would prevent pregnancy among slaves.

FGM in The United States

Although FGM is usually associated with African and Middle Eastern countries, it was not too long ago that the procedure regularly occurred in the United States. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an increased interest in treating ‘abnormal’ sexual behavior in women. Some atypical conduct included hysteria, melancholia, and lesbianism. However, masturbation was the leading behavior requiring correction. Physicians often linked female masturbation to nymphomania, or an unhealthy obsession with sex. Due to moral concerns, doctors would perform circumcisions on girls and women exhibiting the symptoms.

Woman who is suffering from hysteria
Image source: D.M. Bourneville and P. Régnard

Besides masturbation, lack of orgasm was another reason for female circumcision. Women who did not orgasm from ‘normal sexual behavior’ with their husbands were unusual. And so, doctors used circumcision to increase a woman’s ability to climax. Both reasons for the procedure tried to direct female sexuality back to conventional sex with a husband. Even up until 1977, insurance companies like Blue Cross covered female circumcision.

Types of FGM

Within the practice of female genital mutilation, there are different types of procedures with varying severities. Although there are regional differences, Type I and Type II are the most common forms.

Graphic demonstrating different types of FGM
Image Source: Deutsche Welle

Type I – Clitoridectomy

A clitoridectomy involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris, or the small and erectile part of the female genitals. The prepuce, the clitoral hood, may also be removed.

Type II – Excision

In Type II FGMs, the clitoral glans and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva) are partially or completely cut. This could include the removal of the labia majora, the outer skin fold of the vulva.

Type III – Infibulation

As the most drastic transformation type of FGM, infibulation is the narrowing of the vaginal opening via creation of a seal. By cutting and repositioning the labia minor/majora, those performing the Type III FGM make a covering seal with stitches. Infibulation may or may not include Type I FGM where the clitoris and clitoral hood are severed.

Type IV – Other

Type IV FGM includes all other injurious acts to the female genitals for non-medical reasons. Some examples are pricking, incising, scraping, and burning the genital area.

Medical Effects

carring fgm cutter
Image source: Zikoko

Over 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM. Most do not realize the incredibly negative consequences it may cause. Instead, they are left living with the physical and psychological effects of the procedure. This is no more evident than in the economic costs of treating FGM complications. The World Health Organization calculates that it must cost countries a total of 1.4 billion USD annually. They expect this estimate to rise alongside rates of FGM.

Immediate Complications

  • Severe pain
  • Immense bleeding/ hemorrhaging
  • Risk of HIV due to the use of one cutting device for multiple girls
  • Swelling
  • Fever
  • Infections
  • Urinary issues
  • Difficulties with wound healing
  • Shock
  • Death

Long-Term Complications

  • Urinary problems (pain during urination and urinary tract infections)
  • Menstrual problems (difficulty passing menstrual blood)
  • Vaginal problems (discharge, itching, infections)
  • Psychological problems (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder)


Along with a long list of possible complications, FGM deeply affects major aspects of life for women. Sex can be extremely painful. In cases of infibulation, the husband or a circumciser will have to cut open the scar tissue because there is a physical barrier preventing sexual intercourse. This act is deinfibulation.


For the same reason, doctors use deinfibulation to allow childbirth. Women who undergo FGM are at high risk during childbirth. If deinfibulation is not performed, a woman’s scar tissue might tear. They may experience prolonged and obstructed labor. Along with negative health outcomes, one to two infants per 100 deliveries die immediately before or after birth due to FGM. Additionally, countries with high rates of FGM have some of the highest rates of maternal death worldwide. Being that these countries support the medicalization of FGM, a mother may undergo reinfibulation after giving birth. Reinfibulation is a procedure that will close up openings caused by deinfibulation. Essentially, women must get another Type III FGM operation immediately after childbirth. Without doubt, this is physically traumatic for the human body to endure. Usual reasons cited are that by sewing the vagina ‘tight’ again, it will give sexual pleasure to a woman’s husband.

Reasons Why FGM is Performed

Woman covering her face partly with her hand
Image source: United Nations Volunteer

After learning of the adverse consequences FGM has on the female body, it may be hard to understand why it is practiced. For those having lived in the cultures that practice FGM, they do not intend it as a violent or painful act. Rather, it is a necessity for their society. The cultures that support female circumcision cite various reasons. All of the arguments given are rooted in long-established gender roles for women.

Hygiene and Aesthetic

Common gender roles pose women as needing to be clean and feminine beings. Within some communities, members regard external female genitalia as filthy and masculine. The procedure actually makes the vagina a more hygienic area. In reality, the opposite takes place as there is a greater risk of infection. Myths about female genitals also perpetuate the desire for FGM. One myth states that an uncut clitoris will eventually grow to the size of a penis. The fear of being unfeminine becomes so extreme. It results in girls mutilating themselves to keep female aesthetics and misunderstood cleanliness.

Female Sexuality

Conservative views on the female body present the need to maintain its purity. Anything relating to sexual acts is considered obscene, especially for women. Hence, FGM suppresses female sexuality by physically severing the clitoris. Those from FGM communities believe that uncircumcised women are insatiable for sex. They likewise support FGM’s ability to preserve a woman’s virginity and increase sexual pleasure for a husband. Sex becomes an unpleasurable, painful act only meant for reproduction rather than female enjoyment.

Womanhood and Marriage

In regions where FGM is normalized, the practice is a coming-of-age ritual. It operates as the marker for a girl becoming a woman. As such, it indicates that a girl is ready for marriage. FGM’s connection to virginity adds to its importance regarding marriage customs. Men will not marry girls who have not had FGMs. Since there is largely a total economic dependency on men, women have to get FGMs as a prerequisite to marriage. It is so socially acceptable that uncut women face condemnation. The social benefits of FGM outweigh the potential health risks for those living in these communities.

Efforts Against FGM

For FGM to stop, change must come in various ways. Coverage of FGM has grown mass global attention. February 6th marks International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. The date is sponsored by the United Nations to raise awareness of FGM. Along with this, the United Nations Population Fund is leading a programme to eliminate female genital cutting. It is currently the largest global initiative to do so. The project is cooperatively lead with the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Since the joint programme’s creation in 2008, it has seen a lot of success in 17 countries. 13 countries have banned FGM outright. All 17 are coordinating efforts against the practice. Overall, FGM is declining in the area.

Group of people rallying with signs on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation
Image source: Marcos del Mazo

Local intervention is above all important in changing cultural perspectives. As explained, FGM is a vital part of a woman’s life. It acts as a rite of passage. It is particularly hard to disregard one’s major cultural belief. For these reasons, actions against FGM must be done with a sensitive attitude. For instance, initiatives work to keep ritual customs while omitting genital cutting. These are known as alternative rites of passage (ARP). Implementing ARPs is still relatively new. What has been learned is the importance of understanding the implicit meanings of rituals. Without that awareness of cultural significance, ARPs fail and cutting continues. However, with more research, ARPs could replace FGM as they become more integrated.

Significance in Anthropology

Female genital cutting is a hot issue in the anthropology community. Anthropologists must apply cultural relativism in all studies. Cultural relativism is the ability to understand one’s culture on its own terms. Regarding FGM or FGC, anthropologists believe the practise and its participants have been villified through academia and the media. They believe that Westerners are creating an inferior ‘other’ when discussing FGM. There is a lack of cultural understanding in realizing how important this ritual is. Yet they are puzzled about how to treat the ceremony within cross-cultural dialogue.

What we do gain from FGM is an immense amount of nuance about the societies that practise it. The persistance of FGM over thousands of years indicates its importance. With FGM, we learn about attitudes towards the female body. It provides insights into beauty standards, coming-of-age, sexuality, relationships, and motherhood. As a ceremonial ritual, FGM produces distinct meanings that are crucial to numerous cultures.

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