05, April 2003
FEMALE CIRCUMCISION: WOMEN IN AFFLICTION
M. M. Afrah
cut the politicking, the "Shock and Awe", the military
Goliath against the military David of the desert, Smart Bombs,
the so-called Chemical Ali, the monotonous Somali Peace Talks,
and try to examine some social problem that has been taboo
in many African countries, including Somalia, and continued
to dog health workers for decades.
what has helped to light the flame of indignation under the
Western world is the fact that Africans who migrated to Europe
and North America continued their social practices in what
they believed is the privacy of their new homes performed
by old ladies who believe what they were doing was right according
to the teaching of Islam. But many Islamic groups say the
association of female genital mutilation with Islam is incorrect.
when it hit me, because according to these respected Islamic
scholars there is no such thing as female genital mutilation
in the Holy Qura'aan. Medically and morally there is no good
in female circumcision. It's an invasive procedure usually
carried out on girls before they reach the age of puberty
midwives wielding rusty knives, needles from thorn trees and
dirty rugs, and of course, without anesthesia perform the
correct is that the practice is primarily a social practice
in many African and some Asian countries such as Indonesia.
Many of us male populations have been kept in the dark about
the agony the girls undergo during this rite of passage. We
were told it was unhealthy and unmanly to discuss the subject
in public. It is a woman's department, we were told. But as
I got older I began to question the need to mutilate our womenfolk.
women groan whenever you mention words like female genital
mutilation, circumcision or infibulation (Gudniika gabdhaha).
So I wondered why these words are very sensitive or taboo
for many people in the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia,
Eritrea and Djibouti), Egypt, Sudan, parts of Kenya and West
are three forms of female circumcision:
1) Sunna removes the tip of the clitoris and/or it's covering
2) Clitoridectomy cuts away the entire clitoris, prepuce and
3) Infibulation requires a clitoridectomy followed by the
sewing up of the vulva. A small opening is left to allow urine
and menstrual blood to pass. This is called Pharaonic. With
these procedures, some cultures allow the women to be cut
open by husband on their wedding night. In some cases the
husband may allow old ladies to open it up for him before
jumping into the bed.
ago I gasped when I read this mind-numbing account by a Somali
woman in her book "SISTERS IN AFFLICTION" published
in the 1980s when tempers of the ritual was high in Somalia.
survey jointly conducted by the defunct Somali Ministry of
Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that
nearly half of the victims died of blood infection or hemorrhage,
while 30 per cent died at childbirth.
also noted that fewer married couples were living up to their
vows, because the bridegroom discovered that his pride was
not "properly" circumcised according to the Pharaonic
tradition. (The deadly virus that leads to Aides was then
during litigation that most of the operations were performed
by qualified doctors in hospitals in what was described as
Sunna, which is less painful than the Pharaonic way.
Mohamed Siyad Barre tried to discourage people from what he
described as un-Islamic in his Xeerka Qoyska decree, and as
was expected, there was a surge of opinions and at times heated
debates that eventually let to fist fights in mosques throughout
the country about the ritual.
argued that the practice is cruel, un-Islamic and damaging
to the woman's sexual and reproductive health, while the traditionalists
claimed the practice protected women from what they consider
as "excessive sexual desire and also guarantees virginity."
went through three painful moments in my life (a) during the
actual operation (d) during intercourse, and (c) during childbirth,"
said an old woman currently living in Toronto's Regent Park.
men in their desire to have a "completely sewed package,"
or money back as if the girl was merchandize. She said the
overwhelming majority of the Somali males view uncircumcised
girl as "unclean", but that was in Africa, where
some vocal religious fanatics have strong grip on the society,
why anyone wants to continue this barbaric acts in North America?"
an answer to that question I turned to a very knowledgeable
Somali lady community worker who serves ethnic groups from
the Horn of Africa.
"Old habits dies hard, especially with the elderly people
who frown whenever they hear girls should not be circumcised,"
she said. She said she warns newcomers that it is against
the Canadian and U.S. laws to mutilate genitals, which many
of these elderly people enduringly believed were religious
parents refused or even questioned the need for the operation
they are stigmatized and are banned or isolated from the rest
of the community as "outcasts" and non-Muslims,
the Community Worker said.
in point is a father in Windsor who refused to have his two
daughters circumcised. "Islam does not sanction female
genital mutilation. It is Pharaonic and therefore unlawful,"
he said with conviction.
is Ismahaan, a university student who put me in the defensive.
Her parents brought her to North America when she was eight
years old, already circumcised in Somalia. She said it hurts
her feeling when I do put it in public things that are taboo
in Somalia. I told her it is open season. Ask any European
or American and they will tell you more than we know about
female genital mutilation in a jiffy.
"It seems to me they have no way to protect their girls
from rape. It's to help ensure they're not having sex before
marriage. If you don't do that to your daughter could be at
risk and then you will be hurting her," she concluded
her little lecture and continued to listen to Madonna singing
"Don't Cry for me, Argentina," from the movie "Evita"
in her Walkman.
Next day Ismahaan phoned me and said: "I think if you
need to educate the women, you need to educate the men, because
it (circumcision) benefits men. It's up to the men to understand
it's not a choice a child can make."
After a brief pause, "Why isn't plastic surgery in the
West considered mutilation? Or male circumcision? Why isn't
that criminal? She asked.
Though she had a point, her questions are tinged with a little
hostility but as one who is accustomed to journalist bashing
I was not pissed off.
Afrah © 2003
Mr. Afrah is an outspoken Author/Journalist and
a member of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)
and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
He contributes hard-hitting articles to Canadian and international
newspapers and magazines on the Somalia situation "through
the eyes of a man who covered the country for more than two
Many of us remember his critical articles in his
weekly English language HEEGAN newspaper, despite a mandatory
self-censorship introduced by Guddiga Baarista Hisbiga Xisbiga
Hantiwadaagga Somaaliyeed in 1984 and the dreaded NSS. I am
very proud to know that Mr. Afrah openly defied the draconian
censorship laws and went ahead to write what he thought was
wrong in the country. He received several death threats from
the warlords and was briefly held hostage by gunmen in 1993.
But he remained defiant and continued to send his stories
of carnage and destruction to Reuters news agency. He still