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From the ritual to mutilation

Removing the clitoral prepuce, total or partial amputation of the clitoris, or narrowing or sealing of the vaginal opening or other invasive procedures of the external female genitalia for non-medical purposes. These are the four modes that since 1995 the World Health Organization (WHO) lists under the concept of female genital mutilation (FGM). Between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide has lived this experience. Tradition for some, aberration for others.

Ànnia Monreal | 17 March 2010


Adriana Kaplan | Photo: Jordi Pareto
From the Pharaohs to the Internet. Vaginal surgery is a pre-Islamic practice, ancient in many African countries and parts of Asia, but also recurrent among some pornographic actresses of the twentieth century. "Surely its origins is found in ancient Egypt, for reasons related to beauty", says Adriana Kaplan, an anthropologist and principal researcher of the
Interdisciplinary Group for the Study and Prevention of harmful Traditional Practices (GIPE/PTP) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). The Egyptians of the Pharaonic era also shaved their body hair and painted their eyes with lapis lazuli.

For aesthetics or tradition, in the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere yesterday, today and tomorrow, the body has paid and pays the materialization of the ways of understanding the world. Circumcision, tattooing, scarification, piercings or breast enlargements are the result of arguments that are beyond any strict and rational logic. "Any practice of body modification can be polysemic", concludes Josep Martí, researcher at the Department of Anthropology of the Milà i Fontanals Institution of the CSIC.

But a jihad has been proclaimed on FGM. "It must be deleted because it undermines the integrity, rights and health of women", says Kaplan. "It is an execrable ancient practice", says Rosa Negre, head of the Regional Unit of Proximity and Citizen Service of the Police Region of Gerona. "It has to be eradicated because it has very specific negative consequences from the physiological point of view. But it must be the same tradition-bearers who come to the conclusion that it must be eliminated, not through external imposition", states Marti.

Before the WHO officially hoisted the flag of the risks of FGM, "since 1984 the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC) has implemented education programs, information, training, promotion and regional support in 28 African countries where it has subsidiaries. It promotes a holistic, inclusive and community-based treatment of FGM, backed by legislation but with a human face", says Berhane Ras-Work, IAC executive director of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, in the Female Genital Mutilation, manual for professionals.

He continues: "There has been public resignation to the practice by communities and people, with deposition  of tools by hundreds of practitioners of FGM in countries like Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ethiopia (in the district of Gewane in 2007), Gambia (May 2007), Guinea Conakry, Nigeria, Mali, Sierra Leone, Egypt (Khalil and Ashanti) and Ghana (community Tian Banda district). [...] In other places, like Kenya and Tanzania alternative rituals that exclude mutilation ceremonies have been planned and implemented.

"There is, at present, an encouraging trend to abandon female genital mutilation among the younger generations"There is, at present, an encouraging trend to abandon FGM among the younger generations, so further efforts should be made to involve even more the young in the prevention campaignsRas-Work envisions a positive horizon: "There is, at present, an encouraging trend to abandon FGM among the younger generations, so further efforts should be made to involve even more the young in the prevention campaigns”. Hers is neither the first nor the only black voice that speaks out against FGM. Among the many faces that advocate the end of this tradition stands the Somali model Waris Dirie, whose presence and popularity in the Western world reinforces the fight against this experience that she suffered at the age of five.

Under a common theme, the strategies to silence this habit ramify. Aversion and respect, North and South, black and white, man and woman, police and offender shake hands because what matters is the one for all and all for one. "It's a rite of passage to adulthood. It gives meaning to the vital role, belonging to a genus within the community", says the head of GIPE / PTP. "No society can live without rituals. They are important to the sense of community and socialization processes”, says Josep Martí.

Pain and tradition


Photo: Sebastian Risler
"In the rituals associated with female genital both male and female, the pain one feels may play an important role. Pain is considered a necessity, not only as an inevitable consequence for the transformation of the initiate. It assumes a social significance and to bear it is something that concerns the family honour itself. In tradition, the ritual is seen as essential.
However, at present, because of the typical changes of urbanization and modernization of African societies, there are clear de-ritualizing processes. Gradually this type of operation performed both on men and women are performed in clinics or other health care institutions increasingly limited to the surgery itself and losing the associated ancient ritual component", explains the researcher of the CSIC in the article Body modifications in the African tradition.

The ritual is not questioned. It is a family tradition, group identity. And ultimately, God's will. In the 28 countries where FGM is performed even with unequal prevalence, the arguments are related to the purity, beauty, hygiene, magic or health. There is a Koran imperative, as is the case with male circumcision, which is why many Muslim countries do not practice FGM whilst it does appear amongst Coptic Christians and the Falasha.

Avoiding Euro centralisation, the approach to the abolition of this practice is because its supporters will realize its anachronism. In the case of Adriana Kaplan "after 20 years of research we have evaluated the pros and cons of various initiatives against FGM to propose an alternative without mutilation ritual”. “We train all health professionals and students in Gambia", she says, "our project is the most innovative because so far it has not been implemented by health professionals. In this way we can raise awareness amongst the population and obtain an epidemiological control”.

From Gerona, the deputy inspector of the Autonomous Police Rosa Negre captains the fight against FGM since the year 2000. Because the migratory movements have indirectly installed it in Europe. "We saw that most sub-Saharan Africans living in the Gerona area practiced the mutilation of girls and we had to take action on the matter," she says.
"Every time we knew a family whose mother was mutilated and was travelling to her home country, we would get in touch with her. We incorporate this fight as their theme, not as a legal requirement", she points out.

"If work is done from the comfort and pedagogy, we have not encountered any opposition. They themselves have reflected on the issue, the situation has not been radicalized", says Negre. From July 2003 the Spanish law upheld the activity of the Deputy Inspector with imprisonment. Two years later the law was strengthened and FGM was considered a crime if the victim and offenders resided in Spain although the practice was made outside the state borders. "It is possible to eradicate it, although there is a lack in resources", she laments. Her latest strategy has been to create local tables which can closely monitor families who are considering FGM.

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