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Female Circumcision/Female Genital Cutting (FGC)


Reasons for the Practice
Health Complications
Effects on Sexuality
Medical indications for FGC?
Reversing Circumcision
Laws Against It
Islamic Views
Islamic Texts
Scholars' Views
Concluding Remarks

Links to Islamic Rulings (Fatawa) on Female Circumcision

Circumcision for Women is Not Obligatory

Circumcision: How It Is Done and the Rulings on It


Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is the partial or complete removal of a girl's or woman's external genitalia. In practice it ranges from removal of the prepuce (hood) of the clitoris only to excision of a small or larger part of the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora.

The term Female Circumcision (FC) is most often used by those who support or practice these rituals. The term Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is used by those who are strongly opposed to it. Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is a more neutral term referring to the same practices. Other terms used to describe the types of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) may have more than one meaning, as will be seen in the following definitions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has categorized FGC into four types:

   Type I — Type I can further be broken down into two types. 1st degree circumcision: excision of the prepuce (a fold of skin covering the clitoris). It may be called Clitoridectomy, Hoodectomy, or Clitorodotomy. 2nd degree circumcision: excision of the prepuce with excision of part of the clitoris, also called Clitoridectomy or Excision. (In practice, there is a third type which involves excision of part of the clitoris without any cutting of the prepuce.)

   Type II — excision of the clitoris and prepuce along with partial or total excision of the labia minora (the inner folds of skin of the external female genitalia), also called Excision. According to WHO, this type accounts for 80% of FGM cases in Africa.

   Type III — excision of part or all of the external genitalia with the part remaining sewn up to leave only a very small opening for urination and menstruation. This is called Infibulation or Pharaonic Circumcision. WHO estimates that 15% of women subjected to FGC have undergone this severe form.

   Type IV — other practices that usually do not involve any tissue removal but rather include piercing, cauterizing, scraping, or using corrosive substances designed to scar and narrow the vagina.

The Islamic term "Sunnah Circumcision" and the Arabic term "Khafd" may be used refer to either Types I or II.

Reasons for the Practice

In general it can be said that practitioners do not perform genital cutting on their girls or boys to oppress them or harm them. For them the procedure is carried out with good intentions and in good faith. This is proved by the fact that FGC can be performed in public in the societies that permit it, where it is often viewed as "honorable" for women.

Many reasons exist for people of different cultures to perform FGC and they vary as much as the cultures themselves. In many aspects, the arguments for FGC are similar to the arguments for male circumcision in parts of the West. They range from health-related to social benefits and are summarized as follows:

  1. Maintenance of cleanliness — It is believed that the secretions produced by the glands in the labia minora and majora are foul smelling, unhygienic and so make the female body unclean.
  2. Good health — It is believed to enhance fertility and prevent stillbirths.
  3. Pursuance of aesthetics — External genitalia are considered ugly and become more beautiful after circumcision. These standards of beauty are very different from those in the West.
  4. Preservation of virginity — In its more severe forms, the girl is physically prevented from being approached sexually, as the girl is meant to be approached only by her future husband.
  5. Prevention of promiscuity — It is believed to reduce a woman's desire for sex and thus her capacity for sexual promiscuity.
  6. Improvement of male sexual performance and pleasure — Many infibulated women contend that the pleasure their partners receive due to this procedure is a definitive part of a successful marriage.
  7. Promotion of social and political cohesion — The acceptable image of a woman in society is that of one who is circumcised. The fear of losing the psychological, moral, and material benefits of "belonging" is one of the greatest motivators of conformity.
  8. Increase of matrimonial opportunities — An uncircumcised woman may be rejected by a prospective husband.
  9. Ritualistic factors — The practice may be performed as a rite of passage into adulthood.
  10. Mystical factors — The circumcision ceremonies in many cultures include superstitious performances.
  11. Differentiation of the sexes — Some societies circumcise with the belief that it is necessary to make a child (neutral term) a real male or female. Men are "hard" and women are "soft". The "soft" part of male genitalia, the foreskin, and the "hard" part of the female genitalia, the clitoris, must be removed in order to make them truly male (all hard) and female (all soft) to fit traditional gender roles.
  12. Education — Statistics have proven that a strong relationship exists between the type circumcision chosen and the parents' education. Daughters of highly educated parents are commonly either not circumcised at all, or if circumcised, circumcised in a milder form.


FGC is an ancient practice. It is unknown exactly where it originated. It has been practiced by people of many different religions including Jews, Christians, Muslims and Animists.

Evidence from ancient Egyptian mummies has shown both Type I and Type III FGC. It is mentioned by Herodotus in the 7th century BC. In a Greek papyrus in the British Museum dated 163 BC, reference is made to the circumcision of girls in Memphis at the age when they received their dowries.

FGC is traditionally practiced among certain indigenous Andean and Australian ethnic groups. It was practiced in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, although in these mainly matrilineal areas, Type I or Type IV FGC was done to enhance female sexuality rather than to control it as in most other places.

Today, FGC is mainly practiced in African countries, predominantly in the Nile, Sahara, Sahel and Horn regions, from east to west and as far south as Tanzania. In those areas the majority of women have or will experience it.

It is not reported to be widely practiced in the Middle East but is a practice of some groups in the Arabian peninsula.

WHO estimates that each year, 2-3 three million girls undergo FGC.

In some cultures, like communities in Burkina Faso, if women are not circumcised while alive, they are circumcised when they die.

Heath Complications

In Types I & II most wounds heal with few long-term problems, though some types of complications have been reported. Repeated infections, soreness and intermittent bleeding for many years are possible. The stitch used to tie the clitoral artery may not be absorbed totally, becoming the focus for an abscess. A tough scar over the clitoris may split open during childbirth. Where only the prepuce has been cut, the exposed clitoris may painful to the touch.

In Type II the remaining labia minora, which contains sweat glands, is sewn together. A buildup of sweat and urine in the closed off space beneath this closure can lead to local or urinary infection, septicemia, hemorrhaging and cyst formation.

Type III FGC can cause adverse health consequences during the menstrual cycle, sexual intercourse, and child delivery. Short-term complications can include bleeding, infection, pain, urinary retention, stress, shock, and damage to the urethra and anus. Long-term complications can include hematocolpos, dysmenorrhea, pelvic infections and infertility, more frequent indication for Cesarean section delivery, difficulty in penetration due to tight scarring of the vaginal opening, dyspareunia and vesico-vaginal and recto-vaginal fistulae. Fetal distress during labor in circumcised women may be another problem since the stitching and scar tissue can take away from the elasticity necessary during childbirth and inhibit the baby's head from coming out. This may lead to infant brain damage and problems in the automatic breathing system of the newborn.

With Type III, a reverse infibulation (or "opening up" with a knife) is usually needed to allow for sexual intercourse on a woman's wedding night. During childbirth, the infibulation must be opened completely and restored after delivery. Often the woman's legs are tied together to allow the wound to heal, and the procedure is repeated for subsequent childbirths. When childbirth takes place in a hospital, the surgeons may preserve the infibulation by enlarging the vagina with deep episiotomies. Afterwards, the patient may insist that her vulva be closed again so that her husband does not reject her.

Effects on Sexuality

It is commonly believed that FGM denies women the natural ability to enjoy sexual relations.

Human sexual arousal is a complex phenomenon that is not fully understood by experts. It involves emotions, concepts of morality, past experience, acceptance of eroticism, fear of disease or pregnancy, dreams, and fantasies. The combination of physical messages from sensory organs and the emotional images culminate in a psycho-physiological state during which a person is able to experience orgasm. The physical aspects of sexual arousal for a woman involve a complex series of nerve endings being activated and stimulated in and around her vagina, vulva (labia minora and majora) and clitoris. Evidence suggests that orgasms require clitoral stimulation while vaginal stimulation, though pleasurable, is a minor triggering mechanism. Direct clitoral stimulation is a greater stimulus than coitus, which causes pelvic pressure and traction on the clitoral hood (if it has not been fully excised).

The perspective that FGC necessarily robs women of sexual pleasure presupposes that only the clitoris guarantees sexual pleasure for women. If having the clitoris does guarantee sexual satisfaction and pleasure, it implies that all women who are not circumcized should experience sexual urge and sexual pleasure. However, in normal noncircumcised females, orgasm does not always occur, which suggests there are other parts of a woman's body and dynamics which affect female sexuality and responses.

This presumption also suggests that all women should react to sexual stimulation in the same way regardless of cultural differences and social backgrounds. Sex in most African societies serves procreation, not necessarily the satisfaction of emotional needs. Sex is often viewed as a sacred act and a spiritual experience with emphasis on spiritual compatibility of partners. It is believed that sexual urge depends on the nature of the existing relationship between a woman and her spouse to a large extent.

Whether or not a woman who has undergone FGC can achieve an orgasm is a question that tends to have more than one answer. Lightfoot-Klein research in The Sudan in the 1980s, where up to 90% of women had Type III FGC, found that many of the women had no idea what an orgasm was. However, some women, especially those with less excised tissue, insisted that they did achieve orgasm, ranging from 90% of the time when they were young to 10% of the time once they had children.

With Type III, there is destruction of practically all the nerve endings in the outer sex organs that convey the pleasurable sensations to the brain. A woman is left with the sensations from the vestibule at the vaginal orifice and the vagina itself whose nerve endings respond more to pressure than touch. If she has an orgasm then it is what is called "vaginal orgasm" in contrast to the more effective "clitoral orgasm." Studies performed found that 29.8% of women with Type III FGC found sexual satisfaction or had orgasms compared to Type I FGC where 27% of women had satisfaction and 48% reached orgasm. Statistics for uncircumcised women show that up to 15% of these women have never experienced an orgasm and only a third of them are able to experience orgasm during intercourse.

With clitoridectomy, some of the sensitive tissue at the base of the clitoris, along the inner lips and around the floor of vulva, are still intact and will give sensory sexual messages if properly stimulated. In addition, other sexually sensitive parts of the body, such as the breasts, nipples, lips, neck and ears may become hypersensitized to compensate for lack of clitoral stimulation and thus enhance sexual arousal.

No satisfaction at all was present in 39% of Type III women, 25% of Type I and II women, and much less in the uncircumcised category. In Dr. Barakat's 1997 Egypt study, in which 97.6% of those interviewed had excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora, 72.8% of the women claimed to experience orgasms.

Medical indications for FGC?

Indications for removal of part of the clitoral hood were documented in 1959 by an American physician, WG Rathmann MD, who performed many female circumcisions in the United States. According to Dr. Rathmann, phimosis and redundancy can make the highly sensitive area of the clitoris unable to be stimulated. Sebaceous glands around the clitoris attempt to prevent adhesions of the prepuce to it. This sometimes fails and the clitoris is adheres tightly to the prepuce. If the prepuce is excessive and extends past the eminence of the clitoris it can prevent contact. In general, he found the greater the degree of phimosis or redundancy, the greater the probability of satisfactory results by its correction.

In response to the argument that FGC is necessary for cleanliness, it should be noted that women without any form of genital cutting generally find it very easy to clean the external genitalia.

Reversing Circumcision

FGC Types I & II can be reversed with reconstruction of the clitoris. Since the FGC process entails the cutting of mostly the outer clitoris, inside tissues remain intact. To reconstruct it, the doctor pulls out this inner tissue, which is then sewn and held to the upper part of the vaginal orifice. The restored clitoris offers women higher sensitivity with the goal of making sex more fulfilling for the woman.

Type III FGC can also be partly reversed with reconstructive surgery. The doctor opens the sewing done to the vagina during circumcision until it reaches the normal size. The right and left sides are sewn and held separately so that the vagina stays open. This intervention allows women who have stitched and narrowed vaginal orifices to enjoy sexual intercourse normally. The second level of intervention is reconstruction of the clitoris after widening the vagina.

Laws Against It

Many countries, including African countries where FGC is most prevalent, have very strong laws against it. Some decline in FGC has been reported in recent years, but in many places laws have not been very successful in deterring the practice. FGC has strong cultural roots and many people refuse to give it up. It is internationally recognized that laws alone will not adequately address the issue. Public information and education involving many people in strategies and activities aimed at the abandonment of the practice will be necessary to regulate the practice of FGC.

Islamic Views

Male and female "circumcision" did not originate in the Islamic tradition. Muslim scholars and countries differ over the issue of female circumcision; some sanction it, while others do not. The practice of female circumcision should be evaluated objectively on the basis of whether it is required religiously or not and on the basis of medical and other relevant issues.

Islamic Texts

Genital modification or mutilation is not explicitly endorsed in the Quran. However, based upon hadeeth, the statements and actions of the Prophet Mohammed (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam - peace and blessings of God be upon him), male circumcision is one of the obligatory practices in Islam, by consensus of the scholars. There is no known hadeeth which requires female circumcision. Some argued that one hadeeth, while not requiring female circumcision, appears to accept it:

“Circumcision is Sunnah for men and an honorable thing for women.”[Musnad Ahmad]

This hadeeth makes a distinction between male and female circumcision. A weaker description is given to female circumcision which implies it is not a religious obligation. This hadeeth is narrated by several chains; however, all of them are of weak authenticity (da'eef) according to hadeeth scholars. Therefore, it is categorized as a weak hadeeth.

There is a more authentic hadeeth, which is still considered weak, in which Prophet Mohammed (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) is reported to have passed by a woman performing circumcision on a young girl. He (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) gave this women general instructions, which are translated into English in the following ways:

"If you circumcise do not go deep (i.e. do not encroach on the clitoris) because it would be useful to the wife and desirable to the husband."

"Do not abuse (i.e. do not go to extremes in circumcising); that is better for the woman and more liked by her husband."

“Trim, but do not cut into it, for this is brighter for the face (of the girl) and more favorable with the husband.”

"Reduce the size of the clitoris but do not exceed the limit, for that is better for her health and is preferred by husbands."

"Cut off only the foreskin (outer fold of skin over the clitoris; the prepuce) but do not cut off deeply (i.e. the clitoris itself), for this is brighter for the face (of the girl) and more favorable with the husband."

Some scholars believe that this hadeeth indicates that circumcision is good for women. References to the brightness of the face and to a better marital relationship are indications of sensitivity to the needs of females, their matrimonal happiness, and legitimate sexual enjoyment. Some scholars use the words of the hadeeth to oppose arguments that female circumcision is done to control a woman's sexual desires.

For purposes of ritual purity, various hadeeth define legal intercourse as occurring when the "circumcised parts" touch each other. This definition seems to presuppose the circumcision of both men and women. The Prophet Mohammed (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) is reported to have said, "When anyone sits amidst four parts (of the woman) and the circumcised parts touch each other a bath becomes obligatory." [Sahih Muslim, Malik's Muwatta]

Other scholars do not regard this as evidence for female circumcision because in the Arabic language two related things may be mentioned together as one word in the dual form even though they are different. The Arabic word used in the hadeeth is khitaanaan, which is a word in the dual form.

Muhammad S. Al-Awwa, Ph.D, in his article about female circumcision, says that "this authentic hadeeth is by no means evidence of legitimacy. The Arabic word used for 'the two circumcision organs' is in the dual case and it follows the habit of calling two objects or two persons after the more familiar or after either of them, giving it prominence. There are many examples of this in idiomatic Arabic usage, such as 'the two Umars', referring to Abu Bakr and Umar; 'the two moons', referring to the sun and moon; 'the shining two', making the same reference although the moon does not shine of itself and only reflects the light of the sun; 'the two 'ishas', referring to maghreb and 'isha (etc.)... Arabs usually choose the more prominent of the two or the easier in giving a dual form... Sometimes they choose the easier to pronounce... Sometimes the word with the female gender is chosen to make the dual form... This usage in the Arabic language is familiar to Arabic linguists."

While there are hadeeth that the Prophet Mohammed (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam), ordered pagan males who converted to undergo circumcision, it is not stated anywhere that the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) ordered any woman who entered Islam to undergo this practice. It is believed that if the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) had wanted female circumcision to be an integral aspect of religious practice in Islam the same way that male circumcision is, he would have said so clearly.

Evidence does suggest that female circumcision was practiced during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam). Calling a man the "son of a female circumciser" was an insult among the Arabs at the time. According to one hadeeth, during a battle the uncle of the Prophet, Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib came out and said, "O Siba, O son of Anmar, the woman who circumcises other ladies! Do you challenge Allah and His Apostle?" Then Hamza attacked and killed him [Al-Bukhari] This suggests that the practice of circumcising women was widespread among the pagan Arabs before Islam and the lady who performed these procedures was seemingly not considered a very respected person in society, or it would not be possible to use this as an insult.

Islamic law divides actions into five categories; mandatory, recommended, permissible, detestable, and strictly forbidden. Female circumcision is not explicitly banned either in the Quran or the hadeeth literature. Thus, it seems to fall within the category of the permissible. It was on this basis that some scholars opposed a sweeping ban of this practice. However, it is within the spirit of Shari'ah to restrict something that is permissible if discovered to be harmful. Also, while some may call FGC "Sunnah circumcision," this is their own appellation and not that of the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) who used the term "Sunnah" only in the context of male circumcision.

It is true that Islam requires both genders to be chaste. However, there is no text which requires selective curtailment or control of the sexual desire of one specific gender. Chastity and virtue are not contingent on "cutting off" part of any sensitive human organ. Rather, they depend on the spiritual and moral values of a person and may be influenced by the society and environment in which a person lives.

Scholars' Views

Many Islamic scholars are not opposed to practicing female circumcision in the moderate way indicated in some of the Prophet's hadeeths - even though such hadeeths are not confirmed to be authentic. In this view, it is important to distinguish between different types of procedures that are called circumcision.

Type I removal of the prepuce (or hood) of the clitoris may to some degree be seen as analogous to male circumcision, since in both cases no part of the actual sexual organ is cut off. Only the foreskin, or outer fold of the skin, is cut. This is the view of scholars who are in favor of female circumcision on the condition that circumcision "should not cut the clitoris or any part of it. Only a part of the skin of the hood should be removed... The operator should pay compensation if he or she removes or injures the clitoris."

A majority of the scholars who allow or encourage female circumcision seem to be of the opinion that female circumcision consists of the scraping or cutting of the tip of the clitoris, generally without any cutting of the prepuce (or hood). This type of FGC also falls under the category of Type I. "The Sunnah is not to remove all of clitoris, but only a part." [Ibn Qudamah] They may also view this as analogous to male circumcision. In this view, the spirit of the injunction is not to mutilate. Female circumcision should be done as minimally as possible and involve cutting off a small part (1-3 mm is suggested) from the very top outer portion of the clitoris. Other parts of the genitalia remain untouched, and the woman's sexuality is not believed to be put into any danger.

A major issue is whether or not Type I FGC is harmful. While it may not be as seriously damaging as Types II and III, some argue that it can be painful, traumatic and lead to infection and other problems. Others argue that it is usually less painful than male circumcision, and when properly done, it is not likely to cause any "matrimonial" problem.

Type II, which is removal of the entire visible part of the clitoris along with part of the labia minora, is not recommended by any of the Islamic scholars. It has no basis in the Islam texts. It is generally considered detrimental to the woman and haram (or forbidden).

Type III, which is removal of the entire clitoris, labia minora and medial part of the labia majora, with both sides of the female organ stitched together leaving a small opening, is a horrific procedure, cannot be sanctioned at all in Islam, and is definitely haram (or forbidden). It is agreed that this is genital mutilation, and according to Islamic teachings no bodily mutilation is allowed by Islam even in the battlefield.

Type IV, though it is generally less harmful than Type III, also has no basis in any Islamic text, is viewed as mutilation, and is considered haram (or forbidden).

Scholars of Islamic Law have differed regarding whether female circumcision is recommended or not. The Shafi'i school of jurisprudence ordered for a "slight trimming" of the hood of the clitoris, supposedly in order to enhance sexual pleasure for the woman. The other opinion of the Shafi school of thought is that circumcision is a Sunnah, or recommended act, but not obligatory for women. The practice of female circumcision is also encouraged, but not compulsory, according to the other three major schools of thought - the Hanbali, Hanafi and Maliki schools - who usually view it as an "honorable" thing for women. Despite this, contemporary scholars agree that there is weakness in the hadeeth that mention female circumcision.

While a majority of scholars hold that the hadeeth do not require any woman to perform or undergo female circumcision, some scholars go further and believe that the rather unspecified term "severely" (from the phrase "do not cut severely" in the weak hadeeth) intentionally alludes to the risks of female circumcision. From this, they derive that all female circumcision may be deemed a severe and disliked practice by the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam), thus setting up a way for the practice to be eventually abolished.

However, even in modern times, there have been some Islamic scholars who were adamant about the religious importance of female circumcision: "Circumcision is mandatory for men and for women. If the people of any village decide to abandon it, the [village] imam must fight against them as if they had abandoned the call to prayer." Other Islamic scholars completely denounce it: "All practices of female circumcision and mutilation are crimes and have no relationship with Islam." Yet others say, "It is wise to follow the interests of the female: if the clitoris is large, then part of it should be removed, otherwise it should be left alone."

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, there is no fully authentic text in which the Prophet Mohammed (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) required or recommended the circumcision of women. In spite of the presence of FGC in the Prophet's society, there is also no text which bans it. If female circumcision had truly been endorsed by Islamic law, it would certainly have been practiced and perpetuated like male circumcision has been.

Allusions to FGC in early Islamic societies refer only to mild cutting, or Type I FGC. There is no evidence that Types II, III and IV have ever been prevalent in the regions where Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula. Based on the detrimental effects experienced by women who have Types II, III and IV FGC, it is agreed that in Islam it would be impermissible to allow these customs to continue. Some apply the same argument to Type I FGC, but most moderate scholars hold that Muslims should respect the choice of other Muslims to circumcise their women, with the condition that the cutting remains very minimal (Type I) and protects the women's dignity and well-being.

It seems that female circumcision is more a cultural practice than a matter of Islamic teaching. It should be noted that some people oppose female circumcision as part of their opposition to any "tradition" as old and invalid. As an argument, this stand is as inappropriate as practicing female circumcision because it is a "tradition" regardless of its consistency with Islam or not.

While female circumcision is already legally banned in some countries, in cultures where the practice is well entrenched and social pressures for it are great, legal banning may not end the practice. It may cause FGC to be practiced "underground" and under more problematic circumstances. Education, via all possible means of modern media, is needed to propagate the facts of female circumcision, including the fact that there is no single text from the Quran or hadeeth which makes female circumcision obligatory on Muslim woman.





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