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CLITORIDECTOMY . The term clitoridectomy covers a range of ritual surgical operations: (1) drawing blood from the clitoral prepuce or removal of the prepuce, (2) excism of the clitoris, (3) excism of the clitoris and labia minora, and (4) infibulation, requiring removal of the clitoris, the labia minora, and the anterior two-thirds of the labia majora, the two sides of which are then joined so that a small posterior opening is left for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. The first type occurs in Islamic countries of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The second type occurs in East, West, and central Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula, and in Brazil, eastern Mexico, and Peru. The third type occurs throughout Africa, in Arab countries, and in parts of Aboriginal Australia. Infibulation occurs in Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, southern Egypt, northern Nigeria, Mali, and the Central African Republic.

In countries where clitoridectomy is practiced, the rite may be performed virtually universally or it may have a sparse and patchy distribution. For example, in northern Ghana almost all women in the Kusase ethnic group will have had clitoridectomy, while none in the neighboring Tallensi group will have undergone this ritual. Nor is there a clear relationship between clitoridectomy and religion: in an area of southern Nigeria five contiguous ethnic groups perform the rite, but the Etsako are Muslim, the Esan and Ijan are predominantly Christian, and the Bini and Ukwuani primarily observe their traditional religion.

In Sudan, few women in the south are infibulated, but from 90 to 95 percent of the women in the Arabic north are (Dareer, 1983, p. 41). In neighboring Egypt an estimated 95 percent of women have had some kind of clitoridectomy, but most is of the third type and only relatively few, near the Sudan border, have been infibulated (Aziza, 1983, p. 13). In both countries urban, better-educated women tend to have minimal surgery or no clitoridectomy. Egyptian mummies dated 200 bce show evidence of clitroidectomy (Dareer, 1983, p. 41), and present-day Coptic Christian as well as Muslim women in Egypt have clitoridectomy, suggesting that it is a pre-Islamic custom. This speculation is further supported by the fact that the Islamic countries of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan do not practice clitoridectomy.

There is no mention of clitoridectomy in the Qurʾān, but more or less authentic adith s mention its practice in pre-Islamic Arabia. Although texts and dictionaries are not very explicit, evidence suggests minimal excision of the prepuce of the clitoris (Bosworth, 1978, p. 913). In an Islamic tradition preserved by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), circumcision is called sunnah for males and honorable for females (Wensinck, 1979, p. 20). Sunnah means to follow the traditions of the prophet Muammad, who according to tradition was circumcised. The commentaries of al-Nawawī, edited in Cairo in 1283, say, however, that circumcision is equally obligatory for males and females, specifying removal of a small part of the skin in the highest part of the genitals (ibid.). Some contemporary Muslim teachers cite the general Islamic rule that forbids cutting parts of the body unless the benefits exceed the pain and injury, and the Sudanese religious and political leader El Sayed Abdel Rahman El Mahadi explicitly forbade infibulation (Dareer, 1983, p. 44). Thus one can understand the confusion revealed in a Sudanese survey where 60 percent of the women said religion and custom demanded infibulation, but of those who disagreed, 50 percent did so on religious grounds (ibid., p. 43).

Clitoridectomy was not practiced in the ancient Jewish religion, and it is not mentioned in either testament of the Bible.

Clitoridectomy is a rite and in its minimal form is performed on girls individually, accompanied by gifts. Or girls may be initiated in a large class with accompanying rites that involve all the women of a village or indeed a whole chiefdom (MacCormack, 1979). The age at which girls experience clitoridectomy varies, but in all cases it should be done by the time of puberty and marriage. Although some Islamic texts prohibit clitoridectomy before the tenth year (Wensinck, 1979, p. 20), in Sudan it is done between two and eleven years, and in Egypt between three and eleven years of age, although there are cases of it being done before the age of one.

Clitoridectomy is usually performed by a traditional midwife. In Egypt the decision is primarily taken by the girl's mother, then in descending order of importance, by both parents together, an aunt, a sister or grandmother, and the father alone (Aziza, 1983, p. 14). However, fathers usually pay for the ceremony, and in the case of infibulation, husbands pay for re-fibulation following each childbirth.

There is no single meaning of clitoridectomy. In all societies that circumcise females, males are also circumcised. The reasons given for both sexes is that it is a ritual of membership into a religious tradition, an ethnic group with the status of adult, or a prerequisite for legitimate and moral marriage, sexuality, and procreation.

In Mediterranean and Islamic countries clitoridectomy is often explained as an aspect of family honor. The phrase "son of an uncircumcised woman" is considered injurious in the sense that it is synonymous with "son of a whore"that is, a woman of excessive sexual appetite caused by her not being circumcised. In Egypt, for example, clitoridectomy is thought to protect a girl's chastity by reducing her libido, thus maintaining the family's honor and the girl's suitability for a good marriage. In Muslim Java a mild pricking of the prepuce is associated with ritual filing down of teeth, suggesting a symbolic statement about curbing all appetites.

In countries concerned with female modesty as a sign of family honor, public evidence of defloration is often an important rite following marriage. A woman who cannot demonstrate virginity by blood on the marriage bed may be divorced or even put to death at the hands of her own family to preserve their honor. Infibulation may be associated with an extreme expression of that honor.

Nawal El Saadawi (1980) has suggested a Marxist interpretation, following Engels, whereby in societies with patrilineal inheritance an emphasis on female chastity protects inheritance of private property by ensuring that a man's heirs are his own children. Just as ruling classes impose the moral values of renunciation of pleasure on laborers, while they value extravagance themselves, so men constitute a "ruling class" over women and impose the renunciation of sexual pleasure on them while they enjoy sexual freedom and seduction with impunity. This Marxist interpretation cannot be a universal explanation for clitoridectomy because there are societies with patrilineal inheritance of property where women may be punished or even put to death for an infringement of sexual rules, but which lack rites of clitori-dectomy.

In a wider comparative framework, the explanation that genital surgery is universally a by-product of male suppression of women is called into question. For example, in coastal West Africa there are groups that practice clitoridectomy but also allow a considerable amount of premarital freedom to women. In the patrilineal Mende area of Sierra Leone, for example, women may even hold overt political office, and the pain of clitoridectomy, experienced in a group, may serve to bond women together into potentially cohesive chapters of a women's secret society, thus enhancing their political power and control of wealth (MacCormack, 1979). Among some Aboriginal Australian and some Melanesian ethnic groups, men undergo much more extreme and painful ritual genital surgery than women, and this usually occurs in societies with patrilineal descent where men are described as being dominant.

Virtually everywhere, clitoridectomy is described as an act of purification, making women clean. On the Sherbro coast of Sierra Leone, women say that without this puberty rite a girl can achieve womanhood biologically but will remain a girl socially. Using a functional model of analysis, we might say that the ritual scar and body modification are the sign of being brought within an adult moral sphere. The man with whom an initiated woman shares an intimate relationship will know that she has been taught the responsible role of potential procreator.

Using a structuralist model of analysis, "making women clean" removes the clitoris, the small male penis, making women fit unambiguouslypurely and "cleanly"within the female category. Furthermore, the pain of clitoridectomy might be seen as a metaphor for childbirth. In Sierra Leone, the position assumed for clitoridectomy is the same as the position assumed in childbirth. The place is the same, since ideally a woman returns to her natal initiation place to give birth, under the hand of the midwife who initiated her. The social group is similarly constituted of local female kin and other townswomen, all being members of the women's secret society. The pain of clitoridectomy, controlled by time, place, and the technical skill of the midwife, is a metaphor for the pain of childbirth. As the midwife controls bleeding and protects against infection in clitoridectomy, so she does in childbirth. Womanhood is symbolically achieved in clitoridectomy and is confirmed, under the midwife's hand, in childbirth. In Sierra Leone the two events are logically related as part of the same message, although they are separated in time (MacCormack, 1979, 1982; see also Griaule, 1965, p. 158).

See Also

Androgynes; Bodily Marks; Circumcision; Initiation, article on Women's Initiation.


Aziza, Hussein. Facts about Female Circumcision. Cairo, 1983. Issued by the Cairo Family Planning Association.

Bosworth, C. E., et al. "Ḵẖafd." In The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 4, pp. 913914. Leiden, 1978.

Dareer, Asma El. "Epidemiology of Female Circumcision in the Sudan." Tropical Doctor 13 (1983): 4145.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. London, 1965.

MacCormack, Carol P. "Sande: The Public Face of a Secret Society." In The New Religions of Africa, edited by Bennetta Jules-Rosette, pp. 2737. Norwood, N.J., 1979

MacCormack, Carol P. "Health, Fertility and Birth in Moyamba District, Sierra Leone." In Ethnography of Fertility and Birth, edited by Carol P. MacCormack, pp. 115139. London, 1982.

Myers, R. A., et al. "Circumcision: Its Nature and Practice among Some Ethnic Groups in Southern Nigeria." Social Science and Medicine 21 (1985): 581588.

Saadawi, Nawal El. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. Translated and edited by Sherif Hetata. London, 1980.

Wensinck, A. J. "Ḵẖitān." In The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 5, pp. 2022. Leiden, 1979.

New Sources

Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood: Disputing U.S. Polemics. Edited by Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson. Urbana, 2002.

Hosken, Fran P. The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females. Lexington, Mass, 1994.

Lightfoot-Klein, Hanny. Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into Female Genital Circumcision in Africa. New York, 1989.

Manresa, Kim. The Day Kadi Lost Part of Her Life. North Melbourne, Victoria, 1998.

Walker, Alice, and Pratibha Parmar. Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. New York, 1993.

Carol P. MacCormack (1987)

Revised Bibliography