The Ongoing Fight Against Female Genital Mutilation


“In my life I have laughed a lot, but I have also experienced a lot of pain…I have never lost my courage to face life…We women will save this world, because we are the backbone for a better society and a non-violent coexistence.” –Waris Dirie

In 1995, Somali-born supermodel Waris Dirie collaborated with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on the documentary, The Day That Changed My Life: A Nomad in New York, in which she revealed how her career in modeling was in part launched by the trauma of surviving childhood Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Three years later, William Morrow Paperbacks released her ground-breaking autobiography, Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad. The book described Dirie’s harrowing journey of fleeing an arranged marriage in Somalia, overcoming poverty and homelessness as an ambassador’s house servant and McDonalds’ janitor in England, to later becoming a fashion icon and United Nations human rights activist. Her memoir helped spark a full-scale, global campaign against FGM with her words in print.

Dirie’s story was one of many memoirs published during the 1990s by African women who survived FGM. While autobiographies like Ghanaian activist Efua Dorkenoo’s 1994 book, Cutting the Rose: Female Genital Mutilation: the Practice and its Prevention and Egyptian doctor Nawal El-Saadawi’s 1999 book, A Daughter of Isis: The Autobiography of Nawal El Saadawihelped inspire global activism against FGM, Dirie’s story had the greatest impact in spreading global awareness about the practice when her book sold over 11 million copies worldwide and was later developed into a film in 2009. For generations those who documented the practice were outsiders to societies that utilize FGM, but Dirie’s public activism against FGM emboldened women of color and survivors to lead the way in fighting against the practice and educating the public on a global stage without appealing to patriarchy, racial stigmatization, or post-colonial paternalism.

FGM consists of four major types that involve pricking, piercing, scraping, cauterizing, repositioning and or total removal of the external female genitalia. Medics and survivors of FGM have often described the procedure as painful, unsanitary, and dangerous because in many cases the procedure is done without an analgesic or anesthesia by a village midwife or priest who uses any type of sharp tool one can find like knives, razors, scissors, cut glass, or sharpened rocks. In some cases, women and girls who receive FGM have immediate complications such as acute urinary retention, hemorrhaging, infections that range from a urinary infection to septicemia, hepatitis, HIV, and in the worst cases, death. The long term complications of FGM, as noted by social psychologist Hannie Lightfoot-Klein, are recurrent infections, pelvic pain, painful menstruations, dermoid cysts at the operation site, and infertility. Additionally, childbirth among FGM women can be long, difficult, and painful because sometimes women must be cut to enlarge the birthing canal for the baby, and in other cases women experience major tearing.

FGM is a societal practice that is often characterized as an African, Middle Eastern, Near East and South Asian phenomenon with unknown origins, that is detrimental to nonwhite people from these regions whose culture is often labeled as backward and inferior to their European counterparts.

FGM shares similarities with ancient and modern-day global practices of alterations to the genitals that are ultimately argued by practitioners as a method to maintain sexual self-control and chastity. The first accounts of FGM were recorded in the fifth century BCE when the Greek historian Herodotus documented the practice among women and men in Egypt. According to a Greek papyrus from 163 BCE, girls of marriageable age in Memphis, Egypt, received “operations.” In 25 BCE, the Greek geographer, Strabo, documented that during his visit to Egypt he discovered that it was a societal custom for girls to be “circumcised.”

FGM also has ancient origins of genital cutting and alterations in the Mediterranean. In the 1900 book, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, physician George Milbry Gould explained that in Ancient Rome genital cutting and alteration was practiced by both sexes. Among women, infibulations were done to protect the virginity of Roman maidens who participated in celebrations at the Temple of Venus and the debauches of Venus and Mars. Genital infibulations were also done on female slaves who were to be sold within Roman society. In regard to men, the Romans believed that sexual intercourse weakened their physical abilities and by forcibly inhibiting sexual activity their repressed sexual desires would enable them to perform at their best. Thus actors, dancers, singers, musicians, and sportsmen had their genitals pinned to their side with metal rings to prevent them from participating in sexual intercourse before they did major performances or games. Singers were infibulated to prevent sexual activity that may change their voice, while gladiators were infibulated because the Romans believed “sexual excesses” would cause them to lose “vigor” in their games. During the Middle Ages, other types of genital alterations were implemented in Europe and Asia to protect chastity, such as the use of chastity girdles in Italy and Circassia and the sewing of the genitals in India and Persia. Furthermore, several world societies have used genital infibulations as a method of contraception, maintaining chastity, and enhancing physical talent and strength.

From the late 1700s to mid-1900s, European travelers, explorers, and colonizers like German cartographer Carsten Niebuhr, British writer Sir Richard Francis Burton, and English military officer Sir Samuel White Baker were influential in documenting FGM in Africa and the Middle East in their travel accounts and personal writings. Oftentimes European accounts of FGM ignored the perspectives of practitioners who had religious, cultural, or financial reasons for continuing the harmful practice while others offered a “white savior” interventionist approach to solving the issue in foreign countries. For example, in the 2003 article, “Scottish Missionaries and the Circumcision Controversy in Kenya, 1900-1960,” Kenneth Mufaka describes how unwanted European intervention into the Kikuyu tribe’s sacred traditions helped spark a successful nationalist movement against colonialism. The Kikuyu had a long-standing female initiation ceremony where they taught girls about womanhood and circumcised them in huts. In 1904, Scottish missionaries discovered the Kikuyu’s practice of FGM and began medically treating girls who had complications from the procedure. The Scottish missionaries then instructed the midwives in a “safe” and “sanitary” method of practicing FGM in hospitals. Eventually, the Kikuyu became enraged that the Scottish interfered in their secretive social practice and this issue became one of the reasons the tribe later joined the Embu, Meru, Maasai, and Kamba in Kenya’s independence movement (1952-1960).

Despite the resistance some communities have toward ending FGM, in the last forty years scientists and activists have discovered that education about potential health risks and exposure to firsthand accounts of FGM have led many younger generations to disapprove of the practice. Organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and Dirie’s Desert Flower Foundation have offered FGM-practicing communities educational materials about the dangers of the procedure, instruction in medically-safe techniques of FGM, and even training for FGM survivors to lead grassroots advocacy initiatives (particularly in rural communities) against its usage altogether. Countless books like Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar’s Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women (1993), films like Moolaadé (2004), and documentaries like Half the Sky (2012) have spread awareness about the issue within FGM-practicing regions as well as across the globe to places unaware the social practice exists. All of these resources have changed how people view FGM. A 2003 article that surveyed over 400 students at the University of Khartoum discovered that 84.3% of the women and 82.8% of the men surveyed were against FGM. Only 4.6% of the women and 15.3% of the men interviewed believed FGM should continue to exist. The researchers concluded that among the educated young adult population in Sudan, an overwhelming number of people were against FGM and likely to discontinue the practice themselves.

Today, FGM is practiced in approximately 92 countries with over forty located in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The WHO reports that over 200 million women and girls alive today have experienced FGM. Every year, more than 3 million girls are at risk of receiving FGM and the health costs for individuals who require treatment for medical complications is approximately $1.4 billion annually. Moreover, recent scholarship on FGM has revealed that medical and communal intervention from outsiders is often ineffective. Activism from members of FGM-practicing communities has been vital to eliminating societal appeal for the procedure. Advocates like Waris Dirie have been the most influential in the fight to end FGM. Since 1998 Dirie has written seven internationally acclaimed books about FGM, and through her foundation has built schools and safe houses for women and girls in places like Sierra Leone. Dirie’s work even inspired the 2020 German musical Wüstenblume (Desert Flower) that spread awareness about FGM across Europe. Since 2008, over 6 million women and girls have received FGM-related protection and care services. In fact, UNICEF estimates that by 2030, FGM could be completely eradicated. With activism led by people like Waris Dirie this goal just might be achieved.

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Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Morgan State University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University while her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-Black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson’s research and writing have appeared in articles for the Urban History Association’s The Metropole and the Washington Post. She is currently working on a book entitled, Hope and Struggle in the Policed City: The Rise of Black Criminalization and Resistance in Philadelphia. You can follow her on Twitter @Philadelphian91.