A few years ago in a too warm bookstore, I came across a coffee-table book called The Circle of Life: Rituals From the Human Family Album. Compelled by the title, I thumbed through pictures of rituals and customs surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, and coming-of-age and stopped on the face of a young girl turned up in pain and anguish. The caption indicated that the pictured child had just undergone "female circumcision" and described the practice's widespread and diverse forms throughout the world. I became queasy and nearly fainted.
My inability to temper that visceral reaction with respect for those who actually live through the trauma still dismays me. I also am enraged by my impotence to defend the girl.
The World Health Organization estimates that 114 million women undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) each year, usually before they reach puberty. In the most extreme form, the entire outer genitalia are removed and the two sides of the vulva sutured together until marriage, leaving only a tiny opening for the excretion of blood and urine. From a Western perspective, the procedure is cruelly unnecessary and bizarre. It causes harmful scarring, leaves women prone to infection and hemorrhaging (especially during pregnancy and childbirth), and significantly inhibits sexual pleasure and freedom of movement.
But in the eyes of the parents who have their daughters circumcised, it is a rite of passage no more unusual than a bat mitzvah or the advent of menstruation. To them, "circumcision" ensures sexual purity and health, and it is a necessary step to make a girl marriageable and therefore acceptable in her community.