As an American woman living in Los Angeles, I’d rarely heard about and knew next to nothing about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)—it simply wasn’t in my sphere of awareness. But I assumed it was an archaic village practice performed across the world far from me that was fast on the decline and that it would certainly soon be near to non-existent in the 21st century of burgeoning global connectivity.

Recently, while employed as a chauffeur for members of the Saudi royal family, I met and became close to many young African girls who worked as round-the-clock servants for the royals and their entourage visiting Beverly Hills. Most of them were from countries just across the Red Sea from the Kingdom: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt. Eventually, we got to know each other through constant and often intimate contact for many weeks. I grew fond of the girls and wanted to know more about their lives and families in their home countries and asked many questions, but none of them on so personal a level as to ascertain the condition of their genitals and if they were “intact.” It never occurred to me to do so.

As I began to write about my experience with the Saudis and their servants in my memoir, “Driving The Saudis,” I also researched the customs and cultures of the people I met on the job. To my dismay, I quickly learned that FGM was far from being on the decline. In fact, it remains a powerfully entrenched social rite that is still widely practiced in countries throughout the world—and most prevalently in the countries where my new friends were from.

FGM appears in various forms depending on where and how it is performed; the World Health Organization lists four major types that include the scraping, cutting, and excising of the female sexual organs resulting in their partial or total removal. Sometimes the labia is roughly stitched together or even sewn shut after the removal of the external genitalia—leaving a covering sheath of scar tissue that must be broken or cut open during intercourse, often leading to dangerous health complications in childbirth and even death for the mothers. Conservative estimates number survivors of FGM at over 130 women million worldwide, from infants to young adults. The procedures take place in a variety of settings, from village mud shacks where the surgery is usually performed by a midwife wielding a rusty blade, as well as in major city hospitals by doctors with anaesthesia and surgical tools. Its power and prevalence is derived from its role as a “social norm—a public declaration of social acceptability that families believe makes their daughters pure, clean, and prepared for marriage” (The Lancet).

I am an actress as well as a writer, and I developed my book material first as a multimedia solo play, workshopping it around the country as well as in Vienna, Austria. Early versions of the play’s text included an examination of FGM and video with women from many countries talking about their devastating experiences. Shortly into the workshopping process, the director and I made the difficult decision to omit the content relating to FGM—it was making the audiences so uncomfortable that they couldn’t pay attention to the rest of the story. I watched them literally squirm in their seats, and many reported afterward that it was all they could do to keep themselves from getting up and walking out.

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

Every day now I read about another case or cases of FGM in purportedly Westernized countries. It was recently reported that an estimated 91 percent of married Egyptian women aged between 15 and 49 have been subjected to FGM, 72 percent of them by doctors, but many procedures take place in rural communities where young girls are cut by sharp sticks or knives and under no anesthesia.

FGM Map_72ppi_275

I couldn’t—and still can’t—help but wonder, why is it still happening today in 2015? Why? I asked an Egyptian male friend, a modern, educated 30-year-old who now resides in America, about this. “It is the custom in my country for the woman to take care of herself,” he said. “To protect her future, and for us, for many, this means she must be clean there.” I asked him what he meant by clean, and he said, “with nothing hanging.” He told me that most of the North African women with whom he’s had sexual relations had had some kind of procedure as children, but many did so voluntarily as adults due to concerns that their private parts were not cosmetically appealing. I was too stunned to say anything in response.

FGM does not confine itself to any one religion, but it is predominantly practiced in Muslim communities. Historian, writer, and President of the Middle East Forum, Daniel Pipes, observes in his book In the Path of God:

“…Muslims generally believe female desire to be so much greater than the male equivalent that the woman is viewed as the hunter and the man as her passive victim. If believers feel little distress about sex acts as such, they are obsessed with the dangers posed by women. So strong are her needs thought to be, she ends up representing the forces of unreason and disorder. A woman’s rampant desires and irresistible attractiveness gives her a power over men that even rivals God’s. She must be contained, for her unbridled sexuality poses a direct danger to the social order. (Symbolic of this, the Arabic word fitna means both civil disorder and beautiful woman.) The entire Muslim social structure can be understood as containing female sexuality.”

The Muslim Women’s League maintains that FGM is a social custom not a religious one:

“As a pre-established tradition … female circumcision was not introduced by the Prophet to the early Muslim community. Several sayings (hadith) of the Prophet indicate that it may have been the norm for women to be circumcised (see al-Muwatta of Imam Malik) but the extent of circumcision, excision or mutilation is not specified. In addition, the existence of female circumcision in the community does not necessarily mean that it was to be recommended or made obligatory. Indeed, it is possible to argue that any form of female genital cutting actually violates very basic precepts in Islam.”

I couldn’t help but think of the young women of whom I’d grown so fond. These Muslim girls were all very religious, demonstrably devout in word and practice. Always carefully and modestly covered from head to toe, they invoked with reverence and awe Allah’s name in every other sentence throughout the day. They prayed regularly and were careful that their diets and behavior were in keeping with the tenets of the Islamic faith. Many of them dreamed of their future marriages and even shopped here in the U.S. for goods I assumed were being assembled as a makeshift trousseau in preparation for whatever future union was in store for them. Had they been cut, I wondered?

My research tells me that in many families, even today, a girl has to be circumcised to be marriageable. An uncut girl is unclean, dangerous, and a disgrace to her family. Soraya Mire, from Somalia, writes of her FGM experience in her searing memoir, The Girl With Three Legs. She was forced to undergo the practice by her family, her village, and even her peers, who ridiculed her mercilessly about her “third leg” until she was finally made marriageable by the removal of her sexual organs.

My research also tells me the practice is inherited from generation to generation—it is more often the women who perpetuate it—and it also travels with surprising efficiency.

Where does FGM Happen?

FGM also does not confine itself to a certain region—something the Western world is beginning to understand. As Thomas von der Osten-Sacken and Thomas Uwer write, FGM is not just practiced in Africa:

“The discovery of widespread FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan suggests the assumption to be incorrect that FGM is primarily an African phenomenon with only marginal occurrence in the eastern Islamic world. If FGM is practiced at a rate of nearly 60 per cent by Iraqi Kurds, then how prevalent is the practice in neighboring Syria where living conditions and cultural and religious practices are comparable? According to Fran Hosken, late founder of the Women’s International Network News and author of groundbreaking research on FGM in 1975, ‘There is little doubt that similar practices—excision, child marriage, and putting rock salt into the vagina of women after childbirth—exist in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula and around the Persian Gulf.”

FGM is on the rise in Indonesia as well. Journalist Abigail Haworth’s 2012 Guardian article “The Day I Saw 248 Girls Suffering Genital Mutilation” tells the story of witnessing a mass circumcision in Bandung, Indonesia, in 2006—an experience so traumatic she could not write about it until years later.

In the same report, the authors go on to observe that the paucity of academic research on FGM is a result of social, rather than political, taboo—that the very investigation of the custom invites criticism of the broad Arab and Muslim cultures. Researchers shy away from such censure even though no one argues that FGM is not particular to any one religion nor any one society.

In recent years, too, Europe has seen an onslaught of asylum seekers and refugees (ASRs) to EU Member States that struggle to enact legislation outlawing the practice. In an unprecedented attempt to stop its citizens from taking their daughters abroad during the holidays to undergo FGM, British authorities proposed a Serious Crime Bill with new civil protection to protect victims or potential victims. Now, suspected families are being stopped at airports where they are denied travel and their passports confiscated to prevent “vacation cutting.” Other similar efforts are happening across Europe as countries struggle to deal with exploding immigrant populations with different societal and religious mores.

As I learned more about FGM, I also realized it wasn’t far from home. My home. It has been illegal in the United States since 1996 but, in recent years, the procedure is on the rise, even doubling in some areas. According to research by Sanctuary for Families, the New York City-based non-profit organization, which specializes in gender-based violence, “The United States has longstanding laws against the practice of FGM on U.S. soil and in January, passed a federal law against sending young women outside the country for so-called ‘vacation cutting.’” Sanctuary for Families also said “up to 200,000 girls and women in the United States are at risk of FGM and that the number is growing.”

Are We Doing Enough to Stop FGM?

Stopping FGM throughout the world (and prosecution where it is outlawed) is often thwarted. Egypt had officially banned the practice repeatedly in years past and then again in 2007 after the death of a 12-year-old girl. But still it is rampant. In many villages throughout Africa, as in Dr. Raslan Fadl’s hometown in the Nile Delta where he practices FGM, both the procedure and the doctor have strong support even in the wake of Egypt’s 2014 landmark trial where he and Mohamed al-Batea, the father of 13-year-old Soheir al-Batea who died in June of 2013 after complications arising as a result of undergoing FGM, were prosecuted for and then acquitted of any wrongdoing. Anti-FGM activists throughout the world were disappointed and outraged, but at home in Egypt, the community supported the doctor. One young woman, who was waiting in Fadl’s clinics told The Guardian: “I’m very happy for him. It wasn’t his fault.” Eventually, after a prolonged outcry across the world, the ruling was appealed in January 2015: Fadl was sentenced to two years for manslaughter and the father to a three-month suspended sentence.

Dr. Phyllis Chesler, an emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies and the author of 15 books, puts this small victory in Africa in perspective. As she writes in an article for Breitbart:

This girl {Batea} died—but she was probably viewed as among the lucky few who have real physicians perform the mutilation in a clinic, as opposed to a midwife or tribal elder who performs the mutilation on a mud floor and with a rusty knife or razor blade. We know that this horrendous practice is pandemic in the Middle East and Africa. Some claim that FGM is not an Islamic practice per se but is, rather, an African and tribal practice. Thus, FGM is practiced in Muslim Africa (Egypt, Somalia, Sudan) but also in pagan and Christian Africa, as well as nations that are a mix of Christian and Muslim (Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Kenya).

But what’s happening on an international level? The United Nations recently announced that it is working on new development goals with the intention of ending FGM by 2030, and now marks an International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), dedicated to the improvement of women’s health throughout the world, applauds the the resolution and joined with UNFPA, UNICEF, and the International Confederation of Midwives in a call to action for front-line healthcare professionals to unite and mobilize action against FGM. According to many recent reports, only a global multi-pronged effort can possibly succeed in stemming FGM—education, media campaigns to build a receptive world stage, ongoing grassroots interaction with religious leaders, tribal elders, and families, the training of midwives, social workers, and raising awareness of the severe health risks and negative psychological consequences associated with the practice.

In Canada, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has gone to great lengths to prevent and prosecute cases of FGM, as well as to prohibit the families of immigrant communities that support FGM from taking their children out of the country for the procedure.

In France, the immigrant influx has given rise to an unprecedented rise in FGM in its population; and even though it has no written penal code specifically prohibiting FGM, it is the only country where cases go to trial in any number. According to Trust.org,

“There have been more than 40 FGM trials in France, and two practitioners and more than 100 parents have been convicted. Although female genital cutting is banned across the European Union, only a handful of cases have gone to trial in other European countries.”

In Britain’s The Independent, Isabelle Gilette-Faye, a sociologist and veteran anti-FGM campaigner, says that prosecutions have played a part in this success but only a part: “Repression alone will not deal with the problem if you do not try to reach the deep-rooted attitudes towards women which produce these practices.”

Summer is the high season of cutting in Egypt—where it is most common—and elsewhere, and it the most popular time for families to send their children abroad for the procedure. I look around me in Los Angeles, where religions and cultures mix freely and easily in the hot July sun, and it is impossible for me to even guess who those unfortunate girls might be. According to recent data from the Population Reference Board (PRB): “California is the state with the largest number of at-risk women and girls, with 56,872, followed by New York, with 48,418, and Minnesota, with 44,293.”- (Newsweek) Included in that data are the young girls who are sent back to their countries of origin during the school break. I often spend time in an area of the city called “Little Ethiopia,” which is heavily populated by North Africans. The main strip, Fairfax Avenue, is lined with wonderful restaurants and fragrant shops where I can buy exotic spices and foods found nowhere else in Southern California. Recently, I have found myself scouring the streets looking for signs of victimization, but I see nothing. I see families eating, shopping together, enjoying a coffee at the corner cafe. I want to ask my friend, Teo, who runs a shop there and who has several children including two beautiful young girls, if he has sent his daughters home to be cut. But I don’t. I am hoping it is not so.


References and Further Reading:


Image Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development via flickr

About The Author

Jayne Amelia Larson
NYT Best-Selling Author

Jayne Amelia Larson is an actress, writer, and independent film producer based in Los Angeles. She has degrees from Cornell University and Harvard University’s American Repertory Theatre Institute. Her one-woman show, Driving the Saudis, based on her experiences as a chauffeur for members of the Saudi royal family, has been performed in Memphis, Ithaca, Boston, Roanoke, and Vienna, Austria, and won Best Solo Show at the 2010 New York Fringe International Festival. Her nonfiction book on the same material (Simon & Schuster in 2012) became a New York Times and international bestseller.

  • Doc Bijou

    Great (and horrific) article.

    Interesting bit where Daniel Pipes basically says the same thing as one of the servants in your book, Driving the Saudis: ”Chaos will ensue” if/when a woman’s ‘charms’ are on display.

    A young American man I knew often referred to the ‘Power of the P(ussy)’ – not taught by the women in his life, but obviously gleaned from somewhere perhaps to offer an excuse for inexcusable behaviour.

    Sadly a similar message pervades every culture to some degree. When will we recognise that to be a man means the animal in us requires varying degrees of self control – or maybe chemical castration (tit for tat would mean actual) when Chaos threatens to ensue.