On the Trail of a Taboo: Female Circumcision in the Islamic World

By Foster, Charles | Contemporary Review, May 1994 | Go to article overview
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On the Trail of a Taboo: Female Circumcision in the Islamic World


Foster, Charles, Contemporary Review


ACCORDING to the chatter at European dinner parties, female circumcision is a sub-Saharan African phenomenon; something done by shammanistic witch doctors in darkened jungle huts while the women wave the fetish and the drummers drown the screams. In fact it is practised widely in the Islamic world, and specifically Muslim justifications for the practice have developed.

The taboo which attaches to discussion of the subject is spectacular. There are few quicker ways of being evicted from an Egyptian cafe than by talking loudly about clitoridectomy. 'Yes, it happens', a nervous student in Alexandria said. 'All of us know of the sister of a friend's friend who was taken to a country clinic. And then it sometimes goes wrong, and sometimes the girls die. But perhaps it is all a story.'

It is not a story. Female circumcision is recognised by all writers on the subject to be widespread in Oman and South Yemen. It is well documented in eastern and southern Libya and in the far south of Algeria. It is rumoured to be common amongst Shi-ite communities ruled by Hizbollah in Lebanon. In Amman, just after the Gulf War, Palestinians referred to the practice when denouncing as medieval and unenlightened the Iraqi refugees who had fled to the city. The Iraqi Shi-ites, I was told: 'Eat their pigs and cut their women'. An insult is not a good basis for a thesis, but the constant association of the practice with perceived religious heresy and fanaticism is interesting and probably significant.

Fifty per cent of Egyptian and ninety per cent of north Sudanese girls are said to be circumcised. In Somalia and Djibouti the figures are thought to be almost one hundred per cent.(1) Many of these girls are Muslim. But the old tribal religions have mixed well with Islam. The chants intoned as the cuts are made are often confused cocktails of Koranic text and pagan spell.

A doctor in a Cairo hospital, who had worked a good deal in the south, said that it was: 'a significant cause of mortality amongst girls in some remote villages. I don't know whether they are Muslim. Who cares. It is a horrible thing. And if you want any more information, don't come to me'.

Morocco, in theory, was a good place to look. Modern writers have stated that the practice does not occur there. But its Islam has always been perfused with a good deal of folklore. It is on the main trade routes from West Africa. Traditions have been imported with the caravans of bananas and groundnuts. It is not far from Mauritania, where a high proportion of girls are circumcised. The Berbers in the south have copied and adapted the West African Negro practice of ink-tattooing the faces of their women. If they interfere with their faces, why not, I thought, with their genitalia? And Morocco also has a tradition of expressing religious enthusiasm in imaginative and very unpleasant physical ways. Devotees of Ben Aissa's Aissaoua cult pierced their cheeks and tongues with daggers and ate live scorpions. The Hamacha, founded by Moulay Idriss, celebrated by throwing cannonballs into the air and allowing them to land on their skulls, shattering them.

A contact met me at the corner of Marrakesh's central square, the Djemaa el Fna. 'Come with me', he said, 'and I will show you where the girls bleed'. He led me past the chained monkeys and the storytellers and the dentist's table with its thousand and eight molars, and on into the coppersmiths' souk behind the Moussin mosque. He knocked at a door. A very old woman answered. The contact introduced me, and I introduced myself. I had heard, I said, about her house. Could I talk to her? She screeched at the guide, spat at me, and slammed the door. The contact shrugged and apologised and asked for his twenty dirhams. There were no other places that he knew of, and I must understand that he could not help me any more. All he knew was that 'it' went on here. It would be unfair to tell tales about people. That resolution withstood the offer of twenty more dirhams.

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