Attitudes Surrounding the Continuation of Female Circumcision in the Sudan: Passing the Tradition to the Next Generation

By Williams, Lindy; Sobieszczyk, Teresa | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Attitudes Surrounding the Continuation of Female Circumcision in the Sudan: Passing the Tradition to the Next Generation


Williams, Lindy, Sobieszczyk, Teresa, Journal of Marriage and Family


This research examines behavioral and attitudinal data in order to investigate the perpetuation of the practice of female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, in the Sudan. During the recent Sudan Demographic and Health Survey, women were asked about their own circumcisions, as well as those done or planned for their daughters, and they reported what they (and their husbands) felt about the continuation of the practice. We analyze the data on the likely prevalence of daughters' circumcisions, along with the attitudinal data on the continuation of the practice and on the preferred type of circumcision where continuation is supported. Close to 90% of all women surveyed either had circumcised or planned to circumcise all of their daughters. Roughly half of those women reported favoring the most severe procedures. The practice is thus likely to continue to be widely practiced, and the most severe forms may well continue to be most common.

Key Words:female circumcision, gender, infibulation, Sudan.

The topic of female circumcision, or female genital mutilation, periodically produces heated debates in the academic community, among governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and in the popular press (see, for example, Dawit & Mekuria, 1993; Dugger, 1996; Egan, 1994; Farnsworth, 1994; Rosenthal, 1994, 1995). Interest in the practice has waxed and waned, but it appears to be on the rise again, as efforts at eradication by women and men in Africa and elsewhere recently have been increasing. Indeed, opposition to the practice now has become a feature of United States policy on human rights (Mackie, 1996). In this research, we examine attitudes toward the continuation of the practice in the Sudan.

Female circumcision is commonly practiced throughout much of Africa and also has occurred historically in parts of Asia, Australia, and perhaps in South America (Demographic and Health Surveys, 1991; El Dareer, 1982). Increasingly, there are women in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, usually in African expatriate communities, who have experienced some form of the practice, which varies in severity from a ceremonial washing of the tip of the clitoris to the removal of all female genitalia (Toubia, 1993). Immediate and longer-term effects of the more extreme forms of the practice include:

shock, haemorrhage, injury to adjacent organs, retention of urine and infections (such as septicaemia, tetanus, abscesses, urethritis, cystitis), and . . . scarring and keloid formation, recurrent urinary infection, retention of menses at menarche, vulval cysts and abscesses, and pelvic inflammatory disease (infection of the uterus and fallopian tubes). Childbearing may also be hazardous. Accumulated scarring, for example, may contribute to a protracted and painful labour, and haemorrhage may result from tearing through scar tissue or through the cervix or perineum.

Moreover, women have to be disinfibulated to enable the newborn to pass out, and there is an increased risk that the infant, in fact, will be brain damaged or suffer malformations. (Parker, 1995, p.513)

Although the more severe forms of the practice are viewed by many as abhorrent, they have been performed since ancient times (Demographic and Health Surveys, 1991; Hicks, 1993). Further, although the most severe forms of circumcision were banned in the Sudan in 1946, roughly 80% of ever-married women of reproductive age interviewed in 1989 and 1990 reported having undergone the most radical variation of the ritual. Hayes (1975) reported two decades ago that infibulation in the Sudan has remained an integral part "of the familial complex, and so, indirectly, of the entire socio-cultural system" (p. 622). It appears clear that laws prohibiting the extreme forms of circumcision still have not been internalized as norms in much of that country.

In this research, we describe the various types of circumcision experienced by girls, briefly discuss the terminology involved, and explore the reasons that generally are cited for the perpetuation of the custom.

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