August Issue 2011
The Dark Side of Custom
“I was only seven years old when my aunt told me she was taking me shopping to buy some crayons. Little did I know what the actual purpose of our shopping trip was. With the crayons clutched tightly in one hand and my aunt’s finger in the other, I was taken to a dingy old place. And before I knew it, an unfamiliar old woman subjected me to an extremely invasive procedure. No one talked to me about it or prepared me for this. I clearly remember being very scared, but I quietly let that old woman continue with what she was doing. Although it wasn’t painful, I felt embarrassed, shocked and sick, all at once. We never brought it up at home. It was only when I grew older that I realised that each of my female cousins had gone through the same experience: female circumcision.”
The woman who shared the above story with Newsline spoke only on the condition of anonymity. She is one of the thousands of women across the country whose genitalia were mangled in their youth.
Common among specific communities in the country, female circumcision may be either an invasive procedure or a gentler symbolic moment. For the fortunate, it is carried out under hygienic conditions by a certified doctor. But most females undergo the process in an obscure place under the care of uncertified, clandestine practitioners.
Female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation and female genital cutting) refers to a variety of operations involving the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia. The reasons behind this painful procedure have cultural and religious roots. In many cultures, it is considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage.
Female genital mutilation is also often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking it to virginity and marital fidelity. As the procedure is believed to reduce a woman’s libido, it represents an attempt to control female sexuality and help women resist “illicit” sexual acts.
Dr Shershah Syed, an obstetrician/gynaecologist who devotes his practice to helping underserved women in Pakistan, confirms that he has come across cases in urban Pakistan where women have undergone the procedure.
“In Pakistan, with growing awareness [of the effects of female circumcision], they are now doing it merely symbolically, with only a bit of skin being removed. But even so, I find it to be in clear violation of human rights. There is absolutely no scientific evidence supporting any medical benefit of the procedure. In fact, it can lead to health complications,” says Dr Syed.
Such complications include urinary tract infections, infertility and scarring. Cysts may also develop, and the World Health Organisation has found that the practice increases the risk of infant mortality. Also significant is the reduction in how much sexual pleasure circumcised women can experience. With such consequences for a practice often carried out without the consent of the women in question, female genital mutilation is considered a serious human rights issue. Concerted international efforts to condemn the practice include February 6 being marked as “International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation” by the United Nations.
But some communities see the practice as an integral part of their culture. “I have two daughters and five nieces, all circumcised by doctors. I do not consider it a human rights violation because, according to our religious teachings, it has been divinely ordained. My faith dispels any doubts that some might put in my mind,” says Shaheen Abdullah. Recalling her experience, Abdullah says, “The procedure literally took all of one second. The sweet, gentle lady who had done it later comforted me. It was not painful at all. [And it has not] negatively affected my physical urges.”
It is also argued that female genital mutilation can be modernised and made less dangerous with the help of quality doctors and equipment. Dr Zahra Ali of the Bohra community, in which female circumcision has been carried out for generations, confirms that female genital mutilation is considered a religious obligation among her Bohra peers, while noting the increased safety of the process.
Ali explains, “Earlier, the practice was carried out by untrained daais (traditional birth attendants) who did it in a crude manner and, until a few decades ago, the entire clitoris of the woman would be removed. But over time I have seen a change in the mindset. Now, doctors in the community are taught the entire procedure and it is performed very hygienically.” The introduction of such professional practices to limit risks evinces the community’s desire to continue with the female circumcision they see as compulsory.
Dr Ali also adds that the practice these days is generally done for purely symbolic purposes, which she claims does not harm the woman physically or in terms of her libido. She concludes by stating, “The insidious way in which it was done earlier was painful and denied the women of a basic right. But now, things are much better.”
However, Dr Ali did admit that some members of the Bohra community still employ uncertified daais for the procedure, instead of seeking a qualified doctor. But her claim that female circumcision has medical benefits is undercut by Dr Syed, who categorically states that the procedure “has no health benefits.”
Concerns about the mental well-being of children subjected to this procedure are also starting to manifest themselves. Asma Pal, a counsellor, feels that “More than the act itself, the method adopted could cause serious psychological damage. A seven-year-old will retain the memory of being accosted literally and violated, which can result in long-standing physical intimacy issues.”
The risk of force is indeed high. While explaining why the procedure is generally carried out when girls turn seven, Dr Ali reveals that a key consideration is that “at that age, the girl is young enough to be held down forcefully if she tries to resist.”
Dr Uzma Ambareen, a psychiatrist, cautions that “the child should be forewarned if the family decides that this has to be done, or it could have traumatic effects later in her life. And upon reaching adulthood, this issue should be discussed to determine any psychological damage to the woman.” The risk of lifelong psychological scarring thus appears to be serious.
Journalist, activist and founding member of non-governmental organisation Shirkat Gah Najma Sadeque sees female genital mutilation as a “violation of human rights.” Sadeque emphasises the need for greater awareness about girls being coerced into having the operation. “The lack of awareness about the fact that this is practiced in Pakistan is surprising in itself,” she tells Newsline.
One woman Newsline interviewed went through female genital mutilation as a child and has never talked about it since. She says, “If you believe in it and it doesn’t harm you, I don’t see it as a human rights violation. But we need to question the practice. Whenever I have questioned it, I have received satisfactory answers from the religious elders of my community.” Perhaps the time has come for more women to stand up and seek their own answers.
(Some names have been changed or withheld to protect the privacy of the subjects).