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This article was published in the "Editor's File" in
The Textbook Letter, September-October 1996.

Catching Up with FGM

William J. Bennetta

Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is a ritual that can take various forms. Sometimes it involves only the maiming of the victim's clitoris. Sometimes it is more extensive: The victim's entire clitoris is cut off, along with parts of her labia minora. And sometimes the mutilator cuts off the victim's clitoris and labia minora, removes parts of her labia majora as well, and then occludes her vagina by sewing together the bits of the labia majora that remain. If the victim survives this extreme procedure, she is left with lifelong debilities. Until she is married, her vagina remains occluded. Then it is opened up, so that her husband can use her for coitus and reproduction.

Where do these things go on? In lots of places, and notably in big cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. As immigrants have flocked to the United States from lands where FGM is traditional, they have brought FGM with them.

FGM is widely, but not invariably, connected to Islam. It did not originate in Islam, and it is not favored by all Muslims, but it has been fused to the practice of Islam in many countries of Africa, the Middle East and southeastern Asia. In some places this fusion has been remarkably thorough, and resident Muslim luminaries now declare that FGM is required by Quranic law.

Most (if not all) of the immigrants who practice FGM in the United States have come here from Africa. In typical cases, the mutilations are performed with scissors or knives or razor blades; and in typical cases, the mutilators do not employ anesthetics or aseptic methods.

Efforts to outlaw FGM in this country have become increasingly forceful during the past few years and have produced some legislative responses. At least seven states have adopted statutes that forbid FGM, and the federal government now has followed suit. Public Law 104-208, signed by President Clinton on 30 September, includes a provision that makes FGM a federal crime punishable by fine, imprisonment or both. Furthermore, it declares that persons who perform FGM within the United States will not be able to evade prosecution by asserting, or claiming to believe, that FGM "is required as a matter of custom or ritual."

Teachers who give high-school courses in cultural studies or in contemporary American history will want to consider these matters in their classes, for several reasons. First, students need to know something about FGM if they are to have a valid picture of the status of women in many African societies. Second, the importing of FGM into the United States from Africa underlines some cultural aspects of our immigration crisis. And third, the case of FGM will help students to understand that a foreign custom can be more than an anthropological curiosity -- if it is transplanted here, it may present a palpable challenge to American public policy and to public health.

One good source of information about FGM is the report "Female Genital Mutilation" in the Journal of the American Medical Association for 6 December 1995. Another is Linda Burstyn's article "Female Circumcision Comes to America" in The Atlantic Monthly for October 1995. (The phrase female circumcision is an older name for FGM. This phrase seems to be losing favor because it falsely suggests that FGM is no more traumatic than the familiar ritual in which a male baby is deprived of his foreskin.)


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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