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Religious Tolerance logo

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (GM/C) in
Africa, the Middle East & Far East

A cultural, not a religious, practice.
Forms of FGM/C. Where it is done

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Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is a destructive, invasive procedure that is usually performed on girls before puberty. Part or all of their clitoris is surgically removed. This leaves them with reduced or no sexual feeling. Orgasms are sometimes impossible to experience later in life. Many health problems result from the surgery.

FGM/C originated in Africa. It was, and remains, a cultural, not a religious practice.

Among individuals and groups opposed to the mutilation, it is seen as a method of reducing the sexual response of women in order to make them less likely to become sexually active before marriage or to seek extra-marital affairs after marriage.

To some who promote the operation, it is seen as a cultural requirement that has health benefits and makes women more physically beautiful. These views are not shared by the rest of the world.

The operation is forced on approximately 6,000 girls per day, worldwide -- about one every 15 seconds. Since FGM/C is practiced when the girls are young, they are unable to give their informed consent.

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FGM/C: A cultural, not a religious, practice:

This mutilating procedure is often associated mainly with the religion of Islam. This is incorrect. FGM/C is primarily a social practice, not a religious one. Female genital mutilation predated Islam. It originated in Africa and remains today a mainly African cultural practice. Some indicators of this are:

bulletIt is widely practiced in countries where the predominant religion is Christianity: Examples are Ethiopia and Kenya.

bulletIn multi-faith countries, it is often forced on girls whose families follow  all faiths: Animism religions, Christianity, and Islam. For example, it is frequently practiced among both Muslims, Christians and Animists in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. 1

bullet  FGM/C was once practiced by Ethiopian Jews (a.k.a. Beta Israel; formerly known by the derogatory term "Falashas"). 2, 3, 4.5 This practiced was apparently discontinued some time ago. A pediatrician who works in the Beta Israel community claims that they no do not practice FGM/C in Israel. Also, their daughters who were born in Ethiopia were not mutilated. 6

bulletFGM/C has spread to countries in or near Africa (e.g. Egypt) which are Muslim. But FGM/C is rare or nonexistent in many other Muslim countries. Examples are Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Also, It is not done in the Maghreb countries of Northwest Africa.

bullet FGM/C is only occasionally found in most predominately Muslim countries in Asia. However it is becoming more common in Indonesia due to lack of government will to discontinue the practice, and due to strong support for the practice by many Muslim groups. More details.


In some countries where FGM/C is practiced, there can be:

"... a strong perception that the practice of FGM/C is required by Islam. The engagement of religious leaders in public discussion has proven to be an essential element in raising awareness of this practice, disassociating it from religious considerations and creating an enabling environment for change. The sub-regional conference on FGM/C, hosted by the Government of Djibouti in February 2005, was notable for the two-day debate among religious leaders from Djibouti and neighboring countries on the theological dimensions of FGM/C. Following an important debate, the outcome document, the Djibouti Declaration, asserts that claims that the Koran requires FGM/C are baseless and reaffirms that all types of FGM/C are contrary to the religious precepts of Islam." 7

One of the motivations for this essay is the misperception by many people that the practice is a religious one found mainly in countries with a high percentage of Islamic believers. That belief has led to unjustified religious intolerance directed against Muslims.

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What the FGM/C procedure involves:

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM/C) is practiced in many forms. In order of increasing severity, they are:

bullet Type 1: Sunna mutilation in which the prepuce (the clitoral covering) is removed, along with part or all of the clitoris. This is called Clitoridectomy, Sunna, meaning removal of the clitoris in the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed. It is called "Sunna Kashfa" (Open Sunna) in Sudan. This is found most commonly in West African countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal.

bulletType 2: Excision: The entire clitoris and prepuce are removed, along with all or part of the labia minora. This is called "Sunna Magatia" (Closed Sunna) in Sudan. It is most commonly found in Burkina Faso and Sudan.

bullet Type 3: Infibulation (a.k.a. Pharaonic or Sudanese mutilation. This involves removal of the clitoris and prepuce, followed by sewing up of the vulva. A small opening is left to allow urine and menstrual blood to pass. 8 A second operation is done later in life to reverse some of the damage. In some cultures, the woman is cut open by her husband on their wedding night with a double edged dagger. She may be sewn up again if her husband leaves on a long trip. It is most commonly practiced in Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Mali, Somalia and Sudan. 9

There are also various other practices, including stretching of the clitoris and/or labia, burning of the clitoris and adjacent tissues by cauterization, scraping of the vaginal orifice, cutting the vagina, placing corrosive substances or herbs in the vaginal in order to tighten it, etc.

Because of poverty and lack of medical facilities, the procedure is frequently done under less than hygienic conditions, often by non-medically trained personnel, and usually without anesthesia. Razor blades, knives or scissors are usually the instruments used. 

In the rural Mossi areas of Burkina Faso, group female mutilations are scheduled every three years in many villages. Girls aged from 5 to 8 are assembled by their mothers into groups of up to 20. The mutilation:

"...uses a knife-like instrument, the barga, reserved specifically for this purpose; after each operation she simply wipes the knife on a piece of cloth, sometimes rinsing it in water first." 10

In some areas of Africa, FGM/C is delayed until two months before a woman gives birth. This practice is based on the belief that the baby will die if she/he comes into contact with their mother's clitoris during birth. We are unaware of any medical evidence to support this belief. Other areas perform FGM/C on infants before their first birthday, or much later during adolescence.

Side effects of the operation can include: intense pain, hemorrhage, shock, painful scars, keloid formation, labial adherences, clitoral cysts, chronic urinary infection, and chronic pelvic infections. Later in life, it can cause kidney stones, sterility, sexual dysfunction, depression, and various gynecological and obstetric problems.

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Where is it practiced?

Unfortunately, few statistical studies have been made; only rough estimates are available of the frequency with which FGM/C is performed. In some countries, the practice is near universal. One source 1 estimates that 90% or more of the girls in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan (North) have been mutilated. The same source indicates that over 50% of the girls in Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria and Togo have been operated on.

The FGM Education and Networking Project maintains a regularly updated list of countries, population groups, and the types of operation performed. There are over 30 million mutilated women currently living in Nigeria, and about 24 million in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Various groups estimate that from 114 to 130 million women alive today worldwide have had the operation. FGM/C is outlawed in some countries where it had been widely practiced, such as Kenya and Senegal. It is criminalized in some western countries, where it is normally practiced only by a small number of recent immigrants.

The procedure has been banned in several African nations, including Burkina Faso, Djibouti, the Central African Republic, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Senegal, and Togo. 11

With refugees and immigration becoming common from countries where FGM/C is practiced, the procedure is spreading to Europe, North America, and elsewhere.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

Many of the web sites referenced in the preparation of his essay have already gone offline.

  1. Sami A. ALDEEB ABU-SAHLIEH, "To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah: Legitimization of Male and Female Circumcision" Available on line at:
  2. Research, Action and Information Network for Bodily Integrity of Women (RAINBO) specializes in programs to eliminate FGM. They list many books and reports for sale at low prices. They also loan videos. See:
  3. Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahleih, "To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah,"   at:
  4. Wolf Leslau, "Coutumes et croyances des Falachas (Juifs d'Abyssinie)," Institut d'Ethnographie, Paris, (1957), Page 93.
  5. "FGM: Religion," Amnesty International, at:
  6. Private Email, received 2000-DEC-30.
  7. "Changing a harmful social convention: Female Genital Mutilation/cutting," UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Page 31, at: This is a PDF file.
  8. The Female Genital Mutilation Research Homepage contained a complete review of FGM. The web site appears to have been abandoned. 
  9. Sophie Poldermans, "Combating Female Genital Mutilation in Europe," Page 50, at:  This is a PDF file.
  10. B. Taverne, "Ethics and communication strategy: female circumcision and AIDS in Burkina Faso", (1996). On line at: Also offline.
  11. "28 on trial in France for female genital mutilation," Reuters, 1999-FEB-02

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Copyright © 1998 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1998-MAR-13
Last update: 2015-DEC-31

Author: B.A. Robinson
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