Female Genital Mutilation in Islam
Female Genital Mutilation in Islam
Female Genital Mutilation (Arabic: ختان المرأة) is the practice of cutting away and altering the external female genitalia for ritual or religious purposes. It can involve both or either Clitoridectomy and Excision. Clitoridectomy is the amputation of part or all of the clitoris (or the removal of the clitoral prepuce). Excision is the cutting away of either or both the inner or outer labia. A third practice, Infibulation (or Pharaonic circumcision), is the paring back of the outer labia, whose cut edges are then stitched together to form, once healed, a seal that covers both the openings of the vagina and the urethra. Infibulation usually includes clitoridectomy.
UNICEF's 2016 report into FGM estimates that in the 30 countries surveyed at least 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM. Assuming a world population of 7.9 billion, this means that about one in twenty girls or women world-wide have undergone FGM.
About 80% of this FGM is attributable to Muslims. And assuming a world population of Muslims of 1.7 billion, this means that at least one in five (20%) Muslim women is mutilated.
FGM is found only in or adjacent to Islamic groups. The 20% of FGM attributable to non-Muslims occurs in communities living in FGM-practicing Islamic societies (e.g. the Egyptian Copts), or to non-Islamic societies that have been hubs of the Islamic slave trade (e.g. Ethiopia and Eritrea). About one in eighty (1.28%) non-Muslim women are genitally mutilated world-wide.
FGM predates Islam. The Banu Quraysh, Muhammad's native tribe, appear to have engaged in the practice (see FGM before Islam). Muhammad maintained the practice after migrating to Medina and is recorded as approving of the practice in four hadith. Two other hadith record the sahabah (Companions of Mohammed) engaging in the practice. The Qur'an contains no explicit mention of FGM. However, Qur'an 30:30, by exhorting Muslims to 'adhere to the fitrah' indirectly, but ineluctably exhorts Muslims to engage in FGM. (see FGM in the Qur'an and Hadith)
The FGM hadith give very few clues as to the nature of the practice they approve. Hence the nature, incidence and distribution of FGM varies between countries and communities. The most significant determining factor appears to be the presiding school of Islam (fiqh). Other factors include the culture's level of anxiety around female sexuality, its proximity to Islamic slave-trade routes (Infibulation is associated with the transportation of slaves), and the nature and degree of Christian influence ( see FGM in Islamic law).
Whilst most modern fatwas favour or defend FGM, there has been, over the past half century, a growing unease in the Islamic world concerning the practice (due to a growing concern on the part of organisations such as the UN and UNICEF). This has resulted in some fatwas critical of FGM. It appears that the earliest fatwa clearly critical of FGM was issued in 1984. (see Modern Fatwas and FGM as Un-Islamic)
The discussion, debate and analysis of FGM tends to focus exclusively on the question of whether it is Islamic or not. This is not surprising. It arises partly because the majority of Muslim don't practice FGM and have, over the past half century, become troubled by the sizeable minority of Muslims that do practice it. The focus on the doctrinal issue may also be in part, because it offer a shortcut to explaining the existence of FGM in the Islamic world: if a mother cites her religion as the reason for having her daughter mutilated, and that mother's imam decree the practice as required by Islam, then it feels that something has been demonstrated and proved.
However, as the section FGM before Islam demonstrates, FGM existed before Islam, and there is no evidence that pre-Islamic FGM was religiously-motivated. Thus it is unlikely that Islamic FGM can be entirely explained by obeisance to religious decrees - there must have been other reasons for its existence in pre-Islamic societies.
It is all too natural to consider FGM as nothing more than an arbitrarily misogynistic practice. However, it is actually a solution to certain social problems - albeit problems that not all societies suffer from, and that no society need suffer from. The section the origins of FGM will consider what these 'problems' are, and why they arise in some societies. A subsequent section (Islamic Doctrine Creating Social Conditions Favourable to FGM) shows how Islamic doctrine reproduces the very factors that made FGM useful or necessary in some pre-Islamic societies. A final section (FGM and the Uses of Trauma) considers how the social purposes of FGM is realised through the individual experience of the child undergoing FGM.
FGM in the Qur'an and Hadith
There is no explicit reference to Female Genital Mutilation in the Qur'an. However, the Quran 30:30 requires Muslims to 'adhere to the fitrah'.
The word 'fitrah appears only this once in the Qur'an, and is left undefined and unexplained. To know what 'fitrah means, traditional scholars turned to hadith which make use of the word. Note that this hadith uses the Arabic word khitan (ختان) for 'circumcision'.
Two other hadith use the word khitan in contexts where the procedure is unquestionably being performed on females (and only on females).
Other hadith use the word 'khitan to refer to both FGM and Male Circumcision.
Thus, the word 'khitan' appears to refer to both or either FGM and Male Circumcision. According to traditional interpretive methodology, Quran 30:30 by requiring Muslims to 'adhere to the fitrah' advocates FGM.
The following variant of the above Hadith reports Muhammad and Aisha having intercourse, and having to perform 'ghusl' (the ritual bath) because both were 'circumcised'. This represents an unambiguous 'approval' of FGM on the part of Muhammad (an 'approval' is where Muhammad, by not opposing or criticising an act of one of his followers, indicated that the act was Sunnah - i.e. Islamic). Note that this Hadith is rated as sahih (authentic).
A sixth Hadith reports Uthman, one of Muhammad's closest companions, having newly-converted women undergo FGM as part of their initiation into Islam. The word he uses is not الْخِتَانُ (khitan), but فَاخْفِضُو (khaffad), which translates as 'reduce them' or 'trim them'.
The remaining hadith includes an exchange of insults between Meccan warriors and Muhammad's companions prior to the battle of Uhud. It has little import doctrinally, but is of linguistic, historical and sociological interest because it appears to indicate that Muhammad's native tribe, the Banu Qaraysh, practiced FGM.
FGM in Islamic Law
Only one school of Islam - the Shafi'i - makes FGM universally obligatory. The other schools of Islam recommend it with differing levels of obligation. No school of Islam forbids FGM since nothing that Muhammad allowed can be prohibited.
- The Maliki school recommends FGM, but does not decree it as obligatory.
- The Hanafi school decrees FGM to be optional. The Hanafi is the school of fiqh which least favours FGM and Hanafi communities generally don't practice FGM.
- The Shafi'i school decrees FGM to be obligatory. Shafi'i countries genearlly have +90% FGM-rates. Infibulation, the most severe form of FGM practiced under Islam, is almost entirely attributable to followers of the Shafi'i school.
- The Hanbali school has have two opinions concerning FGM: some scholars decree it obligatory, other as 'honourable' and therefore recommended.
The attitudes of Shia Islam towards FGM are as not clear-cut as with the schools of Sunni Islam. The Jafari school appears to recommend FGM, while the Ismaili school (notably the Dawoodhi Bohras) treat it as obligatory.
For a compilation of about 40 fatwas concerning FGM issued since 1939 see Qur'an, Hadith and Scholars:Female Genital Mutilation#Modern Fatwas
The History of FGM
FGM before Islam
The hadith 'One Who Circumcises Other Ladies' suggests that FGM was practiced by the Banu Quraysh, Mohammed's native tribe, and that the FGM reported in the Hadith (which therefore took place after Mohammed's migration to Medina) was a practice carried over from pre-Islamic Mecca.
The Hadith tells how, prior to the battle of Uhud, Hamza, one of Mohammed’s companions, taunts the Meccan warrior, Siba. Hamza implies that Siba is like ‘Ibn Um Anmar’ – a woman who was a known circumciser of women. The more descriptive phrase muqteh al-basr – ‘one who cuts clitorises‘ – is used rather than the usual khitan.
This taunt suggests that clitoridectomy was practiced by the Quraysh, and that it was a role reserved for women, probably of low-status, hence its insulting nature when directed against a warrior. The taunt could only be effective if it humiliated Siba in the eyes of both his fellow Meccan warriors and also the Muslim warriors. Thus its use implies that members of both camps had knowledge of the practice and a shared culture of clitoridectomy. The fact that a circumciser of women could be famous (or notorious) also suggests that it was an established practice with the Meccan Quraysh.
There is evidence that FGM was practiced before the birth of Muhammad in the Middle East and along the African coast of the Red Sea. The following are listed in roughly chronological order.
There are reports that some Egyptian mummies show signs of FGC. However this appears to be disputed.
A spell or prayer found on an Egyptian coffin dating from sometime between 1991–1786 BC appears to refer to an uncircumcised girl.
An analysis of this hieroglyph by the Egyptologist Saphinaz-Amal Naguib suggests that the procedure referred to was not the infibulation that has become commonly associated with Ancient Egypt (hence ‘pharaonic’ circumcision), but rather clitoridectomy. This seems to be confirmed by other later Greek descriptions of the Egyptian practice.
A fragment referring to a fifth-century B.C. history by Xanthos of Lydia (Western Asiatic Turkey) uses the word 'castrated' in relation to women. It may refer to FGM, or some method of permanently sterilizing women.
'There are several classical references from the geographer Agatharchides of Cnidus (fl. 2nd century BC., who identified a tribe living on the west coast of the Red Sea which excised their women in the manner of the Egyptians, and that another group cut of in infancy with razors the whole portion that others circumcise'. 
A papyrus dated from 163 BC refers to the operation being performed on girls in Memphis, Egypt, to coincide with the time when they received their dowries.
Strabo (64 or 63 BC – c. AD 24), a Turkish-born Greek geographer, observed the practice whilst travelling up the Nile.
Another passage from Strabo suggests that Jews practiced FGM some time after Moses’ death.
The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC – 50 AD) reports in his ‘Questions on Genesis’:
The Greek physician Galen (129-c. 200 AD) notes that the Romans developed a procedure which involved slipping fibulae (the latin word for ‘brooches’) through the labia majora of female slaves as a form of contraception. He also notes in his ‘Introductio sive Medicus’:
Greek physician, Soranus of Ephesus (1st/2nd century AD. Ephesus was a Greek colony found on the west coast of Turkey) also noted the same procedure. One of the titles in his manual of gynecology is ‘On an excessively large clitoris’. The actual text of this chapter has not survived. However there exists a translation, probably from the the sixth century AD:
Caelius Aurelianus, a fifth-century AD physician from Sicca Veneria (modern el-Kef in Tunisia), synthesised much of Soranus’s work. In a chapter entitled ‘On an excessively large clitoris’, he wrote:
Closer to the time of Mohammed, the Byzantine Greek physician Aëtius of Amida (fl. mid-fifth century to mid-sixth century. Amida was located where modern Diyarbakır now stands in east Turkey) describes a clitoridectomy, citing the physician Philomenes:
For this reason, it seemed proper to the Egyptians to remove it before it became greatly enlarged especially at the time where the girls were about to be married.
The surgery is performed in this way: have the girl sit on a chair while a muscled young man standing behind her places his arms below the girl’s thighs. Have him separate and steady her legs and whole body. Standing in front and taking hold of the clitoris with a broad-mouthed forceps in his left, the surgeon stretches it outward, while with the right hand, he cuts it off at the point next to the pincers of the forceps.
It is proper to let a length remain from that cut off, about the size of the membrane that’s between the nostrils, so as to take away the excess material only; as I have said, the part to be removed is at the point just above the pincers of the forceps. Because the clitoris is a skin-like structure and stretches out excessively, do not cut off too much, as urinary fistula may result from cutting such large growths too deeply.After the surgery, it is recommended to treat the wound with wine or cold water, and wiping it clean with a sponge to sprinkle frankincense powder on it. Absorbent linen bandages dipped in vinegar should be secured in place, and a sponge in turn dipped in vinegar placed above. After the seventh day, spread the finest calamine on it. With it, either rose petals or a genital powder made from baked clay can be applied. This [prescription] is especially good: Roast and grind date pits and spread the powder on [the wound]; [this compound] also works against sores on the genitals'
Paulus of Aegina (Aegina is one of the Saronic islands of Greece), a 7th Century AD urologic surgeon, was something of an expert and gives his version of how to perform the procedure (the word ‘nympha’ usually refers the labia minora, but here seems to be being also used of the clitoris):
FGM since 622 CE
reported that inland from Mogadishu a group has
James Bruce also reports that the Catholic missionairies in Egypt thought Copts practiced excision “upon Judaic principles”, therefore, they “forbade, upon pain of excommunication, that excision should be performed upon the children of parents who had become Catholics”.
Browne reported in 1799 that Egyptians practice female excision, and that infibulation to prevent pregnancy is general among female slaves, who come from the Black south.
Other travelers to Egypt (Larrey 1803 and Burckhardt in 1819) confirm Browne and claim that Moslem slave traders infibulated young female captives.
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The explorer Sir Richard Burton claimed that “Female circumcision […] is I believe the rule among some outlying tribes of Jews.”
The origins of FGM
The roots of FGM as lie in polygyny, particularly the kind of extreme polygyny that existed at the heart of empires, where some men could become powerful and wealthy enough to afford harems of hundreds of concubines (the word 'concubine' is a euphemism for sex-slave).
In a monogamous marriage a husband and wife can spend much time together (and thus better monitor each others fidelity), can develop strong bonds, and their sexual and emotional needs are more-or-less proportional. But in polygynous societies the high-status men who can afford to keep multiple wives face a problem guaranteeing the fidelity of their many wives, whom he must satisfy emotionally and sexually, and provide with offspring. If these needs are not satisfied, his wives will be tempted to be unfaithful, and this may result in the high-status man rearing children that are not his own - the worst outcome for a man, genetically speaking. The consequence of this is that the modesty, chastity, fidelity and purity of girls and women, wives and potential wives, is an aggravated anxiety amongst polygynous men. And the greater their polygyny the greater the anxiety.
Chastity assurance practices therefore evolve which assure the chastity of multiple wives: harems, guarded by eunuchs, imprison 'concubines'; footbinding (as once practiced by the Chinese) imprisoned girls and women by reducing their mobility; chaperoning and gender segregation eliminate interactions between the sexes; arranged and child marriages obviate the dangers that romance and courtship pose to a girl's chastity and reputation; veiling makes dehumanise girls, making them less identifiable and desirable to other males. FGM is a chastity assurance practice. It reduces women's capacity for sexual pleasure both physically (through the removal of the clitoris and labia, or sealing the vagina shut) and mentally (through the effects of trauma).
In polygynous societies:
- the only acceptable role for a girl to aspire to is that of 'wife'. A girl can only better her life by marrying a rich man;
- the wealth gradient tends to be steeper – the poor poorer, the rich richer;
- a married high-status man remains available to further marriages (unlike in monogamous societies);
- marriages involve the payment of a brideprice by the groom (or his family) to the bride (or her family), which will be higher from a rich man than from a poor man;
- marriage to high status men is advantageous to the bride's family, who will benefit not only from the bride-price, but also from having a high-status male as a relative.
Thus in polygynous societies it is preferable to be the nth wife of a rich man than the sole wife of a poor man. This makes polygynous societies intensely hypergynous (hypergyny: the tendency for women to marry men of higher social status).
To stand a chance of making an 'advantageous' marriage girls must meet the requirements of the high-status polygynous men i.e. persuade him that she is 'pure', chaste and will be faithful. This is demonstrated by adopting the chastity assurance practices required by polygynous elite, whether it be FGM and/or other practices mentioned earlier. The intensely hypergynous nature of polygynous societies means that the marriage requirements of high-status polygynous men cascade down through the ranks of society, and are adopted by almost all families.
In polygynous societies the marriage market heavily favours polygynous elite men, because they are relatively few elite polygynous men whilst there are many lower-ranking potential brides. Lower-ranking families must therefore compete with each other to persuade higher-ranking men to marry their daughters. It is not enough to simply adopt the elite’s marriage-practices, the daughter has to be made to stand out from the crowd of other candidates hoping to make a hypergynous match.
A girl’s fidelity, purity and chastity becomes her most important selling-point and the more spectacularly she can advertise this the better. Families therefore seek to make conspicuous the ‘honour’ of their lines, the purity of their females, and their commitment to the values of chastity, fidelity and modesty. In a process analogous to Sexual Selection in Nature, female modesty takes on a competitive value rather than an intrinsic one and this provokes an ‘inflation’ of modesty practices and attitudes: “one wrong word about my sister and I will kill you”…”the smaller the foot, the better the family”….”the more extreme the cutting the better the girl’s reputation”…”the more harshly a family punishes its females’ immodesty, the more likely she is to be pure”…
FGM (and other chastity assurance practices) become a symbol, a proxy, for chastity and fidelity. Girls and families who do not observe these chastity assurance practices are stigmatised as 'impure', contaminating and guaranteed to be unfaithful if anyone should have the misfortune to marry them. They become 'untouchable' and suffer discrimination, ostracism and persecution. Only the daughters of the poorest families, who can not afford to engage in such practices, remain unmutilated. They serve as public demonstrations of the ignominy that results from not following the society's modesty practices. The avoidance of stigma becomes as much an incentive to mutilate one's daughters as making a good marriage.
Communities that practice FGM tend to do so at near 100% levels. This universality of FGM within a local intramarrying community generates folk beliefs: that women must have excessively lascivious natures to require such scrupulous guarding and restraint; that the clitoris will grow to the length of a goose’s neck if not removed during childhood; that contact with the clitoris kills, be it the baby during birth or the husband during intercourse; that FGM enhances a woman’s facial beauty; that an 'uncut' vulva is ugly; that a ‘cut’ vulva is more pleasurable to the husband; that FGM enhances fertility; that FGM improves a woman's health and hygiene. These folk beliefs are self-enforcing because the believed consequences of violating them are sufficiently grave that their truth is never tested – they are ‘belief traps’. This is the case not only with those folk beliefs which threaten death, but also those which postulate the un-marriageability of the uncut girl.
FGM persists even if its originating conditions lapse, and even when the majority of the community wish to abandon the practice. In a community where it is a pre-condition of marriage that a girl should be mutilated, a parent who doesn't have his daughters mutilated risks having unmarried daughters and having to support those daughters for the rest of their lives, and also suffer the stigma and persecution that comes with having uncut daughters. Thus the consequences of not having his daughters mutilated only serve to reinforce, in the eyes of the community, the necessity of having one's daughters mutilated. The only way a community can abandon FGM is if the whole community, or a significant part of it, in a coordinated manner, pledges to not mutilate their daughters and also, crucially, pledges to only marry their sons to unmutilated girls. This approach - the Pledge Association method - worked spectacularly well with footbinding in China. However, it has been much less successful with FGM, probably because footbinding was a secular practice, whereas FGM is a religious one.
Islamic Doctrine Creating Social Conditions Favourable to FGM
Debates concerning FGM and Islam are generally conducted in terms of what Islamic doctrine explicitly decrees concerning FGM. But moral entities (which can be institutions, groups, individuals and ideologies) are responsible not just for what they explicitly command or forbid, but also for what they allow, what they encourage, and what they indirectly bring about: a mother does not need to compel her toddler to play with a loaded gun for her to be responsible for any harm that results from it doing so; she merely has to allow her toddler to play with the loaded gun - or not take reasonable measures to prevent it from doing so. Likewise, few 19th century industrialists intended their factories to produce pollution. But pollution was a consequence of their choices, actions and failures to act. Thus a religion's responsibilities (and identity) do not stop with doctrine, but also include the consequences of doctrine, including consequences that may be unintended, or that some may consider undesirable.
A society's kinship system has far-reaching implications for the rest of the culture, determining laws, beliefs and institutions that, at first sight, can appear unrelated to kinship and reproduction. Islam, in allowing and encouraging polygyny, reproduces the originating conditions for FGM. As this section will make clear, Islam also enshrines in doctrine, custom and law other consequences of polygyny, such as bride-price, veiling, gender segregation, arranged marriage, child marriage, and obsession with feminine 'purity'. Indeed, Islam could be characterised as the codification and sacralisation of polygyny and of the consequences of polygyny.
Thus, even if Islamic doctrine didn't explicitly mandate/allow FGM, it would still be associated with Islam, since it also sacralises the causes of FGM, and also sacrailises the consequences of FGM, which erect round the practice an institutional and normative armature that rewards, justifies and normalises FGM, and make it 'useful'.
Monogamous kinship systems approach a state of equilibrium where every man and woman can expect to find a spouse. This state of equilibrium cannot occur in a polygynous system since - assuming an equal number of females and males in the society - every extra wife one man takes will deprive another man of the possibility of finding a bride (imagine a desert island with five men and five women and what happens if one man takes two wives...). Females in polygynous communities thus become become a rare commodity with both inherent value (their attractiveness, their reproductive and home-making capacities) and status value (the more you have, the higher a husband's status). This fuels a dynamic where the demand for marriageable females always exceeds the supply, where elite men can never have enough wives and poor men are doomed to systemic bachelorhood/celibacy.
The 'bride-famine' that develops amongst poor low-status men is addressed by introducing ever more females to the marriage system. One way of doing this it to make marriageable ever-younger girls and of ever-closer relatives - hence the legitimacy of child and first-cousin marriages in polygynous societies. Females can also be captured from outside the community in raids and wars, either to be taken as wives, or sold as sex-slaves to the elite. But even these measures do not alleviate the Bride Famine. And where raids are not an option - celibate young men direct their sexual frustration towards females closer to home: the girls and women of their community. Thus Polygynous societies are inherently violent, and particularly sexually violent.
This endemic sexual violence further amplifies the society's anxieties with regard to the chastity and purity of their females - leading them to sequester and protect their females even more from young men. This is a positive feedback dynamic whose endpoint is the complete absence and invisibility of non-familial females from the lives of the low-status young men, who are doomed to systemic and chronic bachelorhood.
The case of Liberia seems to confirm that an Islamic-style kinship system alone is sufficient to cause FGM, without doctrine explicitly mandating/recommending FGM. In Liberia FGM is practiced as an initiation rite into women's secret societies. A 2020 survey found that 38.2% of Liberian girls and women have been subject to FGM, yet only 12% of Liberia's population is Muslim. However, Liberia's marriage and kinship practices are essentially Islamic: men can have up to 4 wives, a third of all Liberian marriages are polygamous, a third of married women aged between 15-49 are in polygamous marriages, and married woman's rights to inherit property from her spouse are restricted. Liberia suffers from the sexual violence that is a characteristic of polygynous societies, and to which chastity assurance practices such as FGM are a response (it should be taken into account that Islamic polygyny and FGM were probably introduced to the region by Islamic immigration from Sudan, from empires based in today's Mali, starting from the 13th or 14th century, and later by the influx of infibulated women escaping the slave trade).
The supposed perfection of Islam, makes it hard for Muslims to identify the social causes of the sexual violence endemic to their societies. It is instead attributed to notions that female sexuality is excessive, indiscriminate and dangerous if left unchecked by chastity assurance measures such as FGM. Islam thus favours a plethora of dysfunctional marital, sexual and kinship practices. It overvalues the chastity and purity of females whilst, at the same time, creating sexually violent societies which put that very chastity and purity at increased risk. The solutions Islam offers to this conundrum exacerbate the problems and create a social and normative context in which chastity assurance measures such as FGM, become useful or even necessary.
Islam permits sex-slavery, nor limits the number of sex-slaves a man can own.
Gerry Mackie suggests that it is extreme polygyny that gives rise to chastity assurance measures such as FGM. In a closed system (where females are not imported), the extent of polygyny is limited by the number of females in the system and the number of of systemically agamous young men (which, being a cause of crime, conflict and unrest, is a destabilizing force). Extreme polygyny is therefore only possible if sex-slaves are introduced into the system. We can note that the famously large harems of the Sultans, Shahs and Sheiks scrupulously respected Islamic law (e.g. the Sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif of Morocco had four wives and at least 500 'concubines', and Fat′h Ali Shah Qajar, the second Shah of Iran, also had 4 wives, but also a harem of 800-1000 'concubines'). Extreme polygyny without sex-slavery (i.e. females forcibly imported into the system) creates correspondingly extreme bride-famines at the bottom of society, and also deprives the affected men of a means whereby to relieve that famine. This makes for unstable societies - where the interdiction on capturing sex-slaves would not, anyway, be respected.
Furthermore polygyny that is strictly restricted to a maximum of four wives (with no sex-slavery permitted) loses its power as a status symbol and becomes less desirable to elite men, and likewise diminishes the community's hypergynous drive. Thus in the absence of sex-slavery polygyny tends to diminish and die out.
Historians estimate that two thirds of slaves under Islam were girls or women. Whilst local raids on neighbors fuel tribal polygyny, Islamic polygyny (due to religious fervour, a preference for exotic women and a reluctance to take fellow Muslims as slaves) drew on sources of slaves from far afield - especially Africa. This involved captured women and children in long treks across the continent, often to Ethiopia or Zanzibar for transportation to Arabia. These treks were risky and took a heavy toll on the captives. After eunuchs, virgins (i.e. prepubescent or adolescent girls) were the most valuable commodity. Infibulation (the sealing up of the vagina) developed as a verifiable (by potential customers) protection and guarantee of the virginity of these girls over these long hazardous treks (four out of five slaves died during the forced march to the slave trading post at Zanzibar). There appears to be a correlation between the historical centres of the Islamic slave trade and the distribution of infibulation today, and the influence of the Islamic slave trade could explain the pervasiveness of FGM in Islamic Africa today.
It should be noted that under the Islamic slave trade boys suffered even more than girls. In a process analogous to infibulation captured boys between the age of ten and fifteen were systematically castrated in order to become eunuchs to guard the harems of elite Muslim men. Malek Chebel estimates the death rate had a 10% survival rate, Charles Gordon (1833 – 1885), governor of Khartoum, estimated the procedure had a 0.5% survival rate. This rate of morbidity made eunuchs extremely rare, and worth about twelve times the other slaves.
The payment of bride-price (mahr) by the groom (or his family) to the bride (or her family) is mandatory in Islamic law.
All marriages in polygynous kinship systems involve some kind of bride-price. The scarcity of marriageable females cause by polygyny turns them into a valuable asset, that is cashed in when she is 'sold' in marriage. The scarcer marriageable women are the greater the dowries. This makes marriage un-affordable to low-ranking young men, even if they do manage to find a bride. But if a girl is perceived to be unchaste, or if she’s been a victim of sexual violence, she becomes impure and un-marriageable, and loses all her economic value. This leaves her family stuck with a valueless commodity that they must support for the rest of their lives. This creates a further incentive for parents to engage in chastity assurance practices such as FGM.
Child marriage is universal to polygynous societies. Introducing little girls into the marriage market is a response to the the scarcity of women caused by polygyny. Dowry further incentives child-marriage, as it becomes advantageous for parents to ‘sell-off’ their daughters before adolescence, when reputations (and therefore also the girl's economic value) are at greater risk. The bride-price for a child is generally less than for an adolescent or adult woman. This makes children a more affordable to poor and low-status men.
Polygyny increases mens' anxieties and doubts concerning paternity. Polygyny also also creates anxieties connected to the general management of multiple wives. Therefore submissiveness, obedience, manipulability - characteristics more pronounced in younger brides - are characteristics of a wife that are more valued in polygynous societies than in monogamous ones. It has been observed that polygamous men select younger girls as wives (even as first wives) than monogamous men. In monogamous societies, the incest taboo extends not only to daughters but also to women young enough to be a man's daughter. This separation of generations does not naturally occur in polygynous cultures. Polygyny thus sexualises the society's perception of prepubescent girls, making them vulnerable to the sexual violence endemic to polygynous societies. This drives down the age at which chastity assurance practices (including FGM) are felt to be required.
Sexual dysfunction and incest
Long-term prisoners and boys in single-sex boarding schools, when deprived of contact with female coevals, tend to direct their sexuality at the next best things available - viz. other boys or other prisoners. Under Islamic restriction,s boys and girls are deprived of contact with unrelated coevals of the opposite sex. The next best thing available - those whose faces are visible, to whom they can talk, whom they might touch - will be mothers, aunts or sisters - or other boys, babies and children, or even livestock. The evidence for the effects of this on sexual health is anecdotal, but one can hypothesise that rates of incest, bestiality, paedophilia and otherwise deviant sexuality will be higher in polygynous societies, especially where multiple chastity assurance practices are in place, and that paedophilia, incest and bestiality are considered more acceptable than in monogamous cultures, where chastity assurance practices are absent. FGM, infibulation in particular, may serve as much to protect a girl's chastity from the attentions of immediate family members, as from sexual violence of the wider community.
Violence against girls and women
Social scientists such as Joseph Heinrich, et al. and William H. Tucker  have shown that polygynous societies are by their very nature belligerent and sexually violent. These societies develop chastity assurance measures to protect girls and women from this sexual violence.
The bride-famine created by polygyny dooms a sizeable proportion of young men to systemic bachelorhood. The resulting sexual frustrations can be relieved by them capturing females from neighbouring tribes and countries. However, a more available and less dangerous option is to engage in sexual violence towards girls and women of their own community.
Polygyny by increasing the society's anxieties around the 'purity', chastity and reputations of girls and women, gives rise to 'honour culture' – whereby excessive measures and excessive punishments are used to control girls and women, and to stop the family's honour being sullied by any (actual or percieved) unchastity of female members. This honour, once lost, can only be restored by severe and violent punishment and revenge, including murder of the female family member and/or the male that compromised her honour.
Polygynyous societies (including Islamic ones) are pervaded by a generalised violence: rape and other forms of sexual aggression, male circumcision, the licitness of wife-beating, public executions and amputations, the glorification of violence in the Qur'an and the Sunnah, the requirement of Jihad, and animal cruelty, including halal slaughter and the mass public slaughter of animals during Eid, – all act to desensitize the culture to the violent nature of practices such as FGM.
The polygynous family
Polygynous households are characterised by (as compared to monogamous households):
- competition and rivalry among co-wives,
- high spousal age gaps,
- low genetic inter-relatedness within the household,
- reduced confidence as to the husband's paternity of the children (which increases his sexual jealousy and anxiety),
- reduced paternal involvement with children (e.g. Osama bin laden’s father had 54 children by 22 wives and is reputed to have not known many of his children's names),
- ease of divorce for the husband (but not for wives), which creates insecurity for wives, encouraging submissiveness and acceptance of spousal and child abuse,
- more step-parents
- increased levels of violence towards wives and children.
All these factors correlate with increased neglect of, and violence towards, children, either from the father or from step-mothers. Data from 22 sub-Saharan African countries finding that children of (rich) polygynous families were 24.4% more likely to die compared with children of (poor) monogamous families. Fathers have less involvement with their many wives, and even less involvement with their even more numerous children . Islam encourages parents, relatives and teachers to treat and discipline children in ways that are considered unnecessarily harsh in the non-Muslim world. All this and the physical violence and wife-beating that is common in polygynous/Islamic families normalises the cruelty of FGM.
FGM and the Uses of Trauma
Islamic FGM is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a 'Rite of Passage'. Rites of Passage are essentially symbolic whilst FGM is functional (as a chastity assurance measure) and technical (its performance is more akin to, for example, a visit to the dentist than a religious service). But the FGM practiced where Islamic influence is weakest (e.g. coastal West Africa) often takes on aspects of initiation ritual and loses aspects of Islamic FGM, for example the Islamic anxieties around 'purity' are entirely absent in the FGM practiced by the Sandé of Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Rites of Passage are marked by three stages:
- Severance - where the initiand breaks with previous people, practices and routines;
- Transition - the creation of a tabula rasa through the removal of previously taken-for-granted forms and limits. The rite follows a strictly prescribed sequence, under the authority of a master of ceremonies. This stage has a destructive nature which facilitates considerable changes to be made to the identity of the initiand.
- Incorporation - the initiand is re-incorporated into society with a new identity, as a “new” being with a higher social status. 
Islamic FGM lacks the element of 'severance' as it generally occurs at home or hospital with family members present and often participating; FGM does not involve a 'transitional' phase, not even prayers; and there is no 'incorporation' - a girl's status after FGM being largely the same as before (however - 'uncut' girls are frequently bullied, shunned and stigmatized by their 'cut' peers. The fact that this bullying stops after the girls have undergone FGM suggests the procedure does confer some increased status).
Rites of passage are public or semi-public, with either the whole community or initiates as witnesses. Islamic FGM is generally a private and secretive affair occurring within the family. With rites of Passage a Master of Ceremonies imparts secret or occult knowledge to the initiand. No such thing occurs with Islamic FGM. Rites of Passage occur at important transitional life events (such as birth, puberty, marriage, death); Islamic FGM can occur any time between birth and puberty, and its timing may depend on quite practical factors: for example, families and isolated villages, rather than having to pay for a ‘cutter’ to visit as each daughter reaches a certain age, will have all their daughters cut during a single visit of the ‘cutter’, girls from a wide range of ages therefore being cut at the same time.
However, FGM and Rites of Passage do share one characteristic: they both involve a deliberate ordeal (a 'destructive nature') which brings about permanent physical and psychological changes.
This is reflected in the fact that anaesthetics are generally not used, even when available.
Why are anaesthetics not used?
There are several possible reasons. It may be that mothers and other older females in the family expect their daughters to undergo the same procedure (and suffering) that they did; anaesthetics may be unavailable or too expensive for poor families; the illegality of FGM in many countries may make anaesthetics hard to obtain for 'cutters' - or discourage those who can legitimately obtain and use anaesthetics (such as doctors, midwives and nurses) from practicing FGM. The non-use of anaesthetics may also be to some extent due to the fact that cultures that practice FGM do not perceive it as a medical matter but a religious or technical matter and the concerns, priorities and paraphernalia of medical procedures don't apply. This may also explain why it is so often performed with crude instruments, with no regard to asepsis.
However, probably the most significant factor is that trauma is part of the functionality of FGM. This may explain why why anaesthetics are generally not used even when the mutilation is performed by nurses in a medicalised environment (see photograph to the right).
Ordeal, pain and fear are used in rites of passage to alter the identity and personality of the initiand and it appears that FGM makes use of pain to the same ends.
PTSD is almost universal in girls who have undergone FGM. This is the psychological state produced by the 'ordeals' of in Rites of Passage, which are designed to break the person down in order that the 'new person' be reconstructed. In an act analogous to slave-branding - whereby arbitrary violence and pain was used to render the slave manipulable and submissive to his/her master, the child learns that people she loves and trusts are capable of betraying her, and of inflicting great violence and pain. This makes her submissive not just to her family, but also to her community, her religion, her god and to her future husband.
FGM is usually written about in terms of it being a crime against women, that it is women who suffer from FGM and its consequences. However, it should be remembered that the victims of FGM are children, that FGM is a crime against the child long before it is a crime against the woman. FGM makes it probable that the child's first and most intense experience of her sexuality is one of cruelty, betrayal, pain and prolonged suffering. This is likely to generate anxieties considerable anxieties around her body, her sense of self, her sexuality, and of sexuality in general - and implant in the the child (and the woman she will eventually grow up to be) a dysfunctional relationship to her body, to her sexuality and the sexuality of others. This will manifest itself socially in her being more chaste, modest, pure and asexual - which is the ultimate goal of FGM.
As such FGM, especially when performed without anaesthetics, can be said to deliberately make use of trauma as a tool of psychological and social engineering.
FGM as Un-Islamic
As the above quote suggests, the idea that FGM might be un-Islamic appears to be relatively new. The earliest fatwa clearly critical of FGM appears to be from 1984 and since then there have been fatwas critical of FGM. However, most are favourable towards the practice. (see Modern Fatwas)
An Ngram for the terms ‘fgm’, ‘female genital mutilation’ and ‘female circumcision’ shows an increased use of ‘mutilation’ and 'FGM' as against the more anodyne 'circumcision' starting around 1990. This coincides with the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which first identified female genital mutilation as a harmful traditional practice, and mandated that governments abolish it as one of several 'traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children'. Soon afterwards organisations such as the World Health Organisation (1995), the Council of Europe (1995), and UNICEF & UNFPA (1997) also issued reports critical of FGM.
For the first time narratives critical of FGM started penetrating the Islamic world, parts of which began to feel uneasy about Islam's association with FGM, and have consequently sought to de-link the two by showing that FGM is un-Islamic.
The 'FGM as un-Islamic' narrative is reinforced by the fact that it is a minority of Muslims that practice FGM. Immigration to the West has till recently come countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey, or the Maghreb that are either Hanafi (the school of fiqh which least favours FGM, merely ruling it as 'optional') or (as in the case of the Maghreb countries) practices a Maliki Islam that appears to eschew FGM. These immigrant populations have effectively imported the 'FGM is un-Islamic' narrative to the West. This narrative is challenged by the rise in immigration from countries such as Indonesia and Somalia, and the Kurdish Middle East, where FGM-rates are high and the practice is accepted as compatible with Islam.
The 'FGM is un-Islamic' narrative is further reinforced because the practice gives rise to a dilemma whereby telling the truth (or even just making known facts and evidence) is likely to aggravate the problem. In recent decades many agencies and charities have engaged themselves in the fight against FGM. These agencies face a particular challenge when interacting with individuals and populations who practice FGM: how, for example, does an anti-FGM charity respond to a Somali mother who asks whether FGM is Islamic? If the charity worker tells her about the FGM in the hadith, and how FGM is part of the fitrah (which Qur'an 30:30 exhorts Muslims to adhere to - see FGM in the Qur'an), and how the school of fiqh which the Somali woman follows, the Shafi'i, makes FGM mandatory - then that mother will come away from that interaction more likely to have her daughter mutilated, not less. This dilemma is faced not just by on-the-ground charity workers, but the whole hierarchy of institutions devoted to combating FGM, including politicians, the media and academia.
The following are the principal arguments defending the proposition that FGM is un-Islamic (each item in the list links to a full analysis and evaluation of each argument).
- FGM Is Not Required by Islam
- There Is No FGM in the Qur'an
- FGM Existed Before Islam
- FGM Is an African Practice
- Christians Practice FGM Too
- Not All Muslims Practice FGM
- The FGM Hadith Are Weak
- The Qur'an Forbids Mutilation
- 'Circumcision' is not Mutilation
- There Is No Record of Muhammad Having His Wives or Daughters Circumcised
- Muhammad Wanted to Forbid FGM but Couldn't
- Qur'an, Hadith and Scholars:Female Genital Mutilation
- Female Genital Mutilation in Islamic Law
- 'Delinking Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting from Islam'
- A Critique of the above (Delinking Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting from Islam)
- UNICEF Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: a Global Concern (2016)
- What Percentage of Global FGM is done by Moslems ?
- 'Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account' Gerry Mackie (1996)
- Prevalence of and Support for Female Genital Mutilation within the Copts of Egypt: Unicef Report (2013)
- A Profile of Female Genital Mutilation in Ethiopia
- p54 "Sexual Mutilations: A Human Tragedy" By International Symposium On Sexual Mutiliations 1996
- 'Agatharchides of Cnidus: On the Erythraean Sea' by Stanley M. Burstein
- Questions on Genesis - Philo
- 'Female Genital Cutting: the Beginning of the End' Gerry Mackie (2000)
- 'Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A New Look at the Theory' - John Lejeune and Gerry Mackie (2008)
- The puzzle of monogamous marriage by Joseph Henrich et al. (2012)
- Liberia - 28 Too Many
- 'All my 888 children' by Nando Pelusi Ph.D. in Psychology Today
- 'Esclavage, l’histoire à l’endroit' by Bernard Lugan
- 'L'esclavage en terre d'Islam' by Malek Chebel
- 'Monogamy Made Us Human' by William Tucker
- 'Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human' by William Tucker
- Polygamy and African Sex Kidnappings by William Tucker
- Mende Sowei part 1 - youtu.be/ZTjU1dyavRw
- Mende Sande Initiation Part 2 - youtu.be/zTanZWkvm5o
- Liminality - Rites of Passage - Arnold Van Gennep
- Rite of Passage
- 'The day I saw 248 girls suffering genital mutilation' by Abigail Haworth, The Guardian (2012)
- I was 7 when I was mutilated while my aunt held me down
- THE UNCUT GIRLS’ CLUB
- Image cropped from larger photo - for original see https://web.archive.org/web/20220220093630/https://i0.wp.com/freethoughtblogs.com/taslima/files/2012/06/Kurdish-girl.jpg?ssl=1
- Cognitive behavioral therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety disorders in women and girls living with female genital mutilation: A systematic review - Adegoke Adelufosi et al (2017)
- Psychopathological sequelae of female genital mutilation and their neuroendocrinological associations - Anke Köbach et al
- 'Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Memory Problems After Female Genital Mutilation' - Alice Behrendt, Dipl.-Psych. Steffen Moritz, Ph.D.
- p54 "Sexual Mutilations: A Human Tragedy" By International Symposium On Sexual Mutiliations 1996
- Convention on the Rights of the Child
- Female genital mutilation : report of a WHO technical working group, Geneva, 17-19 July 1995
- Female Genital Mutilation - A Joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA Statement
- Effect of female genital mutilation/cutting on sexual functions - Mohammad-Hossein Biglu et al
- 20 Organizations Fighting Female Genital Mutilation