Female circumcision – a debate over human rights and cultural beliefs
How has the practice of female circumcision affected the rights of women and their social status in modern communities? Female circumcision has long been in practice in some communities in the form of religious beliefs. The practice of female genital mutilation reflects the belief of a dominant patriarchal society that does not support the right of womenfolk. Regina Wentzel Wolfe and Christine E. Gudorf in the case study on female circumcision in their book Ethics and World Religion: Cross-Cultural Case Studies (1999) highlights the social and cultural beliefs attached to the ritual and its implications on the status of women in the society.
The case study – context and analysis
Awa, the mother of two girls who are stepping into adulthood, does not like the idea of female circumcision and opposes her husband’s and mother-in-law’s wish to conform to traditional practices. The complexities of the decision are brought to the surface through a deeper exploration of social beliefs, emotional thoughts and practical implications associated to the ritual. The practice of female genital mutilation is based on the superstitious belief that a woman whose genitals are not cut off will not bear sons and the prospect of leading a happily married life is limited. Awa justifies the age-old practice by stating that the genitals of the girls who did not undergo circumcision “grew long and deformed until they hit her knees” and that they could not bear sons (p 24). She explains the consequences of the brutalities faced by young girls during the mutilation process and how it scars them for the rest of their lives.
The case study explores the social stigma attached to girls who refuse to undergo genital mutilation. These girls are not considered mature and ready for marriage till they are circumcised. A circumcised girl can assume different roles and responsibilities within the family and society, thus elevating their status. Women like Awa, who are brought up in Western culture, are aware of the negative aspects of the practice; however, they succumb to social pressures. Social norms and beliefs form a distinctive barrier to the elimination of this practice. Families are guided by community beliefs that strongly advocate the genital mutilation for young girls. This is exemplified by Joseph’s fear of losing his job and he voices his decision to get the girls circumcised. His statement “What good is it for the girls if they are saved from the circumcision and then they get sick from malnutrition, or are too poor to marry?” (p26) reflects the desperate position of the parents.
The case study raises questions on the rights of women in these communities and the religious beliefs that guide social practices. Awa does not believe in these traditions and is well aware of the fact that there is no scientific validity of the practice, but she is also aware of the social stigma attached to girls who do not undergo circumcision. Health issues and physical scarring are ignored by the community keepers and there is increasing pressure to abide by the traditions.
Female circumcision has raised concerns over women health, legal rights and social status. The case study highlights the belief system that supports such practices and how individuals are forced to accept these rituals as part of their lives. Such traditions are guided by patriarchal belief systems that believe in controlling the behavior and lives of the women in the community.
Wolfe, R.W. and Gudorf, C.E. (1999). Ethics and world religions: cross cultural case studies. New York: Orbis Books.