In parts of Northern and Western Africa, young women must pass through an initiation rite that sends shivers down the spine of several Westerners. Female circumcision, or excision, is viewed by many as a cruel and detestable practice.
“Because (excision) is a polarizing, controversial issue, it is very easy and almost automatic to recoil and reject it. Although that is an understandable reaction, one should still try to learn more about it,” said Dr. Carolyn DiPalma, a USF women’s studies professor and director of colloquial series who Thursday brought a lecturer to the USF Tampa Library to speak on the topic.
Excision is an ancient ritual typically performed by women to women that dates back 5,000 to 6,000 years. There are even some reports that Cleopatra was excised. Recently, case studies show that excision is harmful to women’s reproductive health. As it is performed outside of hospitals without anesthesia, the main concern is infection.
In excision, a young woman, usually between the ages of six and 12, undergoes a painful surgery to either partially remove or completely the clitoris and parts of the surrounding areas of the vagina. The social custom is performed due to the belief that this practice grants women the right to marry and inherit and for purification processes.
“Men are the source of this practice, but this is a women’s issue,” said Dr. Fatou Diop, a visiting Fulbright specialist on the Muslim world, who lectured on the divisive topic from an African perspective, where most of the ritual is still performed.
Diop specializes in research about a wide range of issues impacting women in Africa, including women in Islamic Africa and women’s access to technology in the developing world.
She has just returned from representing her country by making the hajj to Mecca and is a senior lecturer at the department of sociology at the University of Gaston Berger in Dakar, Senegal.
“In Senegal, some excists have been stopped, and now they help advocate against the practice,” Diop said.
In Senegal excision is outlawed. However, the practice occurs in rural areas where the population is difficult to reach.
Although human rights groups around the globe campaign against this ritual, Diop stresses that it is a social custom that cannot really be studied outside of the cultural context in which it is performed.
“Of the broad range of topics Dr. Diop could lecture about, I picked this one because it’s a topic that we desperately need a non-Western view about,” DiPalma said.
The presentation tackled the argument that the practice is performed because of religious commandment, which, according to Diop, is not a valid reason to continue the rite.
“There is no religious basis for the practice,” Diop said. Even though most of the countries in which this happens are Muslim, Islam is incorrectly linked to the initiation. According to Diop, The Qu’ran does not mandate this.
Approximately 2 million women face excision every year. A staggering 120 million women are estimated to have endured this procedure.