FGM: A Story of the World’s Oldest Patriarchy?

6 February 2017

“The people who practice Female Genital Cutting [FGM] are honourable, upright, moral people who love their children and want the best for them. That is why they practice [FGC] and that is why they will decide to stop practicing it once a way of stopping is found…” (Mackie, 2000: 280)

FGM is a tradition which has no evidence of providing health benefits; contrary to this it has extremely dangerous, life-threatening impacts on women on girls. There is not one religion that professes to having any connection between FGM and belief, yet it is a cross-faith practice. Culturally there are approximately thirty countries in the entire world that practice FGM routinely and yet their immediate neighbours do not.

Why? Patriarchy.


What you need to know about Female Genital Mutilation?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) otherwise known as female genital cutting (FGC) is a procedure in which female genitals are cut, injured or changed in some way. The practice is often done with inadequate equipment, in inappropriate places, by people with no medical qualifications because it is illegal. And this is perhaps the most difficult questions to answer about FGM, that it is illegal but still prevalently perpetuated.

Issues and complications of the practice are suffered during the procedure, to adolescence, in sexual intercourse and in labour. The pain is not temporary; it is a life sentence. The effects may also include but are not limited to HIV contraction, high infection rates, urine retention, potential infertility and psychological trauma. And it is perhaps the psychological impact that has the greatest effect, yet is the most difficult to measure and allocated the least financial resources.

Countries where FGM is present UNICEF, 2013


FGM Globally

  • At least 200 million girls and women alive today living in 30 countries have undergone FGM/C.
  • 30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade if current trends persist.
  • Removal of the clitoris (Type 2) accounts for approximately 80% of all surgical procedures in Africa.






There are three types of FGM widely practiced, each is more invasive and impactful than the last (all three variations can be seen below).

Type 1 involves excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part of all the clitoris and is often referred to as a clitoridectomy. Type 2 involves excision of the clitoris, with partial or total excision of the labia minoria, referred to is Sudanese Arabic as “Sunna’. Type 3 involves excision of part or all of the external genitalia, with stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening.


There are multiple theories which explain the origins of FGM, one such theory by Gerry Mackie hypothesizes that the practice began in ancient Meroe (modern-day Sudan) where infibulation was practised by highly polygynous, wealthy males. Signalling controlled fidelity and the certainty of paternity; FGM might be the world’s longest act of patriarchy.

The theorist Mackie then explains that the practice was diffused across social strata and spread across routes of the female slave trade. Regions with high prevalence of FGM do correspond to sites of ancient empires which further supports Mackie’s theory.

A Sudanese Story

A claim can be made, using Mackie’s theory, that modern-day Sudan is the birthplace of the practice of FGM and that therefore this ancient tradition here will be hard to change.

Consent to the procedure of FGM is an issue. In Sudan 86% of the female population had the procedure before turning ten and there are examples such as the Beja tribe, who perform the procedure on infants as young as 2-3 months old. It is not only performed on the young though, women who may not have been subjected to FGM at a young age are pressured into having the procedure before entering marriage.

In a report published by the Danish Refugee Council, carried out at Batil Refugee Camp, Sudanese women cited girls’ health, prevention of diseases and infection from germs, as well as traditional practice as the reasons for performing modern-day FGM.

Despite work done by a number of NGO’s to raise awareness of the falsehood of the perceived health benefits the procedure is still performed, albeit more often Type 1 than Type 3 (infibulation) nowadays. So why is this?

“In societies where socio-economic security is provided for women primarily through the institution of marriage, the requirement that women must be virgins to be considered eligible for marriage contributes to the continuation of the practice of FGM.”

Sudanese health surveys show that there is little statistical difference between urban and rural environments when it comes to FGM practice only the type varies (infibulation is more common rurally).

However, 68% of girls and women from poorer households are nearly four times more likely to support continuation of the tradition than the 21% in more wealthy households.

In Sudan it is commonplace for medical professionals to perform re-infibulation after a woman has given birth. It is the Sudanese-Arabic term for this procedure which really highlights the problematic perceptions. The term for re-infibulation is ‘adal’ or ‘al-adil’, which in this context means to rectify and improve.

If patriarchy is the route cause of female genital cutting the question can be raised as to why women are motivated to perpetuate the cycle on their daughters and female relatives? The most common motivation is the strong association with marriageability of a young woman and so there is an expectancy to conform to your community in order to marry.

“it is now widely acknowledged that [FGM/C] functions as a self-enforcing social convention or social norm…”

FGM may have even been spread to groups that did not previously practice it because of a wish to marry their daughters into social groups that did. If this theory is to be followed, then people began mutilating their own daughters as they believed it was in the best interest of their daughters to marry into more powerful and rich families to ensure a better quality of life.

“The people who practice Female Genital Cutting [FGM] are honourable, upright, moral people who love their children and want the best for them.”

FGM is a tradition born from a patriarchal society, continued today by the poor in hopes of a more secure and prosperous future. The origins of the tradition may not have one clear answer but the modern-day motivations for those continuing it, we must hope are well intentioned.

This procedure is unequivocally an act of violence against women and a violation of women’s rights which must be stopped. However, judgement of those engaging in it might not be so straightforward.





Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.


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