Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

What is a feminine vagina?

In Africa, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 92 million girls from 10 years of age and above have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). Amnesty International estimates that 2 million involuntary circumcisions are being performed every year, mainly in Africa. This practice has no physical benefits for women, and can cause death. The details of the procedures and practices of FGM may shock readers, but towards the end of the article I start to ask whether they are any different from western regulations of women’s sexuality, bodies and minds.

Although this practice is not thought of as widespread in South Africa many doctors are seeing examples of this in their hospitals and clinics. The total or partial removal of the external parts of the vagina, or the deliberate damage to the vagina for non-medical reasons is normally done by traditional circumcisors, but reports of medical practitioners performing this ritual have increased.

When I discussed this with my doctor, she explained that the people she sees are largely Somalian or Ethiopian, rather than South African citizens. Nevertheless, this practice bears discussion during the 16 Days, because it links to gender roles and conceptions of femininity.

The WHO explains that there are four main types of FGM:

  1. “Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
  2. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
  3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
  4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes eg pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.”

Cliterodectomy is the most common form of FGM in Africa. The purpose of these practices is commonly ritualistic. These practices are normally conducted between four years old and puberty. However, in Ethiopia, more than half of all FGM takes place on girl children younger than one years old.

These practices are normally performed without anaesthetic using various sharp implements. The immediate effects of these procedures include hemorrhagic shock from excessive bleeding, and genital infection including open sores. Another effect is neurogenic shock, which is caused by the pain of the procedure. The vagina, in particular the clitoris, has thousands of nerves that are severed causing extreme pain. According to Unicef:

“Many girls enter a state of shock induced by the severe pain, psychological trauma and exhaustion from screaming.”

In all of these practices there are also long term complications. It is a practice that cuts healthy vaginal tissue, and leaves scar tissue behind. This makes childbirth difficult because the vagina can no longer stretch as it needs to. When infibulation is performed, the girl’s husband has to cut, or tear, her vagina open for intercourse. In addition to causing physical and psychological pain and damage, this makes women more susceptible to HIV infection.

My doctor explained that the most common problem she saw in SA hospitals was fistulas caused by problems during childbirth. Scar tissue meant that the vagina didn’t expand to allow the baby out, but many women wanted a natural birth rather than a Caesarean. The loss of blood to the area during obstructed labour (because of FGM) causes the tissue to die and fall away. The woman is then left with a hole between her vagina and anus, which results in permanent incontinence of either urine or faeces or both.

It’s obvious that the benefits of this process are not physical. So what are they? What causes this practice to continue? Of concern is that this practice is supervised by women, and in some cases only women are allowed into the circumcision area. Women perform this practice, and can make a great deal of money and garner societal respect for performing it.

The causes and incentives for undergoing this practice, or for performing it on your own children are extremely complex. Most sources say that it is not a religious practice, but a cultural practice. Like the pressure on Xhosa males to undergo circumcision, the same pressure exists for women. In some cases it’s linked to controlling female sexuality, or seeing female genitals as dirty or unclean.

This is clearly a violation of human and women’s rights to sexual pleasure and sexual health. But what is interesting is that women sustain it (obviously with pressure from society and men), regulate it and re-perform it. Some women do this to their girl children so they don’t feel different.

This practice may seem shocking to us, but the regulation of women’s bodies by women in order for them to appear or feel acceptably feminine is something that is cross-cultural.

FGM physically changes the body, but so do many western cultural practices like excessive exercise or dieting, plastic surgery to enhance breasts, and liposuction are also voluntary practices that women submit to in order to be part of a community of women. In order to become acceptably feminine.

We might not have a culture of FGM but we do sustain a culture of having an acceptably feminine vagina. Vaginas are plucked, waxed and exercised in the hopes of having the best one. In some cases women undergo plastic surgery on their vagina to make it look more appealing.

I don’t condone FGM. I think it is abhorrent and I feel deep sadness about a practice that steals away women’s sexual health and pleasure. But I am also concerned about the routine, everyday violence women inflict on themselves under the auspices of a beauty regime.

  • Siobhan

    The worst form of betrayal is self-betrayal. Women who practice FGM on girls are not only betraying the trust and endangering the health of the children. They are teaching the girls that other people’s judgment of them matters more than one’s own. The conflating of self-betrayal with ‘respectability’ removes freedom of choice,

    An Egyptian friend my mine had to stand up to her family when they insisted that her daughter had to return home for a clitoridectomy at age nine. My friend, a distinguished scholar, thought that her own emancipation from the tyranny of her family would have ‘sent a message’ that she was going to bring up her daughter free from practices such as FGM. However, FGM was still common in Egypt to ‘insure that girls are “pure” at marriage. Not to have the procedure done would make my friend’s daughter ineligible for a ‘respectable’ marriage. My friend held firm but at great cost. She was ostracised by her family from then on and her daughter was referred to in the most insulting terms which made it clear that the purpose of FGM was to prevent the development of normal sexuality and make sex so painful that no girl would willingly engage in it. Pain and childbearing were the goals for girls; sexual pleasure was the domain of men. To deny girls the possibility of pleasure insured that their husbands need not worry about their wives ‘dis-honouring’ them…

    Mutilation equals purity. Bullocks!

  • mallencolly

    Excellent. Thank you

  • Acute Angina

    “Vaginas are plucked, waxed and exercised in the hopes of having the best one.” I also wonder why women are happy to wax and shave such a sensitive area. Even a Brazilian seems a little unnatural. Is it really about having the ‘best’ one or just due to the gender specific shame of the Freudian koekie kompleks?

  • Rah Busby

    I am the founding member of Lotus, an organisation formed to break the silence around female genital cutting here in South Africa. Coming from a place of my own experience here in the heart of Cape Town in the 80’s, I knew then that other women are being circumcised. Yet the ties that bind us to our communities and culture does not allow us to give ourselves permission to break vows of secrecy made under duress. I broke my own vows of silence for myself and all other young girls who do not have a voice of their own. I believe this practise is against our rights as children and women and should be replaced as a rites of passage by a much less harmfull, painfull and humiliating practise, if only we can get women to talk about it. I am currently working on seeting up a website in order to create a space where meaningful dialogue can continue. We as women need to protect and treasure our vagina’s, so also those of our daughters, cousins and sisters. With Respect. Rah

  • Rod MacKenzie

    What REALLY made me decide to read this post straight away was the apparent redundancy in feminine vagina… is there a masculine one? Well, there is. The blog helped me realise that even the vagina has to be re-created in a fashion that is acceptable to some patriarchal cultures (some men). The vagina becomes a symbol for imprisoning, oppressing and brutalising women in all sorts of other ways as even a woman’s literal loins – in some cultures – is not a sacred place for women.Horrific.

    Jennifer Thorpe bluntly and unswervingly keeps awakening us to the ongoing abuse women receive in both brutal (rape just one example) and subtle (the glass ceiling in the corporate world, say) ways… as if that were men’s right or heritage. Though she inevitably has caused shock among readers and created detractors, I still maintain hers is an extremely important voice, a clarion call to wake up to the darker side of our cultures.

    Warm wishes from New Zealand, Jen.

  • Gary Paul

    The only purity in this practice is that it is pure abuse of a woman’s rights!! This day and age and we still find barbaric acts like this in the name of culture / religion.

  • Peter Joffe

    When are we going to move into the 20th century, never mind the 21st century. Culture or barbarism, I think the latter.

  • Claire

    Hi Jen

    Thanks for highlighting this issue. It has sat at the back of my mind for ages, ever since reading Alice Walker’s ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’. We need to do more to highlight the issue of FGM.

    Unfortunately, the comparison of FGM with Western bodily change is apt in many ways, except that FGM is mostly involuntary and usually leads to a great deal of pain and disfigurement. If a woman chooses plastic surgery, it is usually by choice (I can’t really think when it isn’t), even if it the action stems from a person’s insecurities. And the associated disfigurement is supposedly aesthetically pleasing.

    Alice Walker’s book, although fiction, shows how devastating FGM is on a woman’s self esteem and even sanity. I hope that more women will see how lucky we are to have so much control over our bodies and our sexuality. We should learn to appreciate it more.

    Thanks for a great post and looking forward to more comments!

  • Chillipeppa

    The most important thing you forgot to mention is that this is a mostly Muslim practice. Muslims have a sense of “property” about their wives, as arranged marriages are common. They are required to hide behind veils, walk behind men, who can have more than ones wife, but wives may not have more than 1 husband.

  • Double Standards

    FGM really is a horrible practice. But what’s just as bad is the West’s practise of ignoring or arguing in support of male genital mutilation. Baby boys who have their fundamental human rights violated this way number in the billions.

    So Jennifer, where’s the outcry? Are you going to take a stand as a human being and write a nice and informative article about the effects of such mutilation on boys? Or is it that your only concern pertains to womens’ rights?

  • Chillipeppa

    Regarding the pampering and plucking and waxing of the area around vagina’s, it should be remembered that like fashion foibles, this is just a current trend. Bacteria live in hair, hence its removal under armpits and other sweaty areas leave fragrances places for easy work. Hairy legs and armpits are as appealing as a ahiry vagine. Remember, this is just a current fad and who knows what the next fad might be? Plastic surgeons have invented “vaginoplasty” in order to increase their income and to treat the aftereffects of childbirth. Women generally welcome improvements in post childbirth sexual comfort. I know men certainly do.

  • Reg

    May I take this opportunity to draw attention to the practice of infant male genital mutilation which enjoys widespread acceptance in certain cultural and religious strata. Looked at purely in terms of violent assault on helpless children, the sequellae in terms of pain and trauma are comparable to FGM. Both procedures are a violation of children’s rights and should be abolished. The fact that MGM is traditionally associated with a certain religious group while FGM is a practice associated with another religious group probably explains the huge differential in tolerance of MGM vs vociferous condemnation of FGM. ie. there is bigotry afoot. Activists should be equally vocal in condemning both forms of butchery. I get that FGM plays a role in the subjugation of women and perpetuation of patriarchal abuses, but the level of violence against the victims should be enough in itself to prompt all sane people to work towards the abolition of ALL forms of genital mutilation, male or female. Thank you.

  • Tim Jackson

    Whenever this topic comes up I find myself experiencing the most utter revulsion towards the perpetrators of this heinous, barbaric practice.

    Religion and other superstitions are drenched in the blood of poor, innocent victims such as these.

    I cannot think of a suitable and fitting punishment for the perpetuators and perpetrators.

  • thandinkosi sibisi

    ‘What is a feminine vagina’? Obviously it is a ‘natural one’ (uncircumcized/unmutilated!! Given that ‘female circumcision has no specific definition ( other than ‘mutilation’ this is the only possible answer.

    The corollary ‘what is a masculine penis?ircumcised or not can be debated. Male ‘circumcision’ has a definite meaning.(I am not sure though if it serves a ‘specific purpose’ (right of passage, cultural or health)

  • Grant Walliser

    Plastic surgery or a Brazilain are voluntary and private. FGM is social and involuntary or at best voluntary under massive social pressure. The entire thing stems from the disgusting manner in which conservative, threatened human beings view sexual pleasure as dirty or wrong and enforce this kind of barbaric bullshit on small children. There is no way to condone this. It is quite simply an attack on our biology, it is the mutilation of a child in an effort to limit their freedom of experience and control their bodies and thinking. It is foul.

    Yet it is religio-cultural and so the world condones it along with the covering up of massive child abuse by the Pope and his cohorts. In the name of religion and culture we may do the inexcusable without question. This needs to stop. Culture is fluid and mutational.

    Culture is no excuse for barbarism. Religion is no excuse for barbarism. Both should be interrogated. Why should they not be?

    This entire practise has an analogy. Slicing out female sexual pleasure organs in case they promote dirty thoughts is analogous to putting a child’s eyes out in case it one day sees something dirty that may tempt it. Hopefully that puts the horror of what is being done into perspective here. It is beyond barbaric.

    Let people in a free society mutilate themselves if they wish, but can we please stop making any kinds of excuses for involuntary or culturally pressured mutilation under the culture label?

  • Nicola

    @ Double Standards
    Studies have shown that male circumcision decreases the risk of contracting HIV. In Sub-Saharan Africa, this is a very good reason to do it.

  • ian shaw

    Although not really pertinent to this column, I have been watching an excellent local TV show called Rhythm City, which highlights the unreasonable and destructive pressure exerted on a helpless girl who is past 18, longer a minor. She is a medical student with a bursary to become a doctor, but if she gives birth, she’d lose her bursary.. Her family and community are outraged about the prospect of her having an abortion, which would be the only sensible solution, but the pressures of family “honour”, culture, and religion do not offer a sensible solution to save her future. In other words, her family’s “reputation” in the community is more important than her life and the prospect of rising out of poverty by becoming a doctor. Is this not the denial of her rights of choice? I am deeply affected by this story each time when watching it on TV.

  • MLH

    Well, if I thankfully missed the Vagina Monologues, I’ve definitely read these vagina dialogues.
    And I’m interested to see that male circumcision, currently being offered to KZN babies (via their mothers) as a means to prevent HIV/AIDS has been mentioned, since thousands of mothers are likely to take up the free offer in the near future.
    I approve of male circumcision for the same reasons that it is a Jewish custom. I believe abstinence is likely to do more to prevent HIV/AIDS than circumcision, but what do I know?
    Bar that, I believe any other mutilation (including tattooing) leaves much to be desired. In this country, many people cut their children’s faces and I don’t hear any complaints. I can’t understand the obsession with the groin area. I do understand why it is preferable to circumcise males at birth rather than in adulthood and it’s possible that females are ‘done’ at birth to avoid sewing the stable closed after mating has occurred. But there, at least, must be good argument for leaving the girls to make up their own minds and submit, if they choose, to hygenic conditions and proper medical care. The inference that girls spend so much time inspecting each others vaginas that they would even recognise their differences shocks me. Learning their ABCs would be more productive, surely?

  • Grant Walliser

    Nicola – chopping off your head reduces the risk of brain tumors :) I think it is a choice that an adult should make for themselves and not be made for them, especially not by some religious leader/whack-job.

    I do agree that a scientific, medically motivated reason for the extension of life or quality of life deserves far more debate than the idiotic and barbaric cultural practises of which Jennifer is speaking. Social control and control of one’s sexual experience is the aim of FGM and not improved female health. As such, I believe it should be strongly condemned and ‘culture’ does not even start to become an excuse.

  • Claire

    @ the men who require recognition of male circumcision: I think what you fail to understand is that FGM is most often a form of patriarchal control of a woman’s sexuality and sexual freedom. As much as I sympathise that many men feel like they were given no choice, male circumcision, although sometimes leading to death or dysfunction, is not as constraining and demeaning as FGM – which leads to loss of sex drive, can result in death at childbirth, makes sex painful and is purely a form of male domination. It is completely unnecessary.

    By comparing the two you are failing to see the two issues in their unique contexts. I don’t think Jen would see male circumcision as necessarily acceptable (lets wait to see what she says). I think she is highlighting an important issue which rarely gets airplay. Neither issue is more important than the other. But FGM must not be pushed aside so easily. Give it the contemplation it deserves.

  • Jennifer Thorpe

    @Double Standards
    I think that Male Circumcision if performed in a hospital or similarly sterile environment is safe, and does not damage the boy’s sexual health or experience of sexual pleasure. I don’t think that traditional male circumcision as it is practiced in South Africa is always as safe, and I have my concerns about that practice too.

    But, as others have mentioned above, male circumcision is linked to lower risk of infections, and to a decreased chance of contracting and passing on HIV. (Though this message is itself worrying, because it may lead men to think that women are infecting them see my article on this here

    In contrast FGM is linked to a higher risk of genital infections, and an increased risk of contracting HIV.

  • dts – jordan

    Chillipeppa, finally the dreaded word “Muslims” was iterated by you. Look to your history. The practice was adopted by Arab/Muslim traders in the 18th century who colonised the east coast of Africa and assimilated into the local culture. FGM is essentially an African phenomenon which caught on in the Muslim world. I am aware that at least about 92% of Egyptians are subjected to the practice, but also remember that a “fatwa” was issued from the Al Azhar mosque, in Cairo, by one of the chief imams of the Sunni world condemning the practice very recently. I would also like to point out that in the so-called fertile crecent where I live – Syria/Palestine/Jordan/Lebanon – the locals don’t have the faintest idea – unless they are well-read of what I am on about. Check out your facts. How many non-Muslims are practising this rite around Africa?

  • sgubhusenkwishi

    This is quite an interesting debate ,though very hard to resolve.
    Religion,culture,social pressures, accompanied by genital mutilation procedures are forms of controls and ofcouse ,apply limits to mostly female freedom ,choice and freedom of movements.
    On the other side, plastic surgeries,circumcision, vaigras,penis enlargement,breast enlargements,vagina shapings,are forms of sexual pleassure enhancements.
    But a man or female given freedom /free from all forms of controls, to his/her sexual pleasure,what difference would the human population have to animals.
    Because I know very well with our societies if there was no form of control people couldnt manage their sexual drives and a thin line between human and animals would be left.
    But who am I to say that, I might be silly in my suggestion, but I wish to listern to others or given a chance to see people response should they be free to manages their drives without control or external inferences.

  • sgubhusenkwishi

    I believe whoever came up with a theory of marriage wanted to interfere with womens freedom and for women to be controlled by men as their propertties.
    Was scared of compatition or loosing on women should a they be free all the time to make their choice towards their individuals gratifications,
    So humans inheriting such control,using religion and culture tactics led to the deadlock we are facing today and adopted procedures were done so to take away femanine liberty,that is a fact. But without such measures of controls would human differ from animals?

  • David Harris

    Claire, the practice may have started out as a patriarchal control method, but it has been perpetuated by the clan matriarchs. Other commenters – while female genital mutilation may be practised in a number of largely Muslim countries, it is by no means part of their faith. I’m surprised that no Muslims have defended themselves here, but then again prejudice and myths are SOOOO hard to overcome, isn’t it?

    Personally, I’m very happy that my parents chose to leave me as I was born. Any subsequent mutilation (by some definitions, and over a period of 30 years) has been entirely my own choice and for my own reasons.

  • Tim Jackson

    While I understand that male circumcision is an issue too, and I realise the inevitability of the issue being raised here, I have to say that the consequences of the involuntary circumcision of a young boy just a few days old are in no way at all comparable to the slaughter-like butchery of the barbaric act perpetrated on young women in the context of the original article at the start of this thread.

    Yes, we should all have the right to choose, and involuntary circumcision shouldn’t happen at all but, please, lets not try and make a right out of two wrongs and let’s not dilute the incalculable magnitude of the butchery that’s being perpetrated against these young women.

    Do yourself a favour and spend some time on YouTube viewing some of the footage of young women being carved up and see if you can keep your lunch down.

  • Double Standards

    @ Jennifer

    Would you support the modification of genitals on girls less than a week old if it was done in a hospital? I don’t think so, and therefore the argument that it is “safe” is a complete straw man. We are dealing with a fundamental violation of human rights and no amount of evidence as to its purported benefits will erase that fact.

    If you do your research you will note that circumcision of males as a “medical” procedure first gained popularity in Victorian England. The underlying reason for this was that masturbation was seen as unhealthy and that removing the foreskin made masturbation more difficult. It was at the same time that applying carbolic acid to the clitoris became fashionable to prevent the same kind of “unhealthy” behaviour in girls. It should come as no surprise that the only nation where circumcision is still seen a medical procedure promoting “health” is the puritannical United States.

    All this is ignoring the fact that the foreskin is a piece of specialised tissue which is not skin at all, and contains the ridged band which is a unique organ which doesn’t appear anywhere else on the body, male or female. It’s ignoring the fact that the foreskin has more nerve endings than the rest of the penis combined. It’s not “just” a piece of skin.

    And if you really want to stop STDs, why not just cut off the whole penis. More effective, no?

  • Rory Short

    In efforts to control human sexual drives ignorant interference with our sexual tissues, justified as a cultural practice, is probably almost inevitable because of the strength of these drives. Hopefully we are now beginning to break free from this sexual ignorance.

  • Foster Low

    To me any form of female circumcision is savage & barbaric – and it is men who impose it on women.
    Check the Old Testament for the total banning of any mutilation to the body.
    I had a circumcision carried out at age 46, as my wife & I kept getting attacks of thrush.
    The proceedure does NOT benifit the male, as sensitivity is drastically reduced, and the natural lubrication dissappears, so medicated creams have to be used.