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.