Early child marriage linked to FGM: the one illuminates the other

This is a page from https://oxfordfeministepress534941118.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/igs-exhibition-report-fgm-final.pdf


During the lockdown in Germany, we entertained no houseguests. As restrictions eased, we emerged from isolation, but for a time every discussion stood out as exceptional. A case in point: two weeks ago, a friend who collects unusual things had just purchased a dagger from Sotheby’s, showed us a photo, and praised the item’s bejewelled, curved and polished handle which shone, indeed, with exquisite grace. Normally, I would know nothing about daggers, but for my speech for the Commission on the Status of Women on 15 March 2022 I had read a book in which these rapiers play a significant role. The (auto)biography of Yemen’s first successful suit by a ten-year-old divorcée — I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced (1) — taught me to distinguish social classes by the materials in dagger-handles. On seeing our friend’s, I guessed it was the most noble substance, ivory, as Nujood had informed me. Wrong. “The best,” he told us, “is rhinoceros horn.” (No matter which, of course, both are forbidden under endangered species rules.) Since our friend’s purchase predated wildlife protection — it was an antique — and would be displayed out of the reach of children, we let the possible violation pass.

The subject remained the weapon, however, which, with varied handles, adorns the outfits of Yemeni (and Omani) gentlemen, even today, and even if mainly symbolic, the symbolism is unequivocal. The scabbard, another word for sheath, which in turn is a vagina, brings into view human rights and gendered implications of such tools. Google ‘etymology of the vagina’ and what do you find? “LATIN. Sheath, scabbard. Late 17th century.” Or, as even more precisely defined at http://www.etymonline.com, vagina (n.) marks the “sexual passage of the female from the vulva to the uterus,” 1680s, medical Latin. As the possessor of such a passage, I found this definition startling, because in my mind’s eye, the corridor leads from the cervix into the world and serves to conduct an infant outward, not an invader inward. But given the dimensions of a ten-year-old’s entryway, martial iconography suits the theme.

Wande George. The Ugly Hand that Maims. Oil on Canvas. 1998.

The question no one is asking about societies that habitually practice — and have normalized — child ‘marriage’ (i.e. rape) and FGM (i.e. torture) is how the perpetrators of these crimes can fail to feel ashamed but, instead, experience pride in conforming to patriarchal standards. Yes, these violations occur in high context cultures with certain mores to be praised, as Berhane Ras-Work from Ethiopia, founding president and leader of the Inter-African Committee for a quarter-century, announced in the introduction to an IAC film from the early 1990s, Beliefs and Misbeliefs. Denouncing female genital mutilation, — the term chosen because, from a medical perspective, mutilation is accurate–, Berhane wishes to ensure that differentiation among positive and represensible habits remains clear. Africans, she states, offer the world examples of beneficial behaviors such as infant massage and extensive skin contact between the small child and its mother who transports it on her back or hip. Responsibility for extended family members is also exhibited in remittances from the Diaspora to the home village. But extirpating pleasure points isn’t among the good. Nor is the custom that allows mature men to take child brides.

UnCUT/VOICES’ author, Kameel Ahmady, whose book In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (2016) pioneered the epidemiology of excision in his homeland, followed with a second volume, Echo of Silence. A Comprehensive Research Study on Early Child Marriage (ECM) in Iran.

Ahmady also contributed a chapter to Behnaz Hosseini’s anthology, Temporary and Child Marriages in Iran and Afghanistan, Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Issues. There we learn that 17% of weddings feature underage brides; that most child marriages take place in Mashhad; and that the nation is home to 14,000 teen widows. This vulnerable population, even before the pandemic, experienced emotional and psychological violence with measurable negative ramifications on health and development, the latter decelerated as girls left school. Lockdowns and impoverishment, diminution of services, and reduction in governmental and non-governmental interventions to increase marriage age and protect young females from use as pawns for patriarchal gratification – all resulted from the pandemic.

Although most articles are in Farsi and hence inaccessible to me, a glance at translated titles Ahmady provides suffices to reveal a human rights abuse. “Marriage in Childhood, Divorce in adolescence” (Shahrvand Newspaper); “Child Marriage, childhood dreams in the adult world” (IRNA); “Childhood Spouse in Iran has quadrupled with increased marriage loan” (VOA); “Fear of the Internet as a reason for young girls’ marriage in Iran!” (Keyhan London); and “Warning over high divorce rates and thousands of widows in Iran” (VOA). (I am indebted to Kameel Ahmady for this list and items in the subsequent paragraph.)

The first two headlines presuppose a readers’ disposition to condemn the custom. Finding the words ‘child’ ‘marriage’ and ‘adult’ lumped together sows discomfort; cognitive dissonance ensues, assuming of course that the reader is an outsider to the culture that approves of adult males taking pubescent and even pre-pubescent girls to bed. Regarding the last three headlines, these reveal motives: increasing the marriage loan incentivized the pre-existing financial transaction; fear of the internet exposes patriarchal strictures on females’ sexuality as does the warning over high divorce rates, divorcees viewed as femmes fatales or women with ‘experience’.

Happily, additional titles expose opposition (and remember, these are all translated from the Persian): early, child marriage is labeled “a form of child abuse” (Hrana); with “One million children as wives in Iran … the phenomenon [is named] child molestation” (Online news). Pulling no punches, the custom is the “Slaughter of a child in domestic slavery!” (IRNA); “35% of marriages in Khorasan Razavi are for children” (ISNA). First person narrative underscores maltreatment: “At age 13, I was forced to marry my cousin” (ISNA); “Little girls say goodbye to school” (Hamshahri Newspaper); “Child spouse, widow and prostitute” (Entekar Newspaper); “Poverty, a key factor in early child marriage” (Health News); “The phenomenon of child miscarriage” (Safe House); “In some provinces, we are faced with the purchase of childhood” (Law Newspaper); “Marrying a 6-month-old in her mother’s womb!” (Borna); “Child marriages are rape of children” (Health News); “Widowed children in second marriage also have no authority to select the second marriage” (Shahraara Online).

Because they reject principles that make child marriage possible, these headlines permit optimism. Yet the custom’s entrenchment emerges from the following revelations. “The legal age limit for marriage in Iran is currently 13 years for girls (and 15 for boys), but the law has many loopholes, such as the father of the bride’s consent or a court order.” Alas, exemptions are widely abused. One headline Ahmady quotes asks, “Why doesn’t the Spouse Child Prohibition Bill” pass into law?

He may as well be asking “why hasn’t FGM already become history?” as leading scholar Hilary Burrage might phrase it. The generic reason? Patriarchy reigns.


  1. Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui. I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. Trans. Linda Coverdale. NY: Broadway Books, 2010.
  2. igs-exhibition-report-fgm-final.pdf. Accessed 25 March 2022. https://oxfordfeministepress534941118.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/igs-exhibition-report-fgm-final.pdf

FGM and Child Marriage: COVID-19 made matters worse …

Experts agree: campaigns to end FGM, services to soothe the wounded, and education to change minds shrank under COVID-19 due to diversion of resources in the context of social and financial precarity.

One worthy project exemplifies this trend. Maa Feew in Podor, Senegal, managed in partnership with FORWARD for Women in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, saw its resources dwindle by the (justified) ban on in-person meetings that in turn reduced donations, as these had been solicited at events. A volunteer organization depending on hired freelancers for certain skills, FORWARD (in Germany) relies mainly on the enthusiasm and dedication of unpaid idealists, as do a multitude of associations against FGM that have sprung up in the new millenium. Moneys raised in industrialized nations then pay for services provided to women and girls in less affluent surroundings.

Here you see the poster that advertised our participation in the Commission on the Status of Women 66 NGO Forum on 15 March 2022. Below it I offer excerpts from my talk.

Gratitude to Lois Herman for the flyer.


Excerpts from Tobe’s introduction: Our panel addresses the effects of the virus and lockdowns on ending abuse of female genitalia and early, child, or forced marriage with attention to the SDG 5.3 that envisions an excision-free world by 2030. To achieve this, “political will, community engagement and targeted investment in changing practices and lives” must be amplified –not diminished or dismantled, as the rerouting of resources during the pandemic did.

And yet, we were finally on the road to success. As the UN noted in 2018, the “global prevalence of FGM has declined nearly one-quarter since 2000 but the rate of progress is insufficient to keep up with population growth, meaning that the number of total cases is expected to continue without additional action” [sdg.iisd.org accessed 13 March 2022]. This means we were doing something right, just not enough of it.

Moreover, in the coming decade, “one-third of births globally will be in the 30 … countries [where FGM remains prevalent], a trend that … requires accelerated progress to protect women and girls from this practice” (ibid.) If, as UNFPA Executive Director Natalaia Kanem notes, the violation of human rights that FGM represents “both reflects and perpetuates the low status of girls and women” (ibid.), empowerment and education hold promise. After all, we have achieved positive change. “Over 25 million people in more than 18,000 communities across 15 countries have disavowed the practice of FGM since 2008” (ibid.) and it has been found that when UNICEF and UNFPA work together, “girls are one-third less likely to undergo FGM than in 1977” (ibid.).

1977 marks my entry into the fray. In July of that year, I read Pauline Caravello’s report in EMMA on infibulation in the Sudan and felt, with Benoîte Groult, that the very knowledge causes pain “au coeur de soi-même” — in your heart — not to mention ‘down there’, too.

Sadly, the pandemic has thrown a monkey-wrench into the works. A web of obstacles preventing advancement has only been strengthened by widespread death and disability due to the illness; in fact, the site manager for the Maa Few project died of COVID due to lack of vaccines. Furthermore, containment measures such as lockdowns, isolation, diversion of funding, school and shelter closings, stressed professionals on the front lines – social workers, clinicians, counselors, and the entire volunteer sector – have enabled those patriarchs enamored of the status quo to continue promoting excision.

What comes next? A renewal of vows to continue confronting FGM until it ends.

INVITATION to a webinar, 15 March, Commission on the Status of Women (UN) on COVID-19 and Advocacy to End FGM and Early Child Marriage (ECM)

Impacts of Climate & COVID on FGM & Child Marriage

WUNRN-Women’s UN Report Network
FORWARD for Women (a partner of UnCUT/VOICES Press)

The intersectionalities of impact that climate change and the COVID pandemic have had on women and girls need to be identified to strategically affect policy. The economic dimensions of FGM, linked to climate change and COVID, have not received adequate attention. This Panel brings together science, economics, and experience in the field to explore political will to eliminate FGM and child marriage, as well to evaluate the effects of the health crisis, i.e. the COVID pandemics on all. Case studies and local initiatives have given impetus to reduce FGM and child marriage. Now it is time to identify the intersectionalities of these gendered human rights issues. The contextual social, economic and environmental factors should not be overlooked when tailoring FGM intervention programs.

SPEAKERS include Dr. Lori Post, Professor Hilary Burrage, Lorraine Koonce Farahmand, Esq. and Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen. Moderator is WUNRN manager Lois Herman.


Mar 15, 2022 12:00 PM in Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Webinar ID. 823 1057 4381

To Join the Webinar

Join from a PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone or Android device:

Please click this URL to join. https://us02web.zoom.us/w/82310574381?tk=ojF9UO-rhZbVWILkqMt_YSIYy9Z5SCDa1YN81trPC1w.DQMAAAATKhexLRYwUmZiUUtwOFFHMjA2UTZUaUIwcXhRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA&pwd=cWxZWVJuNjc5T1pBaDNWS3U0bTByQT09&uuid=WN_Ms8OOYt0SuWQaDQe-EV8Lw

On December 10, 2019, the ASB (Frankfurt’s first aid squad) donated an ambulance so that FORWARD for Women, e.V. could save women’s and girls’ lives. The charity whose birth owes its launch to a suggestion by the late Efua Dorkenoo OBE in 1998 has been managing a holistic health and education project called Maa Feew for the last two years. Experiencing frequent difficulty in childbirth due to FGM and child marriage in Podor, Senegal, parturient women have been grateful for the service. The vehicle has been transporting an average of 40 sufferers each month to the nearest well-equipped hospital.


Briefly, the pandemic wounded and killed not only people, including my closest childhood friend, but also amplified obstructions to success in campaigns by bringing to the fore what domestic violence opponents have always stressed: that home can be a site of heightened danger for children and women.

“Domestic violence,” of course, is a euphemism. Although women are known to attack their male partners, the majority of abuse is male on female, so the subject really derives from patriarchal entitlement, and that in turn fuels FGM and child marriage.

Invitation from WUNRN and Bridging Development Gaps. See you on 16 March, 8 p.m. EST

UnCUT/VOICES Press supports Sustaining Development Gaps launched by Dr. Adebisi Adebayo and the Women’s UN Report Network. So learn more about how the current health and economic crises affected girls and women. Register at https://bit.ly/2022CSW

You’re invited! Engaging Men to End FGM, Commission on the Status of Women, 14 March 2022 at 8 a.m. Eastern (2 p.m. CET)

I received this from an association that UnCUT/VOICES enthusiastically supports. Please note: the webinar announced here takes place four hours earlier than a second in which we speak on the impact of COVID-19 on FGM plus child, forced, and early marriage. That poster will follow soon.

On 12 December 2018, speaker on the #CSW66 Parallel Event described below, Mariya Taher (4th from left) participated in a discussion at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard to promote FGM studies.


From: Xheni Dani <xdani@endfgm.eu>
Date: Tue, 8 Mar 2022 at 14:40
Subject: You’re Invited: Engaging Men to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting – #CSW66 Parallel Event
To: Xheni Dani <xdani@endfgm.eu>

Dear Colleagues,

You’re invited to join the Global Platform for Action to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) at our official parallel event during the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women (#CSW66). 

Recognizing that FGM/C is a social and gendered norm, upheld through complex systems of patriarchy and tradition, our global Call to Actionacknowledges the need to engage boys and men. This live webinar will explore how boys and men are involved in efforts to end FGM/C globally, and what the movement is doing to expand male participation, through a mixture of panel discussion, fireside chat, case study and perspectives from grassroots activists. 

Join us for the conversation!

WHAT:                       Engaging Men to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting  

DATE:                         Monday, March 14, 2022

TIME:                         8:00 to 9:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Savings time (EDT) (e.g. New York, USA)

FORMAT:                   Zoom

REGISTER:                https://bit.ly/EngagingMentoEndFGM

Moderator :

  • Carol Jenkins: President and CEO of the ERA Coalition and the Fund for Women’s Equality, and member of the Board of Directors of Amref Health Africa USA. She is an advocate for human, civil and women’s rights, an award-winning author and Emmy-winning former television journalist.

Speakers include: 

  • Mireille Tushiminina, Coordinator of the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation. Gender and Human Rights Branch. United Nations Population Fund
  • Rodrigue Nkwayaya, Champion of Change with AkiDwA/Ireland or Akina Dada wa Africa, national network of migrant women living in Ireland. 
  • Mariya Taher. Co-Founder and US Executive Director of Sahiyo
  • Catherine Cox, Programme Coordinator, Sahiyo – Bhaiyo program
  • Dame NDIAYE, Male Champion, Senegal

Join us on Twitter @GlobalFGMC for the latest news on confirmed speakers. 

We’re looking forward to seeing you during #CSW66!

Yours in solidarity,

Global Platform for Action to End FGM/C

Xheni Dani

Policy and Advocacy Coordinator

End FGM European Network 

Mundo B, Rue d’Edimbourg 26, Brussels 1050, Belgium

T: +32 2 893 09 02 / Mob: +32 489 70 92 72

W: www.endfgm.eu / Follow us on Twitter & Facebook 

For International Women’s Day, March 8th: an early Interview with Dr. Asma el Dareer

The photo by Lana Haroun taken on April 8, 2019, shows an unknown Sudanese woman addressing protesters auguring the ouster of Lt. General Omar al Bashir. I’ve borrowed it to illustrate female strength despite debilities infibulation causes.


On 8 September 1991, Asma and I talked. On 9 April 1990, Africa Watch published on the Sudan: “Threat to women’s status from fundamentalist regime. Dismissals, Arrests and Restrictions on Women’s Activities.” While confirming that “Sudan has a tradition of progressive policies toward female emancipation and participation in society,” the report concluded that “actions of the Sudan government do not yet amount to a wholesale reduction of women to the status of second-class citizens. However, they are an ominous portent. Africa Watch believes … the military government fully intend[s] to reduce the status of women to that of legal minors, and end their active and equal participation in public life.”

In our discussion, Asma and I focussed on the progress Sudanese women had achieved before the military coup and the tensions arising at the time we spoke. As Asma related to me, “If you were to stand in Khartoum’s United Nations or Abu Ginzeer Square at 7 a.m., you would see about 30% of the crowd are women on their way to work. Most would be wearing ample white, cotton or polyester thobes (nine meters bound in the middle to form the outer dress). You would also find a few in Western style and, it is true, growing uniformity of modest dress signals fidelity to Islamic teachings. Yet, regardless of the garment, women have played and continue to play a major role in the public life of the capital.”

Indeed, Sudanese women had been integrated into the public sector working as doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers, parliamentarians, civil servants and more. When asked if she were an exception as a female having completed medical studies, she answered, “No. Among urban Sudanese women I’m not exceptional. After all, the first woman to graduate from university received her medical degree in the nineteen-fifties. Granted, it had not been the rule to send girls to school, but in the early years of the twentieth century, pioneer educator Babiker Badri opened a school for girls, and presently girls comprise 30 to 40% in classrooms from elementary through university.” Asma served as president of the Babiker Badri Scientific Association from 1979-1983, managing a national workshop in 1981 attended by volunteer organizations and civil servants focusing on ending ‘female circumcision’. Government officials in attendance concurred with the thorough, radical recommendations for abolition, the Association having already begun its own “intensive campaign in Khartoum and nearby villages.” The campaign, in Asma’s view, was “magnificent.” The number of those willing to engage to stop all forms of FGM increased to such an extent that the Social Welfare Ministry formed a body in the mid-1980s to regulate activities. This “national committee on traditional practices affecting the health of women and children” became a member of the Inter-African Committee and was strongly represented at plenaries marking the UN End-of-Decade for Women in Nairobi in 1985.

Asma’s own activist research contributed to this outcome. Headhunted by the WHO, Asma had begun to chart the epidemiology of ‘female circumcision’ in 1974 with a modest study of medical students. Expansion of the research was underwritten in 1977 and included 3210 women and 1545 men. Nationwide, she had three objectives. First, to determine prevalence and type of interventions; second, to identify resulting health problems, and third to outline social, religious and political attitudes toward the custom and hence reveal options for eradication.

“The present regime has not interfered with the work of this group,” Asma assured me in 1991. Sadly, that situation proved unsustainable.

Optimistic greetings on International Women’s Day.

“Like colonizers’ legislation, not to be trusted.” On opposing FGM in the Sudan, in conversation with Dr. Asma el Dareer

The largest country in Africa, Sudan counts as one of the poorest. Mostly rural, sparsely populated, with a harsh environment and poor sanitation, it suffers a “relatively high incidence of morbidity and infant mortality.” (1) Life expectancy at birth in 2019 was 65.31 years. At the time of my interview with Asma in 1991, it was 48 years. The current under-five infant mortality rate is 56.6 per 1000 live births, down from 118 per thousand live births at the time of interview. Thus, progress has been made. And yet …

Search “FGM in Sudan today” and you find that, according to Wikipedia, “Female genital mutilation (FGM) is highly prevalent. … According to a 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), 86.6 percent of women aged 15–49 in Sudan reported living with FGM, and said that 31.5 percent of their daughters had been cut.” (2) Infibulation remains the most prevalent form affecting 77% of interventions.

Despite efforts to end the practice reaching back into colonial times, mutilations continue. The first insufficient law passed in 1946 under the British, making infibulation illegal but not ‘sunna’, called “intermediate.” Ill-defined, results of this form vary. According to the operator’s whim, it is a ‘milder’ operation with less tissue excised, and it leaves an opening for passage of urine and menstrual blood larger than a pencil point or matchstick, characteristic of infibulation. Studies however have shown that all FGM produces physical and psychological harm.

Asma answers questions at a modest reception in my Frankfurt apartment. Our interview took place on 8 September 1991.

Lack of progress toward abolition derives from several factors. In our discussion thirty years ago, Awa was optimistic due to advances on two fronts: women’s education and fathers’ growing opposition. However, shortly after we talked, political developments bode ill for campaigns. The death knell of advancement toward women’s equality and improved health emerged with the accession to power of a fundamentalist Islamic regime in October 1993 when Omar Al-Bashir, brought to trial before the International Criminal Court for orchestrating the 1989 coup d’état, was appointed president of Sudan. Women’s rights, education, and status suffered.

Awa and I are guests in the home of Anne Freifrau and Kurt Freiherr von Gleichen. Anne remained an active board member of FORWARD for Women (formerly FORWARD Germany) all her life.

In a subsequent blog I’ll share our conversation, conducted in English but printed in German. Suffice it for now to relate the history of its publication. I wrote it for EMMA, the broadly-circulated German feminist magazine for which I had contributed articles on FGM since first learning in 1977 — in the magazine’s pages — of the custom’s existence. In return, I received a courteous letter from editor Ursula Ott, dated Cologne, 19.11.91, expressing “dissatisfaction” with absent references to the Sudanese government’s role in fostering conditions favorable to continuance of FGM. “We are unhappy with your piece,” she wrote, “even though we understand Asma’s reluctance to denounce the regime. But EMMA would be seriously remiss if a report on ‘female circumcision’ in the Sudan ablated the key terms ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ and ‘AIDS’.” However, a contribution on AIDS in relation to excision was currently being translated from English to German, and “because so many striking facts that we owe our readers appear in your interview,” Ott continued, “we’ll consider integrating relevant material.”

The interview was published by the German association Terre des Femmes. “Frau, warum weinst du? Weibliche Beschneidung im Sudan und ihre Folgen. Dr. Tobe Levin (TDF) im Gespräch mit Asma El Dareer, Sudan.”  [Woman, why do you weep? Female circumcision in the Sudan and its consequences. Terre des Femmes member Dr. Tobe Levin Interviews Asma el Dareer] Terre des femmes RUNDBRIEF 1. 1992. Tübingen: terre des femmes, 18-19. https://www.digitales-deutsches-frauenarchiv.de Accessed 5 March 2022.


(1) William J. House. “The Status of Women in the Sudan.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol 26, Issue 2, 2008.

(2)  “Sudan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2014”. UNICEF. 2014. p. ix.

“Woman, why do you weep?” Fran introduces Dr. Asma el Dareer

As my houseguest in 1992, Asma stands before our apartment’s gate in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Photo: Tobe Levin, from my scrapbook

In 1979 at an early WHO seminar in Khartoum where Fran spoke, the Obstetrical-Gynaecological Society of the Sudan discussed the research on infibulation and excision that Dr. Asma el Dareer had first proposed in 1977. As Hosken reports in “Case History Sudan” (The Hosken Report, 1994), Asma’s work attracted considerable international attention and support.

Here are the Questionnaires for MEN (left) and WOMEN (right) that Dr. El Dareer gave me when she visited. The colophon on the verso of each reads “Printed by KHARTOUM UNIVERSITY PRESS, P.O. Box 321 Khartoum, The Democratic Republic of the Sudan.”

In the late 1970s, Dr. El Dareer’s engagement had also reached us in Germany where we suggested to the German Women’s Medical Association that they invite Asma as guest speaker to their annual gathering. They did.

I speculate that the woman doctor’s growing reputation influenced the following allegations. Hosken writes: “As a result [of her popularity], a male physician on the university faculty took over … direction [of the epidemiological investigation she had begun] and Dr. Dareer was dismissed from her own study, due to professional jealousy, before the work was completed. However, Dr. Dareer had spent years gathering information in a large part of the country. Her results and analysis were sufficiently comprehensive to be published in book form. Woman, why do you weep? Circumcision and Its Consequences” was published by London’s Zed Press in 1982. (1)

Although praising the book as “the most comprehensive work ever published [about] infibulation in the Sudan,” Hosken finds the results alarming. Dr. El Dareer provides the distressing data in the July 1983 issue of Tropical Doctor. Her article, “Complications of female circumcision in the Sudan” narrates that “the majority of respondents were … 15-24 years (40%), followed by 25-34 years (29%). Of all respondents, 43% were illiterate; 84% of their mothers and 42% of their fathers were also illiterate.

“3171 respondents (98.8%) were circumcised. Of these, 2636 (83%) were pharaonically circumcised, 386 (12%) had had intermediate circumcision, and only 80 (2.5%) had had a Sunna type; 69 (2%) could not be classified because they said they did not know which type … they had had” (p. 131). (2)

What had motivated Dr. El Dareer’s epidemiological study? “No exact information [was] available about changes in the practice and attitudes among people in the Sudan” (p.131). Thus, it is assumed that ignorance and illiteracy influenced the custom’s longevity despite widespread ‘immediate’ and ‘delayed’ complications. In sum, as Dr. El Dareer notes:

“Immediate complications amounted to 790 (25%) from all the circumcised cases. The frequency for each… was Pharaonic 26%, Intermediate 24%, Sunna 8%. The most common immediate complications were difficulty in passing urine, wound infection and bleeding. The delayed complications amounted to 1023 (32%): Pharaonic 33%, Intermediate 31% and Sunna 15%. The most common delayed complications were the urinary tract infection, chronic pelvic infection, and results of tight circumcision” (p. 133)

As we would expect, any one individual might have multiple causes to weep, no matter the type of mutilation endured. Most striking is El Dareer’s finding that both intermediate and Pharaonic interventions produced the “same pattern” of woes.

And the take-away for action? “The health approach,” counting on reason, not emotion, to motivate abandonment, has proven ineffective. It has instead encouraged widespread medicalisation. In my view, Dr. El Dareer’s doubtless important pioneering study revealed to a larger world as well as to professionals poised to intervene what cutters and survivors of the cut already knew: that the pain, debility, and humiliation are, from a feminist perspective, the point.


(1) Fran P. Hosken. The Hosken Report. Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females. Fourth revised edition. Lexington, MA: Women’s International Network News, 1994. [ISBN 0-942096-09-6]. p. 108. See also Asma El Dareer. Woman, why do you weep? Circumcision and Its Consequences. London: ZED press, 1982.

(2) Asma El Dareer MB MSc. “Complications of female circumcision in the Sudan.” Tropical Doctor, July 1983, 13, 131-133.

FGM — and war. On Fran Hosken and toxic masculinity

The 4th revised paperback edition, 1994, measuring 20.96 x 2.34 x 31.12 cm, — a thick chunk of literary real estate, — sells presently for €118.17 on Amazon. The third edition, from 1982, is priced at $51.49, and another for $4.00 less. Its chapters, called Case Histories that focus on various African nations, are treasure troves of information. Despite its age, the volume deserves to be edited, condensed, and made available for broad dissemination.


Because a brilliant University of Oxford undergraduate writing a thesis on FGM asked me for my views on Fran’s book, I began to reread it.

Given that Kyiv is presently under siege by Russian troops and discussion of excision cedes to news of the horrifying war in Europe, it seemed appropriate to reference Hosken’s reflections on toxic masculinity in relation to a society’s widespread mutilation of female genitalia. Hosken theorizes male violence, a controversial aspect of her writing, often accusing men in general of exhibiting an essential cruelty to women, a default position that largely accounts for African women scholars’ disapproval. For many, consensus holds, males can and must be persuaded to come on board. Alienating them dooms campaigns.

Hosken argues logically, however, exempting from censure champions of abolition but naming and blaming patriarchy for the pain inflicted on women and girls. She identifies the system as clearly if erroneously designed to privilege straight cis males. To be sure, in her chapter titled “Case History: Sudan,” for instance, she details a 1945 report written by the Sudan Medical Services and signed by nine (male) physicians, the principal being Dr. Ali Bedri who chaired a panel against “Pharaonic circumcision” at a Sudanese 1977 Ob/Gyn Congress Fran attended. Of Dr. Bedri she notes, he had “worked against the mutilations all his life ” (p. 93).

Nonetheless, pioneering efforts, especially those underwritten by colonial regimes, have witnessed little if any follow-up. “… These efforts to stop FGM have been ignored …, as if the social conditions of a country did not matter. Yet … the social conditions … make the difference between productiv[ity] and poverty, between cooperation and rule by force, between mutual support and exploitation, and, finally, between peace and war” (p. 15).

Similar conclusions regarding development, war, peace and patriarchy appear in the 1945 report signed by Dr. Bedri et al. Please note lexical choices in the English summary which states: “A nation can only progress when all its members advance. Mutilation of women by circumcision debases them. … Circumcision tends to retard the mental development of girls and to make more difficult their adjustment to life which is rapidly becoming more complex. … It is appalling to think that little girls in the Sudan should be subjected to such brutality for no justifiable reason.”

And the report concludes with a clear call to action: “Circumcision is one of the major social problems of the Sudan.” Identifying it as “a legacy of dark ages,” Dr. Bedri and colleagues underscore “the present generation[‘s] duty to do away with it.” Please keep in mind: this was published in 1945! (1)

The report, in Arabic and English, was also widely distributed. But how many women could it reach when at least 70% were illiterate? And even if brought to their attention, how many could act? “The myth that women are unable to control their sexuality is especially prevalent,” (p.107) justifying sex segregation, tutelage, and stubborn replication of vulvar demolition.

According to Dr. Ahmed Abu El Futuh Shandall, also studying excision at this time, FGM had repercussions for both sexes. In extensive interviews with husbands, he showed that “many men took second wives because their first… could no longer conceal the terrible pain of sexual intercourse. … Thus, the sexual problems resulting from genital mutilation both for men and women remain hidden, unfortunately, although they affect the lives of most families, destroy countless marriages, and cast a shadow over the whole society” (107). (2)

Regarding war, Hosken is at her most radical when proposing that infibulation itself has broad militarizing effects. What happens in the minds of boys who are aware of pervasive violence perpetrated on their sisters? When violence is normalized and convulsive howls of pain ricochet through homes? “A boy who has grown up exposed to such brutality practiced in his own family on all girls and women [becomes] accustomed” to the ill-treatment of females — which he may cease to understand as harm and become inured.

To conclude with one egregious example, this time from Kenya discussed in Hosken’s introduction. In July 1991 in a Catholic boarding school in Meru, seventy-one St. Kizito teens were “raped and nineteen killed in a weekend mass attack by … male schoolmates with whom they lived and [studied] every day” (16). The principal’s remarks are chilling. “The boys never meant any harm against the girls; they just wanted to rape” (16). The society to which such a comment is addressed cannot conceive of females’ bodily autonomy. It exhibits instead a lack of empathy or understanding consonant with acceptance of excision and infibulation.


(1) Pridie, E.D.; Lorenzen, A.E.; Cruickshank, Dr. A.; Hovel, J.O.; and MacDonald, D.R. “Female Circumcision in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.” Sudan medical Service, Khartoum, January 3, 1945. The nine men who signed this report are Ali Bedri, Abdel Halim Mohd, Abdulla Omer Abu Shamma, El Tigani Homd, El Maki, E.D. Pridia, J. S. Hovell, A.E. Lorenzen, D.R. MacDonald and A. Cruikshank. Included also is a foreword by His Excellency the Governor General, Major General Sir Hubert Huddleston, KCMG, CB, DSOMC.

(2) Shandall, Dr. Ahmed Abu El Futuh. “Circumcision and Infibulation of Females: A General Consideration of the Problems and a Clinical Study of the Complications in Sudanese Women,” Sudan Medical Journal, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1967.

May 28, 1978, in the Sunday Nation (Kenya): toward ending FGM

Blending color and text, artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus gestures toward a holistic effort to improve the lives of women and girls by banning FGM. Below you’ll discover this demand disseminated in the 1960s.


In the Nation, whose Sunday edition is widely read in Kenya, the headline on May 28, 1978, announces “The Hosken Report: Unflinching look at female circumcision.” The “nation feature” by Nancy Owano introduces Fran Hosken and WIN News, reproducing the colophon from Vol. 3, No. 4, Autumn 1977. Owano disseminates testimony Hosken gathered from interviews with midwives, pediatricians, and gynecologists mainly in hospital settings in Kenya. Note, please: Fran did this at her own expense, and the warning is dire. ‘Circumcision’, the medical profession agrees, damages health. Hosken insists it infringes on human rights as well.

An excerpt from my files.

To be clear, Hosken tried not to pre-empt her informants, stifling their voices under hers. On the contrary, she acted as a conduit. The sad part, however, lies in the weight of the message. History confirms, by stressing medical sequelae and muting violation of human rights, the narrative of medicalization took hold, a so-called harm reduction approach to FGM that substituted scalpels for the knives and dissolved any feminist awareness of excision as an assault on females’ dignity and a tool of disempowerment.

The closing segment in the bottom right of the newspaper collage, “KENYA DIARY,” titled “Circumcision or mutilation?” counts down (back) from the date of issue, 1978, clearing the way to clinician’s offices while at the same time reiterating that not Western but indigenous journalists had been expressing opposition to excision all the while. For years, they had indeed been reporting on it.

“March 1978: Five people are jailed (for) forcing a 23-year-old woman in Baringo to be circumcised by a razor blade.

“December 1977: Embu medical chief Dr. Omondi calls for an immediate halt to circumcision for good; he says it causes severe pain and medical complications.

“October 1977: Bishop of Mt. Kenya East Diocese condemns female circumcision and Kenyatta North Hospital matron Mrs. W. Nyoike supports the Bishop.

“September 1977: A Meru girl (is) rushed to Emba District Hospital for a blood transfusion after being circumcised.

“January 1971: Eastern Provincial Commissioner, Mr. E.M. Mahihu, warns a Sunday congregation in Chogoria that circumcision carries many risks.

“April 1970: A woman in Kapenguria is alleged to have caused the death of a young girl after circumcision.

“March 1970: A Bangoma man is fined for forcibly circumcising his wife after she refused.

“February 1967: At the National Council of Women of Kenya’s annual general meeting, the Minister for … Social Services, Mr. Ronald Ngala, says women in Kisii dislike circumcision …

“January 1967: YWCA national general secretary and Maendaleo ya Wanawaka president M. Mbago plea for a commission to scrutinise female circumcision. They want a united force of government and religious bodies and women’s clubs to work hand in hand on circumcision.

Please note: in 1967 a call went out in Kenya, authored by those directly involved. Truly, it is about time.