Understanding Female Circumcision and the Injury to Women’s Dignity


By: Madi Jobarteh 

In 1994, as a journalist with Radio Gambia I had the privilege of being the first and only Gambian journalist to interview the imam who came from Mecca to consecrate the State House Mosque. One of my questions to him was about the position of female circumcision in Islam. His answer was that female circumcision does not affect in any way, positively, or negatively the piety of a woman in Islam, noting that practicing it or not is irrelevant in Islam. He was one of the imams at Kaaba.  

The conditional approval of female circumcision by the Holy Prophet, upon being informed of the practice, only means that practicing it or abandoning it does not contradict the Holy Prophet, hence does not affect the faith of a believing woman. All throughout his life the Holy Prophet never came to receive any injunction, guidelines or surah relating to female circumcision as he did for many other practices, human conducts, and issues.  Therefore, what is true is that female circumcision was not an agenda or a requirement in Islam. Hence if it has been shown that the practice causes even the slightest harm then it makes sense to just abandon it. It is absolutely evident that today, female circumcision has no religious, cultural, health or moral value.  

Research by several African and Muslim scholars including Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal and Mohammed Emara and Mohammad Salim Al-Awa both of Egypt have noted that female circumcision is neither Islamic in origin nor required by Islam. In Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood touted its support for FGM as an Islamic requirement, respectable Muslim scholars like Dr. Emara and Dr. Al-Awa came out to say categorically that female circumcision is an anathema to Islam. In his book, The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy Defined or Confined?’ published in 2012, Mariz Tadros noted that the Muslim Brotherhood rejected these respected scholars not because of female circumcision alone but because the group has little to no appetite for women’s rights. It will interest the reader to know that Dr. Mohammed Emara is a 2024 nominee for the ‘The Muslim 500’, which lists the world’s most influential Muslims.

In his book, ‘African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality’, published in 1974, the erudite history, linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, religion, and science luminary Cheikh Anta Diop noted that female circumcision was an African origin which was later adopted by Muslim and Jewish communities. The origins of female circumcision are rooted in Ancient Egypt where it was part of their belief system. In their belief, only gods carry the characteristics of both the male and female. For that matter both boys and girls had part of their genitals cut off to make them more clearly male and female, unlike the gods. From the foregoing, female circumcision is therefore a pagan practice which has nothing to do with Islam or Judaism originally.

Furthermore, the famed French anthropologist Marcel Griaule (1898-1956) who carried out a lot of research with the Dogon tribe in present-day Mali recorded the life, beliefs, and overall culture of the Dogon and surrounding communities. In his research about the reasons for female circumcision among the Dogon and Bambara people, he recorded that they believed that if the clitoris comes in contact with the baby’s head during birth, the child will die. They also believed, just like the Ancient Egyptians, that both the female and male sex exists in a person at birth hence it was necessary to rid the female body of the elements of maleness by cutting off the clitoris. They believed that the clitoris is the representation of the male in the female and therefore must be cut off to make the female remain a female.

Female circumcision is not just a cultural practice. More importantly it is a tool for social and political power in which women have to be dominated for the satisfaction and control of men. Female circumcision is at the heart of patriarchy in which men must dominate. Patriarchy holds that women’s role is to manage the home, bear children and submit to their husbands. This is why in the narratives about female circumcision, the issue of marriage is paramount as young girls are told that they cannot marry without being circumcised. In Ancient Egypt female circumcision was the main criteria for women’s marriage, inheritance, and social acceptance. Today, these ideas still prevail.

Therefore, what is the use and benefit of female circumcision in a society like the Gambia today? There is none other than to inflict sheer pain on girls and women unnecessarily but only for the maintenance of patriarchy and the benefit of men. Otherwise, I hereby challenge all my Mandinka fathers, brothers, uncles, male friends, and colleagues to show a single real and tangible benefit of female circumcision? To the uninformed and uncritical mind, female circumcision is a cultural practice and accepted by the Holy Prophet since time immemorial. That’s all one could say and nothing else.

When you do a critical analysis of the narratives and objectives of female circumcision from that religious and cultural perspective it is merely for the interest of men. For example, the idea of chastity is not about cherishing virginity and decency of girls first and foremost, rather it is primarily for and about the satisfaction and control of men. This is why Mandinka brides are ‘tasted’ sexually on that first night (dungdingkang) by their husbands to determine if the lady was chaste. For that matter, parents and society have to find ways to keep the woman a virgin, not for herself but for men hence female circumcision. The need for chastity is not required for men because, after all, a virgin man is unknown unless he tells you or is caught having sex.

Today, within the Mandinka society almost no man accepts the practice of ‘dungdingkang’ – that is the practice of having sex with their newlywed girls as old women wait outside so they can confirm the virginity of the bride first thing in the morning. The men reject it because they find it disrespectful, crude and totally inappropriate and unnecessary. Even though this is culture too, men and society frown upon it but then insist that female circumcision must be kept because that affects women. That is the highest expression of chauvinism.

Today 11th September 2023 shall go down in Gambian history as the Day of Betrayal of Women and Girls by Members of the National Assembly who spoke in favour of or support female circumcision in the Gambia. They have failed in their fundamental duty to create an equal and just society by identifying harmful and chauvinistic cultural beliefs and practices and abolishing them. These NAMs have demonstrated that they want to entrench injustice, inequality and violence against women and girls in our country.

This is in total violation of the Constitution under Section 17 that requires the Legislature to uphold, defend and protect rights of Gambians including women’s rights. It is in total violation of the Women’s Act and the Children’s Act which were all passed in the National Assembly. I call on all Gambians who believe in justice, equality and respect for women and girls to stand against any attempts from any quarter that seeks to impose FGM in this country. FGM is at the heart of the violations of the social, economic, and political rights of women and girls.


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