Female genital mutilation can be traced back to the Red Sea slave trade, in which women were “circumcised” to ensure chastity and sold as sex slaves, according to researchers.
FGM, or female circumcision, has existed in various forms for hundreds of years. Today, an estimated 200 million girls and women have experienced it, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The origins of the practice are not known, but now a report has investigated its historical inception, combining contemporary data from 28 African countries with data on slave shipments from 1400 to 1900.
It found that women belonging to ethnic groups whose ancestors lived along the Red Sea slave trade route are “significantly” more likely to suffer genital mutilation today. They were also found to be “more in favor of continuing the practice”.
During the Red Sea slave trade, which operated for hundreds of years until the mid-20th century, women were taken from Africa and sold as concubines in the Middle East.
Infibulation – the partial stitching up of the vulva – was used to temporarily signal the virginity of girls and young women, increasing their market value.
“According to descriptions by early travelers, infibulated female slaves had a higher price on the market because infibulation was thought to ensure chastity and loyalty to the owner and prevented undesired pregnancies,” the report authors write.
The researchers hypothesize that, over time, female genital mutilation became a marker for virginity or purity, and was subsequently adopted by non-slave populations to increase a woman’s value.
“Our paper shows that [the practice] has ancient roots and over time it may have become part of certain groups’ cultural identity,” lead author Prof Lucia Corno told the Telegraph.
In one of the extracts analyzed by the researchers, a 16th-century Venetian historian Pietro Bembo, who was traveling along the Red Sea route, wrote: “The private parts of the girls are sewn together immediately after their birth since an indubitable virginity at the marriage is held in such high esteem”.
In another, written in 1609, Portuguese missionary Joao Dos Santos reported that “a group from Mogadishu (Somalia) has a custom to sew up their women, especially their slaves being young to make them unable to conception, which makes these slaves more valuable in the market both for their chastity and for better confidence which their owner put in them”.
Today female circumcision remains tied up in ideas of sexual purity and control. It is mostly performed on children and is commonly believed to create better marriage prospects. Many see it as a passage into womanhood.
The Telegraph interviewed three women in Somaliland, an independent territory in the Horn of Africa, about their experiences of the practice.
Aged six and eight at the time, Asli and Halimo suffered infibulation – and have been left with lifelong complications.
“The community is happy when you have the procedure. They say that from today you become a woman, now you are complete,” said Halimo, now 53.
Asli, 26, said she asked her mother why she had “punished” her with the operation: “My mother said: ‘It is the culture, the tradition’.”
According to a paper by Dr. Leen Farouki, a prominent researcher on FGM, female circumcision is also believed to curb sexual urges.
“It is commonly believed to create better marriage prospects because of beliefs related to morality, hygiene, and aesthetics,” she said. “It is also believed to curb sexual urges and maintain virginity.”
The third Somaliland woman interviewed by the Telegraph, Luul, once performed the operations.
“If a man marries an uncut woman, he thinks she is not a virgin,” said Luul, aged 63. “But if he marries and she is closed, there is a celebration.
“I cut 15 girls a month for 15 years. There was no anesthetic. There was a lot of pain, but it was compulsory.”
A deadly procedure
Female circumcision has garnered media and political attention over the past two decades, leading to “significant” progress in reducing cases on a per head-of-population basis, according to the United Nations (UN).
Between 1994 and 2020, most countries showed some level of decline, while a girl today is one-third less likely to undergo the operation than 30 years ago.
Yet the procedures still kill an estimated 44,000 women and young girls each year due to related infections and complications, according to a recent report by the Universities of Exeter and Birmingham.
By their calculations, female circumcision is a leading cause of death in countries where it is practiced.
With rapidly growing youth populations, the UN has warned the current rate of progress is insufficient and absolute numbers are growing.
It says the number of girls at risk of genital mutilation increased from under four million in 2015 to 4.3 million in 2023 and warns that if progress remains as it is, this figure will hit 4.6 million by 2030.
“Most of these countries have a high rate of population growth – meaning that the number of girls who undergo FGM will continue to grow if the practice continues at current levels,” the agency said.
It added that current efforts need to accelerate tenfold to address the impact of population growth.
While 84 countries have legislation banning female circumcision, Dr Farouki says that many of the countries where it is performed do not have laws against the practice, while those that do often have uneven enforcement.
“During Covid, lots of law enforcement agencies were not there. So the [people practicing FGM] re-found their positions within their communities, and were able to push their practice forward again,” said Nankali Maksud, who leads on female circumcision for Unicef.
Some communities uphold the centuries-old ritual as a celebration, a passage into womanhood, and have denounced Western campaigners.
“Female circumcision is celebrated as an age-old tradition that marks a girl’s social and sexual transition from childhood androgyny to a full adult female or ‘wife’,” said Dr Fuambai Ahmadu, an anthropologist who works at the University of Sierra Leone.
“The same is true for the celebration of male circumcision/initiation which in the past marked the transition of a boy to an adult male or ‘husband’.”
Dr. Ahmadu lambasted the anti-FGM movement as “largely misguided” and “shaped by stereotypes about African women and men that are outdated and racist”.
Yet the Red Sea slave study could change the debate.
“Investigating the origins of female genital circumcision and how it spread can help to understand its persistence, and to design efficient policies to reduce its prevalence,” said Prof Corno. “Our work highlights the importance of ‘inherited culture’ in the perpetuation of this harmful practice.”
Human rights organizations also counter that operations which put children at unnecessary risk should never be performed.
The more severe operations can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth, according to the World Health Organization.
“FGM is a procedure that can be life-threatening and has absolutely no medical purpose or benefit. It can cause serious, lifelong physical and mental health problems,” said Hillary Margolis, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.
“Most girls who undergo FGM are under 15, so adults are subjecting them to a procedure for which they can’t give informed consent and often may not even understand. It is a procedure that may negatively impact the rest of their lives.”
According to Unicef research, in most countries where FGM continues, the majority of girls and women think it should end.
Halimo and Luul, from Somaliland, now campaign to end the practice.
Halimo chairs a group of 200 women who hold talks about female circumcision and fund new jobs for practitioners. “We each save $1 a month and use it to provide [different] jobs for people who perform circumcisions,” she said.
In Sierra Leone, anti-FGM groups have been trying to build support for an alternative process, what they call a “bloodless rite,” which preserves the initiation rituals but does not include circumcision.
Research shows that it is homegrown activism – billboards, traveling performers, and radio shows – which has the most impact in reducing the practice.
“More and more, we are seeing religious or cultural justifications for FGM being countered in local communities around the world,” said Ms Margolis. “These local efforts are crucial to ending the dangerous practice.”
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