Wednesday , June 20 2018
Home / Documentaries / The Cutting Tradition

The Cutting Tradition

The documentary begins in Cairo, Egypt. A wedding is only a week away and preparations are underway. Songs and dances are prepared for the big day. But there are other unseen preparations which take place here long before marriage; the cut or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Across Africa young girls are frequently prepared for marriage in this brutal, traditional way.
Seven young girls from Egypt are featured in this documentary. Rasha was circumcised at 7 and Muna at 11. Nagla was cut at 10 and Iman at 12. Asma was mutilated at 10 while Semah and Narmeen were cut at 12 and 9 respectively. Hana’a is the only one who is not circumcised. According to the WHO, 97% of women between the ages of 15-49 have been mutilated in Egypt. Altogether women and girls from 28 African countries and other middle-eastern and western countries have been subjected to the cut. Many reasons are given for this but as this documentary exposes the underlying one is always virginity, chastity, fidelity and marriageability. This documentary presents the state of affairs with regards with regards to 4 African countries; Burkina Faso in the west, Egypt in the north and Ethiopia and Djibouti in the east.
In a desert community in Djibouti, close to the border with Somali, women of the village speak to this documentary. They say it’s impossible to trust the morals of an uncut girl. She would be an embarrassment to the community. Another adds that before they would stitch up all the genitals but now they only cut the clitoris. This she argues causes no harm. The clitoris is the erectile part of female genitalia whose sole purpose is for sexual pleasure.
A group of young men and women from Djibouti’s capital are interviewed in this documentary. Most argue in support of the cut saying its part of their customs. A young woman says she doesn’t find fault with the practice since in the olden days their grandmothers who were cut would deliver on their own. One man says uncut girls cannot stay clam at home and are a problem to parents. He argues this is the reason the cut is often called ‘cutting out the devil’. According to many here it’s important to reduce the sexual urge of women and girls by cutting the Satanic part (the clitoris) so they don’t wander looking for other men. Only one young man seems to go against the tide. He argues in this documentary that cutting the clitoris is interfering with God’s creation.
Interviewed in this documentary also are women who are traditional circumcisers. It appears their motivation is the pay they derive from doing the cut. One old woman argues she needs to feed her 10 children adding she is a widow and her son who would help is also dead. Ayanleh Mohamed Hadi is an outreach worker in Tostan, Djibouti. He tells this documentary that the cut is so intricately linked to traditions that it would be difficult to eradicate.
As we can see in this documentary a young girl is being led to the traditional circumciser by her mother. A group of women hold her tightly and tie her legs apart. The circumciser then takes a razor blade. What is filmed afterwards in this documentary is unbearable pain. She mutilates the girl’s genitalia severally as she yells in pain. The women ululate and swallow up the noise made by the girl. The girl’s legs are then tied together. This circumcision is done by old women with poor eye sight, using dirty instruments and no anesthetics and can cause severe hemorrhage, infection and shock. Transmission of Hepatitis B and HIV are frequent. Long term complications may lead to incontinence, infertility and trauma. As the woman leaves with her daughter she pays the circumciser. She tells this documentary that she is paid 5000 francs (about 28 dollars) for every procedure. Infibulation is the most common type of FGM in Djibouti and eastern Ethiopia. It involves removal of the clitoris, the outer labia and inner labia and then sewing the vagina to leave a very small opening for urine and menstrual flow.
In Egypt where the prevalence of FGM is just as high as in Djibouti, it’s normally the less adverse type of FGM that is practiced. Village mid wives have learnt how to use anesthetics and sterile equipment. FGM is already illegal in Egypt. But women interviewed in this documentary still perform the cut. They argue girls who want to be clean still come for the cut but those who want to be like foreigners do not. The circumciser talks about one woman she claims had a 5 cm long clitoris and the labia were dangling like leaves. And yet another came for the cut right from her wedding, the circumciser tells this documentary. She says women should not let their ‘leaves’ dangle like men’s organ. She adds they should be cut so that women stay clean.
Halima is a traditional birth attendant and circumciser in the Harar region of Ethiopia. Here 90% of girls undergo type 3 FGM; infibulation. In this type the clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora are cut. The vagina is then sewn to leave a small opening. Halima demonstrates in this documentary how she conducts the procedure. As the women ululate to drown up the girls cries she sews her up. As we can see in the documentary she uses thorns to stitch the wound. She explains that she removes the thorns after 3 days. Meanwhile back in Burkina Faso as the wedding ceremony is presided over by the religious leaders and elders, the groom starts a football match. It’s the married men versus the bachelors. It will be many hours before the bride arrives to meet her husband on the wedding night.
In Harar Ethiopia, an imam speaks to this documentary about FGM. He explains that female cutting is a tradition that predates Islam and the coming of Arabs. He adds when Prophet Mohammed came the cut was already being practiced. The imam states that Muslims follow the religion by the dictates of the Quran and the Sunnah. The Sunnah is a documentation of the deeds and the sayings of Prophet Mohammed. One must live his life according to these. The imam says when Prophet Mohammed began teaching Islam, he didn’t advocate for abolition of FGM. He informs this documentary that the Prophet in fact taught the circumcisers how to do it. The imam says the Prophet taught that that just a small portion of the clitoris can be cut, which is the Sunnah Circumcision. Cutting any other part of the female genitalia is thus forbidden by Islam and is punishable by paying compensation.
The hadith which contains the teachings of Sunnah have become the subjects of contested intellectual debate among Islamic scholars. As Meryl Streep narrates in this documentary FGM falls under the category of the hadith that is considered weak and therefore open to discussion. Dr. Ahmed Omar Hashem is the chairman of the Religious Committee of the Egyptian People’s Council. He tells this documentary that FGM is not a provision of the Holy Qur’an but is mentioned in the highly regarded hadith. He adds that scholars have disagreed on whether it’s a duty for Muslims or it’s only permissible or desirable. According to Fadilet Al Mofti Ali Gomma, the Grand Mofti of Egypt, FGM has no religious basis in Islam. He tells this documentary that the ministry of Religious Endowment printed books on Circumcision and circulated to imams. However imams have freedom to interpret the hadith whichever way.
In Djibouti Imams disagree on the hadith regarding female circumcision. One Imam says the evidence against FGM is the reason he does not support it. Another says it’s an obligation for Muslims as contained in the hadith. 2 others are in support of the Sunnah cut especially if done by trained medical care providers. Another imam argues that if FGM was Sunnah it would be found among all Islamic populations worldwide. He notes that even in Saudi Arabia it’s not widespread. Another imam notes in this documentary that Djibouti has far more pressing issues to deal with, being a third world country. Ironically he still argues for FGM. He states that to say its forbidden would mean that for the last 14 centuries the faith’s scholars who have supported the practice have been committing crimes.
The Afari people are nomadic pastoralists scattered across, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea. Here a girl marries her cousin according to strict customs. She also must have been infibulated as a baby. Zahara, seen in this documentary is newly married. She has been placed in a hut in which she will stay for a week or until penetration is possible. Here marriage is by abduction; girls are never told they are about to be married lest they run away. The wedding night is usually very painful; sometimes the husband has to cut the vagina with a knife before he can consummate the marriage.
In a nearby village an old woman endured the screams of her newly-wed daughter for a week before the family could allow her to intervene. The young girl tells this documentary that for a week she cried because penetration was very painful. Her mother has since sworn not to circumcise any of her granddaughters. A traditional circumciser tells this documentary that sometimes she has to cut open the vagina on the wedding night. Every time a woman has a child she is cut open and infibulated again.
Across Africa there are several government and non-governmental organizations working to eradicate the cut but getting the information out there has proven difficult. Madame Degmo Mohammed Issack is the Secretary General of the Union Nationale des Femmes Djibouti. She tells this documentary that it’s important that religious leaders come on board if the war against FGM is to be won. But FGM is not restricted to Islam practicing populations only. Christians too perform the cut although it’s not mentioned in the bible. Father Bolous Sorour is an Orthodox Christian priest in Cairo. He tells this documentary that the female cut is a tradition that must be overcome. He reiterates the need for medical doctors, law enforcers and religious leaders to work together to achieve this.
Many African states have laws that criminalize FGM. But Ali Mohamed Abdou, a magistrate in Djibouti says a policy which advocates anti FGM awareness is better that arrest and imprisonment. He adds if all culpable of the crime were to be arrested, prisons would run out of space. He is hopeful that in a decade the incidences will have reduced significantly. A sensitization program in Burkina Faso uses films. As we can see in the documentary several villages are gathered in a hall to watch the film. When time for the discussion comes it’s difficult to start a conversation. Superstition is strong in the rural villages and the topic of FGM is taboo.
Egypt’s National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, NCCM is running a media campaign against the cut. The advert seen in this documentary underscores that a girl’s honor is seen in her morals which she in turn derives from her upbringing in the family-not through circumcision. The NCCM also runs a 24 hour child help line to help children and parents fleeing the cut. Medicalization of FGM is happening in some countries like Egypt. Its advocates believe if the practice is done in safer settings it will be acceptable. In Egypt no class in society is excluded from the cut. As this documentary reveals, medical doctors are willing and ready to perform the illegal procedures. Prof. Gamal Serour is the Director, International Islamic Centre for Population Studies and Research. He informs this documentary that there is no medical indication for doctors to perform FGM and as such it is unethical. He adds that financial rewards are the only reason why medical professional are in the business. The procedure pays anywhere between 50 to 5000 Egyptian pounds depending on the client.
Madame Chantal Campaore is the First Lady of Burkina Faso. She has been a t the fore in fighting FGM. She hopes that by committing herself progress will be made. At a clinic in Burkina Faso, a surgical procedure is underway. The clinic was built by the First Lady; it offers corrective surgery for mutilated women free of charge. A 22 year old girl lies on the theatre table. As we can see in the documentary her vagina is almost entirely sewn up. But the girl was not aware of the anomaly. It’s her husband who realized he could not penetrate and brought her to this clinic. The orifice left is very tiny. The doctor opens it up. When the surgery is done the girl can now have sex.
FGM has now spread beyond Africa and the east into Australia, Asia and into the west where it has caught the attention of doctors and the authorities. Most western countries forbid the cut but as Naana Otoo-Oyortey a forward in UK tells this documentary, FGM-practicing communities in the UK send their children to Africa for the cut. Those who don’t do it come under intense pressure from family back home.
Madame Degmo Mohammed Issack submits in this documentary that its women who hold tightly to the retrogressive tradition even more than men. She also notes that women are under pressure to be cut for fear of rejection and not being able to find a husband. In simple terms women undergo the cut to please their men. She adds it’s important that men come out strongly and categorically say they are not interested in marrying circumcised women anymore.
A middle aged woman interviewed in this documentary says circumcised women do not enjoy sex and are in constant conflict with their husbands. She adds women should be left uncut so they can also enjoy sex. Meryl Streep notes a number of things as she brings this documentary to a close. 14 African states have passed anti-FGM laws but because of marriage and its requirement for virginity chastity and fidelity, 6000 girls are mutilated every day in the continent.

Leave a Reply