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Magic & Ritual Abuse: Female Circumcision in Central and Western African

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Female Circumcision
They said Odu must make sacrifice. She said she would not make ebo  ( an offering) because the ebo was already made. The offering for woman to receive power was made in the presence of Olodumare. They said she must not become overconfident in joy because she is capable of using these powers for a very long time. The world will not be able to destroy that which she has in her hands. The world will not know the root of her power. Odu refused to make the sacrifice. Odu departed without making ebo. Osa Meji

In the ancient temples of Greece and Egypt, women were seen as the vessels of power and healing.  Elaborate rituals, utilizing music, the power of drumming, and sexual energy  were used to communicate with the other world and to create healing.  The decline in the honoring in women’s power appears to correlate with the shift from earth based (feminine) spiritual practices to solar worship and the rise in the belief in one God versus many. (1)With this shift came the rise in the desecration of  The Womb (odu) both figuratively and literally. During the Pharaonic era, woman began to be circumcised as social and ritual practice. The new religious influences of Christianity and Islam, taught the superiority of men and the need to subjugate and control the sexual activities of women.  there are many theories presented to explain the origination of this practice, however many cultural and medical historians conclude that the practice originated solely “ to control the magical properties of women.” (2) Women became as chattel property and the power of the womb was desecrated.

Origins of Female Circumcision

  Rates of Female Circumcision

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The practice of female circumcision is said to have originated in Egypt 1400-2000 years ago and prior to the rise of Christianity and Islam (3,4).   The practice then spread through Ethiopia(a Coptic Christian State) , among the  Arab and Jewish populations and subsequently to Islam.  

The Torah does not directly teach the subjugation of women.  These mores surfaced more directly in  the New Testament   where the Apostle Paul teaches  that women should submit to the rule of their fathers and their husbands.  It also teaches the need for women to be chaste and pure until marriage.  Women’s sexual activity becomes the dominion of their  husbands.  While there is no reference to female circumcision in the Qur’an, (5)and no direct quotations of Muhammad instituting the practice (5,6)(It is said he moderated what was already there) the practice is supported in the Sunna as a means of attenuating women’s sexual activity(3).  These cultural beliefs were absorbed among Central and West African people and enforced as religious practice.

Trans-Sahara Trade Routes 
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Geographically, The practice of female circumcision spread south(3) from Egypt into Ethiopia and followed the  Southern  Trans-Sahara trade route West into Niger(highlighted area), Mali, Ghana and subsequently to the coast.  It is important to note the  pattern of  the transference of female circumcision practices.  With the Exception of Egypt, female circumcision is not a common practice in North Africa however in Central and Western  Africa the practice is wide spread and deeply infused in the cultures of the people.   There is reason to believe that the practice was spread through war and  the imposition of the Muslim religion upon Black Africa.  Some believe the imposition of the practice may have been an  attempt at spiritual,cultural, and  racial genocide. In any case, through war and or trade, the religious beliefs of Northern Africans were absorbed among Central and West  African people resulting in cultural-spiritual practices that minimized, and dehumanized the female populations. 

What  Is Female Circumcision?
Female circumcision is the partial or total removal of parts of the sexual genitalia of women. This practice takes several forms including:

  • cutting or removal of the clitoral hood
  • removing the complete clitoris,
  • removing the labia major
  • removing the labia minor
  • infibulations( sewing together or fusing the labia) which narrow the vaginal orifice (7)(8)
  • Other procedures include:

  • pricking, piercing or incision of the clitoris and/or labia
  • stretching of the clitoris and/or labia
  • cauterization by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissue
  • introcision
  • scraping or cutting of the vagina or surrounding tissue;
  • introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina;
  • any other procedure that falls under the definition of female genital mutilation given above.
  • These procedures are often done without anesthetic and under poor sanitary conditions. Cutting, scraping, and cauterization are considered the milder forms of circumcision and usually result in infections, pain, difficulty engaging in sexual activity.  The more extreme form, infibulation, often results in sterility, inability to physically transition from adolescence to adulthood, inability to engage in sexual activity, infections, hemorrhaging and can led to  death.

    Many argue that male circumcision; the removal of the foreskin of the penis, is more common in Africa particularly among the Muslim populations ( This includes a majority of Western and Central African Nations). The practice is justified as a means to:  define societal status, to mark inheritance rights,  maintain health and hygiene,  and religious purity.  While the reasons appear noble, most medical historians conclude that the practice is , “founded almost exclusively on religious or political motives.”  In addition, there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that this practice can be harmful to men (4) and there is a growing movement against this ritual.
    Female circumcision is not comparable  to male circumcision. It differs in its intent, and physiological and psychological characteristics.  The procedure of infibulation, performed in men, would be the equivalent of complete removal of the penis and testicles.  thee is no known medical benefit from this procedure.  The intent of the procedure is to contol  the sexual activities of  women.

    Some women who have had alterations to the clitoral hood or piercing of  the clitoris report heightened sexual arousal. In fact, clitoral piercing  is performed amongst American women as a means of enhancing sexual arousal. Again, there is no medical or sexual benefit in the removal of the labia or infibulation.  In the case of infibulation, the urethra is covered and  the vaginal opening is reduced to the diameter of a match stick leaving insuffient opening for the passage of menstral blood or urine. Infection and hormonal imbalance are so  common place that it is perceived as a normal consequence of being a woman rather  than as the body’s  reaction to detrimental procedures.  Normal intercourse is impossible and the scar may be recut to allow for penetration.  Normal birth process is impossible.  Again, the  Labia are surgically opened to allow for   birth(8a) then closed again.  This cycle  of cutting and closing may be repeated several times through the course of a lifetime.

    The Social Program
    Female circumcision is supported by the women and the procedure is most often carried out by an elder woman of the community although  there are numerous horror stories of the practice being carried out by men.  The cultural  belief systems which support these  practices include  making the bride suitable for marriage (chastity),   and guaranteeing the dowry  or bride price of the female .  The bride price can be a substantial source of income and status for the family of the bride. The institution  of preserving the bride for marriage is so strongly embedded in the cultural psyche that a girl who refuses the procedure can be and is  killed for refusal to participate. In these instances,  The family of the female  is shunned resulting in the loss of lively hood, status and community.  In these cases, it is not uncommon for the males in the family to kill the offending female to maintain the family social status. (9)

    Why do the women uphold this institution? the choice is live or die. In societies where female  circumcision is practiced the rights of the males over the reproductive rights of the women are absolute.  The males have control over  the women, their reproductive abilities and their  children.  Female s are seen  as sources of  children and labor.(8) Female circumcision is a rite of passage ritual acknowledging that the girl has come of age and is ready for marriage. (10) In societies where the women are absolutely dependent upon the men , the route to survival is through marriage.   and the imposition of  these practices. “Because of their lack of choice and the powerful influence of tradition, many girls accept circumcision as a necessary, and even natural, part of life, and adopt the rationales given for its existence.” (8).

    What is Being done
    Attempts by  Colonial rulers to order the discontinuation of female circumcisions have traditionally met with failure.  The women themselves perceive these rulings  as racially motivated and  violations  of cultural sovereignty.  They stated that change must come from within and not by their colonialist governments.

    In 1984 several African women’s organizations met in Dakar, Senegal and formed the Inter African committee Against Harmful Practices (IAC) to address the issue of female circumcision at the governmental level. This organization, with national committees in over 20 countries, has banned together with international organizations such as Mandelaeo Ya Wanawake in Kenya, NOW in Nigeria to eradicate the practice of female circumcision.  In addition international societies such as  the American Red Cross  and Red Crescent have provided education with respect to the negative health consequences to numerous African communities. The goal is self empowerment through education and many communities have responded to eliminate this detrimental practice.
    Map: Rates of occurrence of Female Mutilation: Paula Nielson

    AFROL News

    Map: Trans-Sahara Trade:
    1. ^ Emily Teeter & Douglas J. Brewer. Religion in the lives of the ancients.

    2. traces classical references to Agatharchides of Cnidus, a second century BCE geographer (1964, p. 116), while Abdalla suggests that it was practiced in ancient Egypt as a way to “obtain control of [women's] magic power” (1982, p. 66)..



    5.  Female Circumcision in Egypt: The History of Female Genital Cutting Found along the Nile

    6b.  Debates About FGM in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East.

    7. Source:  Female Genital Mutilation: Report of a WHO Technical Working Group, Geneva, July 1995. (World Health Organization: Geneva, 1996).

    Female circumcision: rite of passage or violation of Rights women cut to allow penetration,pregnancy

    10.  Female Circumcision:  Rite of Passage or Violation of Rights?  Frances A. Althaus

    Series NavigationWhy the Fuss about Female Circumcision!»

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