Why do the supposedly peaceful, traditional Nubians practice female genital mutilation, a violent, seemingly barbaric, custom? The procedure, often known by the acronym FGM, is widely condemned by so many authorities that it is almost startling to read a scholarly article proposing that it is important to understand the cultural context of the practice.

Condemnation is easy to find on the Web. The World Health Organization describes several different surgical and cutting procedures that are generally referred to as FGM, and it strongly condemns the health effects of all of them. UNICEF focuses on abuses to children with its severely worded statement that FGM fundamentally violates “the rights of girls… to equal opportunities, health, freedom from violence, injury, abuse, torture and cruel or inhuman and degrading treatment ….” Many other organizations, scholars, and writers condemn the practice as a cruel example of violence against women and girls.

A recent article by anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi provides a very different analysis of the subject, particularly as it is practiced among Nubian women. She rejects the use of the word “mutilation,” which she says introduces an outsider’s bias against the practice. Instead, she prefers the phrase female genital cutting (FGC), a term that eliminates the bias of the word “mutilation,” and she really prefers to call it female excision (as distinct from male circumcision).

The author indicates that the practice is an important custom of Nubian women, and she argues that female excision needs to be understood within that cultural context. She includes a rather graphic description of a female circumcision ceremony that she witnessed in the Kenuz section of Old Nubia where she did her field work before it was flooded by the Aswan Dam in the early 1960s.

She tells us the mother of the girl who was to be operated on was unable to watch, so she hid in the house while other village women held her struggling daughter in the courtyard. The girl twisted and squirmed in fear as the midwife approached to perform the operation. Without using any anesthetics, the midwife cut away the girls genitals, and with all the blood and screaming, she managed to smear some egg yolk and henna leaves over the bleeding wound. Then the midwife bound the girls legs together so the healing could begin. (Ethnographic literature about initiation rituals in other cultures can be similarly graphic.)

As soon as the operation was over, the Nubian women in the Kenuz village began congratulating the girl on the fact that she was now a woman, ready for intercourse. The mother came out of the house and gave her daughter two necklaces, one of gold and one of silver, both of which would help protect her from harm. The jewelry represented the beginning of the girl’s own wealth, and the beginning of her sexuality as a mature woman. The mother then carried her daughter out of the house and over the physical threshold, so that she could be announced to the world as a young woman who had crossed over the symbolic threshold into adulthood.

Since the practice is so highly controversial, it is well worth considering the evidence that El Guindi provides about the Nubian, female context. The author proposes that female excision, in that context, is structurally equivalent to male circumcision in other cultures, even if the surgical procedure is different.

She also suggests that the procedure is probably no more severe or disfiguring than many other sexual enhancement practices around the world. She provocatively describes breast implants, used by women in the West to modify their sexual attractiveness in the eyes of male westerners, as “female breast mutilation.” She argues that the disfiguring, and sometimes painful, procedure for implanting foreign substances to enhance the size of women’s breasts can only be understood within the western cultural context, much as female excision needs to be considered within the structures of African and Arab cultures.

El Guindi also argues that female excision is practiced exclusively in the women’s world in Nubia, and the men are hardly involved. In some cases, a man may oppose the operation on his daughter, and of course some women will not allow it on their girls either. But for the most part it is the concern of the women, and it has little to do with men controlling their wives, sisters, or daughters.

While the author was doing her field work in the Kenuz, a debate was raging among the Nubian women about a newer, less severe, form of excision that might replace the infibulation that had traditionally been practiced. It had been introduced to Nubia by women who had been in Cairo and other cities in northern Egypt. Around 1961 the women of the Kenuz discussed the practice and, without outside pressure, decided to abandon the older infibulation. El Guindi explains in her article why the Nubian women continue to practice FGC, even in its newer, modified form, how they perceive themselves in relation to men, and their feelings of sexuality, reputation, and self-control.

El Guindi also examines the practice of excision in terms of Islamic beliefs, though the custom is evidently much older than Islam. The essence of the article, with all of the interesting analysis and sometimes graphic details, is the author’s argument that “looking at this ritual practice from the point of view of those who practice it is crucial to interpreting its significance and a necessary step before making any evaluation (p.41).”

El Guindi, Fadwa. 2006. “’Had This Been Your Face, Would You Leave It as Is?’ Female Circumcision Among the Nubians of Egypt.” In Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives, edited by Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, p.27-46. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press