Origin of the Practice

We do not know with any precision when, why, and how female circumcision began. There is evidence that female circumcision and female genital surgery have been done in many parts of the world, although currently it is mainly done in different communities in parts of Africa, Asia, the Far East, Europe, and South America.

The early Romans, concerned about the consequences of sexual activity among female slaves, adopted the technique of slipping rings through their labia majora (Figure 1—4) to block access to the vagina. In the twelfth century c.e., Crusaders introduced the chastity belt in Europe for the same purpose; the belt prevented girls and women from engaging in unlawful or unsanctioned sex. This method caused little permanent physical damage to the individual. Genital surgery was permitted in North America and Europe in the late nineteenth century with the intention of curing nymphomania, masturbation, hysteria, depression, epilepsy, and insanity. There is no evidence that such surgery was associated with any ritualistic activity. Elsewhere, the surgery has historical links with either religious or ethnic rituals. It is believed that the ancient Egyptians and ancient Arabs practiced this form of surgery. Genital mutilation seems to have been transplanted to Latin America from Africa during the slave trade and may have taken root first in the central part of Brazil, where groups of West Africans were resettled after the abolition of the slave trade in the middle of the nineteenth century, and to eastern Mexico and Peru through migration. In Asia genital mutilation is found among Islamic religious groups in the Philippines, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Where the mutilation exists in the Middle East and Asia, it is strongly associated with Islam. Female genital mutilation is not practiced in all Islamic countries. Those societies known to practice it, namely, the United Arab Emirates, South Yemen, Oman, and Bahrain in the Middle East, and northern Egypt, Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, and Nigeria in Africa, probably inherited it from pre-Islamic cultures.

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