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A Cut that divides

Members of the Somali community are torn over whether to condone a mild form of female circumcision as a rite of passage. Some believe U.S. doctors should be allowed to perform the procedure. Others are happy to do away with it.
Amina Ahmed sits in her home Thursday in Cedar Riverside Plaza. She believes that female circumcision should be legalized in the United States.
Image by Jules Ameel
Amina Ahmed sits in her home Thursday in Cedar Riverside Plaza. She believes that female circumcision should be legalized in the United States.

Amina Ahmed had always been afraid of needles.

Now, as an 8 year old, she thought someone was going to use one in a place nobody was supposed to touch.

The quivering girl stood next to her younger sister and cousin. The oldest of the three, Ahmed was up first.

Just then âÄî she ran.

An hour and a half later, her uncle and brother found her hiding in a nearby marketplace and brought her back to the small clinic in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Her clitoris was pricked and blood dripped out.

“All kids will cry, especially the little kids,” Ahmed, now a 24-year-old University of Minnesota graduate, said. “But afterward, it was something to be proud of.”

Much about the young woman, whose family fled the Somali civil war for a life in the United States when she was 13, speaks to her adherence to traditional Somali culture. SheâÄôs loyal to her Islamic faith, never goes outside without her headscarf and is dedicated to her vow of celibacy until marriage.

But to AhmedâÄôs dismay, she wonâÄôt be able to pass onto her future daughters a practice she considers sacred, as U.S. law has banned all forms of female circumcision since 1996, and Minnesota law has banned it since 1994.

The World Health Organization estimates that between 100 million and 140 million girls and women have undergone various forms of the procedure and another 3 million girls, most of them under the age of 15, undergo it each year.

Members of the Somali community in the Twin Cities disagree on whether to support the mild form of circumcision some refer to as a “clitoral nick,” where a womanâÄôs clitoris is poked and allowed to bleed, a practice thatâÄôs believed to render her “clean.”

While some, like Ahmed, believe they should be able to practice the long-standing tradition, others are equally passionate about leaving it behind.

On par with ear piercing

Widespread discussion around the topic resurfaced in May of this year when the American Academy of Pediatrics Bioethics Committee reviewed a 1998 policy which banned any female circumcision. The committee recommended that the AAP approve what it called a “ritual nick,” arguing itâÄôs on par with ear piercing and “much less extensive than routine newborn male genital cutting,” or circumcision.

Douglas Diekema, chairman of the AAPâÄôs Bioethics Committee at the time, has long believed that pediatricians should be able to perform a nick as an alternative to a more dangerous procedure performed in a nonmedical setting.

This wasnâÄôt the first time heâÄôs sat on a committee that agreed to condone the practice. A pediatrician at the Seattle ChildrenâÄôs Hospital, Diekema looked at the issue back in 1996 when a number of Somali women across town at Harborview Medical Center were requesting that doctors circumcise their female babies. DiekemaâÄôs committee was tasked with deciding whether Harborview would allow its physicians to perform a nick.

The committee approved the procedure in the summer of 1996, but following a period of angry letters and CongressâÄô passage of a federal law banning all forms of female circumcision, the hospital overruled the committee in December of that year.

Now, 14 years later, DiekemaâÄôs had his second statement denied.

The AAPâÄôs Board of Directors rescinded the Bioethics CommitteeâÄôs statement in July, although “the committee stood behind it,” Diekema said. In the statement, DiekemaâÄôs committee referred to nicking the hood of the clitoris, but it didnâÄôt provide a clear description of the procedure, Diekema said, adding, “that probably would have been helpful for some people.”

There are major differences between nicking the clitoral hood and the actual clitoris. The clitoris, like the head of the penis, is filled with nerve endings that, if damaged, would impact a womanâÄôs ability to feel sexual pleasure, Jamie Feldman, a physician at the University Center for Sexual Health, said.

The hood, on the other hand, is a layer of skin comparable to the foreskin of a penis. ItâÄôs unlikely that there would be any side effects to nicking the hood, Diekema said. He admitted that clarifying that in the statement would likely have saved the committee from a lot of flack.

Shortly following its release, the statement drew furious feedback from doctors, advocacy groups and others who argued it promoted a useless practice that impeded on the childâÄôs right to autonomy.

“To offer up some babyâÄôs clitoral hood because you want a hospital to strengthen a relationship with a community is child abuse; for what, market-share?” wrote Benjamin Aubey, a Columbia University professor and pediatrician at the Harlem Hospital Center.

The purpose behind the policy, Diekema said, was to prevent the harm that could come from families sending their children overseas to have a circumcision performed in a nonmedical setting. It recommended that federal and state laws be changed to allow pediatricians to perform the nick.

“I think allowing pediatricians to perform the nick under the right circumstances would be better for some girls,” Diekema, also a bioethics professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, said. “ThereâÄôs no question, based on conversations IâÄôve had with people who take care of women from these communities, that in the absence of offering something that would not be psychologically or physically harmful, some will have a procedure done that will result in great harm.”

A loophole in the current federal law doesnâÄôt punish those who take their girls out of the country to have the procedure performed. A bill floating in committee seeks to fix that. Authored by Reps. Joseph Crowely, D-N.Y., and Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., the Girls Protection Act would mimic those of European countries that have already made it a crime.

Neither could offer solid numbers on how many children might be affected, although a statement from Crowley used “very rough data based on census estimates” to guess that “it could be in the hundreds of thousands.”

A number of local Somali women and medical professionals who work closely with Somali patients said that if children are being sent out of the country, itâÄôs extremely rare.

Rights vs. protection

In a country that supposedly allows religious freedom, it makes Ahmed angry that she canâÄôt pass on to her children what she says is a harmless practice.

“Why someone who does not know anything about my religion tell me I canâÄôt do it?” Ahmed, who works as a respiratory nurse at Owatonna Hospital, said. “You donâÄôt have the right to say that.”

While some draw a definite distinction between female circumcision and Islam âÄî defining the practice as a cultural one âÄî several people said that the hadith, the traditional sayings and customs of the Prophet Muhammad, offers the nick as an option.

Although female circumcision has been practiced among other religions, itâÄôs most commonly associated with Islam.

Many point to a line in the hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad says to a circumciser on the way to perform the procedure “do not overdo it, because it [the clitoris] is a good fortune for the spouse and a delight to her.” In this statement, some claim that the prophet is advocating the mild form of circumcision. Still others believe the prophet is condemning the tradition altogether.

The practice is unknown in 80 percent of the Islamic world, and it originated in regions of Arabia and Africa before Christianity and Islam held a stake in those societies, according to a 2003 article in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.

It could certainly be seen as a violation of religious freedom, said Lora Harding Dundek, manager of the Birth and Family Education and Support Services department at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview Riverside.

“ItâÄôs that balance between the law as protecting people and law as violating peopleâÄôs rights,” she said. “ItâÄôs certainly not inconsistent with other debates weâÄôve had around religious freedom and private practice.”

The U.S. would never consider a law that would ban male circumcision, a practice of Judeo-Christian origin, although thereâÄôs evidence that, as an invasive procedure, it carries certain risks, Harding Dundek said.

Compared to male circumcision, the ritual nick is “far less invasive,” Diekema said. To make the two procedures equal, youâÄôd have to remove the clitoral hood, he said.

“This would be more like taking a needle and poking the male foreskin so that you saw a drop of blood,” he said.

ItâÄôd be difficult to say whether condoning the nick would reduce harm until the medical community knows how often circumcision still happens in the U.S., said Elizabeth Boyle, a sociology professor at the University. Boyle, who spent years studying female circumcision and wrote a book on the subject, said the laws against the practice discourage people to be forthcoming about their behaviors, she said.

“A really fundamental point is that we just donâÄôt know whether itâÄôs being perpetuated.”

An ancient tradition

Although thereâÄôs some disagreement over the location, historians believe female circumcision originated as many as 2,000 years ago in Egypt.

For cultures obsessed with preserving a womanâÄôs virginity, female circumcision has been viewed as the only way to truly achieve that goal.

While still practiced heavily in more than 28 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, female circumcision has more or less ceased in the U.S. and other countries outside of Africa that have implemented laws against it.

While the World Health Organization defines four types, two forms of the practice are the most well-known.

The mild form, which some refer to as a “clitoral nick,” or “sunnah,” can consist of cutting, poking or removing part or all of either the clitoris or the clitoral hood.

The most severe form, which advocacy groups refer to as “female genital mutilation” or “infibulation,” consists of removing the clitoris, labia minora and inner layers of the labia majora. Both sides of the vaginal opening are then sewn together almost completely, often leaving an opening the size of a pencil head or q-tip for the passage of urine or menstrual blood.

This procedure has taken on a number of forms depending on where itâÄôs performed and by whom. In Somalia, a country with a high prevalence of the extreme procedure, itâÄôs often performed by an elder woman in the clan âÄî usually someone with no formal medical training âÄî using a razorblade and no anesthesia.

The procedure has been the subject of intense, sweeping educational efforts by groups like UNICEF, the U.N. Human Rights Council and the WHO over the past two decades.

In the short term, itâÄôs caused everything from hemorrhage, shock, severe pain, infection and death. Over the years, women whoâÄôve undergone the procedure experience a high number of urinary tract infections. Intercourse tends to be excruciating, and most of the women are unable to achieve orgasm. Furthermore, 25 to 30 percent of women who undergo the procedure are infertile, sometimes because of their inability to have sex, according to a 2003 article in the Journal of Cultural Diversity.

Perceptions are being changed

There are several waves of change working their way through the Somali community as they adjust to life in the U.S., but perhaps none have been as abrupt as the shift away from circumcision.

Back in Somalia, women were circumcised to conform to society, but in the Western world, the practice is a deviation from the norm.

Iman Warsame, a University senior studying psychology and English, estimates that “almost all” of the women in her motherâÄôs generation have had the extreme form of circumcision performed on them. But among her generation, she thinks, almost no one has had the extreme form, and less than half have had the mild form.

A number of medical professionals said they see the severe form of the procedure much less frequently than a decade ago. ItâÄôs much more commonly seen in older women than in teenagers and is almost nonexistent in children.

Even in Somalia and other African countries, educational campaigns have begun to chip away at the number of families who carry on the more damaging procedure. Nowadays, it happens predominately in rural areas and less and less in urban areas like Mogadishu.

AhmedâÄôs five older sisters each had an infibulation done. By the time AhmedâÄôs turn came, her mother had become more educated about the side effects of the practice and decided on the clitoral nick instead.

“She asked forgiveness for her other daughters,” Ahmed said. “She knew it was the wrong thing to do.”

Whether most Somali women in the U.S. today have undergone the mild form of circumcision generally depends on when they moved.

The average age at which girls are circumcised in Somalia is between 7 and 9 years old, so those whose families fled the country when they were younger than that werenâÄôt likely to have been subjected to it.

ItâÄôs an example of a shift toward Westernization, Ahmed argues âÄî one that shouldnâÄôt be forced.

“ItâÄôs frustrating,” Ahmed said. “ItâÄôs like you have to take American culture. You have to leave your religion behind.”

Warsame, the events coordinator of the Somali Student Association, strongly disagreed. She said only “ultra conservative” mothers would want to circumcise their daughters today, and most donâÄôt mind that itâÄôs illegal.

In interviews, several local Somali women estimated that about half of their community believes it should be legalized, and the other half is glad itâÄôs not.

The original goal of the tradition, mostly supported by mothers, was to make their daughters more attractive marriage prospects, and now that not being circumcised is becoming acceptable to Somali males in the U.S., circumcision is unnecessary, Warsame said.

“Your daughterâÄôs not going to marry a guy from your generation, sheâÄôs going to marry a guy from her generation,” Warsame said, “and itâÄôs not very popular now.”

Fatuma Farah, a junior at the University majoring in child psychology, agreed.

“Guys today are saying, âÄòHey, if youâÄôre not circumcised, thatâÄôs OK,âÄô ” she said. “Perceptions are being changed.”

But even the way itâÄôs fading away irritates Warsame.

“The only thing thatâÄôs stopping parents is that they know itâÄôs not as fashionable as it used to be,” she said. “Can you imagine that? My body would be under the whims of a guy my age, what he might think.”

Just one more kind of trauma

Although it was rare in the U.S. to begin with, the practice of circumcision seems to have ceased by and large among those whoâÄôve immigrated to the U.S. But Somali women of all ages still bear the effects of the practice.

Jill Sandeen, a midwife at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview Riverside Campus, said while it used to be very common at the height of Somali immigration, she doesnâÄôt see many extreme circumcisions anymore.

In conversations with her many Somali patients, sheâÄôs learned about their terrible experiences with circumcision.

“One woman said she was 7 and was told there was going to be a party for her,” Sandeen said. “And then they strapped her down and she couldnâÄôt pee for four days.”

And while such an event would be traumatizing for the average American, these womenâÄôs lives have been marked by tragedy, so their circumcision doesnâÄôt stick out, she said.

“They come from a horrible, war-torn place where people were murdered before their eyes,” she said. “I think on some level this is just one more kind of trauma theyâÄôve incorporated into their existence.”

Confusion over anatomy


As a midwife, the topic of circumcision is almost inevitable when Sandeen meets a new Somali patient. But among many of them, there isnâÄôt a strong understanding of their own anatomy, she said.

In the case of one woman, “she didnâÄôt know that she still had a clitoris,” she said. “It kind of takes us back to the 1950s. They donâÄôt even know whatâÄôs down there or what was down there.”

Others in the medical community share similar stories.

Janis Keil Day, another midwife at the Fairview, Riverside clinic, said sheâÄôll always ask new Somali patients whether theyâÄôve been circumcised. Many will answer no, but when she goes under their hospital gown, sheâÄôll discover otherwise.

“IâÄôm not sure if itâÄôs because they donâÄôt necessarily understand the question youâÄôre asking or if thereâÄôs a language barrier,” she said.

In any case, many women within the Somali community have dramatically different views on the side effects and implications of the various forms of the procedure. While almost everyone agrees that infibulation is extremely damaging, thereâÄôs more division on milder forms.

Ahmed said she doesnâÄôt believe sheâÄôs experienced side effects like infection or decreased sensitivity from her circumcision.

A valuable organ

Malyun Duale observes the effects of Westernization on her five daughters with frustration.

“Talking back to their mom,” she said.

She talks openly about her concern that theyâÄôll abandon their Somali roots, become consumed with American “sass” and disrespect their mother.

But if thereâÄôs one thing the 55-year-old Somalia native is not afraid of, itâÄôs of losing the circumcision tradition. Duale, who moved to the U.S. in 2001, is vocal about not having subjected any of her daughters to the procedure.

“If God creates you and you say âÄòyou missed somethingâÄô or âÄòyou didnâÄôt do thisâÄô and fix it,” she said. “No, the religion says to avoid that.”

Adjusting her bright headscarf, DualeâÄôs face falls into a smile naturally as she speaks. SheâÄôs passionate about ridding the Somali community of all forms of circumcision and believes education is the way to do it.

Before she left Somalia, she saw the dramatic impact of UNICEF and other organizationâÄôs campaigns on circumcisionâÄôs prevalence.

She recalls her own circumcision, a mild version, when she was 6 years old. It was done in a clinic in Mogadishu with anesthesia, so it didnâÄôt hurt. She compared the procedure to a finger prick to test for hemoglobin in the blood.

Still, she warned, the procedure can have dramatic side effects. Tugging at the healthy skin on the top of her hand as a demonstration, she noted that any time an operation is performed, normally healthy tissue is forever scarred. Since blood collects in the clitoris when a woman is aroused, she said, the scar tissue could hinder the womanâÄôs ability to feel sexual pleasure.

“This is a valuable organ,” she said. “We have to respect this organ and know itâÄôs sensitive. ItâÄôs not like a leg or a hand. It needs more care.”

Duale has worked at the Fairview Riverside clinic as a doula for seven years now, providing emotional and physical support for Somali women as they have children. The Somali Doula Program, a support service for Somali women through the birthing process, was implemented at the Riverside clinic in 2002.

Duale was surprised to learn that college-educated women would still practice the mild form of circumcision if it were legal. She said she thinks those in higher education usually learn to analyze beyond the scope of their own culture.

For years, the idea behind circumcision was to keep a woman celibate, she said. But today, people just need to live according to their morals and donâÄôt need surgery to do that.

“If youâÄôre circumcised or not, you say âÄòIâÄôm not going to have sex until IâÄôm married, until I have a good person that I want to share my life with,âÄô ” she said. “The decision depends on how you choose to live.”

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  • Laura Westenra
    Jun 9, 2024 at 8:16 pm

    Mild? If you went around cutting, injuring, scarring or castrating male genitalia, I doubt it would be considered “harmless”. It ensures that women will feel only pain, shame, and fear related to sex and sexuality. It is a monstrous, dehumanizing thing to do do any human being. Dehumanizing is the goal. The intent is to traumatize a girl and break her spirit and. Sense of self. I don’t have to respect this as a “cultural difference”. Cruelty and torture cannot be described “sacred”. I don’t agree with male circumcision without their adult consent either, but this is equivalent to total castration. If your god wants this harm and pain to be inflicted on an innocent child, then your god is evil.