A deeper look into the reasons and origins for the perpetration of this horrific practice shows that people in different countries practice FGM for very different purposes. The history of female genital mutilation is not very well recorded, but there are many different speculations about it. Many of them do not make much sense; some of them seem relevant. Here is a list of the different theories that are thrown about:
- It is a puberty rite and marks the passage from girlhood to womanhood.
- A means of sexual control over women until they are married. By making it painful for them to have sex, they would reduce the possibility of premarital sex very effectively, if inhumanly.
- Some believe that FGM was practised on young girls to protect them from rape when they travelled long distances to fetch water or do other chores. (It protects the girls making it a more painful experience than rape usually is?)
- It was done to purify women (from what?) and make them worthy (for what?).
- It was used to distinguish aristocratic women from others. (And they went around checking?)
- It was done to protect a girl’s honour. It must be ‘locked away’ like the precious commodity it is. (Bank lockers for keeping vaginas?)
- To get them married as no man in the community would want to marry an uncircumcised woman. (Naturally, she would sleep around!)
- She would be different from the others, and hence ostracised.
- Women who don’t undergo this procedure have no control over their sexuality and likely to suffer from diseases.
The practice seems to have originated in Africa several thousand years ago, before Christianity or Islam. Circumcision is practised by all religions in certain places and seems to be more a cultural practice than a religious one. In spite of the horrors that religions often heap upon women, female genital mutilation is obviously not one of them.
One of the theories is that female circumcision was used in ancient Egypt to distinguish aristocratic women from others. There is practically nothing regarding evidence on this, but it seems to be the most accepted theories for the origin of the practice. According to the Naga-ed-Der Stelae of the First Intermediate Period by D. Dunham, there is evidence of female (and male) circumcision in Egypt since 4500 years ago and then spread to the rest of Africa gradually.
An offering which the king and Anubis, Who is Upon His Mountain, He Who is in Ut, the Lord of the Holy Land, give: An invocation-offering to the Count, Seal-Bearer of the King of Rekhyt [Lower Egypt], Sole Companion, and Lector Priest, honored with the great god, the Lord of Heaven, Uha, who says: I was one beloved of his father, favored of his mother, whom his brothers and sisters loved. When I was circumcised, together with one hundred and twenty men, and one hundred and twenty women, there was none thereof who hit out, there was none thereof who was hit, there was none thereof who scratched, there was none thereof who was scratched. I was a commoner of repute, who lived on his own property, plowed with his own span of oxen, and sailed in his own ship, and not through that which I had found in the possession of my father, honored Uha.
But this is a very hazy interpretation, and not much seems to be known about the propagation of this custom. This also does not explain how the original Australians and Peruvians also developed this same practice without much interaction between them.
A UNICEF report gives the following information on the origins of the custom.
FGM/C, like footbinding, is thought to have evolved in the context of a highly stratified empire, in which the emperor and his elite used the practice to control the fidelity of their many female consorts. With time, these practices came to be adopted by families in lower strata of society to enable their daughters to marry into higher strata. Footbinding and FGM/C eventually became essential signs of marriageability throughout the respective empires and in all but the poorest groups in society. In this way, the practices became social conventions that had to be observed if a girl was to find a husband – conventions that persisted after the original imperial conditions faded.