A Mother's Dilemma

As the Twin Cities become home to more immigrant women, some of their most personal sorrows — such as female circumcision — are becoming more public.

KAY HARVEY STAFF WRITER, Pioneer Planet — March 4, 1999

Some call it “cutting the rose.”

The term is a veiled reference to a widespread practice of paring away parts of a girl's genitals — usually in crude conditions and without anesthesia — to render her “clean” in her culture's eyes.

Practiced in many African, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries, the procedure that affects an estimated 130 million of the world's women is more often called female circumcision.  A growing number of people who advocate against it use a harsher term — female genital mutilation.

With the recent influx to Minnesota of thousands of African immigrants, the practice is no longer a concern that looms half a world away.  Now, a group of Twin Cities women is using grass-roots theater to help bring the issue home.

“My pure and innocent daughter, I will not have you suffer the same pain and suffering that I have suffered,” a woman's voice calls.  “But how can I prevent it?”

The voice is a female actor's in a play and puppet show to be staged Saturday during a workshop as part of International Women's Day on the University of Minnesota's St.  Paul campus.  Participants will be challenged to answer her perplexing question.

“We're not trying to interfere in anyone else's culture,” says Marilyn Cuneo, who heads the play's artistic crew.  “And we don't plan to come to a conclusion.  But we do want to educate, to make people aware of what's going on.  This is not something occurring way over there, but in our own community.”

In traditional belief, the clitoris is an “impure organ” that can lead women into promiscuity.  Altering or removing it, which diminishes or kills sexual pleasure, is a rite of passage to womanhood often required for marriage and community acceptance.  Infibulation, the most radical form of circumcision, includes sewing shut the labia, or outer genital skin, leaving one opening through which both urine and menstrual blood must flow.  The practice is believed to increase male sexual pleasure and promote marital fidelity.

A mother must choose her young daughter's fate: rejection by her culture or the agony of crude surgery without pain-killers and risk of after-effects circumcised women know too well.

“In the play, the woman is relating her own story, because that's the way this all began, with a story submitted to us by two immigrant women,” says Cuneo, of Minneapolis.  She is producing it with other members of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, one of more than 50 sponsors of the Saturday event.

The story was written by Selamawit Yohannes and Purna Kumari Gurung, 20-something women who live and work in the Twin Cities.  Yohannes is a native of Ethiopia, where 90 percent of women are circumcised.  Gurung came here from Nepal.  The play's production crew hopes to repeat the 25-minute presentation and a discussion in other community settings.

The quandary the mother faces — whether to have her daughter circumcised — is a complex issue colored by traditional, medical and women's rights perspectives.  The issue has been compared to male circumcision.

“But we are making a distinction, ” Cuneo says.  “Female circumcision is like cutting off the penis.”

Male circumcision in this country was declared unnecessary earlier this week by the American Academy of Pediatricians.

In the U.S. immigrant community, an estimated 160,000 girls and women have been subjected to some form of female circumcision or are at risk of it, according to a recent report from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.  Because the practice is shrouded in secrecy and against the law, there is little documentation of its occurrence in this country.  Twin Cities researchers say they have heard second- and third-hand accounts of women taking their daughters to Africa, Europe or Toronto, where there is a large Somali population, for circumcision.

A 1994 Minnesota law bans female circumcision except for medical reasons.  It sprung up after a young immigrant girl was taken to a Twin Cities hospital with severe bleeding after being circumcised, according to information from the office of Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, the law's author.

“People aren't going to talk about female genital mutilation here, where it's illegal,” says Yohannes, who researched the practice as part of her college studies.  “That's one of the reasons it's going to be hard to enforce the law, because people will do it undercover.  The main issue is not that it prevents sexual pleasure, but that kids are hurt and can die from it.  So the best thing to do is to educate people about the dangers.”

Clash of cultures

The most common form of female circumcision is clitorectomy, removal of all or part of the clitoris, a procedure that usually leaves a woman unable to achieve orgasm.  In a more invasive procedure, all or part of the inner labia also is removed.

Much more radical is infibulation, which includes sewing the outer labia together, leaving a single, small opening — often the size of a straw — through which urine and menstrual blood must pass.  The practice leads to bladder and kidney infections, causes pain during menstruation and sexual intercourse and heightens pain during childbirth.

Infibulation is done on nine out of 10 women in Somalia, from where about 12,000 people have recently immigrated to the Twin Cities.

As part of a 1997 study for the Urban Coalition, registered nurse and study author Keyah Davis of St. Paul met with 30 to 50 Somalian women whose job it has been to perform circumcision.

“They were angry,” Davis says.  “This is their culture, they said.  You can write this law, but it doesn't stop us from circumcising our daughters if we want them circumcised.”

Some Somalian women told Davis that when they returned to Africa to visit, family members abducted their uncircumcised teens and infibulated against them against their parents' wishes.  Many immigrant women wrongly assume that circumcision is dictated by Muslim religion.

“It really is a process of male power and control that has been turned over to female gatekeepers,” Davis says.

Infibulation guarantees a woman's virginity and, when a girl is married, the small opening in a girl's outer labia is enlarged, often to her husband's specifications.  But most immigrants now understand that infibulation is not necessary for a woman to be marriageable in America, she says.

“Some of these men are having sex with American women.  And only the most battered American woman would allow herself to be infibulated.”

An immigrant woman who is isolated from the community is more likely to subject her child to circumcision, Davis says.  Women who work outside the home often change their perspective on female circumcision fairly quickly.

“It is not the custom in America.  It's frowned upon.  A lot of people see this as a practice of violence.  Once women are heavily exposed to that opinion, most make the decision to set circumcision aside.”

Twin Cities doctors now face the question of resuturing Somalian women after they give birth in metropolitan-area hospitals.  Davis' research indicates that most doctors comply with a patient's wishes, she says.

Karima Bushnell, an international researcher and trainer who also has researched female circumcision, says some doctors have been reluctant.  “But how can you do transgender surgery for one person and not do this for another?” Bushnell asks.

In the Urban Coalition study, health professionals at 31 Twin Cities clinics reported treating immigrant women and girls — some as young as 12 — with complications of female circumcision.

The age at which girls are circumcised varies widely, says Agitu Wodijo, a registered nurse from Ethiopia and founder of the Minneapolis-based International Self-Reliance Agency for Women.

“It is done on infants and girls 5 or 6, or sometimes 12 or 13,” Wodijo says.  “Some do it on marriage day.  Some believe that without circumcision, girls will be hypersexual and that will spoil a lot of their lives.  Without it, some don't get acceptance for marriage.  Some nurses say it's mostly the women who support female genital mutilation.”

Wodijo opposes circumcision and has directed workshops in Ethiopia that train midwives who make their livings doing circumcisions for other kinds of paying jobs.  Grass-roots movements have sprung up in many African countries to reduce female circumcision.

A brochure she helped create for the Minnesota Health Department is designed to educate immigrant women about female circumcision's threat to their health and the Minnesota law against it.

“The law makes the situation very difficult for immigrants because domestic violence is one of the grounds for deportation,” she says.

Matter of choice

A native Minnesota woman who had a partial clitorectomy at age 6 on advice of medical doctors adds an intriguing twist to a discussion hinged on the power of cultural beliefs.

Her surgery was recommended, she says, because the size of her clitoris didn't conform to a cultural norm.

“In this country, female circumcision is done because it doesn't pass a cosmetic test,” says Martha Coventry, 46, a Minneapolis writer.  “But it is no less culturally imposed.”

The procedure, which doctors call inter-sex surgery, is often recommended for girls — and sometimes boys — whose genitals appear ambiguous, neither perfectly male or perfectly female.  In Coventry's case, her clitoris extended a half-inch outside her labia.  When she was a child, no one told her why the surgery was done, even when she asked.

She was left with a nagging, shameful feeling about her body that led her to write a memoir centered on that experience.  A publisher is considering the book for publication.  She advocates that children with ambiguous sex organs be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to have surgery when they are old enough.  Some medical doctors now agree, she says, that the psychological toll of childhood inter-sex surgery exceeds that of growing up with a medically defined genital imperfection.

“The most important thing is there's no need for this to be done to children,” she says.  “No one demands it, but the culture.”

The larger female circumcision issue stemming from tribal tradition is part of the U.N. Platform for Action derived from the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in 1995.  It is a subject on the table at meetings of people concerned with women's rights around the world, says Cuneo of the play's artistic crew.

“Since ancestral times, in silence, we have surrendered our bodies for society to grow and prosper,” says a voice in the women's play.

“But has no one stopped to consider the pain and suffering of girls and women of our society?” another voice asks.  “The moment has come to break the silence.”