Various forms of surgical and ritual operations known as circumcision are performed on human sex organs throughout the world. In Africa, it is an old practice. Erroneously believed by many people to be of Israelite or Islamic origin, circumcision actually predates the births of Jesus Christ and Mohammed. It is a much more ancient practice than Judaism and Islam, one that came to the Israelites from the Kemetians, the ancient Egyptians. This entry looks at that history and the practice in Africa.

Historical Background

The oldest documentary evidence for male circumcision comes from ancient Egypt. Proof of circumcision rite abounds in the ancient Egyptian temple reliefs and paintings; tomb artwork from the 6th dynasty (2345–2181 BC) shows men with circumcised penises. In addition, one relief from this period shows the rite being performed on a standing adult male. Ancient Egyptians sacrificed the foreskin to Min, the fertility and sexuality god, by burning it. Min was shown as a human male with an erect penis.
It must be noted, however, that although circumcision is of ancient Egyptian origin and was prevalent in this powerful ancient African kingdom, it was not systematically performed on all men, nor was it required of all. As a matter of fact, the examination of the ancient Egyptian Hieroglyph for “penis” reveals either a circumcised or an erect organ. Likewise, the examination of ancient Egyptian mummies of the pharaohs has shown some males who were circumcised and others with foreskins. The tool used to perform circumcision was the flint, a piece of hard gray stone that sparks or makes small flashes of flame when struck with steel.
In Ancient Israel, circumcision was ritually performed during a special ceremony (berith or briss) on the eighth day after birth, and it involved male children of natives, servants, and aliens. It was initially carried out by the father. The tool the Jewish people used to perform circumcision was a knife, but later specialists known as mobels (circumcis-ers) were employed to carry out the berith.
In the Islamic tradition, kbitan (male circumcision), also called euphemistically tab ara (purification), was to be performed on a boy only when he reaches the age of 13. Arabic Bedouin ethnic groups would circumcise males the day before they were to marry. It was a test of endurance, valor, and honor, in that during this operation the groom was to sing, thus proving to the surrounding crowd that he is stronger than pain. However, it is becoming acceptable for Muslim boys to be circumcised years earlier, even as early as the seventh day after birth. Muslim Sunnetci (trained and experienced circumcisers) also use knives or razor blades to perform the operation.

Practice in Africa

In African countries, the age at which circumcision is carried out varies considerably among ethnic groups and families and is dependent on religious affiliations and, in some cases, on personal preference. It can be performed at any time of human development, as early as at birth or as late as at adult age. The tools utilized to perform the rite vary as well and include knives, pairs of scissors, razor blades, and other sharp-edged tools. Although today circumcision is performed for the most part by physicians or RNs, it is embedded in a wide range of cultural contexts and is quite different in mode, rationale, scope, significance, and effects.
Indeed, depending on whether the ritualistic surgical operation is performed on a male or a female genital, the word circumcision takes different meanings and connotations. Until recently, the term circumcision, invariably called in medical jargon Acucullopballia, Peritomy, or Postbetomy, was used to refer exclusively to the surgical operation performed on male genitalia (male circumcision). This original meaning is still carried in several African languages. The word circumcision is called Ada gbigbó (Ada = penis, gbigbó = cutting) in the Fongbe language of Benin Republic, Okó didà (Okó = penis, didà = cutting) in the Yoruba language of Nigeria, and Evo sosso (Evo = penis, sóssó = cutting) in the Mina language of Togo Republic.

Female Circumcision

Conversely, the term excision for a long time was used to name exclusively homologous surgical operations performed on women (female circumcision, or kbafd in Arabic). In fact, the French word for a woman who performs any form of female circumcision on her peers is exciseuse (female circumciser). However, what is known as female circumcision nowadays has taken many dimensions in shape and techniques to the point that the word excision is used to name only one of the different types of female circumcision. Following the World Health Organization (WHO) classification, female circumcision is referred to as female sexual mutilation (FSM), female genital mutilation (FGM), or female genital cutting (FGC). There are four types.
Clitoridectomy, also called Type 1 FGC, is defined as the removal of the clitoral hood with or without removal of the clitoris. The clitoral hood corresponds to the foreskin of the penis, which is removed during circumcision. Excision, also known as Type 2 FGC, is the removal of the clitoris together with part or all of the labia minora. Infibulation, or Type 3 FGC, is defined as the removal of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora) and stitching and/or narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual flow. Unclassified Type of FGM or Type 4 FGC encompasses all other operations performed on the female genitalia, including
  • pricking, piercing, stretching, or incising of the clitoris and/or labia;
  • cauterization by burning the clitoris and surrounding tissues; and
  • incision to the vaginal wall; the scraping or cutting of the vagina and surrounding tissues; and the introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina.


There are several theories accounting for the nature and rationale of the circumcision rite. One of the most common is that it is an initiatory rite. Circumcision was performed before marriage or at puberty, a rite of passage for teenage boys. In other words, the ritual was regarded as a necessary preliminary to marriage. Among many African ethnic groups, especially the Masai of Kenya, there are specific periods during which the circumcision rite is performed. Boys must prove themselves ready by performing certain manly tasks, including attending to cattle before they can be circumcised. When the boys feel they are ready, they approach junior elders and ask them to open a new circumcision period.
Another explanation is physical hygiene. It is believed that circumcision is a necessary health procedure, which prevents the attraction or transmission of diseases. On a medical plane, a number of diseases, such as penile carcinoma, posthitis, phimosis, and balanitis, are said to afflict only uncircumcised males. Moreover, the risk of getting a urinary tract infection is believed to be far greater among the uncircumcised males. It has also been reported that 9 out of 10 uncircumcised men have difficulty or experience pain in getting the foreskin to pull backward upon erection.
Of course, there is a controversy over the medical validity of circumcision to the point that, in developed countries such as the United States, some men who were previously circumcised blame their parents for making them go through the procedure. Consequently, these men seek the restoration of their foreskins by undergoing medical procedures known as foreskin restoration and penis shaping.
In several cultures, circumcision is a rite of entry into the community of faith. Among the Israelites, circumcision became the sign of the Covenant People. Whoever was uncircumcised was looked down upon and could not partake of the hopes of the nation, nor could join in the worship of Yahweh.
It can also be an ethnic mark of distinction. Among many African ethnic groups, circumcision is regarded highly as a mark of distinction and a symbol of valor and/or manhood. For the Masai of Kenya, circumcision determines the role a boy will play throughout his life, as a leader or a follower. A boy who cries out during the procedure is branded a coward and shunned for a long time and his mother is disgraced, whereas a boy who is brave and who has led an exemplary life becomes the leader of his age group. It takes months of work to prepare for circumcision ceremonies among the Masai, so the exact date of such an event is rarely known until the last minute.
Both male circumcision and female circumcision have cultural and religious significance in African societies. For example, if the request for a new circumcision period is approved, the Masai boys begin a series of rituals, including the Alamal Lenkapaata, preparation for circumcision or the last step before the formal initiation. Before Masai boys are circumcised, they must have a liabon, a leader with the power to predict the future, guide them in their decisions. The boys decorate themselves with chalky paint and spend the night out in the open. The elders sing, celebrate, and dance throughout the night to honor the boys. It is worthwhile to note that, once a circumcision period ends, it may not be opened again for many years. The circumcision rite is taken seriously in African culture and religion.


Of the two ceremonial genital surgeries, female circumcision is inarguably the more controversial, the more debated and written about, and the more publicized. Articles, books, disquisitions, documentaries, and films are plentiful on the topic. Although some are in favor of the practice on the argument that it is purifying, others suggest a revisitation of the rite to improve on the methods used in performing it. Other literatures, probably the vast majority and mostly written by outsiders to the rite, still oppose female circumcision altogether and call for the stoppage of the practice they deem the most horrendous and barbaric torture and injustice done onto women.
The documentary film Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding ofWomen, produced jointly by Alice Walker and Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar in 1992–1993, belongs to the latter group of literature on female circumcision. These two activists collected accounts, photographs, poems, interviews, and medical testimony suggesting that female circumcision may contribute to the spread of AIDS. Prior to this documentary, which is lauded by some and deemed inflammatory by others, Walker released another book, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), in which she urged women to break their silence and resist female genital mutilation. In recent years, many works that are similar to Walker's have followed suit.



  • circumcision
  • female circumcision
  • male circumcision
  • penis
  • sexual mutilation
  • female genital mutilation
  • African ethnic groups


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Folly, A.-L. (1994). Femmes aux yeux ouverts (film) [Women With Open Eyes]. Togo: Produit par Amanou Productions.
  • Kassindja, F (1999). Do They Hear You When You Cry?New York: Delta.
  • Love, B. (1994). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. New York: Barricade Books.
  • Walker, A. (1992). Possessing the Secret of Joy (1st ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Walker, A., and Parmar, P. (1996). Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. New York: Harvest Books.
  • World Health Organization. (1996). Female Genital Mutilation: Report of a Technical Working Group. Geneva: Author.