The practice of cutting away, altering, or removing some or part of the genitals in both men and women is generally referred to as excision or circumcision (male) or clitorectomy (female). This was a prehistoric practice found globally and in all religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and within the spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples. This practice is found on the continent of Africa as far back as ancient Egypt (Kemet) as a social, religious, and cultural custom practiced on females. More recently, opposition to the clitorectomy has developed. This entry focuses on the tradition of clitorectomy, its social meanings, and the recent controversy.

Traditional Roots

As a powerful cosmological-spiritual force, the scholar Cheikh Anta Diop demonstrated the link of the practice to that of ancient Egypt (Kmt) and the remainder of Africa. African Gods directed the rite of circumcision. For example, among the Yoruba in Nigeria, the God most associated with circumcision is Ogun. In traditional Africa, clitorectomy was performed for social as well as spiritual reasons; the practice denoted that the female was making a transformation into womanhood. The practice was instituted at the onset of puberty, incorporating two age ranges for the female candidates: 7 to 15 years and 15 to 19 years.
Other spiritual notations reveal that the practice was related to the duality of males and females and the need for gender differentiation. Therefore, clitorectomy functioned to eliminate the male aspect in females. It reinforced the cos-mological ideas that acknowledged the dual or androgynous nature of the Gods. The act was much more than an operation on the flesh, removing what are considered the traits of the opposite sex; without it, people could not marry or have socially sanctioned sexual activities, nor could they have access to the secret or hidden information that gave them the right to function as adults.
Thus, clitorectomy symbolized the death of the girl and the emergence or rebirth of a new person—the woman. As a result, females were believed to experience greater fertility and more live births. As a spiritual ritual, clitorectomy ceremonies were performed as a significant rite of passage for females. It has been described as an archetypical activity of the ideal feminine. Clitorectomy was considered a highly meaningful act that signified the sacred symbolism of feminine fertility. It was generally performed in sacred ceremonies by traditional female healer/practitioners or wives who held high social status.
Some contemporary societies, however, have provided for clitorectomy to be performed by licensed medical personnel in hospitals and clinics. Finally, the importance of traditional African circumcision rituals is indicated in literature, art, and music, and the origins of circumcision are found in many of the creation narratives of African societies. In one Yoruba creation narrative, the story of Ogun and Olure, marriage and procreation were facilitated through female circumcision.

Social Context

It has been suggested that over time the major religions external to traditional African societies have contributed significantly to social and cultural reinterpretations of the meaning of the existing practice. For example, circumcision as a practice in some African societies may have fused Christianity with traditional ancient ideas about spiritual purification. In societies where patriarchy is the predominant social and political system, clitorectomy is sustained. Some of the social reasons for practicing clitorectomy today include the effort to ensure premarital chastity (virginity) among females. It was also believed that the practice would help females maintain fidelity during marriage. In addition, because of social demands, both men and women believe that female circumcision would increase a woman's marriage opportunities. It has also been suggested that females who undergo circumcision are viewed as courageous members of their communities because of the pain associated with the procedure. Furthermore, in societies that valued fecundity, clitorectomy was thought to reverse patterns of childlessness.
Long-established customs of marriage and women's roles have interpreted clitorectomy as a paradigm of feminine modesty and an example of upholding family honor. Proponents of clitorectomy, both male and female, have also suggested that it is a protection against rape, a form of birth control, and a means to reduce sexual urges in young women. In modern society, it is believed to preserve morality in an increasingly sexualized atmosphere brought about by the West. In some parts of the Islamic world, the practice is called sunna. A term for circumcision (or the act of cutting) among the Yoruba is da' ko, while excision is sometimes referred to as dabo. The Bambara of Mali have practiced the ceremonial cleansing known as seit ji. Among the Zhosa in South Africa, the ritual initiation is known as Umkhwetha.
Millions of women worldwide have experienced some form of clitorectomy, and many African countries continue the practice. It is part of a system where social pressures converge with a number of legacies associated with spirituality and tradition. First, clitorectomy confers gender identity among females. Second, it gives women the perception of control and order, where women's power rests in the ideation of virtue. Third, women who exercise this form of power are thought to participate in sexual equality. Fourth, as a form of social control, it asserts kinship and a filial expression of ethnic identification. Fifth, clitorectomy has been connected with a higher social status in some societies.


Clitorectomy is a highly controversial practice in many modern cultures. In contemporary society, the practice is sometimes called female genital mutilation (FGM). The custom is subject to a major global campaign to end the practice and to educate women about the health dangers. In particular, African women and many other activists and scholars have brought this practice to the forefront in calling for its ban. It is often interpreted as a consequence of unequal male-female relationships and women's status in the societies that continue to practice it. Opponents cite the health dangers of the surgery and the patriarchal implications inherent in the custom.
There are four major types of clitorectomy, which range from the least cutting to a complete surgical procedure. Type I involves cutting away the clitoral foreskin and/or clitoris. The most severe form of clitorectomy is called Pbaraonic (or in some areas Sudante) and involves the removal of external genitalia and stitching of the vulva. Scholars have asserted that clitorectomy is a life-threatening procedure, especially when performed in nonmedicai and unsanitary environments. Other health concerns have included generalized genital pain, retardation of sexual development, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse), vaginal disorders, and medical complications that appear later in life.
FGM opponents have placed the custom within the context of human rights violations. It has been compared to the Chinese practice of foot binding. Clitorectomy is viewed as a form of cruelty to the spiritual, physical, and psychological female self. Opponents also argue that language is critical to the contemporary discussion. For example, they advise that female circumcision is an incorrect term and that the experience is not parallel to male circumcision. There is also a movement among those interested in ending the practice that focuses on and acknowledges the process of cultural reformation. They note that the practice is not found among all groups of people and that there is a diminishing demarcation between those family groups that are circumcised and noncircumcised. They also have advocated the development of alternative initiation rites and other coming-of-age ceremonies, which preserve the integrity of the meaning of the act without performing the act. It is an example of the embedded nature of some traditional ideas that challenge the processes of cultural reaffirmation and reorganization.
Many African nations have been in the forefront of eradicating the practice of clitorectomy. Agencies such as Maendeleo ya Wanawake (Kenya), Tostan (Senegal), and the In ter-African
Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (Ethiopia) are among those many organizations dedicated to ending clitorectomy and educating women and the community about other concerns of women in their societies.



  • circumcision
  • spirituals
  • female circumcision
  • ancient Egypt
  • customs
  • women
  • Africa


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Diop, C. A. (1974). The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (M. Cook, Ed.). Chicago: Lawrence Hill.
  • El Saadawi, N. (1999). A Daughter of Isis. London: Zed Books.
  • Herbert, E. (1993). Iron, Gender and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Societies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Lewnes, A. (Ed.). (2005). Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Innocenti Digest (Inndig 05/37). New York, Florence: UNICEF United Nations Children's Fund.
  • Thiam, A. (1986). Black Sister, Speak Out: Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa. London: Pluto Press.