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Vol. 5, No. 4, 2006
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Erica Pomerance is a documentary filmmaker from Montréal, Québec. Her award-winning film Dabla!Excision was produced by Monique Simard at Productions Virage for Canal Vie Television. For more information about the film, visit or contact the distributor Films en Vue at



A & O: You would concede there is a difference if I report to you that my finger has been removed as opposed to mutilated?

ERICA POMERANCE: Of course, a finger may have to be amputated for health reasons, whereas a mutilated finger implies at best an accident or injury. So the two terms have different implications.

A & O: In most African countries where female excision is practised, the young women don’t think of themselves as having their vaginas mutilated, do they?

ERICA POMERANCE: In traditional African society, it is not the widely prevalent concept. In fact, many girls look forward to the event as an initiation, an essential rite marking their entry into adulthood, much like the young girls anticipate the Christian confirmation ceremony. However I would like to specify that FGM is not religious in origin.

A & O: So if Africa doesn’t regard female excision or clitoridectomy as a mutilation, what right does the West have to impose this pejorative term on their practice, and beyond that, what right does the West have to interfere in African cultural practices?

ERICA POMERANCE: First of all, the West is not imposing the term FGM on anyone. A movement exists across Africa comprised of women and a growing number of men who object to the custom because it violates the rights of women and children and has negative physiological and psychological ramifications. The Inter-African Committee against Harmful Traditional Practices (IAC) founded in 1984, has national committees in 26 African nations, and at their insistence, the United Nations adopted the term ‘female genital mutilation’ to describe specific ritual removal of all or part of women’s external genital organs. The movement to stop FGM actually had its origins in Africa, albeit somewhat timidly. The West has embraced and sponsors the movement, especially in regard to efforts to educate the population on the hazards of FGM.

A & O: How did you get interested in this cause?

ERICA POMERANCE: I first heard about FGM in the early 1980s, shortly after it had been denounced publicly by Western feminists such as Kate Millet at the 1976 UN International Women’s Conference in Nairobi. A debate subsequently arose in feminist circles around cultural appropriation of the question. African women were feeling the brunt of what seemed to be an accusation by Western feminists, who portrayed them as either complicit in the act or as its helpless victims. Put on the defensive, African woman forcibly entered the FGM battlefield. They expressed the position that since they were the ones affected, FGM was an African problem that required an African solution.

A decade later, on my first trip to Africa, to research the role of primary healthcare givers, I encountered evidence that a lively debate around the excision controversy was emerging across the continent. It seemed to be a good subject for a film. It took me five years of research and reflection to get my documentary project together. And another five years to shoot, finance, and release the film, thanks to producer Monique Simard and the team at Virage Productions. I spent several winters in fancophone West Africa, meeting people, filming events and taking the pulse of the anti-FGM movement. It was quite a learning experience, one that has radically changed my life and the way I think about gender politics.

A & O: What is the difference between clitoridectomy and infibulation?

ERICA POMERANCE: Clitoridectomy involves removal of the clitoris, whereas excision is removal of the clitoris and minor (inner) labia. Infibulation, the most extreme form of FGM, entails removal of the clitoris, the major and minor labia, after which the vagina is sewn up, leaving only a small orifice for urination and menstruation. Infibulation is practised primarily in East Africa, although it occurs among specific ethnic groups such as the Fulani in parts of West Africa.

A & O: Would anti-FGM activists feel more comfortable with FGM if it were practised under sterile medical conditions in hospitals and clinics?

ERICA POMERANCE: A prevalent fear in the anti-FGM community is that medicalization of FGM would be used by its proponents to justify a practice that deprives women not only of their sexuality, but of free choice and control over their own bodies. For this reason, most anti-FGM activists support a position of zero tolerance. Medical excision has its health risks as well, since the Mercurochrome used to cauterize the surgical wound often causes scarring and seals the vagina.

A & O: If I understand correctly, men just didn't invent this custom out of the blue. They introduced the custom of clitoridectomy to control the sexuality of their women.

ERICA POMERANCE: No one really knows the origins of excision. It undoubtedly existed in pre-Pharaonic Egypt. It perhaps originated during the Neolithic era or around the time when agrarian society developed animal husbandry and metallurgy was introduced. After men realized the role they played in fertility, they began to tame and exert sexual control over women for breeding purposes. A man had to ascertain that the children his women were carrying were his, and not someone else’s. Some anthropologists presume that, in fact, FGM was instituted in reaction to men’s fear of women’s sexuality. In the context of the times and evolution of the species, excision seemed a logical and effective control over fertility, female promiscuity and paternity.

Men feared women’s promiscuity most probably because they were projecting their own patterns of behaviour and sexual desire on women. Historically, it has generally been men who are promiscuous. Numerous traditional societies around the planet are polygamous, whereas few cultures have allowed women more than one male partner. This state of affairs is certainly due in part to the fact that women are biologically conditioned to monogamy (or at least serial monogamy) since they are preoccupied by the full-time tasks of bearing, feeding and nurturing young children and have little leisure to develop a complex system of multiple sexual and martial partnerships, particularly considering that the uterus cannot bear the fruit of more than one pregnancy at a time.

From a strictly biological point of view, men will inseminate as many women as they can handle in order to ensure their genetic survival. From earliest history, men always fought -- sometimes to the death -- over the possession of women; the more women they control and protect, the greater their power. Fearing both the sexual prowess of woman and the rivalry of younger, more virile males, men probably introduced the custom of clitoridectomy as a projection of their own libido, in order to limit a woman’s capacity for achieving pleasure in orgasm. In this way, the children she bore would most likely be begat out of duty to her master and not through pursuit of sexual desire. A man could easily repudiate a wife and abandon a child and any infant suspected of being another man’s progeny. Such a woman, rejected, was separated from her legitimate offspring and afforded no further protection by her kin against rape, thus exposing her to enslavement by a rival tribe. We shouldn’t forget that in cultures where female excision is practised, a woman with intact sexual organs is regarded as unmarriageable, leaving her, for all intents and purposes, rejected by the community and by her cultural group.

But let’s be honest. Not only in Africa, but around the world, men have traditionally feared and resented women’s power, in particular, their sexuality. The clitoris is four times more sensitive than the penis. Women’s orgasms, measured by contractions, last longer than men’s, can be multiple, and don’t diminish with age. FGM is just one response to men’s collective resentment or fear of women’s sexuality and reproductive fertility. In pre- Biblical times men worshipped the Goddess of Fertility in many shapes and forms, until the revealed religions discovered a supreme male God who robbed the Goddess of her power. But that was not unique to pagan, animist societies. In our supposedly enlightened West, we only have to look at how the Church has tried to control and stigmatize female sexuality. In the century following the invention of the Guttenberg press and mass production of books that empowered and enlightened the middle and upper classes of society, the Catholic Inquisition burned more than 100,000 women at the stake as witches.

Reduced to its lowest common historical denominator, we find ourselves faced with the overwhelming fact that men have never been comfortable with women’s sexuality. And women have been eager to comply, adopting self-mutilating behaviour with the aim to please and seduce men, whether it be through excision, the chastity belt, the corset, esthetic surgery or the crash diet.

A & O: Walk us through a clitoridectomy.

ERICA POMERANCE: I have not actually witnessed one myself, except on film. I do show a brief archival excerpt of an excision in my recent documentary film Dabla! Excision. But this is not the main purpose of my film, which examines many of the sociological and medical aspects of FGM, and the role of African woman in the movement to stop the practice

In the opening scene of my film, shot in rural Guinea, we see a typical village ceremony involving a group of girls between the ages 3 and 6, who are brought together in a clearing. As adult women clap and sing songs to encourage bravery and courage, one by one the girls are led by a paternal aunt to a grass hut in the forest where the procedure takes place.

The mortified child lies down on her back, her assistants hold the girls legs open, while the female circumciser takes out a sharp instrument (knife, razor blade or shard of glass) and removes the clitoris. The girl’s cries can be heard by the others waiting their turn outside. A mud or herb salve is then applied to stop the bleeding.

The circumcised children hobble single file to the centre of the clearing where they are seated on a mat. The village women dance around them, singing ceremonial songs that honour their entry into womanhood. The girls are then sequestered for two weeks to one month while they heal, but the operation often scars them for life. We should note that in most societies, this custom, originally introduced by men for their own benefit, is performed exclusively by women and takes place in the company of women. Women thus accept to serve as proxies for men, and the female circumciser occupies a position of status in the community.

A & O: If men refuse to marry women who are not excised, shouldn’t your crusade be directed at the men behind this barbaric custom?

ERICA POMERANCE: Most anti-FGM campaigns in Africa target the various segments of the population: men and women, students, religious and political leaders, and female circumcisers themselves. The information is tailored to each specific target group. Wherever funding is made available, trained African women and men knowledgeable about ethnic practices in the targeted region hold a series of in-depth information sessions and frank discussions in the villages. When possible, they use support material such as films, photos, leaflets, diagrams (la boîte aux images), a three-dimensional model of a female torso with removable genital parts. After harmful physiological, psychological and social aspects of the custom are clearly explained and elucidated, people begin to question the necessity of FGM. However, you can’t expect to change ancestral cultural beliefs overnight. The following such myths still prevail: left intact, the clitoris can grow down to the feet (another projection of women's penis envy?); a woman with a clitoris is impure and cannot prepare a man’s food; if the baby’s head touches the clitoris during childbirth, the infant will be deformed for life; a woman with a clitoris wears her sexuality for all to see.

The growing opposition to FGM has also sparked a backlash among certain Islamic groups and as a result, more female circumcisions are being performed in infancy or in early childhood. In the cities, FGM is now performed by medical personnel in certain clinics. Laws are difficult to enact. In countries where anti-FGM legislation already exists, it is difficult to enforce, since extended family members tend to protect each other and female circumcisions continue to be held in secret. Nonetheless, a small but growing minority of men and women are coming to view the custom as unacceptable. Naturally, in larger cities, where the educated middle class has more access to information via the media, liberal attitudes tend to circulate more freely about women’s rights and sexuality in general.

A & O: To what extent does clitoridectomy deprive a woman of her sexuality?

ERICA POMERANCE: Obviously, clitoral orgasm is no longer possible. But that is not the primary criterion for sexual satisfaction in many traditional African societies. We should remember that only since the recent sexual revolution, has the West become very orgasm-oriented. We are conditioned to believe that orgasm and sexual fulfilment are one and the same. For many mutilated women, the sexual act is a marital duty performed without expectations beyond that of successful pregnancy and childbirth. In Africa, a woman’s satisfaction may be related to her sense of security and that of her family, whether her husband cares and provides for her economically, and her status in the community. I personally think there is much we can learn from this.

A & O: Talk to us about the health hazards involved.

ERICA POMERANCE: Female circumcision often results in complications to reproductive health. For the majority of African women, this constitutes a more urgent preoccupation than the fact that women do not attain orgasm. Sexually mutilated women suffer from a number of disorders including infertility, prolapsed uterus, incontinence caused by vaginal fistula. After infibulation, the vaginal orifice is sewn up, and later on a woman usually requires surgery in order to have intercourse and give birth. Many women suffer permanent damage to their reproductive systems. These complications are discussed in detail by gynecologists in my film. The film web site contains graphic photos of certain medical disorders.

A& O: Given the widespread incidence of FGM in many African cultures, is it fair to accuse men of introducing the custom of female circumcision with the purpose of controlling women’s sexuality, while relieving themselves of the responsibility of satisfying their multiple partners sexually? If a woman has been physically desexualized, is the man off the hook?

ERICA POMERANCE: Are men to be blamed for the way humanity has evolved? It’s a tricky question. Whether it is fair or not to accuse men of instituting FGM is just about as difficult as asking if it is fair to accuse men of war and patriarchy. Humanity has evolved in a very sexist manner, but who is to blame? This is an unfortunate state of affairs, because now women have a huge task trying to gain their most basic rights, specifically in those traditional cultures that are still actively suppressing women’s rights, often as a backlash to the extreme liberalism (which some consider decadence) of the industrialized West. No doubt we should have fought back before the patriarchy was institutionalized. But that’s a long time ago, and perhaps we didn’t have the means to fight back collectively, or even the insight to recognize that we were losing what we now consider basic human rights. As to whether or not a man is off the hook when a woman can’t achieve orgasm, I doubt it. In the West many men suffer because their wives are frigid even though they are sexually intact. Look at the number of men taking Viagra in societies where women are not sexually mutilated: the erectile problem continues to plague them, with or without women’s capacity to have orgasm. Of course, in Africa and in other cultures where polygamy is the norm, having up to four legitimate wives to service must be exhausting after a certain age…

A & O: In making your film, Dabla!Excision, you spoke with several African women who now live in Canada. Given the importance of sexuality in Western society, how does an excised or infibulated woman negotiate her sexuality in our liberated culture?

ERICA POMERANCE: Most African woman in Québec with whom I have discussed FGM are fed up with the focus of attention given to the problem by the media here. They generally feel the issue has been sensationalized to such an extent that they feel they are being undressed when people look at them. It is a degrading experience to feel one is considered purely in terms of “is she or is she not sexually mutilated?” One woman I know reacted this way when I told her I was making a film about African women and FGM. She said that she hoped I wouldn’t be asking “the question”. For her, being asked whether or not she has been circumcised is as humiliating as asking a white woman whether she has vaginal or clitoral orgasms. She feels the question is an invasion of her privacy and shows a lack of respect, since it defines her identity as an African woman through the condition of her genital organs.

Many women have left Africa in the hope of turning the page, and would prefer to leave the FGM issue behind them. That is why many African women in the West refuse requests to tell their excision story. The media has generally focussed on the more sensational aspects of FGM, whereas it might be more pertinent to highlight the efforts underway to stop the practice both in Africa and clandestinely within our own borders. There are also services Canada can provide to help mutilated women, by creating increased sensitivity about FGM- related gynecological problems within our medical system, and by more readily offering asylum to women and children fleeing the imposition of FGM in their country of origin.

Part I of FGM appeared in Vol. 5, No. 2.

Related articles:
Prostitution: Gender-based Income Redistribution with Honour and Dignity
All Abored the Porn Express
Sex Traders in the Material World
21st Century Sex
Pop Divas, Pantydom and 3-Chord Ditties
The Triumph of the Pornographic Imagination


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People Muslims and the rest wake up! Those who preform female genital mutilation (FGM) on children should be brutally killed; it's a crime to do this kind of things to children; it's disgusting, sick and totally abnormal. Each one who has thoughts even to take his/her daughter for FGM must to seek treatment. It's so bloody abnormal; it's the same as cutting fingers or toes. The world needs to speak up and punish all the bastards abusing innocent children making them to suffer and feel pain and trauma for the rest of their lives. It's not a mother, but a bitch who gives her own daughter for FGM. Those people must be punished.

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