A clitoridectomy is the surgical removal of a woman’s clitoris, and sometimes her labia as well. Many modern women would be surprised to learn that this was a common method of managing women’s “mental disorders” from the year 1860 to 1937 in America.* At that time, medical professionals believed that mood disorders in women were caused by excessively sexual feelings. The quickest solution to this problem was to remove the clitoris and thus prevent masturbation and sexual enjoyment.
We can look back at this time period in a distant state of awe and horror, but we must also realize that clitoridectomies are still a common rite of passage in at least 28 African countries. They also take place in a small number of indigenous ethnic groups in Asia, and were common in Egypt until outlawed several years ago. These procedures are inflicted on young women between the age of four and 12, and are intended to ensure chastity, cleanliness, fertility, and beauty.
Westerners often prefer the more relatable term “female circumcision” to describe this procedure, but in fact, the two have very little in common. Removal of penile foreskin does not present nearly as many health problems as removal of the clitoris, and circumcision also does not interfere with sexual function or enjoyment later in life. Clitoridectomies often have severe immediate complications, including tetanus, infection, extreme pain, hemorrhaging, shock, and death. For this reason, the term “female genital cutting” has been adopted as a medically and culturally accurate way of describing the practice.
The most drastic form of female genital cutting is infibulation, which is common in Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali, Somalia, and northern Nigeria. In this procedure, the clitoris and labia minora are removed, and the labia majora are sewn together. A small hole is created for the elimination of urine and menstrual blood, and also for sexual intercourse when the time comes. A pregnant woman will need to have this area cut open and then sewed back together after giving birth.