Legislating Against Culture
Efforts to end Pharaonic circumcision in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan
Between 1920 and 1949 the British-led colonial government in Sudan embarked on a largely unsuccessful campaign to stop the practice of ‘female circumcision’ in the northern two thirds of the country, the part where Islam prevails. The form of genital cutting concerned has been identified as the most radical (type 3) in WHO publications, and accounts for approximately fifteen percent of cases world wide; it is practiced mainly in north east Africa, by people of several religious persuasions: Christian, Muslim, and indigenous. In Muslim Sudan it is referred to as ‘pharaonic purification’ and attributed to the ancient Egyptians; in Egypt it is referred to as ‘Sudanese’. The procedure, technically called infibulation, involves removing the protruding clitoris and small labia, then paring the large labia and fastening them together to cover the vaginal opening, leaving a very small opening for the elimination of waste. A thick layer of scar tissue develops that all but closes the entrance to the womb; this must be opened at marriage and further cut to enable birth. The practice has long been a requirement of marriageability in northern Sudan; it is ‘normalized’ and supported by a deep-seated cultural logic of which I have written at length that affirms the aesthetic and moral value of ‘covering’ or ‘closing’ (Boddy 1989).
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