Female genital mutilation in Europe and North America (Abstract only)


Kira Dreffke (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

Female genital mutilation is one of the grossest human rights violations against women today (Terre des Femmes). Female and male circumcision is often associated with female genital mutilation in parts of Africa, but the same practice was carried out in Europe and North America until the twentieth century (Hulverscheidt, 2002). In this practice, girls and women often had their external genitalia removed and partially sewn up. Depending on region and time period, the reasons behind female genital mutilation varied (Hulverscheidt, 2002; Terre des Femmes, 2003; Lenzen-Schulte, 2019).

Medical reasons were behind female genital mutilation in nineteenth century Europe and North America. Gynecologists and physicians assumed that “mental illnesses” such as masturbation, hysteria, vaginismus, seizures, or nymphomania were due to problems in female genitalia (Schmersahl, 1998; Hulverscheidt, 2002; Bochsler 2016). Clitoridectomy, as a form of medical therapy, was used as a treatment for the girls and women that doctors falsely believed suffered from the above illnesses (Hulverscheidt, 2002; Terre des femmes, 2003). In this procedure, the foreskin of the clitoris or the tip of the clitoris was completely or partially removed.

The male view dominated western society in the nineteenth century. The man, in his physique, was considered the norm, while the woman was a special case (Lamott 2001; Hulverscheidt, 2002). The same applied to their sexuality. Society dictated that women were characterized by passivity. With the advent of modern psychotherapy, deviant social behavior was deemed an illness and treated as such (Winterhager-Schmid, 1998; Bochsler, 2016). Psychiatric treatment accompanied physical treatments, such as burning the genitals. Through basic surgery, which was still in its infancy, doctors removed part of the female genitalia (Hulverscheidt, 2002; Bochsler, 2016). Society perceived female genital mutilation as a progress, that anchored itself in male dominance. Surgeries on the female sex continued to evolve. In addition, medical possibilities were exhausted and expanded (Schmersahl, 1998; Hulverscheidt, 2002).

Through the analysis of historical documents, including female patient files and reports, and literature, this paper will review the practice of female genital mutilation in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century. The insights gained from this analysis will inform the intersection of gender and medicine, with emphasis on the medical measures taken against the female sex. Furthermore, it should be shown that female circumcision belonged to one of the attempts to gain control over the female sex (Shorter, 1987; Lamott, 2001).


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