And the torture continues

A.M. Rosenthal

July 28, 1993|By A.M. Rosenthal

IN THEIR living room in Atlanta, Hassan and Yasmin Ibrahim are having one of their nightly worried talks about their three little girls. Both want what is best for the children. But they cannot agree on a decision that will affect the girls every day of the rest of their young lives.

Mrs. Ibrahim seems a gentle woman. But she insists that each girl must in childhood have her clitoris removed.

In America, she says, it won't be as awful as back home in Somalia. She says here it can be done in a hospital, with a doctor and anesthetic -- not in a hut, by a village headwoman, with the child awake to the knife and screaming.

Mr. Ibrahim, a certified public accountant, says he has "a big question mark" in his mind. He does not want his children to go through what their mother had to endure, like most Somali women.

But his wife says without the surgery no Somali man will marry them. They would be "different" -- and she would be betraying her culture.

"Female circumcision" is not illegal in America. Mr. Ibrahim rejects the euphemism and says "mutilation." I doubt many take place in the U.S. yet. But I selected the Ibrahim story to begin this column in the hope that the U.S. angle might arouse some interest among Americans in female genital mutilation, the world's most widespread form of torture.

That is also the reason that ABC producers selected the Ibrahim story to begin a segment on mutilation they made for the "Day One" program.

The 15-minute film was shot five months ago in the U.S. and Africa. So far the public has not seen it. It has been scheduled, postponed, edited to cut out some shocking material, postponed again.

When I inquired, Roone Arledge, president of ABC News, said no date had been set but it would be shown in the fall. He said it would probably not be on in "Day One's" prime-time slot but later in the evening, when fewer children are in the audience.

Every year millions of African girls, and some Asians, are mutilated. About 80 million now live with the scars on their bodies and minds. Nobody can know how many more millions died from the mutilations -- or the diseases to which their bodies were exposed by them.

As the Minority Group International of London describes them, the operations can include cutting off the hood of the clitoris or the entire clitoris, all or part of the labia minora, part of the labia majora and sewing together the sides of the vulva by catgut or with thorns. The purpose is to prove virginity and reduce female sexual pleasure.

All this is done with sawtooth knife, razor blade or glass, while the girls are held or tied down.

Some of the specific horrors are touched on a bit lightly in the edited ABC film. I hope they will be reinstated. I am all for violence on TV -- the violence of reality, about war, drugs and real crime, including ritual female genital mutilation.

But ABC went after the story and the film is brave, strong and important for TV viewers to see, the sooner the better. A few newspapers and magazines also have done good reporting. But no other mass violation of humanity has received so comparatively little journalistic or governmental attention.

In America, the capture of Chinese refugees received more press and congressional scrutiny over a few days than the mutilation of millions of women has attracted over decades.

African Muslim women are principal victims. But in no religion is female mutilation demanded. It is rooted in superstitious contempt of women so deep that its victims, their mothers and daughters pay homage to the knife that mutilates them.

In Africa, women's groups work for action against the mutilations; a few laws are passed. But, like their colonial predecessors, most African governments fail to protect half their populations against maiming.

The rest of the world has failed too. The totality of religion, government, politics, diplomacy, the courts, human rights groups and women's organizations has not provided nearly enough money, pressure or teaching for a real struggle against genital mutilation of women.

So two worlds have failed them, their own and the world beyond. We do not know why. We know only that they exist, and that every year their millions grow.

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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