Re-Infibulation and the Obsession with Virginity in Sudan
The obsession with the concept of female virginity has reached alarming proportions in Sudan. In response to unjust social and political pressures, women have attempted all possible means to perpetuate the illusion of virginity in their intimate relations with men. As a result, women continue to suffer throughout their lives, controlled by the dysfunctional expectations of a patriarchal society and driven to accept unsound and dangerous practices that affect their physical and mental health. In response, the author interviewed a number of women who have undergone re-infibulation – resuturing after delivery or gynaecological procedures of the incised scar tissue resulting from infibulation – in addition to speaking with social workers, doctors and clerics about the legality, usefulness and consequences of this phenomenon.
According to the United Nations, globally more than 15 girls undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) every second. UNICEF reports that in Sudan almost 40% of girls aged from birth to 14 years have undergone FGM. A high, but uncounted percentage of women, additionally undergo what is known colloquially as al Adal, or re-infibulation, specifically after giving birth. Women interviewed by the author reported that they have undergone the procedure up to eight times. Many women also undergo reinfibulation prior to marrying, out of fear they will be criminalised for allegedly not having been chaste before the wedding.
Here, a real-life example from a mother regarding her daughter’s re-infibulation is illustrative. The daughter, in labour and suffering severe haemorrhage, is brought into a private maternity hospital in the city of Hasahisa in the Al Jazeira region, south of Khartoum. Her condition being critical, she is immediately admitted into the maternity ward. Six hours later, the doctor emerges to inform her family that she and her baby have survived, but that she urgently needs a blood transfusion. Among the joy and ululations, her sisters frantically collect blood to save their sister’s life.
Meanwhile, the woman’s husband and father of the newborn, dressed up elegantly for the occasion, arrives at the hospital carrying a bundle wrapped in gift paper. Before anybody manages to congratulate him, he calls his mother-in-law to him, hands her the present and has a long conversation with her. She is very agitated during the talk. He leaves, and everyone asks her why she is so upset. It turns out that her son-in-law asked her to tell the midwives that he wants his wife to be re-infibulated. The gift he brought with him was a set of golden jewellery to be given to his wife in return for her re-infibulation.
“I swear by Allah, he gave me one thousand Sudanese pounds for the good news of al Adal, and said to me, ‘Don’t you want your daughter to live happily?’ This was her first child, she was bleeding and I was afraid she might die,” said the young woman’s mother. Despite these concerns, ululations are soon heard again in the maternity ward, this time not to welcome the newborn but to announce that the young mother agreed to reinfibulation after receiving money and gold from her husband.
The obsession with virginity in Sudan is one of the main factors leading to the widespread phenomenon of al Adal. The main reason is that the human value of a woman prior to her marriage focuses on the issue of her virginity. Women who are found ‘unchaste,’ suffer severe consequences and discrimination, are subject to social stigmatisation, and are often denied the opportunity to marry. In addition, Sudanese criminal law penalises both men and women who engage in extramarital sexual activity. The penalties range from flogging for those who are not married, to stoning or death for those who are. In reality, it is women who are regularly penalised more so than men, as pregnancy is used as evidence of their adultery.
On top of this, many young unmarried women report that they are regularly subjected to virginity tests when detained by the police, regardless of the reasons for their arrest.
This phenomenon indicates the extent of social and political obsession with women’s virginity in Sudan today, and exposes the false perceptions and hypothesis surrounding virginity that has lead to the widespread criminalisation of sexuality.
To conform to these norms, many girls undergo surgery to narrow the vaginal opening, or re-infibulate, prior to marrying. Zainab, as an example, informed the author that she delayed her marriage for a few years until she was able to find a trusted doctor and a safe place in which to have the procedure. The cost of such surgeries can sometimes reach US$800. Another interviewee, Dalia, described re-infibulation surgeries as unsafe and usually occurring in non-medical venues. She added that before her marriage, she was able to buy a plastic hymen made in China which can be placed inside the vagina and looks like the real membrane.
According to Dr. Abdel Hadi Ibrahim, a gynaecologist, girls who engage in extramarital sexual activity usually undergo re-infibulation or ‘re-stitching’ so as to be able to have a ‘normal’ life. They may approach midwives or doctors to narrow the vaginal opening after engaging in sexual activity; however, this very often renders sex impossible and forces the woman to undergo another surgery to again permit intimate relations. In Dr. Ibrahim’s opinion, these repeated procedures firmly establish the delusions surrounding chastity in men’s minds. He stresses that re-infibulation has no relationship to sexual pleasure.
According to Dr. Ibrahim, the main issue is men’s obsession with virginity and the unrealistic expectations of a society that pressures women to maintain their virginity, and worse still, to reclaim it once they lose it. Re-infibulation is a social pre-requisite for young women to marry, have children, and live peacefully.
One interviewee, Samira, confessed she became used to re-infibulation. Her husband works overseas and she has had the procedure done after the birth of all of her six children, and every time her husband comes home on holidays. She said she does it because it is his preference, and she “honestly does not want him to take another wife.” Another interviewee, Fatima, the mother of two girls who has not yet turned 30, described being re-infibulated without her knowledge after the birth of her first child. She suffered severe pain for a week before she went back to the hospital to learn what was causing her problems. There, she was told that the midwife had ‘fixed’ her FGM without consulting her while she was unconscious, believing that it was the normal thing to do. This phenomenon indicates the extent of social and political obsession with women’s virginity in Sudan today, and exposes the false perceptions and hypothesis surrounding virginity that has lead to the widespread criminalisation of sexuality.
As was the case for Fatima, re-infibulation can cause serious health problems. As explained by Dr. Alhassan Mohammed Alhassan, a gynaecologist and obstetrician, during labour the vagina expands to permit the head of the child to emerge. In women who have undergone FGM, the vaginal opening is very narrow and has to be cut to facilitate the passage of the newborn. “FGM is first and foremost a mutilation of the reproductive organ, and there is nothing aesthetic about it. Medical ethics and legislation do not permit the doctor or the midwife to re-infibulate and if they do so they are legally liable for their actions. However, re-infibulation is a practice often requested by the wife, the husband, or the motherin-law after a birth. Still, this custom debases the woman and mutilates her, causes immense pain during sex, and embodies the woman’s obligation to satisfy her husband,” states Dr. Alhassan.
In addition, Dr. Alhassan stresses that the belief that re-infibulation narrows the vagina is false, as it only narrows the opening. The vagina itself never reverts back to its antenatal state. Hence, this narrowing does not provide any pleasure to a rational man. Worse still, re-infibulation can cause severe bleeding and lacerations during the first postnatal intercourse. As stated by Dr. Alhassan, “If men were aware of the dangers that women expose themselves through reinfibulation, they would not ask or permit their women to undergo the procedure. FGM and reinfibulation create massive problems during the delivery, not to mention collateral damage such as urinary retention and loss of feeling in nerve endings that rob women of their sexual pleasure. It is extremely unfortunate that the laws governing the practice of medicine are not implemented, as they prohibit the procedure of re-infibulation. If any doctor or midwife were actually taken to court, it would help eliminate this practice.”
From a religious perspective, Mohammed Hashim Alhakim, a member of the Supreme Council of African Islamic Scholars, believes that re-infibulation should be studied based on the Islamic ruling on female circumcision. “We believe that God Almighty created women in the best form, and no human should have the right to interfere with the integrity of their bodies. There is no religious basis for circumcision, and we have repeatedly called for its abandonment. The Prophet Mohammed prohibited inflicting injury or repaying one injury with another. Since FGM is a prohibited custom, its repetition must also be prohibited,” says Alhakim.
He further stresses that the reasoning behind the custom is baseless. “To say that it pleases men has no basis in science. How can a husband find pleasure in causing his wife psychological and physical harm? This stitching is religiously illegal. It does not make a woman pure and is not part of her religious obligations. Young women who engage in re-infibulation to cover up the scandal are dishonest and misleading, but the matter necessitates calculated thinking, and sometimes one needs to commit a sin to prevent a more serious one,” says Alhakim.
The issue also has a deep sociological dimension, as found during an interview with sociological analyst Dr. Abdel Rahim Ballal. In his opinion, “al Adal is the continuation of the despicable practice of FGM. It reflects the widespread perception of women as perpetual seductresses and sexual objects, as if the relationship between the two genders was a purely sexual one, devoid of any emotions, context or conceptualisation. Women are being treated as if their only value was to provide sexual services to men and are considered useless once they are past their sexual prime.”
Dr. Ballal continued, “The practice violates the physical integrity of women for the sake of traditional, selfish men. On the other hand, when men develop bellies and wrinkles, and become sexually impotent, women just live with the fact and do not ask their husbands to perform cosmetic surgery. I see this as subjugation.”
According to him, “The custom could be eliminated by fostering more relationships between the genders based on intellect and common purpose. Women often fear that men will abandon them, so they continually try to please them. If the relationship changed from one of fear to one of understanding, the custom would end. At this point in time, even educated women practice it, which sadly only proves that they were brought up on old and obsolete value systems. This demonstrates that the society as a whole did not modernise and change, and is still in the grip of harmful customs – we still have young men today looking for a suitably ‘sealed’ women to marry, be it by physical or mental ‘seals’.”
Women’s rights activist Manal Abdel Halim mostly concurs with Dr. Ballal’s opinion. She believes that the custom is firmly embedded in the socio-cultural milieu in which both genders are brought up. In this context, women believe they have to satisfy their husbands, while men think their wives should be returned to them after giving birth as if they were never touched by a man (“returning a bride after each birthing”). In her view, re-infibulation is tied to the FGM custom since a woman who did not undergo FGM before giving birth, will not be re-infibulated. For Halim, the principles of chastity and virtue are only a pretext. The fundamental motive of FGM is to lower the female libido so that women do not actively seek out sexual relations.
As such, FGM and re-infibulation are two of the worst types of violence against women. Extending past the physical aggression, they also violate women’s psychological integrity as well as cultural, social and legal rights. Correlating a woman’s virtue and chastity with a part of her body is humiliating.
In the past, facial scarring was a beauty standard despite the physical harm, yet it was easy to combat when beauty standards changed. FGM, however, is a social problem with an added political dimension that feeds into the wishes, desires and perceptions of the more powerful members of society about women, their chastity and virginity. This problem is not yet resolved. Ending FGM requires a socio-cultural change that would advance the situation of women and enable them to break the chains which confine them to lives valued only in relation to the pleasure they bring men.