There are two main types of female circumcision: clitoridectomy and infibulation. Clitoridectomy is the removal of the clitoris, while infibulation is the removal of the entire vulva and the suturing of the vaginal opening. The procedures are predominant and culturally important in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Both are considered genital mutilation by the World Health Organization (WHO). More information from the WHO can be found here. As Westerners, we are typically horrified by this tradition. The vulva, especially the clitoris, are considered essential anatomy for experiencing sexual pleasure. The procedures seem cruel and misogynistic, and it's impossible for us to imagine how female circumcision could be a good thing, from any perspective.
But, is this a case of ethnocentrism, and should we mind our own business?
In these videos, women talk about the importance of female circumcision, as both a ritual and in terms of women's worth as future brides.
*Disclaimer* I have no idea how accurate the translations are.
A group of Italian researchers who examined the effects of female circumcision on sexual functioning cautiously reported some surprisingly and remarkably positive results:
The group of 137 women, affected by different types of FGM/C, reported orgasm in almost 86%, always 69.23%; 58 mutilated young women reported orgasm in 91.43%, always 8.57%; after defibulation 14 out of 15 infibulated women reported orgasm; the group of 57 infibulated women investigated with the FSFI questionnaire showed significant differences between group of study and an equivalent group of control in desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction with mean scores higher in the group of mutilated women. No significant differences were observed between the two groups in lubrication and pain.
The entire article can be downloaded here: Catania et al., 2007.
Their results are hard to believe, as the circumcised women reported better sexual functioning than what you'd find in a typical Western population.
The study has been criticized for several reasons, including: poor control group; measures normed for Western cultures; and bias associated with self-reports. However, similar findings have been reported before. In these cultures, it's likely that female circumcision is a key part of women's identities as sexual beings. And perhaps that strengthened identity is associated with better sexual functioning.
Some have suggested that a possible compromise might be genital nicking. Rather than removing the vulva, the vulva are nicked instead. A description and background can be found in this New York Times article.
The New York Times has reported extensively on female circumcision. All the articles can be found here.