• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

A History of Circumcising Women: FGM in Egypt

Roland Betancourt’s recent book Byzantine Intersectionality (2020), which I negatively reviewed here, contained the claim that the Byzantines practiced FGM. I dismissed this as an opportunistic conflation of the Greek practice of trimming oversized clitorides (an ailment) with the peculiar custom of FGM, “an Egyptian habit scorned as foreign and wrong by Byzantines.”

I want to unpack this because there are many rabbit holes to jump down. First though it may be useful to outline the three main types of FGM. These include the mild variety, which involved the removal of the hood of the clitoris or the labia minora (or both). Second, the “moderate” sort which removed the clitoris and a portion of the labia minora. Finally, the most extreme (known as infibulation) removed all the above as well as the labia majora before suturing shut the orifice with thread or thorns leaving only a tiny opening for menstrual flows. The last is rare in Egypt today but not unknown in the deep south where it is known as “Sudanese circumcision.” Though this is a little unfair considering Somalia registers higher rates (99 percent) than Sudan (82) while Djibouti (50) and Eritrea (34) still have sizeable fractions.

Herodotus confirmed the practice in the fifth-century BC and claimed hygiene was the main reason. In his view the Egyptians believed the circumcised were free of the filth and pollution (metaphorical or literal as in smegma?) that afflicted those who avoided the rite. Today, decreasing female sexual desire is the more popular justification (despite the fact circumcised females experience the same amounts of desire as their uncircumcised counterparts and only suffer a lack of satisfaction).

The Greek geographer Strabo visited Egypt c. 25 BC. Operating within a Roman culture that framed Greek women as predisposed to hysteria and Egyptian ladies to venery, he observed that “This was one of the customs most zealously pursued by the Egyptians: to raise every child that is born and to circumcise the males and excise the females.”[1]

Later references are more oblique. The second-century physician Soranus of Ephesus has not survived intact and there’s no mention of FGM in his extant works. However, a sixth-century translation of him by (the potentially North African) Mustio became very popular. So sought-after in fact that it was later re-translated back into Greek complete with a section (2.25) that referred to taking the scalpel to oversized clitorides.[2]

If authentic the passage probably sat near Soranus’ extracts on cutting away the hymen when it obstructed vaginal flows. If not authentic then at least it can be said that the surgical operation was known by the sixth century because the last book of Aetios of Amida’s Tetrabilion states that it was performed by Egyptians on their girls to prevent the enlargement of the clitoris before they were married.[3]

The same author cites Philomenes, a Greek physician at Rome and a contemporary of Galen, as his source. Indeed, even the medical titan of Pergamon has a reference to FGM attributed to him (“the Egyptians consider it appropriate to cut it [the oversized clitoris] out”) though this is suspect.[4] Finally, Paul of Aegina refers to the same procedure in the seventh century, at which point it’s nigh impossible to assess whether his extracts (on these excisions) derive from Galen, Oribasius or Soranus.[5]

Intriguingly, there may be a reference to a Lydian equivalent of FGM by Athenaios who cites Xanthos’ fifth-century BC History of Lydia. The author quotes him to the effect that the Lydians were so effeminate that they castrated even women, whom they used the way most folk used male eunuchs. The fragment notes that “[The Lydians] were the first to castrate their women… so that they may ever remain youthful.”[6]

This, however, is more likely to be a form of sterilization thanks to the fact the ovaries had not yet been identified as the sexual glands of the female and ovariectomy involved complex abdominal surgery. This leaves only the prospect of some sort of potion that may could have deprived the ovaries or womb of their generative abilities. Though the Greeks were supposedly able to turns the hierophant of Eleusis into a eunuch by forcing him to ingest Cicuta juice, there is no extant source that refers to a similar incident being inflicted upon a female.[7]

FGM almost certainly predated the Greek arrival in Egypt where it was associated with the religious rites that celebrated womanhood. A papyrus in the British Museum, for example, discusses the money earmarked by the temple of Serapis at Memphis for the circumcision of an Egyptian girl, Tathemis.[8] Other evidence includes a twelfth-dynasty (c.1800 BC) text on the sarcophagus of Sit-hedj-hotep (now in the Egyptian Museum), which refers to “m’t” i.e. an uncircumcised girl.[9]

The procedure didn’t enter Greek literature (outside the travel genre), however, until a medical motivation could be grafted (an approach mimicked today as similar operations are justified if the clitoris is over 1/1.5 inches long). It became an operation that sought to avoid the secondary problems of an enlarged clitoris and, probably more importantly, social shame.

Among Egyptians, however, FGM constituted a religious rite that was probably associated with a lady’s generative ability. Its conceptual genealogy can be traced back to the hymen, which it was understood had to be disrupted for pregnancy to occur. This “unsealing” may have been copied by men who connected their own potency to their own “unsealing” i.e. circumcision. As surgical/ritual competition then escalated, the women may then have mirrored their menfolk and embraced FGM, often because bride prices (and social status) increased if they could prove that they had not broken their (infibulated) seal.

[1] Geographika 17.2.5

[2] “On the excessively large clitoris, which the Greeks called the “masculinised” nymphe [clitoris]. The presenting feature of the deformity is a large masculinised clitoris. Some assert its flesh becomes erected just as in men and as if in search of sex. You remedy it by putting the woman in a supine position, spreading the legs and holding the clitoris with the forceps turned to the outside, then cut off the tip with a scalpel and with appropriate diligence care for the wound.”

[3] Aetios, 16.105 (S. Zervos ed. [1901]).

[4] We have one extant treatise by Philomenes in Greek – Philumeni De Venenatis animalibus eorumque remediis, ed. M. Wellmann (Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, 10.1.1) (1908).

[5] De re medica, 6.70, ed. I. L. Heiberg (Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, 9.2) [1924].

[6] G. Devereux, “Xanthos and the Problem of Female Eunuchs in Lydia,” Rheinisches Museum fur Philogie Neue Folge, 124. Bd., H. 2 (1981), pp. 102-107.

[7] Archg. Ap. Orib. 8.2.8; Hippol. Adv. Haer. 5.8, p. 162 D-S; Hieronym. Adv. Iovin. I.49, p. 320C. Vall.

[8] Greek Papyri in the British Museum, ed. F. G. Kenyon (1893) 1.24, II. 9-18 (164-163 BC).

[9] Egyptian Museum sarcophagus cat. No. 28085.

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