Hundreds of millions of girls worldwide undergo a mutilation of their genitals based on both religion and tradition. The religious component is related to somewhat obscure Muslim ahadith, which say:
Abu al- Malih ibn `Usama's father relates that the Prophet said: "Circumcision is a law for men and a preservation of honour for women" (Ahmad Ibn Hanbal 5:75; Abu Dawud, Adab 167);
Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah: A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband (Abu Dawud 41:5251);
e4.3 Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the clitoris (this is called Hufaad).
Whether parents can name the specific religious source or not, the tradition has taken hold, and now the affected populations are bringing the practice to the West through immigration. Doctors in Europe, Canada, and the United States have a choice: inviting the parents to bring the girls into a sterile environment to make a "ritual nick" in the appropriate place, or to reject the practice as unethical and unnecessary. In all honesty, the latter will merely lead the parents to take the girls to back-alley practitioners or to send them back to the country of origin for the procedure--again without benefit of hygienic safeguards. It's a horrific choice, and there are compelling arguments on both sides.
Interestingly, there are many who would reject the doctor's offer of a "nick," leaving no lasting effect, because the tradition has an important point: to reduce the libido of the girls by making sexual intimacy less desirable (either through the pain involved or by removing those components that are integral to sexual pleasure). Unfortunately, there is more than reducing the sexual drive: "It can cause urinary difficulties, cysts and infection, infertility and complications in childbirth."
In a nomadic culture like the one I was raised in, there is no place for an unmarried woman, so mothers feel it is their duty to ensure their daughters have the best possible opportunity to get a husband.
And since the prevailing wisdom in Somalia is that there are bad things between a girl's legs, a woman is considered dirty, oversexed and unmarriageable unless those parts--the clitoris, the labia minora, and most of the labia majora--are removed. Then the wound is stitched shut, leaving only a small opening and a scar where the genitals had been-a practice called infibulation.
Paying the gypsy woman for this circumcision is one of the greatest expenses a household will undergo, but is considered a good investment. Without it the daughters will not make it onto the marriage market.
The actual details of the ritual cutting are never explained to the girls--it's a mystery. You just know that something special is going to happen when your time comes. As a result, all young girls in Somalia anxiously await the ceremony that will mark their becoming a woman. Originally the process occurred when the girls reached puberty, but through time it has been performed on younger and younger girls.
One evening when I was about five, my mother said to me, "Your father ran into the gypsy woman. She should be here any day now" ...