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Harmful practices to the female body; Part 2 Foot binding

“When I was seven my mother washed and placed alum on my feet and cut my toenails. She then bent my toes toward the plantar with a binding cloth ten feet long and two inches wide doing the right foot first and then the left. She ordered me to walk but when I did the pain proved unbearable, that night my feet felt on fire and I couldn’t sleep. Mother struck me for crying. On the following days I tried to hide but was forced to walk on my feet. After several months all toes but the big one were pressed against the inner surface and mother would remove the bindings and wipe the blood and puss which dripped from my feet. She told me that only with removal of the flesh could my feet become slender and every two weeks I changed to new shoes. Each new pair was one to two tenths of an inch smaller than the previous one. At summer my feet smelled offensively because of puss and blood and in winter my feet felt cold because of lack of circulation. Four of the toes were curled in like so many dead caterpillars and it took two years to achieve the three inch model. My shanks were thin; my feet became humped, ugly and odoriferous. “– A woman explaining about her foot binding.

Food binding, a practice that as bizarre as it sounds, was performed on almost 10 million females through 1000 years until it was banned. Underneath its mask of silk and colors, there was a world of pain agony, and symbols of family life, beauty, and fashion. It made small girls feet deformed, tortured them and was extremely painful. It basically began in the Tang Dynasty (618-906) and spread through the upper class during

Why was it done?

The custom of foot binding started as a luxury tradition among the rich to identify the high class from the poor but most important it was a way to keep the women and girls home and not outside losing their chastity. The bound feet isolated the women at home so that they were not able to walk out and stayed home most of the time.

The problem was that the men had the right to call off a wedding if the girl’s foot was not bonded and this brought pressure to those who couldn’t afford to perform on their daughters since a mother was obligated to bind her daughter’s feet to make sure she would get married. The men were charmed by the small feat that restricted their women to the home as it became a symbol of chastity and as they dressed in their robes, their movements reminded of the lotus flower blowing in the wind and the small feet made them walk slowly.

The ritual of foot binding
The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of 2-5and usually during the winter months so that the feet were numb, and therefore the pain would not be as extreme.

First, each foot would be soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood; this was intended to soften the foot and aid the binding. Then, the toenails were cut back as far as possible to prevent in-growth and infections, since the toes were to be pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. Then the girls feet were massaged delicately while cotton bandages were soaked in blood and herbal mixture. The next step was to curl the toes under by pressing with great force downwards until they broke. The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot while the foot was then drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly broken. The actual binding of the feet had then begun. The bandages were repeatedly wound in a figure-eight movement, starting at the inside of the foot at the instep, then carried over the toes, under the foot, and round the heel, the freshly broken toes being pressed tightly into the sole of the foot. At each pass around the foot, the binding cloth was tightened, pulling the ball of the foot and the heel ever close together, causing the broken foot to fold at the arch, and pressing the toes underneath, this would cause the young girl extreme pain. When the binding was completed, the end of the binding cloth was sewn tightly to prevent the girl from loosening it, and the girl was required to stand on her freshly broken and bound feet to further crush them into shape. As the wet bandages dried, they constricted, making the binding even tighter. All this was done without any kind of pain relief.

The girl’s broken feet required a great deal of care and attention, and they would be unbound regularly. Each time the feet were unbound, they were washed, the toes carefully checked for injury, and the nails carefully and meticulously trimmed. After this pedicure, the girl’s broken toes were folded back under and the feet were rebound and the bindings were pulled ever tighter each time, so that the process became more and more painful. Whilst unbound, the girl’s feet were often beaten, especially on the soles, to ensure that her feet remained broken and flexible. This unbinding and rebinding ritual was repeated as often as possible (for the rich at least once daily, for poor peasants two or three times a week), with fresh bindings. It was generally an elder female member of the girl’s family or a professional foot binder who carried out the initial breaking and ongoing binding of the feet as the mother would give up on their daughter’s cries and tears. A professional foot binder would ignore the girl’s cries and would continue to bind her feet as tightly as possible and they would also tend to be more extreme in the initial breaking of the feet, sometimes breaking each of the toes in two or three separate places, and even completely dislocating the toes to allow them to be pressed under and bound more tightly. This would cause the girl to suffer from devastating foot pain, but her feet were more likely to achieve the 7 cm (3 in) ideal. The girl was not allowed to rest after her feet had been bound; however much pain she was suffering, she was required to walk on her broken and bound feet, so that her own body weight would help press and crush her feet into the desired shape.

This bizarre process would take around 2 years as the foot would die or become useless. To maintain it, the feet’s had to be washed and manicured on a daily basis, if not the nails would grow in and lead to infections. If the bandage was too tight, the circulation would be cut off and lead to gangrene and blood poisoning.  The flesh would then rot and fall of and in some cases the toes would ooze pus.

Some of the other problems foot binding caused were the loss of toes and/or even death. If the woman’s feet were not properly bound, an insufficient amount of blood supply in the feet led to gangrene, causing the decayed toes to fall off. Some of the women even died from foot binding. One of the reasons were the failure to give the feet proper cleaning and grooming but another important problem was that foot binding disrupted the regular menstrual flow.

The general names commonly used for bound feet were “golden lilies,” “lily feet,” or “golden lotus.” Natural footed women, who did not bind their feet because they had to work in the fields or those who rebelled against the traditions, were called “Duckfoot” or “Lotus Boat” and they were disliked and despised for not following the traditional Chinese custom. But they were the lucky ones as footbinding caused enormous pain and agony for the women. Even walking around the house was a difficulty and if the woman had to attend a funeral or anything that took place Outside of her house, she had to be carried on a sedan chair. The unbearable pain and deprivation caused physiological and psychological effects on the women that had to suffer in silence as they covered up their true feelings.

Suppressing the women

This painful custom controlled the women’s life and restricted them to stay home and showed that their place was at home, not on the outside that belonged to the men. The girls did not have a choice as this was done to them on a early age were they didn’t even understand what was happening to them. It had become such important part of tradition and culture that those who chose not to perform it was discriminated and could not get married. While the men enjoyed the sight of the girls walking with small steps and femininity, the women however covered their pain, agony and depression inside of themselves just to satisfy their husbands. Foot binding is banned now and not performed anymore, but there is several old women with small feet that remembers the procedure and pain.

 

 

Harmful practices to the female body; part 1 Female Genital Mutilation

“Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes. The next thing I felt my flesh was being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The pain between my legs was so intense I wished I would die.” –Waris Dirie, UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador and spokesperson on FGM

1. What is FGM?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Most of the victims live in African countries, some in the Middle East and Asian countries and it is increasing in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada.

FGM is usually performed by an older experienced woman with no medical training. In primitive areas, anaesthetics and antiseptic treatment is not used and the tools consist of knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass and razor blades. A mixture of herbs is placed on the wound to tighten the vagina and stop the bleeding. The age of the girls varies from infants to girls to the age of 10 depending on the community and family.

It is extreme form of discrimination against women and performed on innocent children that are not able to defend themselves. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.

2. 4 types of FGM

According to WHO;

a)     Excision (removal) of the clitoral hood with or without removal of part or all of the clitoris. Occurs in 85% of the FGM.

b)     Removal of the clitoris together with part or all of the labia minora. Occurs in 85% of the FGM.

c)      Removal of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora) and stitching and/or narrowing of the vaginal opening leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual flow. Occurs in Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, parts of Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

d)     All other operations of the female genitalia.

3. History of Female Circumcision

Female circumcision, also known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not a recent phenomenon as it has been dated back as far as to 2nd century BC when a geographer, Agatharchides of Cridus wrote about the subject that occurred among tribes residing on the western coast of the Red Sea (today’s Egypt). Based on the current areas practicing FGM, it seems as the tradition has originated from Egypt and spread. Others believe that the custom was rooted in the kingdom of the Pharaohs.

As Islam rose throughout the region, Egyptians raided territories in the south and exported Sudanic slaves. Female slaves were sold at a higher price if they were “sewn up” as they became unable to give birth. After many converting to Islam, this practice was abolished as Islam prohibits Muslims from harming their body and enslaving others.

Today this primitive tradition has reached the coasts of America, Europe, Australia and Canada. Numbers from Amnesty International estimates that 135 million women have experienced FGM and that between 2-3 million girls and infants undergoes this practice every year.  In Africa alone it is about 92 million girls who has undergone FGM.

4. Medical consequence of FGM

FGM have absolutely no health benefits for the girls except doing harm and causing extreme pain. As the healthy genital tissue is being removed, the body cannot function in a natural way. Since this procedure is being practiced by people who have no medical training and without using any necessary anesthetic or sterilization, the FGM can lead to death by shock from bleeding or infections by the unsterilized tools. The first sexual intercourse will be extremely painful who will be needed to be opened and this is being performed by the partner with a knife. Besides bleeding there are several short and long term complications that these girls have to deal with and I have listed them shortly.

Depending on the degree of mutilation, short term health problems caused by FGM;

  1. Severe pain and shock
  2. Bacterial infection
  3. Urine retention
  4. Open sores injury to adjacent tissues
  5. Immediate fatal haemorrhaging (bleeding)
  6. Extreme pain as girls are cut without being numbed and the worst pain occurs the next day when the girls have to urinate
  7. Trauma as girls are forced and held down by several women

Long-term implications;

  1. Extensive damage of the external reproductive system
  2. Uterus, vaginal and pelvic infections
  3. Cysts and neuromas
  4. Increased risk of Vesico Vaginal Fistula
  5. Complications in pregnancy and child birth
  6. Psychological damage
  7. Sexual dysfunction
  8. Difficulties in menstruation
  9. Recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections
  10. Infertility
  11. The need for later surgeries such as to be cut open to allow childbirth and sexual intercourse after marriage. Sometimes it is also stitched again several times after childbirth.
  12. Problems urinating as girls are left with a small opening. This can slow or strain the normal flow of urine and lead to infections
  13. Gynecological health problems as they are not able to pass all of their menstrual blood out and have infections over and over again.
  14. Increased risk of Sexually Transmitted Diseases/Infections (STD/STI) including HIV as the procedure is being performed in unclean conditions
  15. Psychological and emotional stress. A study by Pharos, a Dutch group that gathered health care information of refugees and migrants revealed in February 2010 that majority of these women suffered from stress, anxiety and was aggressive. They were also most likely to have relational problems or fear for relations. According to the study, it is believed that an estimate of 50 girls is being genitally mutilated every year in the Netherlands.

5. Where is FGM practiced?

Southeast Asia; Indonesia, Malaysia,

Central Asia; Tajikistan

Eastern Europe; Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia

Middle East; Yemen, UAE, turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Oman, Jordan, Iraq and Kurdistan, Iran,

Africa; Zimbabwe, Zaire, Uganda, Togo, Tanzania, South Africa, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, republic of Congo, Nigeria, Niger, Mozambique, Mauritania, Mali, Malawi, Libya, Liberia, Kenya, guinea-Bissau, guinea, Ghana, Gambia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Djibouti, democratic republic of the Congo, cote d’ivoire, Comoros, Chad, central African republic, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Benin, Algeria

The majority of cases of FGM are carried out in 28 African countries. In some countries, (e.g. Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan), prevalence rates can be as high as 98 per cent. In other countries, such as Nigeria, Kenya, Togo and Senegal, the prevalence rates vary between 20 and 50 per cent. It is more accurate however, to view FGM as being practised by specific ethnic groups, rather than by a whole country, as communities practising FGM straddle national boundaries. FGM takes place in parts of the Middle East, i.e. in Yemen, Oman, Iraqi Kurdistan, amongst some Bedouin women in Israel, and was also practised by the Ethiopian Jews, and it is unclear whether they continue with the practice now that they are settled in Israel. FGM is also practised among Bohra Muslim populations in parts of India and Pakistan, and amongst Muslim populations in Malaysia and Indonesia.

6. Religion or culture?

Although FGM happens in countries with Muslim majority, and people think that it is associated with Islam, FGM is not supported by any religion and condemned by many religious leaders.

In fact FGM is a pre-Islamic tradition and since Islam prohibits humans from harming and mutilating their body, therefore FGM is forbidden in Islam. In Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Senegal, Benin, and Ghana, Muslim population groups are more likely to practice FGC than Christian groups but in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Niger, the prevalence is greater among Christian groups.

Today FGM is a mixture of cultural, religious and social factors. For instance, the social pressure to perform FGM because others in the same community do it keeps the practice strong. As from the religious view, the parents thinks that FGM is necessary to raise the daughter properly and make sure that she is a virgin until she is married even though no religious scripture supports this. It is motivated by the thought of proper sexual behavior.

7. Reasons and justification

  1. custom and tradition
  2. religion; in the mistaken belief that it is a religious requirement
  3. preservation of virginity/chastity
  4. social acceptance, especially for marriage
  5. hygiene and cleanliness
  6. increasing sexual pleasure for the male
  7. family honour
  8. a sense of belonging to the group and conversely the fear of social exclusion
  9. enhancing fertility

8. What can be done to prevent and abolish FGM?

Each community should arrange meetings where they discuss, talk and consider opinions about FGM. Here it would be important to allow the elder generation to speak with the young. It is important to spread out and explain about the harsh health problems FGM causes.

Next important thing is education. Education is the key to everything. As we can see, this is happening in areas where most people is illiterate or doesn’t have the possibility to go to school. The generations repeat themselves and the circle is hard to break. Another important thing would be that Islamic scholars and other religious leaders should change the perception about FGM as people listen to them.

Every country and community should work towards changing the attitude as women feels they are being disloyal to their culture for not choosing FGM. This pressure can change if doctors and other health care workers would talk with women about the dangers of FGC and offer other options that don’t involve cutting. Some human rights advocates also suggest that men could help reduce the practice of FGC by openly marrying uncut women. Many human rights organizations are also calling on religious leaders to openly confirm that their religions do not require women to have FGC.

Last, if the countries establish strict laws and investigate cases regarding FGM, then it will have some effect but it will not be enough to abolish it as 18 African countries has laws or decrees against FGM. Even countries with the highest rates of FGM have recently openly noted the need for banning this practice. Fines and jail sentences are typically minor, but most view any sanctions against FGC as a good start.

It is important that everyone is aware of this heinous practice that mutilates the female body. It is hard to understand how parents can perform this on their infant babies who are not able to defend themselves. Every country should implement various strategies to eliminate FGM and it starts with education and communication.

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