.Pharaonic Circumcision" in Rural Sudan:

A case Study.

Pharaonic Circumcision is a term used in literature and by the Sudanese; and is synonymous with such western technological terms as female circumcision and infibulation. During Pharaonic circumcision, the clitoris and labia minora are removed and then the labia majora is sewn closed while leaving a small opening at the vulva for urination and release of menstrual blood (Boddy, 1982). Female circumcision is a subject widely debated across political, academic and religious fields due to the outrage and lack of understanding of the social context by Western and European peoples. An article rewritten by Janice Boddy of the University of Toronto published a very convincing study of the symbolic context of the practice in a rural Sudan village in the anthropological journal, American Ethnologist. The author states how and why she became interested in the topic: "I became determined to find out why this severe form of circumcision is practiced; why, in the face of orthodox Islamic disapproval and the contravening legislation of at least two modern Sudanese regime it [the practice still] persists" (Boddy, 1982, pg. 684). She attempts to provide us with an interpretation of the context of Pharaonic circumcision in one village, Hofiyat, in Northern Sudan, which is populated by Muslims. "In Sudan, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, a family's dignity and honor are vested in the conduct of its womenfolk" (Boddy, 1982, pg.686).

These rural Sudanese view circumcision in general as purification. The summer is known as the season of purification, when the circumcision of both the girls and the boys is performed. These surgeries are a right of passage from youth to adulthood. The boys turn into men. The girls, well, they remain girls, but "the operation renders [the girls] marriageable; undergoing it is a necessary condition of becoming a woman, of being enabled to use her one great gift, fertility" (Boddy, 1982, pg. 683). Boddy states that:
"In this society women do not achieve social recognition by becoming like men, but by becoming less like men physically, sexually, and socially. Male as well as female circumcision rites stress this complementarity. Through their own operation, performed at roughly the same age as when girls are circumcised(between five and ten years), boys become less like women: while the female reproductive organs are covered, that of the male is uncovered. Circumcision, then, accomplishes the social definition of a child's sex by removing physical characteristics deemed appropriate to his or her opposite: the clitoris and other external genitalia, in the case of females, the prepuce of the penis, in the case of males"(Boddy, 1982, pg. 688).

This is an emphasis on distinct clear difference and boundaries between the sexes. This is very similar to the Jewish belief that male circumcision is the defining distinctive act of Jewish men, separating them from the rest of humanity. This is similar to how the Hofiyat use circumcision as the distinction between the sexes; the men are "un-veiled" while the women are "enclosed".

Boddy's hypothesis is that Pharaonic circumcision enhances a woman's socially defined femininity and her potential fertility. Stated as:
"By removing their external genitalia, women are not so much preventing their own sexual pleasure (though obviously this is an effect) as enhancing their femininity. Circumcision as a symbolic act brings into focus the fertility potential of women by dramatically de-emphasizing their inherent sexuality. By insisting on circumcision for their daughter, women assert their social indispensability, [their distinction from prostitutes], an importance that is not as sexual partners of their husbands, nor, in this highly segregated, male authoritative society, as their servants, sexual or otherwise, but as the mothers of men (Boddy, 1982, pg. 687).
She also proposes that the custom was intended to make a women pure (tahir), clean (nazeef), and smooth (na'im). She writes:
"Pharaonic circumcision, a custom which because of its apparent brutality horrifies the Western intelligence, is for the women of Hofiyat an assertive symbolic act. Through it they emphasize what they hold to be the essence of femininity: morally appropriate fertility. In that Infibulation purifies, smoothes, and makes clean the outer surface of the womb... it socializes or, if the phrase be permitted, culturalizes a woman's fertility"(Boddy, 1982, pg. 696).

These values of purity, cleanliness and smoothness are not only embodied in women and can also be traced throughout their culture. Because the prophet Mohammad was white, all white-skinned peoples have the favored position of belonging to his tribe; thus, "the quality ‘whiteness' [is] usually associated with the concepts of cleanliness and purity. [This is extremely interesting that] white foods [such as, eggs, goat's milk, goat's cheese, cow's milk, fish, rice, sugar, and white flour] are generally classed as ‘clean' and are thought to ‘bring blood', [in other words] to increase the amount of blood in the body"(Boddy, 1982, pg. 690).

This ideology related to food comes from their idea that blood is life. This is incorporated out of their "native theories of conception[; which are] that the fetus is formed from the union of a man's semen, spoken as his seeds, with his wife's blood. Sexual intercourse causes the woman's blood to thicken or coagulate and she ceases menstruation until after the baby's birth. These ideas [are] also relate[d] to those concerning parents retrospective contributions to the body of their child. A child receives its bones from its father and its flesh and blood from its mother....People who belong to different patrilineage's, yet acknowledge relationship, say that "between us there is flesh and blood". It is through the men that the social order receives its structure, its rigidity (its bones), then it is through women that it receives its fluidity and it integration (its blood and its flesh) (Boddy, 1982, pg. 692).
Other foods that are thought to be clean are tinned fish, tinned jam, oranges, bananas, guavas, and grapefruit. These foods are associated with Europeans, Egyptians, Lebanese, that is, particularly people having light or white skin. Interestingly enough, these foods are considered clean because they are enclosed and protected from dirt and dryness as is a child in the womb. (Boddy, 1982).

Boddy closes by remarking that before this practice of Pharaonic circumcision could be eradicated from these peoples' lives, a greater understanding of their culture will be necessary to comprehend how their lives revolve around the motives to continue circumcision (Boddy, 1982).

This article was extremely helpful in understanding and coming to grips with an example of how, why, and in what context, female circumcision is practiced. It is difficult to put my Western ideologies and bias away when discussing this subject. This article brought to light a reason as to why these practices continue and perpetuated by women. This has helped me possess a greater comprehension of a way of life that I do not understand and one which goes against the very fabric of my beliefs and morals as a feminist.


1.Boddy, Janice (from University of Toronto). "Womb as Oasis: The symbolic context of Pharaonic circumcision in rural Northern Sudan". American Ethnologist. Vol.9 (Nov. 1982): pgs.682-698.

The article was written by an anthropologist, and the theory, though it is controversial, was based on anthropological interpretations of field research.