Speaking of vaginas, I just read something utterly horrifying.

According to Strabo “the Egyptians were noted for raising all their children and for circumcising the males and for performing excision (ektemein) on the females, as is the custom among the Jews” (Geographika 17.2.5)

That’s not the horrifying part. The Christian physician Aëtius (Sixteen Books on Medicine 16.115) gives a vivid description of a clitoridectomy:

The so-called “bride” (kleitoris) is like a muscular or fleshy structure located near the upper closure of the lips of the vagina, in the place where the urethra is located. In some women it becomes enlarged, increasing the female organs in size, and causes inappropriate behavior and disgrace. Also when it is rubbed continuously beneath the clothes it arouses the woman, and encourages her to engage in sexual intercourse. Accordingly, the Egyptians thought it best to remove it completely, at the time when young women were about to be married.

The surgery is accomplished as follows. Let the young woman be seated on a stool. Have a strong young man stand behind her and place his hands on her thighs, so that he can control her legs and her whole body. Have the surgeon stand opposite and let him draw out the clitoris with his left hand by grasping it with a wide-mouthed forceps; have him cut the clitoris off with his right hand at the tip of the forceps. It is appropriate to retain a portion of the cut-off organ, so that only the excess is removed. I have said that the excision takes place at the tip of the forceps, because the clitoris is fleshy at that point and can be stretched as far as possible, and so that a hemorrhage will not occur, as in the case of the more extensive excision used to remove a tumor.

After the surgery one should use wine or cold water to stop the wound from bleeding, and wipe the wound off with a sponge and sprinkle powder on it, and moisten a compress with vinegar and apply it, and put a sponge moistened with vinegar on top of it. After the seventh day sprinkle the lightest camomile on it, along with rose petals, or genital medicine dried with pumice stone {?}. And this also is good: burn the stones of date palms and grind them and sprinkle on the dust, and do this also for wounds in the genitals.

After providing the above translation, Mary R. Lefkowitz includes an interview with Aisha Abdel Majid, a Sudanese teacher who recounts her own operation at age 6, to help put things in perspective. 

4 thoughts on “horrifying

  1. I don’t think the ancient Egyptians practiced this — there’s never been a female mummy found with FGM. So that raises the question of when did it come into practice amongst the Egyptians and from whom/how/why…


    1. The Egyptians were well-known for practicing circumcision, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they performed excision too. Would a mummy necessarily show signs of it? If so, then it could have been limited to particular social or religious classes. Circumcision, for instance, is most often referenced among the priestly caste. As for timing, Aëtius was writing about Byzantine Egypt (circa 5th-6th century CE whilst Strabo is 1st century BCE.)

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      1. is there any source earlier than STrabo? That’s pretty late for Egypt…
        I think it would show up in mummified remains. I had to do a paper on this a few years ago for a religion, gender, and violence class and it was one of the random facts that I absorbed. There’s no physical evidence from the Egypt of the Pharoahs for excision but it wouldn’t surprise me if it came in later with various migratory and political shifts.


        1. That’s a good point about it possibly coming in later and from outside; from about the 8th century BCE on Egypt experiences wave after wave of conquest, including the Nubians, Persians, Makedonians, Romans, Byzantines and finally the Arabs. And those are just the dominant, ruling class – you’ve got everyone from Phoenician traders to Jewish tax-farmers to Celtic mercenaries tagging along. Most of the sources I’m familiar with (ranging from an independent Egypt up through the Ptolemies) have to deal with priestly circumcision; I don’t recall anything about other classes, and nothing about FGM – but then again I wasn’t really looking for it, so who knows? Considering 1) the generally high regard with which the Egyptians held their women and 2) their open and passionate eroticism (especially reflected in love songs, personal letters and even public inscriptions) I find it hard to believe this was a widespread custom if it existed at all prior to Christianization and Islamification. (It’s possible, for instance, that Strabo was familiar with the male priests circumcising and inferred that women did it too.)

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