Who’s Body Is It?


In the May 20th, 2023 edition of the Times Colonist newspaper, there was an article about an African woman, Dr. Edna Adan Ismail, my age, eighty-five, who received the 2023 Templeton Prize for her work in improving women’s health care and combatting female circumcision. Yes, Female circumcision. Female Genital Mutilation. Commonly referred to as FGM. How barbaric we say. In some counties it is illegal but there are doctors who still perform these surgeries, or mutilations for cultural reasons under the guise of medical necessity. And there are always non-medical practitioners of female circumcision available in many cultures around the world ready to do the job. Usually without sterile conditions or pain management. This year’s Templeton Prize recipient Edna Adan Ismail’s own mother circumcised her at age eight. Ismail’s family were well educated, her father was a doctor, yet her mother fell back on traditional practices.

There are three methods of circumcision for a girl. In the least invasive procedure, the hood of the clitoris is removed or the clitoris itself is cut off. Sometimes, the labia are removed as well and in the ultimate obscenity, the vagina is sewn shut. Of course, once the girl marries the vagina is opened again. This circumcision, supposedly done for health reasons, is to keep the girl or woman clean and pure, if she survives the inevitable infection. Nowhere in my research on the World Health Organization site did they openly mention male dominance, or misogyny for the continuance of the practice of Female Genital Mutilation. Instead, they used words like cultural, religious, health, lack of education etc.

Rubbish! FGM is about fear. Fear of women taking control, fear of women enjoying sex and fear of unknown paternity. In short, misogyny. We believe that such rituals would not occur in Canada. There is of course the dubious practice of male circumcision which is done when the baby boy is a few days old, often without pain relief. Apart from an extra level of cleanliness, there is normally no medical reason for it to be done. In fact, it decreases the sexual pleasure for men. But it is a custom in our North American Society.

Female circumcision was not a custom in Canada in the time I grew up in the 1940s and into the 1970s yet I allowed men, in particular male doctors, to have control of my body in ways that are almost as horrifying as Female Genital Mutilation. Horrifying as I, and I expect many other women, accepted male dominance over our bodies, never questioning or speaking up because, it was the way things were done.

Take childbirth, feet strapped to steel stirrups, the scalpel slashed across your perineum that soft spot beside your vagina, the knife wound medically called an episiotomy to prevent you from tearing, the cut that needed sutures and healing and maybe became infected, all standard medical procedure for efficient childbirth. I was an unwed teen when I had my first child. My episiotomy had become infected, the antibiotics weren’t doing their job so my mother took me to her naturopath physician. After a cursory exam he snipped something in the area of my clitoris. A streak of pain.

“That’ll be better” he said in a reassuring voice as he nodded to me.

In what way I thought as I laid mute. Later, I wondered what he had actually snipped, and why. And why I never asked. Was my mother compliant like Edna Adan Ismail’s mother?

When I was a student nurse, I cared for a woman who had her vagina sewn up in one long neat and tidy line, her clitoris removed too. I could imagine the surgeon being proud of his stitches. There was a medical reason and the doctor had done a fine job and probably saved her life. But all the woman was worried about was how upset her husband would be. I wished I had known to tell her that her body belonged to her, not her husband. But I didn’t know that then.

A few years later and three more large-at-birth children I had many gynecological issues. Prolapsed uterus, prolapsed bladder, massive bleeding and over a five-year period I had three major reconstructive surgeries. After one operation the male surgeon cheerfully told me he had done a low incision just above my pubic bone so I would look good in a bikini. That was the last thing on my mind.

Another couple of years on, after another major operation my again male surgeon stood by my bedside accompanied by a couple of interns and proudly announced “The surgery went well. I stitched you up as tight as a virgin again. That’ll make your husband happy.”


And then there was the hysterectomy where post surgery, he gayly announced that he’d taken out my appendix while he was in there. How was he allowed to remove a healthy organ without my permission? The scar this time went straight up my stomach, perpendicular to the bikini line scar. They were quick to take out women’s body parts back then. These days they would have found a way to manage my excessive bleeding and shrink my uterus which was permanently enlarged due to taking the early toxic experimental birth control pills.

And did he really need to remove my uterus? I was only thirty-three. My husband and I were breaking up. And now I was barren.

It was no coincidence that during the long process of breaking up with my second partner in the mid 1980s that I had more health issues. Breast lumps a year apart that required lumpectomies. I was prepared to lose a breast, or two. But luckily for me they were both benign. The surgeon (male) said I had nice breasts.

The article on Female Genital Mutilation appeared in the paper on the same day I visited a friend who’d had breast cancer twice over a period of a dozen years and had elected to not have breast reconstruction each time, the most recent surgery being a few months ago. The thing is I never noticed she was now flat chested; she was totally comfortable with her loose shirt and not worried about having to look a certain way for herself or for her husband.

I thought of my late daughter who also had a double mastectomy and how angry she was with her husband who instead of asking her how she felt about losing her breasts, offered to pay for the “best breast reconstruction going so she would still look good”. Their marriage didn’t last.

I hadn’t realized how much rage I had bottled until I read the newspaper article on FGM. It took a few days of packing that anger around while I tried to figure out why, and then it hit. I wasn’t just raging for all the women who had been brutalized, I was raging for myself. The self who hadn’t allowed herself to be angry, hadn’t allowed herself to say no. I was a fifteen-year-old virgin when I was raped and he told me not to tell. I was angry about rape and unwanted pregnancies and how the blame always fell on the woman. I was angry at how I had given up my power and let myself be a victim. I was angry about how many women are killed by the men in their life.

We congratulate ourselves on being informed and light years removed from what we consider to be primitive practices such as female circumcision and yet we allowed men and some male doctors to sexualize our bodies, and in my case perform some type of genital mutilation without my consent.

There is change. There is more equality between men and women in my country but we can do better. The change needs to be world wide. My heart aches for all the women who are affected. And for all the men who struggle to change.

What I do know is: I have found my rage, my power. I am no longer a victim.

This body belongs to me.

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~ Island Crone by Liz Maxwell Forbes


8 thoughts on “Who’s Body Is It?

  1. Excellent!!! There are so many similarities to my experiences!! Thank god there has been improvement for younger women! You have power in your words Thank you for sharing!

    • so many similarities Diana, that’s shocking, it doesn’t surprise me and we never questioned it…good thing we are strong women….best Liz

    • thank you Lou, I wonder if I go too far but I always hope I can help with talking about more personal issues.You never know when a word or a phrase can make a difference! Love Liz

  2. A thoughtful and interesting post, Liz, one I can relate to. and yes, female mutilation always goes back to men’s desire for control. Women have always had power, the Greeks knew of it and it scared them, we are just finding it again.

    • I hope we are finding our power again Bunny..I have great hope…thanks, best Liz

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