Although not strictly speaking an Islamic phenomenon, for nowhere does Islamic law call for the cutting of female genitals, the practice is almost entirely limited to Muslim societies, and logically so, for it follows from some basic Islamic assumptions about sexuality and ways to order a righteous society. The practice appears to have originated in southern Egypt or northern Sudan; outside Africa, it is limited to a few Muslim ethnic groups in South Asia and the Arabian peninsula. Approximately 130 million women suffer from the mutilation today, with some 2 million being cut each year.
In a survey of 41 countries, 28 of them traditionally Muslim in Africa and 13 of them places to which substantial immigration of Muslim Africans has occurred (9 in Western Europe, 2 in North American, 2 in Oceania), Rahman and Toubia provide a comparison of laws and public attitudes toward female genital mutilation. They devote far too much of their study to international human rights law, a concoction of U.N. and other charters, covenants, declarations, platforms, and programs – all of which have a severely limited effect. Much more interesting is their careful review of the national laws and policies covering female genital mutilation. Although no country has a constitutional prohibition against female genital mutilation, three African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda) have provisions effectively making the practice illegal. Sixteen countries (9 in Africa, 7 of them industrialized) have criminalized the practice. In Australia, it turns out, cutting the labia is illegal with only slight exceptions - one of which is a change-of-sex operation. In Egypt, intense court activity ended with the highest administrative court declaring in 1997 that Islam does not sanction female genital mutilation. France is the country that has most energetically cracked down, with at least twenty-five prosecutions; in general, parents have received suspended sentences but practitioners have gone to jail, for as long as eight years. In contrast, while state and federal laws are on the books in the United States, there have been no prosecutions thus far.