Successful cultural change: The example of female circumcision among Israeli Bedouins and Israeli Jews from Ethiopia

R. H. Belmaker

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    14 Scopus citations


    Female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced in many areas of the world, including the Middle East, Africa and Australia. Although it is most common in Muslim populations it is not a dictate of Islam. In the 1980s this practice was reported among Bedouin tribes, originally nomadic, in the southern area of Israel. Almost all of the women interviewed in the first study intended to continue the practice by performing FGM on their daughters including educated women who were teachers, dental assistants or university students. A second study was therefore done based in the obstetrical clinic where only women from tribes reporting to undergo FGM were examined for signs of FGM by an experienced gynecologist, in the presence of an Arabic-speaking female nurse and translator, as part of a gynecologic examination that was indicated for other reasons. In no cases was clitoridectomy or any damage to the labia found. All women had a small scar from a 1cm. incision somewhere on the labia or prepuce of the clitoris. This study concluded that the importance of the ritual in this population was unrelated to its severity. The ritual had apparently become over time a small symbolic scar, even though this population continued to believe in its importance. By contrast, a group of Ethiopian Jews who had immigrated to Israel was interviewed by an Amharic translator, and examined during routine gynecological examination in the same manner as the Bedouin group above. In Ethiopia, FGM is universal among Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups. All women interviewed reported that FGM was universal in Ethiopia, but none intended to continue this practice with their daughters. All stated that this was a practice that would be left behind in their country of origin. On physical examination many of the women had amputation of the clitoris. The conclusion of this study was that the severity of the operation performed had no relation to the social and cultural adherence to the operation, since the Ethiopian Jews who practiced a more severe form of the operation intended to abandon this practice while the Muslim Bedouin who had a much milder form intended to continue it. A follow-up study in 2009 of the Bedouin population of southern Israel has found that FGM had disappeared, both by self-report of women under the age of 30, and by physical examination of women under the age of 30 in an obstetrical clinic. These results suggest an optimistic approach toward cultural change involving unhealthy cultural practices and emphasize the importance of cognitive approaches to cultural change.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)178-183
    Number of pages6
    JournalIsrael Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - 1 Jan 2012

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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