How to talk about FGM: In conversation with Sabiha Allouche

“If FGM is seen as a beautification process, why should it be that different from plastic surgery, for instance?”

(Note: The interviewer and the interviewee are both cognisant of the problematic nature of terms such as female genital mutilation and FGM. Nevertheless, the terminology has been employed in the piece for the purpose of simplification.)

On February 1, the UK saw its first conviction for FGM. As with literally every issue that the media picks up, a specific narrative began to be constructed around the practice. “They are doing it to babies and girls under three.” This has become a somewhat standardised narrative across the world when it comes to coverage of FGM by western media. Interestingly, such concerns around “saving” these babies from barbaric cultural practices never surface in the case of baby boys who are circumcised. Circumcising boys or ‘fixing’ non-conforming genitalia of infant boys is a cultural practice that holds acceptance in western society. On the other hand, since FGM is a practice alien to white culture, hegemonic powers feel the urgency to intervene in order to “save” the female child. Nevertheless, as Allouche pointed out, FGM is considered a beautification method in different cultures of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

“If FGM is seen as a beautification process, why should it be that different from plastic surgery, for instance?” she asked. “Who gets to decide what the limit is? I mean, at the end of the day, they are both standardised beautification processes for the benefit of the larger patriarchal hegemony in a particular context.”

According to Allouche, there are three aspects one should consider when speaking on FGM: language, context and positionality. She said that we cannot take FGM out of its cultural setting and history when analysing the practice. “We know that FGM as a practice is embedded within other cultural [and] local practices and knowledge, and it’s not something that just happens in a vacuum,” she said. “There is a history behind it. And there is a whole sociopolitical framework within which it operates.”

Speaking about the usage of terminology, Allouche reflected on how words such as mutilation, incision and circumcision are often used interchangeably. “The truth is that if you are someone who has gone through FGM during their life, some of these terminologies might be hurtful,” she said. “And, of course, some of these terminologies also are directly implicated in power dynamics. Who is the person that is deciding that this is circumcision, this is mutilation and [this is] beautification?”

Finally, she said, we must think about our positionality when we speak about FGM. “Last but not the least is positionality – that’s really being mindful of power relations, the privilege that one person might have that another person might not have, and really avoiding to speak on behalf of other people.

“The only way, I think, to overcome it would be to perhaps look for politics of solidarity as opposed to condemning and taking the upper hand in discussion.”

The colonial project continues…

When asked about how western discourse around FGM is problematic, Allouche spoke about how entire societies are otherised from a western perspective in the name of FGM. “This can be seen as an extension of the colonial project – from economic and military domination to epistemological domination,” she said. “And as such, it really reinforces this idea that [these] societies are backward, these societies are lesser, and, therefore, they either have to be taught or recolonised in one way or another for their own good. It could be through interventions but also through, you know, NGO-isation. We know that NGO-isation oftentimes leads to the appropriation of political claims by an elite that is not necessarily concerned or as affected as the people who are actually in it.”

Are non-Muslim, non-Arab or non-African people ever in a position to write about or theorise FGM or anything related to that? “I think there are two elements for positionality,” replied Allouche. “Of course, one aspect is to recognise your limits as the researcher or the person that’s doing the talking – to what extent and to what degree, you know, can you assess right the whole practice without necessarily trampling other people’s rights, voices, etc.”

She added that the second thing is that positionality is also about really being relational in our approach. “So it’s not only about FGM,” she said. “If you want to be very nuanced about it, you have to acknowledge, you know, these different practices that also interfere with it.” According to her, be it FGM or plastic surgery, all such practices in the end help perpetuate the “patriarchal hegemon”. Nevertheless, one must practice caution in critiquing this aspect so that one does not reproduce the western biases around “Other” cultures and their practices.

The United Nations observes the ‘International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)’ on 6 February 2019.

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