Words by Jane Eisenhardt and Monika Radojevic
Today marks the 13th annual International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. In trying to understand what this day means, we at the SOAS have created a mini guidebook to what FGM is and how it is seen currently throughout society.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the practice of altering or removing some, or all, of a person’s female genitalia. It generally takes place before a girl reaches the age of 15, and commonly happens between infancy and puberty though it can happen later on in life. FGM can be done by a medical professional or done by local circumcisers in a community. In 2016, UNICEF estimated that 200 million women around the world have undergone FGM.
The practice is performed around the globe but is most known for its high concentration in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It is typically performed by women and is surrounded by tradition and ceremony in many countries. There have been documented adverse health effects such as infections, cysts, chronic pain, infertility, reduced or lack of sexual pleasure, and death, but some women advocate for the sexual pleasure it brings them.
International Opposition to FGM
FGM is seen as a violation of human rights against women and girls, and there have been many initiatives to end the practice of FGM around the world, including the #EndFGM movement promoted by the UN. FGM has been seen as a human rights violation due to the potential health risks associated with the procedures, and the deeply enriched social inequality and discrimination against women and girls. The UN defines FGM as a “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” that infringes on a woman’s rights to life, security, and integrity.
FGM is illegal in many countries, and medical practitioners around the globe are encouraged to condemn the practice. The NHS, for example, provides strict information outlining how there are no health benefits to FGM and the sexual and mental trauma that can result from it. Strict oppositional approaches such as the one taken by the NHS have been controversial as both individual women who have undergone FGM have advocated for the practice, and feminists and other scholars critique the western interference and cultural colonialism in FGM practices.
Critiques to the anti-FGM movement
As the anti-FGM movement has grown over the last decade, so have the critiques for opposition to FGM. This opposition is not so much an opposition to protecting the lives of women and girls around the world, but rather a critique to the ways in which this opposition takes place and the cultural relativism surrounding the dialogues around FGM. FGM is portrayed as a vicious and oppressive practice done in the developing world, but this violent vision is painted by western actors who have a very narrow understanding of the history and meaning behind the practice itself.
Critics argue that this strong oppositional stance takes away women and girl’s agency in developing countries while victimizing them throughout global media and discussions. There have been instances of pictures of girl’s mutilated vaginas circulating the internet without the consent of the individual, and often times parents and circumcisers in these communities are villainized for following cultural norms and seen as terrible people for subjecting their daughters and community members to this violent act that has been passed down through generations.
Obioma Nnaemeka, a feminist scholar, notes that even the name ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ introduces a ” subtext of barbaric African and Muslim cultures and the West’s relevance” (2005) that demonizes the individuals taking part in this historic tradition and contradicts the movement of providing empowerment and empathy to those involved in this problem.
As a result, a question we must ask ourselves when considering the #EndFGM movement is ‘What role do we play in this discourse?’ and ‘Do we have a right as outsiders to deem what is harmful for someone else?’ And this brings into light questions of what sort of state involvement should take place for practices happening on the ground in local communities, and if the UN taking this matter into their own hands undermines the ability for individuals on the ground to make decisions for themselves and their communities.
Should FGM discourse be extended to men as well?
FGM by name is focused exclusively on women’s experiences of the practice, however, recent debates have suggested that male circumcision should also be included within this context. The issue is controversial: those who are against such a linkage rightly point out that unlike circumcision, FGM often greatly reduces the sexual fulfilment of women and brings with it a host of additional health consequences, such as urinary tract infections, septicaemia and extremely painful menstruation. Due to the stigmatisation of the practice, many women subjected to the treatment face difficulties in accessing necessary medical care, and often suffer from adverse health for the rest of their lives due to the procedure. Thus the comparison is seen as failing to recognise the severity of the impact of FGM.
However, those who put forward this suggestion also highlight a key similarity: a lack of consent. In both cases, the procedure is typically done without the consent of the child or teenager involved. Both circumcision and FGM are not medically necessary procedures, and much of the UN discourse surrounding FGM can equally apply to circumcision – including bodily autonomy, sexual pleasure and ownership, and religious or cultural practices. The medical community is divided on whether circumcision is beneficial for the body, which parallels similar debates amongst traditional healers in countries where the practice is high about potential benefits FGM for women.
Although both sides make important points, these polarised positions run the risk of obscuring a significant aspect of the debate: agency. It is important to be aware of the victimising nature of FGM discourse that may not take into consideration the agency of women involved in the practice – particularly when that involvement is voluntary. Classifying FGM as a coercive act may not account for those women who associate the practice with pride and consider it an important symbolic ritual.
Is FGM a ‘Global South’ issue only?
Depending on what you consider FGM to be, we would argue not at all. There are many reasons that women choose (or are forced) to undergo procedures, but the idea that changes to women’s sexual organs only happens in one part of the world is entirely inaccurate. The main difference is that whilst ‘FGM’ contains the word ‘mutilation’, in that suggests a very specific and traumatic experience, the West has the equivalent: genital cosmetic surgery. And the main reason behind surges in labiaplasty is cosmetic – girls and women feel that the size, shape or colour of their vulva, clitoris or labia is unattractive or outside of the norm, and feel compelled to conform to certain aesthetics that is most certainly linked to the casualisation of online porn. What is that if not medically sanctioned mutilation of genitals?
Furthermore, there has been an increasing trend of vaginoplasty, marketed as ‘vaginal rejuvenation’ – to ‘tighten’ the vagina that has become loose somehow – as if vaginas are equivalent to loose screws, and ‘hymenoplasty’ which aims to allow women to become ‘virgins’ again. Not only are these views around sexuality and virginity hugely alarming and misleading, both procedures have come under criticism in the medical community for being completely unnecessary and risky to women’s (sexual) health. Any genital surgery done for purely cosmetic reasons could therefore be considered equivalent to FGM, with the added bonus of consent, although we would argue that choosing to undergo such a procedure due to pressure to conform to a narrowly defined and rather arbitrary beauty standard may not be as much of a free choice as it seems. In FGM discourse, however, relatively little attention is paid to the way the West imposes its own coercive standards for female sexuality and the female body, particularly by prominent NGOs such as the UN.
On days such as International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM it is important to remember to remain open-minded with critically analysing a cultural practice. No one should undergo harm and feel threatened for their safety and security, but often times this perspective of violence and oppression is coming from an outsider’s lens which can be problematic when trying to understand a culture far away. The name itself suggests a violent and traumatic experience – which is certainly the case for many of those who undergo it – but this is but one dimension of an extremely nuanced topic, and thus it is important to adopt a more critical perspective before attempting to judge such a controversial subject.
For more information on this topic, check out last years blog.