FGM: Zero tolerance to what?

Zero tolerance - Gender Studies

Words by Hannelore Van Bavel

Today is International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

Globally, it is estimated that at least 200 million girls and women have undergone the practice in one form or another.  For clarity, the World Health Organisation (WHO) divides it into 4 types: clitoridectomy, excision, infibulation, and a rest group containing pricking, piercing and scraping.

The discourse that is being used to spread the anti-FGM message always contains broadly the same information: FGM compromises all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons; FGM has harmful health consequences and can lead to death; FGM reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes; and FGM is a human rights violation.

While many – including the UN and WHO – support this message, others have criticised the many contradictions, inconsistencies, and gaps in the discourse and in how it is applied.

Cosmetic genital surgeries and Western-style genital piercings, for example, meet the FGM definition but are not problematised in the same way, even when minors are involved (in the UK, more than 200 girls under 18 had labiaplasty in 2015-16 – more than 150 of whom were under 15).

Postcolonial scholars have pointed out how the obsession with African ‘cultural practices’ and the lack of attention to Western harmful practices continues a colonial legacy of problematising African cultures and portraying African women as passive victims of their oppressive cultures and men.

Others have pointed out that infibulated babies are painted with the same brush as adult women who choose to undergo circumcision as part of their initiation into secret women’s societies.

FGM is described as greatly increasing the risk of stillbirth, but research suggests that smoking forms a bigger risk for the unborn baby than FGM – yet smoking is not internationally criminalised. Furthermore, most health consequences attributed to FGM are associated with infibulation (which accounts for 10% of the FGM cases) but much less with other forms of FGM.

Right now, in the USA, a doctor from the Indian diaspora is being prosecuted for pricking the clitoral hood of two minor girls, while millions of baby boys in the USA have had their full foreskin removed. The WHO funds research into the benefits of male circumcision, and into the disadvantages of female circumcision – as such in advance denying the possibility for disadvantages of male circumcision or benefits of female circumcision.  

Those from practicing communities have often rejected the idea that FGM is an expression of gender inequality by pointing out that, in many communities, female and male circumcision have the exact same meaning. Others suggest that, not FGM, but prohibiting adult women from deciding about their own genitals is the real human rights violation. For many, the practice is an important part of their cultural identity.

Challenging the mainstream discourse proves difficult. White critics have been called racist for not caring about what happens to the genitals of girls of colour. African critics have been blamed for betraying the hard work of other African women to obtain their five minutes of fame. And girls and women from practicing communities who want to continue cutting are thought to suffer from a false consciousness and cultural indoctrination.

Those who challenge the current mainstream discourse on FGM do not necessarily encourage the continuation of all forms of FGM – often they do not. Rather, they aim to bring more nuance to the discourse. Is a zero tolerance approach really what we have right now, if white women who trim their labia to live up to a cultural beauty standard are celebrated as sexually empowered, while black women who go through a similar practice to live up to a cultural standard of womanhood are portrayed as passive victims?

Do we have zero tolerance for female genital surgeries, or only when performed on bodies of colour?

And is zero tolerance to FGM really what we want? Or do we rather want zero tolerance to any form of coercion and control over women’s bodies – regardless of whether this means forcing women to undergo or prohibiting them to undergo genital surgeries?

To make the discourse more inclusive of and relevant to different women in different spaces, we need an honest reflection on the underlying assumptions of the discourse and on how these assumptions influence efforts to end the practice. Central to this reflection are questions about who can and who cannot make informed choices about their bodies. And most probably, the answer to this question should not be based on skin colour, cultural background, or geographical location.  

Hannelore Van Bavel is a Research student in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology.

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