For a number of years now I’ve worked, researched, and advocated against Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). And, yet, I still find myself with a sense of ambivalence towards the practice.
FGM/C, which is also known as Female Genital Mutilation or Female Circumcision refers to the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Over 125 million girls and women have undergone FGM/C worldwide.
The health consequences of FGM/C are devastating. According to the World Health Organization, FGM/C causes immediate and long term health consequences including pain, shock, bacterial infections, infertility, risk of childbirth complications, and sometimes even death. Consequently, some have argued that female “circumcision” is a form of “female genital mutilation” and should be eradicated (See the late Efua Dorkenoo’s “Cutting the Rose”).
Furthermore, FGM/C can be seen as a form of male control over and subjugation of women. Frequent justifications for the practice include ensuring virginity and purity before marriage and preventing infidelity during marriage. And let’s not forget that in most cases FGM/C is practised on minors, not of ‘consenting age’ and lacking informed choice.
So far, so unambiguous. FGM/C is a harmful practice which causes so much suffering. So why do I find myself ambivalent towards the work I’ve been doing over the last few years to advocate against it?
It is partly because I’ve also come to realise that anti-FGM/C campaigns can harm, as well as help women. FGM/C is a deeply culturally embedded practice. Consequently, it is not generally perceived as a form of “mutilation” by those who undergo the practice (See Ahmadu 2000). Women who do not undergo FGM/C could become ostracised from their own community or might be unable to marry. Also, is it really my place to determine what others can and can’t do to their own bodies?
Moreover, some people have claimed to detect racist connotations underlying the notion of “female genital mutilation”. Why is it that genital surgeries in the West – more snappily known as “designer vaginas” – are condoned, yet, as Uambai Sia Ahmadu argues, the same procedure on “African or non-white girls and women” is considered “Female Genital Mutilation”, even when it is conducted by health professionals. I personally think there is something very wrong with society if girls and women think they need to surgically alter their genitals…. However, Ahmadu’s points certainly raise some important questions.
In essence, my ambivalence is between a universalist, zero tolerance approach and an open, culturally relative one. Is there a way to combine the two positions? Marie-Bénédicte Dembour suggests embracing the ambivalence and adopting a mid-way position – to “err uncomfortably between the two poles represented by universalism and relativism” (Dembour 2001:59). Using the metaphor of a pendulum, Dembour argues that for FGM/C neither view can exist without the other because as soon as one stance is taken, you have to adjust to the other. In one context, FGM/C may be accepted; it may be practised out of love to ensure a daughter can be married. But in another context, e.g. in the UK, it may be seen as a form of child abuse. Dembour illustrates this point in reference to changing trends on legal decisions on FGM/C in France; moving to severe sentences in the 1980s and early 1990s and back to acquittals in the mid-1990s. She explains that having moved too far in one direction, the judiciary felt uncomfortable with this position and moved back to a more lenient one.
Arguably, Dembour’s approach is a cop-out. It doesn’t provide any clear, forward direction. And, yet that is likely the point. FGM/C is a highly complex practice – there’s no definitive way forward, otherwise wouldn’t we already have figured that out?
Perhaps my way forward is to fit in-between the two poles and move towards either one depending on the context. For example, in a situation where I am clearly an outsider as a white woman from a non-practising community living in the UK, I find it difficult to condemn those who are not living in my own country for practising FGM/C. Our world views, knowledge, contexts are so very different and I, therefore, have no legitimacy condemning what they can and cannot do to their own bodies. In this situation, I find myself moving towards cultural relativism. However, I do feel that for those women and girls likely at risk or affected by FGM/C in the UK, I lean towards universalism and will advocate against FGM/C.
I’d like to open this discussion for others to contribute to. FGM/C is a highly sensitive and controversial issue, with multiple viewpoints on it. Do you agree with my reasoning here? And do you have other situations you’ve experienced that I and others also in this dilemma might be able to learn from and consider?