An ambivalence towards Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

cultural relativism.jpgFor 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’sCutting 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.

PenArguably, 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?

5 thoughts on “An ambivalence towards Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

  1. For me, much of this debate comes back two main issues:

    1) Informed consent. In general I agree with the sentiment that people should have the right to do as they prefer with and to their own bodies. If those who undergo FGM/C are truly informed and truly consent (hard to evaluate, I know), then I suppose I do not have an in-principle issue against FGM/C.

    2) What we do about the supposed trump card of culture. We change culture all the time. Don’t defecate in the open. Eat leafy greens. Breastfeed newborns immediately. Swirl the contents of the PUR sachet for 10 minutes… IEC messaging, advocacy campaigns, all different kinds of “sensitization”, and even some of our collective marketing and donor education all promote cultural change in some way.

    My own opinion is that FGM/C is one small piece of a much larger, highly complicated, tangle of issues. It is easy to latch on to because it sounds so over-the-top, especially to Western audiences. But to focus on FGM/C apart from everything else it’s enmeshed in probably isn’t going to work (and may carry some unfortunate unintended consequences). None of which is reason to NOT address FGM/C, but rather to be smarter about how we do it, and perhaps also smarter about the why–seeing it, not as a sole thing to pick on, but as one part of a much more complex set of problems.

  2. Hi J,

    Thanks for your comment – really great to get more views on this. Definitely in agreement that FGM/C is a highly complex and interlinked issue. It’s about poverty, human rights, education, women’s rights, and many, many more issues. Taking a holistic, comprehensive approach to address FGM/C will be more successful. However, as the issue has become more mainstreamed in the media, it’s become the “hot topic”, particularly for donors, with little thought on the bigger picture.


  3. essentially any major issue has some tensions. This is the case for abortion, factory farming, the way we exploit our planet, any practice of development, humanitarian intervention, and so on and so forth. While there is an temptation to show these issues as clear cut (for a number of reasons), very few of those issues ultimately are.

    Note that some of your arguments of accepting FGM/C could, for example, have been made to defend slavery. (“Oh, but she’ll NEVER find a man if she’s free!”) Perhaps the important thing here to recognize is that all sorts of logically coherent arguments can be made, depending on the premises you start from. The fundamental question you need to answer is what kind of moral framework you choose, in order to evaluate the questions you discuss. Without a good answer on that, answers you give are likely to remain incoherent, in a good number of ways. Arguably Richard Rorty and Alisdair MacIntyre are the authors to read, on these issues, since these are deep normative issues that do require a degree of grounding in ethics.

    An entirely different question is how you tackle an odious practice (and one that is odious in part because it can’t easily be reversed). Here indeed engagement and empathy may be critical, and summary moral judgements aren’t likely to have much of a constructive impact.

  4. You compare FGm to vaginoplasty. I don’t support vaginoplasty, but the two practices seem quite different to me. FGM is performed on children and teenagers, and is fairly universal in the places it is practiced. Vaginoplasty is performed in adult, and often middle-aging women, and is quite a rare practice. (If you had to be, say, thirty to have your genitals sliced off, how many women would do it? )FGM is socially mandatory, as you point out, with severe consequences for holdouts. Vaginoplasty is private — it’s not as though you’re neighbors are going to ostracize you, or your relatives are going to badger you until you have your vagina tightened. Socially, i am trying to say, the two practices are quite different. Also, does vaginoplasty destroy sexual feeling? Cause lasting pain? make menstruation and childbirth difficult? (I realize not all FGM is that extreme, but lots is.)
    The cultural relativism argument you make could be used to defend any practice, from slavery to capital punishment to denying women votes or other human rights. Why isn’t racial segregation okay in the US south? It was certainly a cultural tradition. Why isn’t female infanticide okay? In many cultures it was, and is, quite normal. What about child marriage, forced marriage, the murder of “unchaste” girls and women? Culture is often not such a pretty thing. But cultures change.
    The question of how best to stop FGM is a whole other question.

  5. I’m always interested that there’s no parallel discussion of male circumcision in the FGM discussions. From what I understand the male circumcision for pre-teen boys (not babies) in Kenya is also a potentially dangerous, harmful, and disruptive experience for the boys, as it for the girls. Is it just because the western audience is used to male circumcision?

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