Image by Awesame Mohamed (Digital Journal) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has described female genital mutilation, or cutting, as among the “most extreme manifestations of gender-based violence there is”. The issue of FGC has gained increased publicity and news coverage in recent months in the UK. The general understanding is that FGC, termed as “mutilation” (FGM), constitutes violence, child abuse, and a human rights violation. The young girls who are subjected to FGC, considered in the West as “victims”, live in 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East, and in Britain, Europe, and other countries their families have migrated to. In Britain and elsewhere, it becomes of matter of protecting children who are citizens of our countries.
Negative views of FGC are not confined to the West. Article 15(4) of Somalia’s new Provisional Constitution which prohibits “circumcision of girls” declares the practice as “cruel and degrading….and…tantamount to torture.” Similarly it is classed as “torture” by the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
Is it, however, valid to class culturally-prescribed FGC as a violent crime against children? As “torture” or “tantamount to torture”, or indeed, as “mutilation”? Are we wishing to impose a Western value system where it may not be applicable? Indeed, by enforcing mandatory examinations of girls considered to be at risk, as in France, or as suggested in the UK, are girls’ human rights being violated further?
Inherent in the definition of “torture” is an intention to inflict pain and suffering. While the term “violent”, implies a destructive force – an intention to harm, damage or kill. These are surely never the intentions of those subjecting their daughters, granddaughters and nieces to FGC. While the intentions of those whose profession is to carry out the cutting may sometimes be less than pure, their intentions are still, surely, not violent.
And then there is the term “mutilate”, implying not just that the act is violent, but also that the result constitutes disfigurement, severe damage or destruction; that the beauty is spoiled. Yet it could be argued that FGC is beautifying according to a specific cultural aesthetic. Dynamic anti-FGC advocate, Leila Hussein, invited signatures for her bogus petition in favour of FGC intended to test the reactions of the British public (The Cruel Cut, Channel 4). “It’s beautiful!” – she called out to passers-by. Is it therefore a matter of cultural perspective as to whether cut female genitalia are disfigured, damaged, or spoiled?
Germaine Greer, a feminist whose views fall along the lines of a woman’s right to enjoy sex and to choose what is done to her genitalia, provoked a furor when she defended the right of women to undergo FGC as a mark of their cultural identity. Many of us in Britain who proclaim liberal values may incline towards cultural relativism. Where FGC is carried out under anaesthetic, we might posit the question as to how different FGC is from the practice of non-medically-based plastic surgery for culturally-aesthetic reasons. One might argue that in this case, adults choose to have the surgery. We could present the counter-argument that an element of choice is removed from these women by conditioning and brain-washing from lifelong exposure to media images.
It is perhaps partly due to an inclination towards cultural relativism, and a consequent reluctance to interfere with the various cultural mores of Britain’s ethnic minorities, that the issue of FGC has been slow to be taken on board in this country. A general reluctance on the part of the predominantly male powers-who-be to concern themselves with the vaginas of the politically least significant sector of the community (being female, minors and non-white) may also be a factor. In France, with its zero tolerance approach to FGC, approximately 100 people have been tried and jailed for involvement in FGC. In Britain, however, there has only been one (recent) prosecution to-date. We are told that FGC has been illegal in Britain since 1985 – something one might be forgiven for finding confusing. When has it ever been legal to mutilate a child in the UK? (Since beheading went out of vogue as a method of capital punishment.) More recently, it was reported that emails sent out to heads of schools containing guidelines relating to FGC were not even, for the most part, opened! How should we understand this? In terms of heads of schools being busy people, and of girls at risk of FGC being of low priority?
In the case of the Somali community in Britain, Abdi casts doubt on the assumption that education, and awareness of the adverse effects and risks of FGC, is the answer. Families who are both educated and aware, such as her own, are nevertheless continuing the practice. She claims that activists who oppose FGC view the practice only according to a purely physical/medical model, and fail to consider it as creating Somali gendered identity. The question this evokes is: Can a woman be Somali if she has not been cut? (I am sure the answer to this is: most definitely!!!)
A Somali woman I once had the privilege of interviewing – a very beautiful and spiritual community leader with British-educated grown-up children – declined to either condemn or condone the practice: “I don’t know if it is a good or a bad thing,” she shrugged. I understand from her response that the practice was necessary in the social context she came from, and carried out with positive intentions. Somali parents subject their daughters to FGC in order that they will be marriageable, so that they will be “clean”, so that their behaviour will be culturally “feminine” (as it is believed in Somalia to impact on a girl’s behaviour), so that their bodies will be culturally “feminine”, so that they will be chaste until marriage, so that they will not be a source of shame to their families. Most of all, parents subject their daughters to FGC so that they will have social existence. If a woman is uncircumcised, in the Somali context (and even to some extent in the diaspora context) she will be unmarriageable, and will thus have no social role. Avoidance of such a fate is something parents have a duty to ensure. They are assuring their daughters’ future. A young mother may have no say in the matter, and may be forced to comply with the demands of her mother-in-law.
Upon learning that FGM is not in fact ordained in Islam, that not all women undergo the practice, and of its harmful consequences (which in Somalia were attributed to factors unrelated to FGM), how is a parent to feel? Surely it is unbearable to conceive of the idea that one has exposed one’s daughter to unnecessary violence, to unnecessary intense pain, to unnecessary health risks, and the potential disability or death of her offspring.
Opposition to the practice does exist in Somalia. Mogadishu-based Imam Macalin Adam Mohammed Osman has been advocating against the practice, insisting that it has no foundation in Islam.
Neither religion, therefore, nor, in my view, cultural relativism, can be evoked to justify the practice of FGM – a practice which is violent to the extreme. Certainly in the Somali case, it is violence that is inflicted on young girls, and that is reinflicted throughout their lives. It is reinflicted when a woman’s fused flesh is forced or cut open on her wedding night. Men as well as women are documented as being deeply traumatised by this event. In Somalia, it might be reinflicted when a man returns from a journey, having had his wife’s vagina sewn up before leaving to ensure her fidelity in his absence. Much has been documented on the health problems and complications in childbirth which result from FGM, apart from the pain and difficulty in urinating and menstruating. A Somali nurse I encountered suffered from kidney failure as a result of FGM, endangering her life.
Waris Dirie, anti-FGM campaigner and UN ambassador (and former model), describes her experience of FGM in her book Desert Flower. Like Abdi’s interviewees, Waris was excited about the impending act because deception is involved in the practice. At the age of 5, or 7, the little girls are not told, and do not understand, exactly what is going to happen. Having been cut, in Waris’s case, she was left alone in the desert through the night, her legs tied together. She lost her sister to the practice.
The parents, grandparents, aunts who subject the little girls to FGM do not have violent or harmful intentions. But they are unconscious, unquestioning actors within a larger, all-engulfing mind, which has collectivised geographically and historically, down through the generations. This is a mind which is terrified of women’s sexuality, and wishes to eradicate it. It is a mind that willingly sacrifices the lives of girls and women to this end. A mind that advocates leaving mutilated little girls alone in the desert. It is a mind which believes that it is fine to cut young girls’ and women’s flesh repeatedly. A mind that is indifferent to women’s pain and suffering. It is a mind which hates the (unaltered) vagina. A mind with a violent and destructive intention towards women and girls. Such a mind is, surely, characterised by misogyny.
Not everything that becomes embedded in our culture, and becomes enshrined as “tradition”, deserves to be preserved. The mass-murder of women as witches – a historical manifestation of extreme misogyny in European culture – was thankfully eventually abandoned.
Misogyny I believe, is the foundation of FGM. It is my belief, further, that children who are in danger, in distress, or in need – wherever they may be – are the responsibility of all of us. This responsibility, I believe, is uncompromisable by ideas of cultural relativism.
“Carving Culture: Creating Identity through female genital cutting.” Durham Anthropology Journal, 18(1) 2012. 115-153