Cutting off a woman’s body part is akin to cutting off a portion of her power. Whatever you may think you know, know that FGM is a male-led aesthetic
‘Every woman has a property in her own person—this, nobody has a right to, but herself’ inFrinGeMent
At a time when The Diary of a Teenage Girl is seen as revolutionary and #FreeTheNipple is causing waves of internet activism, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is still happening in the shadows. The idea of, if I have a daughter, forcing her to be held down and having her labia and clitoris ritually cut is fairly unpleasant. But it really isn’t enough to just say ‘FGM is bad’, it strips women of sexual agency, it strips them of a means of pleasure, and it strips them of power.
In the countries where this is happening (particularly African nations) the FGM process, one which ‘defines who belongs to the community’, is carried out mostly by Sowei—the highest ranked woman in all-female societies. It should be known that there is ‘no mention of it either in the Bible or the Quran’ and that, for example, ‘In Niger … 55 percent of Christian women and girls have experienced FGM, compared with two percent of their Muslim counterparts’. So, what are the underlying reasons for cutting off a woman’s means of pleasure?
The clitoris and labia are considered the ‘man’s part’ of the woman’s body. Vaginas are considered dirty, whilst female virginity is often a prerequisite for marriage, and equated to honour. A reason cited for FGM is to enhance ‘femininity’, and a desired effect of the cutting process is that a woman’s character will become more docile and obedient. Taking away part of a women’s vagina is taking away the power over one’s own pleasure. Men, historically, are the gender that seeks control of the other. Peter Kariuki, an elder from Embu, believes: ‘Circumcised girls are less attracted to sex, which means there are less early pregnancies among our teenagers … a circumcised woman will choose a partner for love, not for sex’. Cutting off parts of a woman’s womanhood serves a very obvious point, it states what the role of women is seen to be: inferior. Sexual pleasure will be metered out by the men as and when they choose, because all men are apparently completely cool and calm about sexual lust.
Figures taken from data collected in Kenya show that in rural areas FGM is more common than in the urban regions. A 2003 survey, ‘by the Kenyan government found that an estimated 32 percent of women had undergone the procedure. FGM prevalence varies between ethnic groups, from an almost universal 99 percent in Kenya’s northeast, to just four percent among ethnic communities in the country’s western province’. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes that FGM ‘is mostly conducted on children using physical force … that the distinction between social pressure and physical force is morally and legally salient, comparable to the distinction between seduction and rape’. She argues further that the literacy of women in practising countries is generally poorer than in developed nations, and that this reduces their ability to make informed choices.
One group attempting to join the growing movement against FGM are inFrinGeMent, a project launched by Law students at Nottingham Trent University. The group have begun ‘a campaign to raise awareness of FGM and educate communities on how the law can be used for protection’. The aim of the project is: ‘Through the use of case studies and talks and seminars at schools and community centres … to make people aware of law surrounding FGM, its role as a deterrent, and the legal obligations of public bodies. The group will also be targeting professionals such as teachers, medical staff and social workers’.
Director of Mojatu Foundation and FGM campaigner, Valentine Nkoyo, had the following to say:
‘It is fantastic to see young people getting involved in such a campaign and giving their time and expertise to support an organisation like ours. As a survivor myself, I understand the huge impact FGM has on girls and women physically, emotionally and psychologically and it’s therefore vital to do what we can to stop it. Young people play a very vital role in the eradication of the practice irrespective of if they come from practising communities or not. With FGM being a practice deeply rooted in culture … [this] needs to be addressed with a level of sensitivity within the community. We look forward to working with and supporting the group where necessary to ensure that we get the right message across that helps survivors and affected communities become more receptive and engaging’.
On topics like this the question of cultural relativism arises, because you could look at this situation either as westerners ‘telling Africans off’ or as humans being concerned about the treatment of others. Activist Dr Obioma Nnaemeka, who is staunchly anti-FGM, spoke about the fact that the practice of cutting is called ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ instead of ‘Female Circumcision’. She spoke of this as representing ‘a subtext of barbaric African and Muslim cultures and the West’s relevance (even indispensability) in purging the barbarism’. Yet, aside from this practice predating Islam’s emergence in Africa, Western gynaecologists in the nineteenth century actually used to remove the clitoris as a treatment for insanity and masturbation.
On the subject of cultural relativism, considering that acts like FGM have been prohibited in the UK since 1985, Anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi compares FGM to ‘breast enhancement, in which the maternal function of the breast becomes secondary to men’s sexual pleasure’. Surgeon Ronán Conroy added that cosmetic genital procedures were in fact ‘driving the advance of female genital mutilation’ by encouraging women to see natural variations as defects’. Due to the commodification of women’s bodies and a neo-liberal culture that markets the aesthetic, the amount of work you can get done these days (breast implants, tummy tucks, botox, facelifts, etc.) shows how the agency of women is still being suppressed.
Put second to the desires of men, women’s bodies are suffering similar mutilation in our own backyards. It’s argued that some girls make a ‘conscious decision’ to undergo the circumcision process. But, in the scheme of things, how informed is this decision?
Sarah W. Rodriguez, ‘Rethinking the History of Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy: American Medicine and Female Sexuality in the Late Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 63(3), July 2008, pp. 323–347.
Ronán M. Conroy, ‘Female genital mutilation: whose problem, whose solution?’, British Medical Journal, 333(7559), 15 July 2006.
Nancy Ehrenreich, Mark Barr, ‘Intersex Surgery, Female Genital Cutting, and the Selective Condemnation of “Cultural Practices” ‘, Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 40(1), 2005 (pp. 71–140), pp. 74–75.