A Cut Below The Rest

It is and isn’t religious.

Female Genital Mutilation that is.

[warning]TW- Female Genital Mutilation[/warning]

This is one of those things that has existed pre-religion that supports it. It’s found both in Christian and Muslim communities but isn’t universal. There is no proscribed part of either text that supports it but you CAN support it by interpretation and by local culture. The religions that spawned it are not around any more. The practice seems to vary with location but the rationale is that it somehow “improves” the genitals.

Now religion plays both sides of the argument. The religious arguments for it are mainly in Islam and Christianity. And it is a tenuous argument really reliant on local preachers who support the practice because they see it as intrinsic to the culture. Seriously? One of the reasons for some people to fight for freedom in Africa was due to attempts to stop the practice. Many moderate Africans lamented that this enforced the cultural validity of the practice and enshrined it and made it harder to fight. It was considered “AFRICAN” and intrinsic to the identity of women. You cannot be a real woman without it in the same way that you cannot be a real adult without getting wankered on your 18th Birthday.

Religion’s role in enforcing it is that supporters of the practice strengthen their arguments using religion as it is a vital part of the local culture and any opposition to it is seen as Imperialism.

Religion’s role in opposing it was to claim that while male circumcision is a covenant with the Jews of Israel and Muslims of Arabia, the female form is perfect and not subject to these.

Let’s not faff around here. It is terrible. It’s quite horrid as a practice, unsanitary, pointless and above all harmful. The people who support it do so because it is tradition. Many of the women who support it often quote real gynaecologists who support it solely for cultural reasons in the same way that Jehovah’s Witness have doctors who hate blood transfusions.

So we must be smart to fight it.

How to fight it? Two steps. First step sounds counter-productive.

We medicalise FGM and encourage doctors to substitute the more harmful infibulation with pricking or erstatz FGM procedures which satisfy the community but harm the girls less. This is not ideal but it’s job is to stop infibulation or clitorectomies. Think “pricking the foreskin” vs. “removal of the clitoris and or labia and sutures”, it is infinitely preferable and may be useful to help girls avoid the worst of it.

This sounds mad, but remember the alternative. The alternative is worse. It’s easy to say STOP but in reality cultural practices take ages to stop. Sati still occurs once in a while in India. And that’s been fought for more than a century. We have to start somewhere and this is how to reduce the damage where possible and stop it where possible.

The second step is simultaneously try and get people to NOT opt for FGM at all.

The reason for this is quite sensible. The FGM industry in female run and centred. We must take this out of the hands of the “cutters”. Medicalising it will reduce risks for the lesser procedures and cut the supply of wealth to the cutters and bypass the entire social structure set in place.

It also gives doctors access to pre-cut girls so as to try and strong arm and cajole parents into not doing it. You can throw around some medical weight here and fight on equal ground.

Outright bans drive it underground. Jailing parents clearly won’t work. You have to change the entire society and that requires some lateral thinking. In many parts of the world the norm is to be circumcised. How many parents are we going to jail who’s only guilt is following a cultural practice  that dates millenia that they themselved did. Remember the women who were cut grow up thinking that is normal and that we are mad.

This requires local drives and participation. This is a slow process but it is permanent.

Now this isn’t the issue in the UK or the USA where you need a more “strong” response since it is explicitly child abuse. This is the way to deal with the bulk of these cases in Asia and Africa and reduce their number.


  1. octopod says

    “Infibulation”, isn’t it?

    Thank you for this article. I think a lot of the time the practical aspects of “how can harm from FGM practices be reduced as quickly as possible?” get lost among the warring ideological commitments.

  2. Pen says

    I have heard that these practices are hoped to be effective. From what you’ve said, I wonder if there isn’t a risk that medicalising the practice will just increase the number of those supportive gynaecologists, but I suppose the really determined will find a way for some time to come. I also wonder how changes in FGM practicing cultures would affect the UK/US since the incidence of FGM seems pretty clearly linked to people who still have close ties with those cultures and often get FGM performed on their daughters while visiting their countries of origin. So I understand anyway.

    On another note, one of the obvious casualties of this plan is the dismantling of an aspect of female-centered culture in cultures where women are already disempowered and its transfer to (usually) male specialists. I can’t really complain about it in this particular instance or think how it can be compensated for, but there it is. I daresay girls will get to have their genitals intact long before they get to assume leadership roles in the medical profession or any other aspect of their cultures.

  3. joolz says

    I have just read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books and I had to just skim over the paragraphs describing what was done to her and her sister because I just cannot, ever, ever, understand anyone doing that type of barbaric mutilation of children; and then knowing what their wedding nights must be like makes me want to curl into a foetal ball and cry. Reading about it makes me cringe (I suspect like most men feel when they read about getting kicked in the balls!) so I cannot even imagine the pain of the reality. I’ve known about FGM for years, but had never thought there was a realistic way of stopping it – and I think you have just suggested it. The same as male GM – make it done by doctors, with anaesthetic, and with as little harm as possible.

    As an aside – I was recently walking through a shopping centre and happened to be following a stunningly beautiful African woman. I have absolutely no way of knowing where she was born but she was wearing an ankle length skirt, wrist length sleeves and a headscarf so I assumed she was probably from one of the Muslim African countries. It then occurred to me that, if my assumptions were correct, her genitals were probably mutilated. (I will mention at this point that I’m a straight British woman and the genitals of 99.99999% of people I see on the street don’t even merit the tiniest thought). If she had been dressed in jeans and a t-shirt I would have just, perhaps, noticed her because she was stunning – but the (probably) Muslim dress made me immediately think about her genitals.

    I think that some religionists’ obsession with stopping their followers becoming sex objects just focuses other people onto their followers’ genitals. On the rare occasion I see an orthodox jew in his black garb, and with the ringlets then I know he’s circumcised. I don’t know that about any other men I see, and it doesn’t occur to me to wonder.

    I’ve just realised while typing that this might make me sound like I’m obsessed with genitals – I’m not – I just notice people who stand out from the crowd due to ridiculous religious constructs.

    (sorry if this appears twice – I had problems getting it to post.)


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