Wars Against Women Female Genital Mutilation

FGMI’ve always been keen on Women (their beauty) and the vast number of struggles and triumphs that they encounter. Hence, at the beginning of this year , while I was about to complete my studies; I decided to take a class that dealt with issues that impact women around the world. I was blown away by the issues that were raised and I honestly learned a great deal than had expected. Since then, I have spoken to my professor and he has granted permission to share some of his teaching notes with the TAP audience. The following is an issue I’ve known about and advocated against for a while now. While the (notes) in this episode will be focused on the Western community or those in the Diaspora's, its my belief that we can all take something from them. .................................................... When discussing female genital mutilation (FGM), Western feminists often refer to it as a ‘war against women,’ taking an absolutist position on the issue.  This position means that FGM is always and everywhere harmful, and governments, including the United Nations, should lobby to ban the practice.  The reality, however, is more complicated.  In these lecture, we sought answers to a more nuanced dilemma.

The estimate worldwide is that more than 130 million girls and women have undergone the procedure of FGM.  The origins of female circumcision or FGM have been lost in antiquity, but the practice remains prevalent in East and West Africa, parts of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as among first-generation immigrants from these regions to Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States.  For these recent immigrants, the pull of culture and/or religious mythology is strong.  Many first-generation African immigrants want their female children to marry endogamously—that is, from within their own culture—and the procedure greatly increases their chances of success for this kind of marriage.  To ensure this occurs, parents will bring their female children to a practitioner willing to participate in the procedure.  Since FGM is illegal in Western nations, this often means travelling outside the country of immigration and back to one’s homeland.  Sometimes, the procedure can be done in Canada or the United States but only covertly. That said, there exists a correlation between education and the procedure in that women from urban centres who receive a formal education are less likely to undergo the procedure for themselves or their daughters.


To distinguish FGM from male circumcision, feminist scholars have intentionally used the word “mutilation” to emphasize the effect the removal of female genital organs has on a young female child.  By using “mutilation,” instead of circumcision or cutting, Western feminists are conditioning our social understanding of the practice, attempting to condemn the practice globally, particularly the more extreme forms, which include removal of the clitoris, stitching and narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation), or cauterization by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissues.

FGM Procedures

Female genital mutilation can be classified into four major types.

  • Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
  • Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are "the lips" that surround the vagina).
  • Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
  • Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

FGM Complications

In terms of the negative impact on health, most types of FGM create immediate and long-term health complications.  Serious septis (infection) may occur, particularly where unsterile cutting instruments are used.   Infection can lead to septicemia if the bacteria reach the bloodstream, which can prove fatal.  Other common effects include urinary tract infections, infertility, and the growth of cysts.  The growth of cysts is particularly distressing since a condition of intersex may be suspected (i.e., hermaphroditism or the perception that females are growing a penis).  Sexual taboos in various African cultures can make women social outcasts if such women are perceived to be anything but feminine in gender.  Furthermore, postpartum hemorrhage is significantly more common in women who experience FGM, due largely to previous cutting and scarring.  Blockages can also lead to an increase in maternal death.


Motives behind FGM (religious or otherwise)

So why would parents want FGM for their daughters when the physical/psychological/social effects seem so horrendous?  As previously mentioned, uncircumcised daughters will not be eligible for marriage.  If there is little economic viability for women outside of marriage, ensuring that a child or teenager undergoes FGM may be viewed, ironically, as both a practical and a loving act by the native culture since it leads to a daughter’s marriageability.  Uncircumcized daughters are unlikely to marry endogamously and may experience a lifetime of ostracism and poverty.  Premarital virginity is also a mandatory requirement in many African cultures, an indication of the family’s honor, and the “honor code” among these communities is very strong, often reaching back centuries. [the same can be said for other rituals/customs, such as footbinding, the “duel,” slavery, and “honor killing.”

But why not use then just stitching?  Why remove the clitoris, the centre of female sexual pleasure?  Some feminists theorize that the removal plays a pragmatic role of maintaining virginity while decreasing sexual tension between the future spouses.  Since the custom of FGM is pre-Islamic and pre-Christian, the explanation of religious duty is the least substantiated motive behind the practice, but religion and culture are often inseparable matters for individual families.  Once entrenched in the culture, FGM can be seen as preserving female purity, and religious connotations are easily attached to the act afterward.  This is why Western feminists also see the wider role of FGM as a quest for control by male-dominated communities of female sexuality.  Undoubtedly, female sexual control is a feature of many traditional societies of various religious faiths.  Since women’s sexuality is seen to engender social order and virtue, morality requires that women’s sexual and other empowerment must be suppressed.  In other words, if we “let females get too free with their sexuality, the social order will be doomed.”  Yes, the slippery slope applies to many issues.


Yet the West cannot escape some hypocrisy in this situation.  In fact, Western Christianity played a role in such sexual domination.  For instance, Christian missionaries venturing to distant lands taught native populations that the only position for sexual intercourse was for the women to lie underneath the man, facing him.  Known as the ‘missionary position,’ this symbolizes the preference for a social order in which women are subordinate and passive, and look up to men whose role it is to be superior and active.

Furthermore, in the 19th century in Europe and North America, clitoridectomies were performed by gynaecological surgeons on allegedly medical grounds.  A clitoridectomy was considered necessary not only to cure such sexual deviations as ‘nymphomania’ but also to prevent masturbation and to cure a number of disorders, some of which were alleged to be caused by masturbation (for example, hysteria, epilepsy, melancholia, or insanity).  This means that we in the West had performed the same acts of FGM that we now criticize.  This does not imply that value systems should remain static forever; it just means that we should always be aware of our own cultural history before judging others.

We should also be aware of our present practices as well, namely, the West’s promotion of cosmetic surgery.  Yes, we literally cut or “mutilate” our bodies for non-medical reasons for operations such as the following: breast implants, cheek implants, liposuction, nose surgeries, tummy tucks, and botox injections.  Many feminists theorize that either patriarchal attitudes still drive such desires in young women or that capitalism and the desire to compete for jobs is a contributing factor.  Either way, wealthy Europeans and North Americans are cutting into their bodies by choice, not out medical necessity, yet we condemn practices abroad as “primitive.”  The social pressure to “mutilate” bodies does not just exist in African tribes.  It is an irony we have not addressed honestly.

Summary of Religious/Cultural Influences on FGM

A)    FGM is said to be a “religious duty” (this is not a persuasive argument since it is a pre-Islamic ritual and not a direct call in both the Quran and the “hadith,” collections of sayings of the prophet)

B)    The belief that God sanctifies FGM is also a prevalent belief among rural African populations.

C)    FGM is needed because female sexuality is seen as a threat to social/moral order (or virtue).

D)    FGM safeguards virginity/female purity, especially for marriage (an indication of the family’s honour).

E)     FGM is a cure for sexual deviance (i.e., masturbation, frigidity, lesbianism, intersex/hermaphoditism, or fornication).

To  reiterate: It is not that religion caused the dilemma over FGM; it is more that religion has been attached to this social issue because of its link to cultural. FGM In Africa. Courtesy of WHO Feminist Dilemma

Western feminists have experienced a moral dilemma when discussing FGM.  Many take the principle-based ethical approach—a view that some acts are inherently and universally wrong—in order to ensure that violence against women is not relativized at home or abroad.  In other words, if cultural relativism is supported—the view that right and wrong (or in this instance, violence) is relative to context—then Western feminists fear that this could undermine the gains they have made exposing all forms of cultural violence against women (i.e., wife battering).  Feminists may understand that poverty, lack of education, and religio-cultural factors have created a different set of social norms for women globally, but accepting that violence—or mutilation—has any kind of relative value is not something most Western feminists are willing to accept.  They cannot condone FGM as a private or family matter of cultural difference.




What strategies then can one use to “dishonour” a practice deemed socially acceptable or even honourable?

A) Use “collective shaming” to draw attention to the harm of an “honor code,” from both outsiders and insiders, so that is does not seem like a Western imposition.

B) Use religion to show how a custom is “un-Islamic” (one is dishonoring one’s faith since the Koran does not support such an act).

C) Use the strategy of “symbolic affiliation”: you get people involved in the struggle against a practice by getting them to see it as presupposing that they themselves are dishonourable (one is acting dishonourably by being tied to a practice directly or even by tolerating it).  In other words, the practice becomes a symbol of dishonour for the entire community, no different than drunk driving would be for Westerners.

D) Do not argue against the principle of an act, such as honor, but instead alter the codes by which duty or honor are allocated to reshape a culture’s perception of these principles (turn the principle, like duty or honor, against itself).  For example, an honorable culture requires respecting women, and FGM disrespects women and, therefore, the culture in general.

In the international development community and among feminists, an outright ban may not be practical, especially where poverty is rampant, and endogamy is valued.  The stigma of an unwed female is great and can keep her even poorer.  Throwing women and practitioners of FGM in prison may not work any better than throwing women and abortionists in jail.  It just creates a worse situation for the stability of families and children.  Perhaps the solution lies in a combination of approaches.  This is why the above strategies are more effective because they allow the community’s values to change over time without the perception of imposition.

Historically speaking, however, women will change their behaviour if given three things: education, employment, and control over their reproductive functions.  This is not easy to acquire in third world countries that embrace traditional beliefs over marriage and sexual purity.  North Americans may soon learn that although principles are important as guidelines, situation ethics and pragmatism soon become the norm.

....................................................................Once again big thanks to Professor Stuart chambers and to everyone that has emailed their views on the subject. Thank you and keep up the good fight.

Ras Mutabaruka