In French here, it’s ‘l’excision.’ Most people know what we’re talking about when we say female circumcision. In academic discourse, the practice was referred to as female genital mutilation. More recently, this was redefined with the conscientious term of female genital cutting (FGC). In
I recently read a CNN article about how the
Why the fixation? It’s a cultural practice that runs so counter to ours. In the Western world the practice is a seen as a complete affront to feminism. It demonstrates a will to maintain control over women’s sexuality, recapitulating the existent patriarchal system. As any other young, feminist Westerner would be, ‘I’m against FGC.’ I am personally outraged by the practice. Experiences, such as having to pay my neighbor a visit to wish their daughter healthy again (a girl of 5 years who had just been ‘cut’), have only reinforced my disapproval. But, my experience here has undoubtedly made me more attune to Western biases. And I fear that we often become so impassioned by our own goodwill that we end up crusading on behalf of a disinclined people. Adding to the cross-cultural misunderstanding, I believe our benevolence is misconstrued as cultural imperialism.
So why is FGC practiced? From personal communication with Malians, the most predominant response I receive is it’s performed to moderate the sexual desire of women. Women are believed to be naturally more sexually-driven than men (converse to popular Western belief). I’ve had many a person tell me that even if they have doubts of the utility of the practice in this sense today, they will have it done to their children as a precaution. Furthermore, it’s an important expression of cultural identity.
What are Western objections to FGC based on? I think it can be summed up by pointing to the concern of ensuing health problems, as a human rights violation, and, from a feminist angle, as sexual oppression.
1. I believe long-term health concerns (such as infections, painful or prolonged menstruation, fistula) are related to Type 3, not Type 2 as practiced here. For Type 1 and 2, health concerns are based mostly on the immediate act…e.g. infection immediately following the procedure or the same blade being used on a group of girls. My friends who have undergone FGC say they don’t experience any health-related problems in the present.
2. As a human rights violation. Put simply, it boils down to a girl not having a choice on the subject. But, recall that human rights are a Western creation. And the parents making the decision for the girl are most likely making it with her well-being in mind (in addition to the reasons noted previously, she risks being ostracized by her community). Furthermore, it’s about maintaining a long-held tradition, a cultural requirement. It’s not supposed to be an act of cruelty; it’s an expression of cultural identity.
3. Feminist angle – does it limit sexual fulfillment? A topic I’ve only discussed with a few close friends, but they say, despite being affected by FGC, they derive sexual fulfillment from intercourse.
Despite my friends’ claims, I imagine that physiologically FGC must diminish sexual fulfillment. However, a woman’s sexuality is also psychological and sociological. Not undergoing FGC may cause a sense of shame, which could be just as detrimental to sexual pleasure for psychological and sociological reasons. Is it then possible to view FGC like other body modifications (e.g. breast augmentation, nose jobs, tummy tucks)? In the example given above, does FGC not fulfill a culture’s beauty-femininity requirement, as any other body modification?
Malians, in the course of discussion on the topic, will tell me that their ideas on FGC (and female promiscuity) don’t apply to me. They assume that ‘chez les blanches’ (where the white people live), it’s not a part of our culture and must not be necessary. Is this a naïve point of view, or is it incongruously open-minded? On the flip side, there has been Western financed advocacy against FGC in
Also, I don’t ignore that there are many Malian voices that speak out against FGC. But, at the same time, even those who take part in the anti-FGC marches, don anti-FGC apparel, work for organizations that disseminate information on the danger of FGC, will often have FGC performed on their daughters.
Today, the ritual has changed in many areas of the country (I think particularly in cities). Traditionally, the rite was practiced on a group of girls at a similar age from the same village at the same time (20-30 girls being ‘cut’ at one time). This probably served a social function of creating a kind of bond between women, or a source of group solidarity. Today, it’s done secretly and individually. The male circumcision rite is still performed in groups and much more visible (afterwards, they dress up in a color denoting their class and clap broken pieces of calabashes together demanding money on the side of a road. This is the only occasion you can cast money at people. I’ve literally chucked coins out of a moving vehicle to a group of these boys).
In conclusion, I recognize the importance of awareness/advocacy – of the potential health risks and against stigmatization. It’s unfortunate that this notion was first planted by the West, which continues to the present to view