To Stop Female Genital Mutilation We Must First Define Our Terms
The thoughts in this op-ed were published today (3 December 2013) in Women News Network. There is no doubt that everyone engaged in campaigns to stop FGM has the same objective. But do we all share the same meanings when we exchange ideas about how to achieve our aim? Here’s my first-draft lexicon of some terms commonly used in discussions around combatting FGM, with various suggestions about their possible implications for action.
There is no contemporary shortage of perspectives from which to view female genital mutilation (FGM). At one time the ages-old tradition of ‘cutting’ was known to few outside practising communities. That has changed dramatically in recent years, as the western world begins to realize that thousands of women and children in our own communities still experience this terrifying harmful traditional practice.
Few westerners doubt that FGM is cruel and must be stopped, but that is not how it is seen where, unspoken, the practice enhances the status of men and embeds the dependency of women and girls. FGM has occurred in widely different locations for millennia; it cannot be attributed meaningfully to specific sources or beliefs but it connects with extreme patriarchal societies. Genital ‘cutting’ is an element of sustaining women’s social inferiority much more entrenched than any singular culture or specific religious belief.
Addressing this entrenchment requires considerable insight on the part of those who want it to stop.
Traditional communities ascribe complex absolute meanings to their words and actions; they are unlikely to be moved by contemporary rational scrutiny of customs going back thousands of years. The words we select to counter FGM are critical. They do not have exactly the same meaning regardless of the contexts in which they are uttered.
So what do words such as ‘survivor’, ‘mutilation’, ‘eradication’ and ‘abolition’ mean to different people? And how does the recognition of patriarchy fit in all this?
Circumcision? Cutting? Mutilation?
The World Health Organization(WHO) insists that all intended medically unnecessary injury to external female genitalia is by definition ‘mutilation’ and should be so termed in formal discussions. WHO’s Interagency Statement states that this uncompromising term is appropriate because it rightly emphasizes the gravity of the act.
Nonetheless, consensus is sometimes fragile. Various campaigners claim that using the term ‘mutilation’ fails to show respect for FGM practising communities, advocating instead the euphemism ‘cutting’. But language which implies respect for abhorrent actions fails gratuitously to build on the increasing, if often still cautiously articulated, unease about FGM even in traditional communities.
To be effective contemporary NoFGM messages must demonstrate respect for individuals – itself an idea contrary to traditional communality – but absolutely none for harmful practices. Describing FGM as ‘cutting’ fails this test.
Nor is the term ‘female circumcision’ helpful. Its use may explain why in western nations teachers and others in safeguarding roles have not taken action about girls at suspected risk: people mistakenly thought ‘female circumcision’ referred to another relatively innocuous ritual (which is how male circumcision is generally perceived). This perception of FGM has doubtless cost much suffering and many lives.
Finding the right words in personal communication between traditional and modern settings, even between the conventions of different nations, is an on-going challenge. Sometimes a colloquial term is required person-to-person or community-to-community, for a discussion or message to make sense.
Using the correct formal term, ‘mutilation’, in contemporary policy making has however become non-negotiable.
Survivor? Victim? Just’ another person?
The term ‘victim’ illustrates the imposed, harmful nature of genital mutilation, but not everyone with FGM chooses to be labelled a victim. Nor does everyone want to think of themselves as a ‘survivor’ living with the ‘consequences’ of FGM.
Not all ‘victims’ are unwilling at the time of mutilation. Stories abound of little girls innocently eager to undergo the process which they believe will confer adult status.
These children may subsequently feel betrayed on at least two counts: not only were their own (grand)mothers responsible; but they may later discover that women elsewhere don’t practice FGM and there is in the wider world a growing revulsion at the act.
Reactions to FGM are surely individual, changing as perceptions develop over a lifetime. ’Sufferer’? ‘Victim’? ‘Survivor’? Who, other than the person concerned, can say?
Abolish? Eliminate? Eradicate?
All campaigners against FGM want to stop it happening; but how to achieve that? Are they seeking to abolish FGM? Or to eliminate it? Or to eradicate it? While definitional debate continues, choice of words arguably indicates the approach adopted.
‘Abolition’ suggests crusades, as with, say, pioneers against the slave trade. It could be the term to describe lobbying decision-makers to persuade them that FGM must stop.
‘Elimination’ implies an austere approach, perhaps applicable to formal action, police enforcement and approaches which may also focus mostly on procurers and perpetrators.
‘Eradication’ might denote a comprehensive program against FGM, as employed by, say, public sector workers. The focus is on both ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’, but also encompasses NoFGM professionals from all disciplines, whether working alongside practicing communities or tackling the wider contexts in which FGM occurs.
One fundamental rationale for FGM in many practising communities is economic: it makes the girl-child ‘pure’, so she can emerge into adulthood ready for the financial transaction which will result in her early (perhaps polygamous) marriage at a good bride price, cleansed by FGM of genital organs regarded as sullied.
But concerns about women’s imperfect bodies and aspects of female sexuality continue in modern as well as traditional societies, as we see with the U.S. American political right-wing positions on purity, abortion and family planning, or in ubiquitous contemporary medical surgery like labiaplasty. Modern language gives ‘genital perfection’ procedures new names.
Nor are FGM practising communities uniquely cruel. Western history has many gruesome stories of witches burnt, women ducked, chastity belts and even now the continuing sexual exploitation of children.
There are also confirmed reports of FGM occurring in the U.S.A. and in Britain up to and beyond the 1950s, mostly to ‘correct’ women’s perceived sexual impropriety.
Modern-day discourse mostly avoids the absolutism of traditional societies but, whilst the words change, differences between ideas may sometimes be smaller than we imagine.
Feminism? Patriarchy? Racism?
One perception of ‘purity’ and FGM is however unique to modern observers. We see that the pursuit of purity causes girls and women to undergo torture, with subsequent dependency and ill-health, in order to embed male control and supposedly ensure paternal lineage.
Some commentators, especially insistent ‘intactivist‘ internet trolls, perceive the words ‘feminist’ and ‘patriarchy’ to denote a position from which male circumcision becomes acceptable – a view they reject vigorously. Rarely are intactivists willing to acknowledge that many critics of FGM (especially those outside the USA) are deeply concerned about any form of genital or other damage to babies or children, regardless of gender.
Likewise, for some intactivists ‘feminism’ denotes an automatic dislike or dismissal of men. Critically mis-reading feminist analysis, they may also claim FGM cannot be patriarchal because women do it.
Cross-gender campaigns and partnerships to stop genital mutilation, female or male, are more problematic where such antagonistic notions hold sway.
And others, in a similar hostile reaction to feminism, claim that modern western feminists are ‘racist’, attempting to tell other, usually ‘african’ women how to see the world. They may also say ‘cutting’ is a cultural matter and no business of westerners.
This interpretation of racism is, like assumed support for male circumcision, seriously compromised by the fact that most genital mutilation is imposed on minors who by definition cannot consent to genital ‘surgery’ – which thereby compromises their human rights. Yet still the charge of untoward interference has leverage.
Similarly, discourse about FGM ‘cutting’ and cultural assumptions continues in the context of patriarchy and intersex surgery and so on.
Putting words into action
The FGM lexicon offers much scope for contest, debate and development. But words alone achieve nothing. We need action.
So that’s what an internationally disperse group of us have attempted with our “Feminist Statement on the Naming and Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation” and its partnered e-petition that addresses researchers and activists.
We want to speak clearly about what we observe and what we hope will happen.
Your engagement and support is very welcome too.
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FURTHER INFORMATION AND ACTION
Readers are invited to support these two FGM e-petitions:
[See also HM Government e-petition, No. 35313, to STOP Female Genital Mutilation (FGM / ‘cutting’) in Britain (for UK citizens and residents - now closed).]
There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The #NoFGM Daily News carries reports of all items shared on Twitter that day about FGM – brings many organisations and developments into focus.
For more on FGM please see here.
Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity
More info on FGM in the UK here.
Email contact: NoFGM email
** Hilary Burrage is currently writing a book, Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective