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To Stop Female Genital Mutilation We Must First Define Our Terms

December 3, 2013

13.12.05 031aa lexiconThe 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.

For many feminists FGM is the ultimate in economic patriarchy and oppression. Yet even here divergent understandings occur.

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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Readers are invited to support these two FGM e-petitions:

UK Government: Enforce the UK law which forbids FGM (Female Genital so-called ‘Cutting’)    .. and

FGM abolitionists internationally: Support the Feminist Statement on Female Genital Mutilation

[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:

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.

Twitter accounts: @NoFGM1  @NoFGMBookUK  @FGMStatement  [tag for all: #NoFGM]

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

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Toby permalink
    December 6, 2013 14:54

    Reblogged this on Speaker's Corner.

    • December 9, 2013 12:08

      Thank you. Do let us know, if there are any interesting responses!

  2. December 8, 2013 05:18

    The “intactivist trolls” you mention aren’t intactivists at all, but rather “men’s rights activists” (MRAs). Your statement: ‘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’ is completely false. The truth is the other way around, in fact. Most anti-FGM folks I have encountered (including two prominent anti-FGM bloggers and activists) fully support parent’s choice for male circumcision. Most anti-FGM folks that I have encountered (you are in the minority) are against any form of non-consensual female cutting (even the ritual nick) while trivializing male circumcision as harmless. I have the Twitter and blog conversations to back up this claim. I have also publicly argued with the two prominent anti-FGM bloggers/activists and they maintain that male circumcision is harmless.

    True intactivists (not men’s rights advocates) are, unlike most anti-FGM folks, against all forms of genital mutilation—male and female. I have always despised FGM in all of its forms (even the ritual nick) and I don’t believe that the degree of harm matters.

    The feminists that the MRAs recoil from are not feminists, but rather radical feminists who do, in fact, hate men and almost revel in the harm that male circumcision causes men. Radical feminists do not care about human rights. They are against FGM because FGM represents the oppression of women by men and it is another reason for them to hate men.

    The truth is that, in many FGM-practicing communities, the men know nothing of FGM or the harm it causes. These men have never seen an intact woman. Women practice it on themselves because that’s all the men know and it’s part of their culture. This is exactly like male circumcision in the United States. American parents (both mothers and fathers) say “I want my son to be able to get a blowjob” or “I want my son to be able to have sex without ridicule from a woman”. This is exactly the same as the equivalent rational for FGM: “I want my daughter to be more valuable for marriage”. This is not patriarchy. This is culture gone awry. It is disgusting.

    From my interactions with anti-FGM advocates, they are often ignorant about the cause they are fighting for. They are even more ignorant about a similar practice inflicted upon the other gender. Generally, they are stubborn and unwilling to learn new information—instead, they perpetuate myths and half-truths. This is no way to advocate for a cause. Become educated on the cause you are fighting for. Do your homework and research! Only armed with knowledge and information, can you succeed and defeat the evil that perpetuates this horror on children.

    • December 8, 2013 12:56

      Thank you; in fact, when I wrote this I was very aware that you, Ghost Orchid (why not use your name, please? I do), might offer commentary or a riposte. I know (and respect) that’s you have a particular perspective.

      But please don’t suggest I haven’t ‘done [my] homework’, that hurtful comment isn’t necessary or helpful. Far from it… in my (NB largely European; I write mostly about the UK) experience, radical feminists have only quite marginal influence. And, as we’ve previously agreed, the mainstream financial incentive to cut children male or female is less here.

      I’m happy to have a debate but don’t suggest I’m not informed; my experience is different and I have seriously researched what I say. You, Mr Anon Ghost Orchid, are in a commendable minority in wanting as an Intactivist to engage also re FGM; I applaud that. (I’d applaud and join with you even more if you gave your real name; difficult to research when most Intactivists won’t do that. Why not?)

      I get trolled anonymously, on Twitter particularly, all the time, but as you know I would much rather work with people than ‘against’ them, especially on an issue as important as protecting children.

      One further point: I had a wordage on this piece which I have already over-run. Each of the issues I raise here – did you notice there are several? – deserves a whole lot more debate of its own.

      Thanks for responding, but please don’t suggest I’m not aware of how things are. Almost all the trolls I encounter have identified themselves as Intactivists, not as ‘Men’s Rights’. I have to report what I see.

      My main suggestion re stopping child abuse such as genital mutilation (did you notice it, above?) is that it would be easier if NoMGM people weren’t so busy vigorously attacking the NoFGM lot …. It doesn’t look good, it doesn’t impress those who observe it, and it doesn’t help.

      I acknowledge the validity of the NoMGM position, and it would be better all round if that were more fully reciprocated – which is my point above.

      And maybe we can also have some (preferably signed) comments on the other issues as raised, please?

      Thanks again,

    • December 8, 2013 12:59

      PS “The truth is that, in many FGM-practicing communities, the men know nothing of FGM or the harm it causes. These men have never seen an intact woman. Women practice it on themselves because that’s all the men know and it’s part of their culture. This is exactly like male circumcision in the United States.” Of course, I concur completely; but I haven’t suggested otherwise.

    • December 8, 2013 16:13

      If I implied that you were not knowledgeable or hadn’t done your research, I apologize. I was referring to some folks I have encountered on Twitter.

      The MRAs claim to be intactivists. Many of them have been attacking “real” intactivists of late! It’s not just you!

      These MRAs are despicable and I do not follow them back on Twitter. They hate women like radical feminists hate men. I am not one of these.

      I do not use my real name because male circumcision is controversial in the United States and employers now do internet searches before hiring. What if they disagreed with me and thought I was a weird pervert for speaking out against male circumcision? I can’t risk jeopardizing my family and career for activism. I started out using my real name (some know it) but decided to change because my family has to come first.

      The circumfetishists are known form making personal attacks and threats. This is another disadvantage of using my real name.

      If I was unattached and made my life’s work out of activism (as some intactivists and anti-FGM advocates do), I would definitely use my real name.

    • December 8, 2013 17:01

      Thanks again. I’m sure (genuinely) that people will be relieved to read what you’ve just written about your perspective.

      I understand and agree you should never put your family at risk, socially or economically. That’s a risk for all of us. It must be recognised however that pseudonyms are rather unconvincing. DON’T take personal risks you fear, but can’t others? Aren’t there laws about free speech?

      Sorry to sound tough on this, but until we go face-on we won’t win. There must be someone, somewhere…?

  3. December 8, 2013 19:59

    There is a lot in this article to merit a response, but here are a few thoughts.

    That female genital cutting (see below for comments regarding language) “is an element of sustaining women’s social inferiority much more entrenched than any singular culture or specific religious belief” seems to require more justification than given. We certainly want the practice to stop, but as you elude part of the problem may be that, amongst the communities that practice it, it is seen to enhance the status of women. This can be illustrated by the examples you give of making a girl marrigeable or of little girls innocently eager to undergo the process which they believe will confer adult status. This is comparable to the perception of circumcised men being of higher status, adult or more marrigeable if they aren circumcised and of the “uncircumcised” being of lower status or “unclean”.

    Girls fall victim to cutting by their mothers and grandmothers. Boys fall victime to cutting by their fathers and grandfathers. Both may sometimes fall victime to cutting by traditional practitioners outside their family. It remains the case that, for the greater part, girls are cut by women and boys are cut by men. Purity or cleanliness is said to result in both cases. To see this as patriarchal and worthy of condemnation for that reason is perhaps to miss the point.

    FGM whether in the USA, Britain or anywhere else, is not limited to control of women’s sexuallity, but of men’s too. In some communities female genital cutting is not just about pursuit of purity of girls and women but also the control of male sexuality: ensuring no man can have sex with her before marriage. In many communities Cruelty is not only limited to practices against women. Boys have been moulded into the shape of vases and subject to other cruelties in history also. To assume it is only the female body that is being subjugated is naive and simplistic. Likewise Maimonides noted the control of male sexuality as the purpose of male circumcision.

    As with the many critics of FGM you note, we are deeply concerned about any form of genital or other damage to babies or children, regardless of gender. We see the need to embrace cross-gender partnership to stop genital mutilation, female or male, Precisesly to avoid the conflict you note.

    As you note most genital cutting is imposed on minors and infringes their human rights. The real descrimination is not with regard to race, or sex, but against children who have the community’s will imposed on them without regard for individuals’ right to autonomy. To succeed we must contradict traditional ideas that the community can lay claim modify the child’s genitals.

    Finding the right words in personal communication is indeed an on-going challenge. It makes no sense to be overprescriptive of the language used as each audience will need a different approach. The approach must always respect the position of the audience while conveying the concern that we share. Being overprescriptive and claiming that language is “non-negotiable” is guaranteed to fail.

    We see the end to genital cutting as being an increase in the status of children and a recognition that they have rights not just to care and protection, but also to autonomy. Ultimately any attempt to protect girls from genital modification requires a recognition that those rights apply to intersex children and boys too. In particular, the World Health Organisation will fail in its campaign against FGM while it advocates the genital cutting of African boys.

    • December 9, 2013 00:34

      Thanks. Your comments are very much along the lines I would anticipate, and most of them I’d agree with… but please bear in mind that I addressed quite a number of other issues which remain to be examined by you or other responders. This is on-going! (MUCH more detailed discussion in the book which I’m writing… And I do mention both male and intersex physical intrusion.)

      I find it strange that the MGM / FGM debate seems to eclipse much bigger and in some senses more difficult issues which I also try to bring into focus above.

      Maybe that’s because I’m UK-European and the MGM industry is less lucrative here? In which case surely people in the US have special work to do, ensuring that there is no funding for it via insurance or the state?

      One final point: I disagree fundamentally about not calling FGM ‘mutilation’ IN FORMAL DIALOGUE. If you need to call it ‘cutting’ informally, so be it; but I strongly suspect that such euphemisms are part of the reason the practice continues.

      Please don’t conflate the WHO advocacy for male circumcision against HIV (mistaken as it may perhaps be) with its serious requirement to call mutilation ‘mutilation’. This is not over-prescription, it’s being honest (and less fearful of how others respond).

      Thanks again. Would welcome your thoughts on the issues not as yet mentioned….

  4. December 9, 2013 00:38

    PS I do continue to be concerned that apparently in the Land of the Free it’s too dangerous to use your own name for perfectly legal, non-violent thoughts and ideas. Can that really be the case? There’s strength in numbers….. but difficult if no-one knows who the others are. (Sorry to raise this again, but it makes me uncomfortable to have direct communication with anonymous commentators, when they know who I am…)

    • December 9, 2013 05:24

      Pseudonyms have been used for hundreds of years since the beginning of the printed word—and even before that. It is not that it’s dangerous to use your own name in the land of the free. It has to do with prudence, not free speech.

      Let me give an example: You interview a guy but before you hire him, you do a Google search for his name and find that he actively participates in white supremacist activities. Would you hire him? If you did hire him, would you worry that his personal activities might tarnish the reputation of your company? Of course you would; it would be smart not to hire this man.

      Now, consider the state of male circumcision in the US. It is widely practiced and those who are against it are often seen as weirdos, perverts, foreskin-obsessed, etc. It is going to be a risk to hire someone who participates in anti-circumcision activities. Why? Say your employee is in sales and a customer does a Google search for his name. What if the customer is Jewish and is offended by the salesperson’s activities. Why would you want that risk for your company? The issue has nothing to do with free speech. You have free speech. Do whatever you want. But having free speech doesn’t mean that everyone else is going to LIKE your free speech. They can hate what you have to say and take action on it.

      In the US, gender, race, religion, and marital status are protected—employers may not discriminate based on these attributes. Activities an employee participates in outside of work that may affect how others see that company are not protected. Maybe the UK has similar protections? Employment in the US outside of unions is generally “at-will” meaning that the employee or the employer can terminate the relationship at any time. If there isn’t good reason, the employee can sue, but do you really want that job back?

      I remember you saying that you come from the world of academia. I understand that the “real name” thing is an issue to you. In an ideal world, I would agree. I have nothing to be ashamed of. But the world is not perfect and there are ignorant people out there. People who do not understand human rights or genital integrity. People who WILL NEVER understand human rights. People who want to harm those fighting for human rights. People who want to ruin reputations. There are hackers, spammers, identity thieves, script kiddies, and even nation states that can do you harm. In my opinion, it’s a risk to use your real name in social networking even if you don’t care about “privacy”.

      Using a pseudonym is NOT about attacking people anonymously. It’s about prudent cover from harm that could be caused by those who want to end our cause. If people abuse the pseudonym, they should be blocked. But I would encourage you to consider the perspective of the average person who is not a career activist or academic. Consider the working man or woman with a career and a family. Using a real name for controversial topics could be career suicide. In the US, being against male circumcision will likely alienate friends and family. It can and does alienate colleagues. If your colleagues are alienated, it will damage your career. Without a career or money, how can you be an activist?

      Part of the difference too might be that the majority of the population will support you if you are against FGM in the West. The majority of the population will make fun of you, chastise you, and attack you if you are against male circumcision in the USA. Food for thought.

    • December 9, 2013 11:40

      Hmmm. For whom, I wonder, is this food for thought?

      I’ve already suggested there is strength in numbers – a group of you together, with a real identifiable base if not, for heaven’s sake, real names? – and on one level I understand your anxiety. I would never press anyone to put their children at risk, or their family income either, if the risk is real.

      I still however worry very much that in your view modern America can’t cope with more than one, way-out-of-date, view on circumcision – which is hardly a threat to the state (though maybe to some doctors’ wallets). I gather Medicare or whatever it now is won’t pay for non-therapeutic circumcision anyway? Keep supporting the reform… The personal is very political!

      Also, you need to know that even in the UK now there are risks for some people, especially in traditional ‘cutting’ communities, in speaking out against FGM. But we do have legal protections which I fervently hope would prevent harm to those bravest and most vulnerable. The UK media have recently become very good on this – but it took a while.

      And, just so you know, I am not employed by anyone to work against FGM, I’ve never been a ‘career academic’ and there have been times in the past, believe me, when I have spoken out at risk about things (against nuclear arms? discrimination?) very much against the tide – which from experience I know majority public opinion will finally catch up and live with a plurality of views, if enough of you identify and get together. Then you can speak openly.

      (This is so on MGM as much as anything else by the way; check out the current info on opinions and you’ll see that at least non-faith support for it in the USA is diminishing quite significantly.)

      One final point: It is NOBODY’s business to know whether a man has been circumcised or not, just as it’s NOBODY’s business to stick ultrasound into a woman who needs an abortion, or to prevent her from obtaining contraception so that need doesn’t arise. The state should always stay very clear of these deeply private, personal matters. I presume that you are making common cause with those brave women who rail against these crude and unforgiveable intrusions into privacy? Why should an adult male’s circumcision status be of any concern to anyone except him and, maybe, his wife or his physician?

      Forgive me if I close this discussion about MGM and anonymity for now. I may come back to these issues in a separate post at some point; or we can carry on here (to which I shall migrate any further MGM debate): if there are really pressing issues. I’m sure you understand.

      I really would like to discuss the wider questions which I tried to raise above…. Thanks.

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