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Does Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) In Western Societies Create An Underclass?

April 24, 2014

14.07.03 hand pointing down 002aI went to the British Sociological Association Annual Conference in Leeds today (24 April 2014) to present my developing ideas around possible correlations between FGM and social class. I suggested that, in the western world, the very act of committing FGM creates the social exclusion (underclass) from which in traditional communities it is intended to provide protection.

Here is a summary of the presentation I made around this proposition:

Is FGM an Issue of Underclass? – Gender, ‘Race’, and Influence as they pertain to the Eradication of Female Genital Mutilation in Western Societies.

BSA Conference, Leeds, 24 April 2014

• The previously almost unknown harmful traditional practice of FGM is increasingly common in western nations, as the diaspora from parts of e.g. Africa and Asia moves into host communities in western nations.

• The challenges in eradicating FGM are many. FGM is inconceivable and invisible to most, especially as it often has roots in ancient secret societies with huge influence. FGM is also increasing in some communities where people find themselves outside, perhaps rejected by, the mainstream.

• The response to greater contemporary awareness of FGM in places such as Britain, Australia, the USA, and mainland Europe has ranged from opportunist misappropriation of religion as the ’cause’, to claims that ‘interfering’ amounts at best to cultural disrespect and at worst to racism. Racism is also alleged on the basis that ‘white’ children would be better protected.

• Commentary by victims of FGM similarly arises from many different standpoints, whilst the fundamental evidence that FGM is an extreme form of patriarchal power is often ignored. Examples of all these responses abound. Yet for most professionals concerned in the UK, USA etc the sole objective is to eradicate FGM. The scope on both ‘sides’ for misreading positions is therefore enormous, whilst children continue to be maimed for life, or even killed.

• This paper considers these competing perspectives as elements in the (for this writer) non-negotiable struggle in the UK and elsewhere to eradicate FGM forever.

Core terms
*Female genital mutilation (FGM) – partial or full excision of the female genitalia for non-clinical reasons, often without anaesthetic or asepsis; and sometimes followed by infibulation (sewing up).
An estimated 130 million women and girls now living have been subjected to FGM, to ‘ensure’ purity and chastity, and to enforce patriarchy; 10-30% fatal. Vocabulary critical: ‘mutilation’, not ‘cutting’ / ‘circumcision’.

*‘Underclass’ defined– non-pejorative, in this case with ascribed characteristics, cf caste? The underclass (or classes) comprise/s people who are anomic, alienated from society as most of us experience it.

*Anomie – without social framework or situation, alienated

*Group think vs individualism; social control (of ‘wilful’ girls;or to protect family ‘honour’)

FGM in traditional practising communities
In some traditional societies anomie a girl must be either the property of her father or of her husband, and there comes a time – often immediately, or even before, she reaches the menarche – when that transition needs to have been effected.

If this transfer of ‘ownership’ does not occur, a girl or woman may find herself without support, alone and alienated from her family and peers. Her physical existence may even be endangered. If girls in practising communities have FGM, it is believed they will be ‘safe’.

FGM in the ‘developed’ world
The cruel irony is that, whilst in modern societies FGM is in theory irrelevant to the normal status of women, the very act of inflicting it may result in the anomic status which in traditional societies FGM is intended to avoid.

On one hand, it is far more destabilising of communities attempting to maintain the traditions and hierarchies of centuries, when young women rebel because they have a realistic prospect of autonomous adulthood, totally away from that stultifying social order.

With enough encouragement and support girls may become autonomous members of mainstream society, educated, employed and self-sufficient.

But at the other extreme they may become another victim of kidnap, forced marriage, brutally delivered mutilation and/or honour killing, if their traditional community continues to demand unquestioned group cohesion rather than individual well-being or personal human rights.

Some – not all – girls who experience FGM drop out of school and may lose developing connection with wider society.

The failure of western nations to protect girls from FGM (child abuse) is in danger of actively permitting production of a gendered underclass / disempowered social sub-stratum (?) created by the physical act of genital mutilation.

Eradicating FGM demands socio-economic analysis 
Efforts to achieve eradication require a public health / social policy and legal enforcement approach, not a ‘medical’ solution (treating the outcomes, not stopping the damage in the first place). Practising clinicians rarely seek over-arching structural solutions; for obvious reasons they tend to focus on their individual patients.

Understanding the economic drivers is also critical.  The wider contextual issues require much more attention.

Similarly with prevention protocols:
Mandatory reporting and easy-to-use pathways for the reports are essential (but there is very little research on what would constitute effective pathways?).

The proposition that the act of mutilation itself acts as an excluding mechanism in modern western societies is worthy of further exploration.

~ ~ ~


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

The #NoFGM Daily News carries reports of all items shared on Twitter that day about FGM – brings many organisations and developments into focus.  Also available to follow is daily news from NoFGM_USA.

For more on FGM please see here.

Twitter accounts: @NoFGM1  @NoFGMBookUK  @FGMStatement  @NoFGM_USA   [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

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