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Anthr/Apological Studies Of FGM As Cultural Excuses For ‘FGC’

April 22, 2015

15.04.22 FGM not Cutting (2)aAnd so we find ourselves confronted by yet another Anthropologist ‘explaining’ why women ‘choose’ to have themselves ‘cut’. Again, it’s Prof Bettina Shell-Duncan of the University of Washington, reporting to The Atlantic on ‘Why Some Women Choose to Get Circumcised‘. She asks us to consider ‘common misconceptions about female genital cutting, including the idea that men force women to undergo the procedure’. When will this comforting denial of the truth finally become a matter of shame for those who promote it?  FGM is vile, patriarchal child abuse.

It’s time to be clear; the softly-softly approach, earnest ‘explanations’, and appeals for patience have run their course.  The Anthr/Apologists have had their chance for the past three or four decades, and it didn’t work.  Every ten seconds or so, every hour of every day, somewhere in the world a small child, girl or woman undergoes female genital mutilation (FGM).

In the words of Dr Morissanda Kouyate, Executive Director of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children:

We cannot continue to beg parents who, in full knowledge and ignoring all the information given to them about FGM, continue to submit their daughters to FGM. Such parents and relatives should find the law in all its rigour confronting them.

(by which, as Tobe Levin explains in her excellent blog, is meant, it’s time to stop ‘asking’ communities, and start ‘telling’ them: No More FGM.)

 And Tobe Levin goes further, having previously provided a critique of the work of Bettina Shell-Duncan which highlights the extraordinary nonchalance demonstrated within some schools of Anthropology about the suffering of defenceless children and coerced women.

FGM (on minors) is child abuse and serious harm to which the child is legally unable to consent – as has been formally proclaimed in almost every country in the world:

  • the concept of ‘consent’ is meaningless and irrelevant whatever the age of the person concerned, if refusal may result in being outcast, perhaps penniless and abandoned   and
  • in the case of minors who are accorded ‘adult’ status post-mutilation, this can be very harmful to their health and futures – they believe they have licence to do what they wish; but the reality is, they will probably get pregnant and put their own lives and their babies’ at risk, and they will lose out massively on education.

These contexts of these tragedies are however perceived differently in different places, even within the Western world such as the USA and UK, and in some respects the UK may be edging ahead in tackling the issues (albeit that some observers have reservations about various current UK strategies, at least the issues are being acknowledged) – as indeed the 2014 UK Parliamentary Inquiry on FGM and the subsequent ‘Vaz Report’ demonstrates. (For those interested in the detail, the evidence sessions which preceded the Report are very informative).

But it’s important to recognise that, proportionate to population, the USA probably has approximately the same size of FGM challenge as the UK – very many thousands in each case.

And all these observations offer substantial grounds for concern about the views which some Anthropologists continue to promote.

Particularly, use of the term ‘FGC’ (Female Genital Cutting, or ‘Circumcision’) as a euphemism for what is in reality criminal mutilation needs to be robustly challenged.  Perhaps in some contexts ‘cultural’ apologists (Anthr/Apologists) who employ this term can even be construed as complicit in FGM as a crime – they provide a comfort blanket and rationale which hides sometimes homicidal horror.

And they also offer a wriggle-out from the idea that FGM is patriarchally inspired.  Pointing to the fact that the ‘procedure’ is often (not always) carried out by women is, they suggest, ‘proof’ that men are not responsible.  It’s extraordinary that this claim has credence.

Whatever the current situation, FGM has over the centuries been the ultimate way to convert women into chattels – to be sold by their fathers as ‘brides’ (domestic and sex workers) for the best price their ‘proven’ ‘purity’ can secure, and to be good value as guarantors of the male line (or as slaves) because they could not – it was believed – become pregnant unless their intimate shackles were removed.

Ultimately, FGM is about economics and power, and so is patriarchy.  How the status quo concerning FGM is perceived by anyone as having no connection with patriarchy is a mystery to many.

It matters a great deal then that we call FGM for what it is, ‘mutilation’:  FGM is the ultimate in physical patriarchal oppression.

That’s why in 2013 some of us produced the Feminist Statement on FGM; and, much more importantly still, it’s why the African-led Bamako Declaration of 2005 brooks no quarter on its insistence that the word to use is… mutilation.

But still the apologists – organisations like Tostan in the USA, weak British politicians who steer clear of the most challenging aspects of FGM, some of those around the world in their ivory towers – prefer the terms ‘cutting’ and ‘circumcision’, even in formal discourse.

To them we must address this question:

Is there a connection between the use of the term ‘FGC’ and the failure to stop FGM?

Could there be a connection between (a) the outcomes of programmes which adopt the softly-softly euphemistic approach, and (b) tortuously slow eradication in those places of FGM?

The wide-reaching global 2012/13 report of the UNICEF leads us to consider that this might be so. Despite a counter-response citing Tostan’s 2009 research partner, the Population Council, evidence suggests that programme effectiveness in Senegal, where Tostan operates, is at best patchy – it seems to be better at securing education and advancement for girls (good, of course), than at stopping FGM (its declared ambition).

The triggers for / indicators of readiness for successful FGM eradication are complex.  Tostan’s much-promoted – and photographed – Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) can only work under certain circumstances.  That’s why research programmes such as REPLACE2 are important; they offer a more sophisticated analysis of ‘readiness’ to abandon FGM in specific and diverse communities.

And so we return to the specifics here, the Atlantic post on anthropological observations about FGM.

It is a matter of serious regret (and hurt to survivors) that Melinda Gates, a generous health benefactor, commended the Shell-Duncan article on Twitter. The Gates Foundation has undertaken excellent work on, eg, neonatal health and maternal malaria.  Commendation of the Shell-Duncan analysis contrasts dismally with these positive global contributions to women’s health.

Doubtless, Ms Gates intended no disrespect to FGM survivors, nor – as she emphasised – does she condone ‘the practice’; but she has surely been poorly briefed.  She should be strongly encouraged to reconsider her position in the light of the evidence cited here and elsewhere.

Any apparent academic or journalistic diminishing of the harm of FGM, intentional or not, can cause great distress to those who have had to endure it.  The Anthr/Apologist approach is ethically void and academically objectionable.

Of course medical and social anthropology is fundamental to understanding how to eradicate FGM; but so are medicine, economics and straight politics.  Seeking to ‘explain’ FGM via ‘culture’ without full reference to the ultimate grimness of FGM, to the harm it imposes on its pressured, powerless and / or uninformed victims, is not a route to eradication.

FGM is very rarely a ‘choice’ in any meaningful sense of the word.  And it is always, as the United Nations declared in December 2012 , a clear violation of human rights, and an act of grievous child abuse when inflicted on minors.

It is critical in reporting anthropological research on FGM to be crystal clear about the impacts it will have, both on survivors and on any future possibility of girls being, not ‘cut’, but mutilated.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A statement on the Atlantic article, issued on 23 April 2015,

by the Royal College of Midwives:

The Intercollegiate FGM Group, along with the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) and International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) have read the article on why some women choose to be circumcised, published on 8 April 2015. We are extremely concerned by the way FGM is treated in the article.

While we welcome new social scientific research into the complex reasons why FGM occurs across societies, since it helps us to better understand the phenomena and thereby enable us to prevent it, articles such as this are retrograde.

This is our collective position:

* We agree that FGM is child abuse and a severe form of violence against women and girls.
* We agree that FGM is a violation of the rights of the child and a violation of the rights of women and girls.
* We agree that the medicalisation of FGM must stop.

We know that in some communities, FGM occurs because it is regarded as a tradition, a rite of passage. On the surface, it may appear that the girls themselves willingly subject themselves to be circumcised, with their families’ blessing.

However, this does not make the practice acceptable. It is wrong to suggest that children can chose to undergo FGM. Many of these girls are underage and therefore they are not in a position to give informed consent to a practice that has lifelong physical and psychological consequences. Similarly, they may be under intense social pressure to have FGM and may also be unaware of what the procedure truly entails and the long term impact on their sexual and reproductive health.

There is no compelling argument to excuse FGM. The long-term physical, psychological and emotional trauma from FGM (not fully addressed in the article, some of which are transgenerational) which healthcare professionals and the women themselves are only too aware of, mean that there are no benefits but significant harm attached to the practice.

Read the Intercollegiate FGM Group report Tackling FGM in the UK

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A response to the Atlantic article, issued on 1 May 2015 by Dr Morissanda Kouyate, Executive Director of the Inter-African Committee:

Should candidates for suicide be encouraged?

It was with great sadness and concern that I read the interview with Bettina Shell-Duncan, anthropologist, entitled: “Why Some Women Choose to Get Circumcised”.

Based on the modest experience of 30 years’ activity of the Inter-African Committee in the fight for the elimination of female genital mutilation, I would like, once again, to emphasize that we must avoid falling into the trap set by those who seek fame and free publicity by opposing human achievements proven to be for the good of humanity, such as the fight to eradicate FGM in the world.

African women, and men (since men are the indirect target group of FGM), who are in majority the victims of this horrible practice, which is traditional not cultural, agree to engage fully in the campaign against this plague at all levels: community, national as well as regional through the African Union and African Heads of State. In order to show their willingness and commitment, and thanks to the advocacy of the Inter-African Committee and its partners, the African Heads of State not only adopted, in 2003, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, on the Rights of Women, in which article 5 is exclusively dedicated to FGM; they also requested and obtained from the United Nations General Assembly the vote of Resolution 67/146 on the elimination of female genital mutilation, rightly considered a serious violation of human rights. Twenty African countries already have specific laws against FGM.

Refusing any navel-gazing and considering the problem of FGM as a universal challenge, the Africans are convinced that only a global mobilization will put an end to this harmful and degrading practice. This is why the prevalence of FGM is decreasing worldwide even though progress is slow. The achievements and results registered were unhoped for in the beginning of the fight.

I have always said that the fight for the elimination of female genital mutilation will not be won in air-conditioned amphitheaters with slides describing an African society of cave-dwellers entangled in harmful practices. An Africa that pathetic anthropologists strive to magnify in order to make people dream away from a world that is economically, politically and socially suffocating. The inexorable victory over FGM will be achieved through joint efforts throughout the world.

During the debate arising from the above-mentioned article, some compare female genital mutilation with male circumcision but they cannot be compared. If they were to be compared, the male circumciser should make the incision some 10 cm higher up.

Since Africa and the rest of the world say no to female genital mutilation, I make an urgent appeal to all actors: international, regional and national organizations, civil society and other good wills to devote their intelligence, their time, their forces and their resources to the fight for the elimination of this degrading practice and to ignore any provocation for promotional purposes.

I am a medical doctor not an anthropologist; but the only lesson I have learnt from anthropology is that in order to better observe a social group or community you need to apply the strategy called “participatory observation”, i.e. become immersed in the group, do exactly what it does and endure exactly what its members endure.

If the anthropologists interested in the phenomenon of female genital mutilation were to use the participatory observation approach, they would certainly not give the same idyllic description of what the victims of FGM are subjected to and we would have less controversy and debates.

Unfortunately, the victims of female genital mutilation are innocent girls and women who suffer the horrors of a harmful practice.

Instead of studying them from an anthropologic point of view, let us save them!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Finally, here is the 1 May 2015 follow-up from Chris Bodenner, an editor of the Atlantic journal, in response to the many comments which arose from the original piece discussed above :

The Complexity of Female Circumcision: Your Thoughts .

And so I leave you, the reader, to decide how you feel about the rejection by Olga Khazan (author of the original piece, and cited in Chris Bodenner’s response) of the notion that there are ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ ideas in discourse about FGM.  No doubt you know where I stand, already….

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A very relevant note on terminology

The UNFPA (2015) adopts a human rights perspective, stating that the correct terminology in formal contexts is Female Genital MUTILATION (quote)

Why are there different terms to describe FGM, such as female genital cutting and female circumcision?

The terminology used for this procedure has gone through various changes.

When the practice first came to international attention, it was generally referred to as “female circumcision.” (In Eastern and Northern Africa, this term is often used to describe FGM type I.) However, the term “female circumcision” has been criticized for drawing a parallel with male circumcision and creating confusion between the two distinct practices. Adding to the confusion is the fact that health experts in many Eastern and Southern African countries encourage male circumcision to reduce HIV transmission; FGM, on the other hand, can increase the risk of HIV transmission.

It is also sometimes argued that the term obscures the serious physical and psychological effects of genital cutting on women. UNFPA does not encourage use of the term “female circumcision” because the health implications of male and female circumcision are very different.

The term “female genital mutilation” is used by a wide range of women’s health and human rights organizations. It establishes a clear distinction from male circumcision. Use of the word “mutilation” also emphasizes the gravity of the act and reinforces that the practice is a violation of women’s and girls’ basic human rights. This expression gained support in the late 1970s, and since 1994, it has been used in several United Nations conference documents and has served as a policy and advocacy tool.

In the late 1990s the term “female genital cutting” was introduced, partly in response to dissatisfaction with the term “female genital mutilation.” There is concern that communities could find the term “mutilation” demeaning, or that it could imply that parents or practitioners perform this procedure maliciously. Some fear the term “female genital mutilation” could alienate practicing communities, or even cause a backlash, possibly increasing the number of girls subjected to the practice. 

Some organizations embrace both terms, referring to “female genital mutilation/cutting” or FGM/C.

What terminology does UNFPA use?

UNFPA urges a human rights perspective on the issue, and the term “female genital mutilation” better describes the practice from a human rights viewpoint.

Today, a greater number of countries have outlawed the practice, and an increasing number of communities have committed to abandon it, indicating that the social and cultural perceptions of the practice are being challenged by communities themselves, along with national, regional and international decision-makers. Therefore, it is time to accelerate the momentum towards full abandonment of the practice by emphasizing the human-rights aspect of the issue.

Additionally, the term “female genital mutilation” is used in a number of UN and intergovernmental documents. One recent and important such document is the first UN General Assembly Resolution (UNGA Resolution 67/146) on “Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilations.” Other documents using the term “female genital mutilation” include: Report of the Secretary-General on Ending Female Genital MutilationCommunication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council: Towards the elimination of female genital mutilationProtocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in AfricaBeijing Declaration and Platform for Action; and Eliminating female genital mutilation: An interagency statement. And each year, the United Nations observes the “International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.”

– See more at:  (UNFPA, Dec 2015)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PLEASE NOTE that comments which drift / steer towards discourse about how ‘feminists’ try to ‘ignore’ MGM (male circumcision) will NOT be accepted ON THIS THREAD.  I am in fact opposed to MGM (as is Tobe Levin), but the perils of FGM are a pressing priority / focus and approaches to addressing it are necessarily different.

Readers are welcome to add their comments on a separate post on this blog where discussion of these wider issues is more appropriate:

Female Genital Mutilation: The Difficult Debates.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


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

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: @NoFGM_UK  @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

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2015 22:46

    Brilliant, I know of certain organisations who are sanctioning a lesser “cut” in an attempt to eradicate FGM. Maybe if correct terminology was used then how could anyone even dream of sanctioning just a little mutilation?!
    On the issue of “choice” (I can hardly bear to write the word!), the only woman or girl who on the surface may appear to choose FGM has done so because of ostracism , taunts, wanting/needing desperately to fit in etc. ……….

  2. SVI permalink
    April 24, 2015 06:34

    The article in question did not attempt to excuse FGM or even treat it seriously as a choice. The author was accused of being sociopathic, and perhaps it takes sociopathy to understand how this disorder thinks. Yes, thinks. The concept of ‘surgical hygiene’ is a living thing with the combined intelligence of millions who believe in it, and it is capable of learning and adapting. Even its opponents are under its influence as shown by their unwillingness to examine all of its causes.

    The atmosphere & rationales described should only serve to illuminate the depths of the delusions that reinforce FGM. All this means is that there are more forces contributing to the practice than are commonly discussed. Looking away provides cover for them.

    FGM is not patriarchal oppression. It is worse than that. Patriarchy is a set of evolutionary adaptations that control and coerce organized breeding. FGM is another evolutionary adaptation. This is also not an excuse. It is a statement about the magnitude of the threat. Evolution has no conscience and privileges the group over the individual. It does not make moral judgments or hate anyone. FGM has already adapted to feminism, and feminism’s claims about FGM are a smokescreen that FGM is using to buy time while it finds another way to spread.

    The focus on patriarchal oppression and on separating MGM from male circumcision is another tactic that FGM is using to derail feminists. These practices are interdependent and as long as one exists the other will be close behind it.

  3. April 24, 2015 06:47

    I am happy to include your comment, ‘SVI’, because your claims about patriarchy and the covert routes by which FGM continues to have a hold should be examined.

    I ask others to note, however, that comments which drift / steer towards discourse about how ‘feminists’ try to ‘ignore’ MGM (male circumcision) will NOT be accepted ON THIS THREAD.

    I am in fact opposed to MGM (as is Tobe Levin) and readers are welcome to visit a post on this blog where discussion of it is more appropriate: Female Genital Mutilation: The Difficult Debates.

    If anyone wants to write about genital mutilation in general, or about men, please post your comments there, not here… I’ll also do an update with another piece on these wider issues when I can, but THIS PIECE is about terminology and outcomes specifically re FGM.

  4. April 24, 2015 08:34

    Readers may want to see the original shattering review published (significantly) by the University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Tobe Levin. “’Highly valued by both sexes’: Activists, Anthr/apologists and FGM.” in the Journal on Female Genital Mutilation and Other Harmful Traditional Practices. Scientific Organ of IAC. IAC 25th Anniversary Commemorative Issue. Vol. 3, No. 1, 2010 (including Vol. 2 No. 2). 52-61. See also
    & Feminist Europa. Review of Books. Special edition on FGM. 9/2009 & 10/ 2010.

    And KUDOS to you Hilary for clarity, courage, and compassion.

  5. May 5, 2015 07:12

    I’m afraid the medical approach is not relevant. The sociological one is. Indeed, FGM is only the tip – very yelling indeed – of the iceberg of sexual mutilation of minors (and sometimes elders), and that the bulk of the iceberg (MGM) is far more drastically dangerous for humanity:

    • May 5, 2015 11:15

      Thank you Michel, I’ve been aware of this research for a while, and it is indeed very illuminating (and alarming).

      I would however ask everyone to PLEASE NOTE that comments which drift / steer towards discourse about how ‘feminists’ try to ‘ignore’ MGM (male circumcision) will NOT be accepted ON THIS THREAD. I am in fact opposed to MGM (as is Tobe Levin), but the perils of FGM must be the first priority here (this post) and approaches to addressing it are necessarily different.

      Readers are welcome to add their comments on a separate post also on this blog, where discussion of these wider issues is more appropriate – Female Genital Mutilation: The Difficult Debates.

  6. September 27, 2015 15:08

    Here’s another (September 2015) example of using the term ‘cutting’, in the course of a report on some serious and potentially important research:,

    And here’s my (posted on that website) comment:

    This is important research, but it would be interesting to see how much the continuing use of the euphemism ‘cutting’ is a de facto bolster to maintaining the practice of FGM. There seems to be a reluctance even amongst some researchers to insist overtly, by suitable naming, that FGM is criminal violence in the statute of almost every nation, whatever else it may also be said to be.

    Has anyone actually done research on the impacts of ‘practice protective’
    terminology? (I understand that local terms need to be used when the topic is first discussed in communities.)

    I take entirely however your point that in most communities public declarations alone are unlikely to eradicate FGM – but we also need to bear in mind the big differences between different societies in the degree of economic impetus towards FGM.

    Thanks for sharing,
    Author of Eradicating FGM (Ashgate, 2015)

  7. Sando permalink
    July 7, 2017 16:35

    I am currently working on my research project regarding Sande Bush Society in Liberia. As a survivor of this practice, why has it become a “hot” topic and a practice that everyone in the world supposedly wants it eradicated? it has been around for over 2000 years. I am working with 120 excisors in villages that are remote to the government of Liberia to replace FGM. Furthermore, did we ever stop to think, that there are major mental health issues with the (zoe women) cutters, cannibalistic behavior, and most of the cutters don’t have children.

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