This month, a petition to abolish female genital cutting (FGC) in India has been doing the rounds on Change.Org. Started by Masooma Ranalvi, a writer and publisher who works on women’s issues, the petition addresses Maneka Gandhi and two other ministers, asking them to criminalise FGC in India. Since then, Ranalvi’s petition has been supported by 16 other women from the Dawoodi Bohra community who have also undergone FGC, and signed by thousands of others. Ranalvi has written about her own experience in The Quint and on NDTV.
So if we wanted to read more about FGC, where would we go? Here are a few starting points:
What’s the Official Party Line?
The WHO fact sheet on FGC lists the four different types of FGC practised traditionally. It also tells us:
FGM is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.
Who’s Doing It?
Traditionally, female genital cutting is practised in around 30 countries in Africa and the Middle East. It’s also performed in other countries, like in India among the Dawoodi Bohra community, to which Masooma Ranalvi and her 16 co-petitioners belong.
Not so traditionally, it’s practised predominantly in Western countries under the guise of female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) or labiaplasty. The website Science 2.0 tells us that “Labiaplasty is the second-fastest growing form of cosmetic surgery, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.” Its popularity in Australia alone is beginning to alarm feminists.
This ain’t no recent phenomenon either. One unpublished paper tells us:
Western medical texts typically refer to genital surgery in relation to clipping procedures by gynecologists back to Soranus of Ephesus (129CE) performed on “masculinized” clitorises (Johnsdotter, 2012). In the 17th century, gynecologists such as Jean Riolan actually advocated clitoridechtomy for “disciplining unrestrained sexuality” in women. By the 19th century, the clitoridechtomy was practiced for this purpose among many other assorted physical and mental ‘disorders’ in Germany, France and England (Johnsdotter, 2012).
Is There a Difference Between FGC and Labiaplasty? Is Choice Choice, and Consent Consent?
The same Science 2.0 article says:
An important difference between labiaplasty and FGC is the matter of consent. But consent may not be free of societal considerations. The WHO points out that FGC tends to be perpetuated by cultural tradition where it is practiced, noting that “social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing is a strong motivation to perpetuate the practice.”
The Guardian writes about the illusion of choice too:
The argument has always been that western women are embracing their own surgery as a personal “choice” – but if the messages from our culture are strong enough to convince women they’re abnormal when they’re not, it’s not hard to draw comparisons with the folk mythologies that inform the “choice” of genital mutilation elsewhere.
Where does this social pressure come from in the case of labiaplasty? Studies show that watching surgically modified labia in porn contributes to women’s ideas of how their labia should look. Way to go, porn! I wonder why I fight for you.
What Say You, Law?
As Ranalvi’s petition tells us, FGC has been made illegal in more than 20 African countries, most recently Nigeria in May this year and Gambia last month (though there have been concerns that the procedure will still be performed surreptitiously).
Immigrant communities in First World countries have been prosecuted, too. In Australia, for instance, three people from the Dawoodi Bohra community were facing charges of performing female circumcision in September. And last month, two young girls had their passports seized in the UK on suspicion of being sent abroad to undergo FGC.
The Plot Thickens: Anthropology Plays Devil’s Advocate
There are plenty of naysayers among anthropologists who don’t seem to be intimidated by WHO’s opinions on FGC. Bettina Shell-Duncan of Washington University, for instance, though she is all for the ban on FGC, complicates the issue for us:
She also challenges some common misconceptions around FGC, like the belief that it is forced on women by men. In fact, elderly women often do the most to perpetuate the custom. I thought African girls were held down and butchered against their will, but some of them voluntarily and joyfully partake in the ritual. I thought communities would surely abandon the practice once they learned of its negative health consequences. And yet, in Shell-Duncan’s experience, most people who practice FGC recognize its costs – they just think the benefits outweigh them.
Justin Van Elsberg (Washington State University) and Gwen Bakke tell us about the controversy in anthropology in the abovementioned unpublished paper on the topic:
We believe that a primary responsibility of anthropologists is to expand current understandings of other social communities through an informed awareness of difference and similarity. We believe that by contributing to a marginalizing, ill-informed discourse, anthropologists harm the people they study by portraying them as the ‘barbaric other’, or as just plain ignorant. We therefore make the distinction between female genital mutilation [authors’ emphasis], a problematic discourse, and female circumcision, the practice targeted by this discourse.
They also say:
Some have argued that a major difference between ‘Western society’ and African societies is that men perpetuate the practice of female circumcision with little to no consent from females. However, female circumcision in Africa is almost always controlled and managed by the women (PPANFGSA, 2012). Anthropologist Eric Silverman observes that female circumcision “allows women to contest, not accede to, patriarchy, and to define, not erode, their self-worth” (Silverman, 2004). The view that women are controlled by patriarchy “denies women the capacity for agency, decision making, and legitimate consciousness” (Silverman, 2004).
What do Elsberg and Bakke recommend then?
As we have seen, there is a historically rooted discourse of marginalisation that has targeted specifically African women to the disregard of related practices in the West [labiaplasty, vaginoplasty]. It is a discourse that has largely ignored evidence and the perspectives of communities that engage in female circumcision. If we wish to address medical issues, we should attempt to improve medical conditions, not outlaw the procedure altogether. This process is likely to expand ethical dialogue to related surgical practices and to the acknowledgement of the diverse array of perspectives.
Does it Boil Down to Individual Consent?
I’d like to throw up some questions that have been circling in my mind here. (As I once read somewhere, the head is round so that thoughts can change direction.)
It’s a brave new world. Choice may not be choice any more, as we’ve seen above. What do you think would happen if you asked a seven-year-old girl if she wants to be cut? It’s pretty hard to picture her saying yes. However, a culture doesn’t just ask in an environment of “we’ll support you either way”. What if she’s taught at school that it’s a good thing, as she’s taught that going to the dentist is a good thing (there’s much debate about the side effects of dental fillings)? What if all her classmates in school are doing it too? Her sisters, her cousins? Will she still say no? What if she wants it done as a modern medical procedure, with anaesthesia, in a hospital?
Also, let’s not forget that she’s a minor, and that her consent matters less to adult-forged law than adult consent does. Whether a young girl chooses or declines FGC, some adult somewhere will think she doesn’t know what’s good for her and the decision ought to be taken out of her hands. Could this entire FGC debate be about not forcing our children to do – or forego – things against their will? If that were true, then we need to think bigger – much bigger – about all the different kinds of violence we as a society inflict on our children. And reading all the way through Masooma Ranalvi’s petition, from start to finish, is a very good place to begin.
A previous version of this article referred to “mutilation” instead of “cutting”. This has been changed.