FGM/female “circumcision” and cultural practices

Check out this article:
The whole concept of female “circumcision” (I use quotes because its hard not to impose western ideologies about torture and mutilation upon the practice) is a hard one for me to grasp. Perhaps it is the cultural reasoning behind the practice is what I feel I have yet to grasp. It is so easy to sit in this comfortable home in the “civilized” western world and judge a practice based on some sort of western ideology, but I’m not sure that that can be considered a fair analysis of the practice. Doesn’t that cause the same sort of problematic colonial issues? Granted, in the article, women from the same culture confirm that FGM is indeed a problem. So what is my rambling point here? Where does the problem lie? Why do I have such a problem with the article? 
While the writing in the article seems fair and balanced and just touches on the involvement of outside human rights groups, I couldn’t help but thinking of comparing it to a common cultural practice in the west, plastic surgery. Sure, women aren’t tied down and involuntarily have someone fill their chest with silicone or break their nose to “re-sculpt” it, but if it isn’t involuntary directly, you could still make the claim of social and cultural influence. (even the phrase “re-sculpt” is so problematic for me because it evokes thoughts of a male sculptor creating the “perfect” image of a woman from an inanimate object.)

Feel free to put me in my place if I am way off base here, or if I’ve offended anyone by making the comparison, that was not my intention. I just wanted to point out how seriously we need to examine cultural practices and the blind acceptance of them because of tradition. So, with that being said, what do you think?

(ultimately I placed this post in the Body Image category, but it could have gone into a number of other categories probably.)

Join the Conversation

  • doubleb

    I don’t know who would possibly accept this. If anyone did accept this, I would immediately not take them seriously and doubt everything that they thought about everything else.
    Reading that article starts my heart racing and my blood boiling and a million years of killing instinct coursing through my veins.
    Moral nihilism is very interesting, and it’s fine to sit around and talk about tolerance of other cultures and other beliefs, but there are some times when I am fine forcing my world view on others. This is certainly one of those times.

  • doubleb

    Oh, and I can’t really believe you’re comparing an adult woman making a conscious choice to have elective surgery for her own reasons with the practice of holding down a screaming children and mutilating her genitals with no anesthesia and almost always in the most unsanitary conditions without any semblance of medical care. I’m almost offended by the absurdity of the comparison.

  • Mama Mia

    It used to be culturally acceptable to beat wives in the US, but that doesn’t mean it is not a human rights violation. FGM is done with no medical reason, against the will of the child, done without sterile or safe conditions, and often results in horric physical side effects for the girl, including problems with urination, painful intercourse for the rest of their lives, and sterility. In fact, some of the reason it is done may be to make sure women do not feel pleasure from sex.
    Plastic surgery is done voluntarily, by medically trained professionals, with anasthesia, and though society may imply a woman is better off with it, no one is strapped screaming into a chair for a nose job.
    I understand cultural relativism is something we must always take into account, but in this case, I think it doesn’t apply. Perhaps cultural relativism would be appropriate to consider when talking about wearing head scarves- western women may be appalled by the requirement, but Islamic women may not be. But many, many Islamic women are appalled by FGM.

  • FrumiousB

    The flaw in that article is that they don’t mention what type of female genital cutting took place. FGC ranges from removal of the clitoral hood, similar to removal of the foreskin in baby boys, to complete infibulation. I have difficulty mustering outrage over the former. Discussions of FGC which don’t acknowledge the range of practices strike me as disingenuous bordering on colonial.

  • mona

    Given that from where I’m standing, circumcising infant boys is already an aberration and a spit in the face of humanity, common decency and good sense, I am finding it pretty easy to muster outrage for removal of the clitoral hood as well.
    Including the range of practices in discussions of FGM is very much of interest, because it’s no use trying to discuss anything if you don’t face the facts. But I like to try and avoid kidding myself or tiptoeing around the issue so as to avoid hurting some people’s rather delicate (cultural) sensibilities–thereby failing to speak up in defense of those who have neither had the chance to choose whether or not to participate in said culture, nor indeed the strength to defend themselves against such a practice.
    And as for colonial–the country I come from had no colonial empire, not in the nineteenth century, not ever, was until barely fifty years ago a country people emigrated _from_, and is currently building an international reputation for neutrality and no-strings-attached emergency aid in natural and man-made disasters (among the first crews to arrive in the 2004 Tsunami, Darfur, and again in Myanmar a few months ago). Which all is to say that I’ve none of what you might call post-colonial guilt to soothe, and hence no compunction to refrain from speaking my mind just so I don’t look like I’m pulling a white-man’s-burden, and can cheerfully assert that messing around cutting up infants’ genitalia is a shocking violation of human rights, and a display of breathtaking arrogance that you would try to improve on or correct nature–no matter which PR you hire to spin it into anything else.
    So all things considered, I think I’m going to go on giving the rough side of my tongue to anybody who thinks strapping a newborn boy in an X shaped basin and taking off their foreskin is good hygiene/healthy for later sexual activity/cleaner/more convenient/just the way things are/insert other adenoidal and unscientific excuse–and to anybody who tries to bleat out a case for similar treatment of female infants.

  • Nettle Syrup

    I can’t stand it when we shy away from talking about blatant human rights violations in other cultures out of ‘respect’. And besides, it happens in my own country, Britain, especially among muslim communities. Thing is, it’s not condoned by islam, and it predates islam – in past centuries, it used to be reccomended for girls who masturbate too much in this very country, too – and yet any attack on FGM happening in this country is seen as ‘racist’ and ‘intolerant of a religion’ when in fact it’s got nothing to do with the religion!
    I actually disagree with ALL kinds of genital mutilation – including male circumcision. It’s not fair to do this to someone too young to give their consent. If you’re male and your circumcised, everyone can see, it’s like putting a brand on somebody that they may not want. You might say, ‘well, so what?’, but it’s their penis. Besides, in countries without proper medical care, it’s usually done without anesthetic, often with a pair of scissors. But I too would like to know, in cases being discussed, whether we’re talking about infibulation or just, as FrumiousB says, removal of the clitorial hood.
    I don’t think we really need to worry about colonialism when we’re talking about cutting bits off children’s genitals or raping your wife. Granted, some places are a long way away from having marital rape laws, but that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong.

  • Heina

    All wrong on the religion thing. Most people have bought into the progressive Muslim myth that female circumcision is prohibited in Islam. There is a saying of Muhammad that says that circumcision is obligatory for males but only “recommended” and “better” for females (this is a very popular mainstream Islamic site that gives religious rulings: http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?pagename=IslamOnline-English-Ask_Scholar/FatwaE/FatwaE&cid=1119503543886). As Muslims tend to revere Muhammad and accept what he said as unquestionable fact (that’s an important part of Islam, no matter what revisionist apologist Muslims might tell you), even something he merely “recommended” would be considered something you would do as much as you could.
    In any case, whether the practice pre-dates Islam or is even a part of Islam is irrelevant. The fact is that the Muslims themselves (including the ones in the article) say that they do it for the sake of religion. If they themselves are claiming it’s for Allah, why do apologists and culturally “sensitive” people feel the need to blame other factors? They’re telling you, clearly and unequivocally, why they harm their children — start listening to what they’re saying the problem is and then you’ll be able to think of accurate solutions.

  • rhowan

    The link you gave didn’t work for me, but I was able to find an article on the same site that states some of the different stances on both male and female circumcision within Muslim society: “Circumcision: Juristic, Medical and Social Perspectives”.

  • aelnaiem

    Heina: The problem isn’t Islam, it’s the interpretation. You’re making the argument that because the people think the religion says that, then the religion is at fault. The whole “apologist” (which in itself is a crude, and very disrespectful word to use, because I apologize for nothing in Islam), view is to show that the original culture has been mixed with the religion giving the cultural activities a holy connotation. Muslims also know that there are accurate and inaccurate sayings by the Prohphet Muhammad[PBUH], and the one you are referring to is inaccurate. Any unbiased insight into these sayings would make that clear to you.
    On the topic of male circumcision, in recent studies it has been shown to reduce the likeliness of HIV transmission, as well as other diseases, so the idea that there is no use or reason for it is unfounded. The cleanliness idea of male circumcision for protection from a disease, is the same reason that peoplehave for giving their young children vaccines. Whether YOU agree with it or not isn’t important, as long as there is no damage to the child and in the case of male circumcision, there is no concrete proof of a damaged psyche, but there is proof of increased “cleanliness”. The original post was challenging the holier than thou attitude of many westerners. Although this particular issue is not a good one to use, there ARE many topics that can be related to this attitude.

  • Jewel

    Including the range of practices of FGM is about as important and instructive as pointing out that while some wife-beaters beat their wives silly, some men only slap them around a bit.
    To put it another way….Your comment makes as much sense as suggesting that it is disingenuous to discuss sexual molestation without pointing out that while some molesters do indeed rape their prey, others only fondle them. BLECK

  • Jewel

    An analogy between FGM and plastic surgery. Hmmmmm…. how about …. FGM is to plastic surgery as rape is to sex.

  • timothy_nakayama

    Giving a child a vaccine shot and loping off his foreskin, even if you don’t take into account the extreme rarity of diseases that are actually caused by the hygiene of the male genital versus the diseases that the vaccine shots prevents, is not the same.
    If adults males decide to get circumcised, they can do whatever they want because they can make an informed decision on a part of a body that belongs to them, whether or not they are pressured by cultural influences.
    The baby on the other hand, gets no say in the matter.
    That is also the difference between having elective cosmetic surgery and FGM that other posters have outlined above.

  • mona

    I think you’re right (at least the second §, I don’t have a deep enough knowledge of Islam to comment about the first without sounding like a fool, ;-))
    but I do agree that the only reasonable plan of action in such cases is first listening to what people say, second, figuring out how to convince them*. Even setting aside questions of whether it would be patronizing and whatnot, pontificating out of your arse is just no bloody use if it isn’t tailored to the audience and the problem. In this vein, I _have_ come across a number of essays which refute the need for circumcision or female genital mutilation from a religious perspective. That is one avenue that I believe needs more exploring, where I think more could be done. But I get the feeling that because it just happens that a lot of people who are very vocal against circumcision are also very vocal against all kinds of religion, you get this confusion of people rather self-righteously going, ‘you’re wrong! you’re a stupid bible/kuran thumper!’ rather than the more appropriate and focused cry of ‘don’t mess with your baby’s body for religion before he/she’s had the chance to decide for themselves’
    Okay, not as catchy :-) but then, the most work in such things gets done by people who are prepared to compromise, to engage in a bit of give and take; and this process does not make for great soundbites. Fanatics (of one shade or the other) aren’t precisely famous for being a force for progress :P
    *And I do mean convince; I am rather suspicious of forcible movements to get people to stop doing something we disapprove of, because I can’t help thinking there might be something else behind it)

  • Ziggy

    I actually think it´s quite a valid and sensitizing comparison. Your objection that it’s usually very young girls that are being circumsized, whereas in the case of plastic surgery it’s adult women making these choices by themselves is a case in point. Yet I feel the discussion is not necessarily whether circumcision is bad – but whether it is actually quite uncomfortably close to cultural practices ‘back home’. and I think it is.
    Of course, these are not the same cultural practices – each occur in their own specific historical and cultural context. In the west, choices for plastic surgery are made against the background of several ideologies, such as the ideological emphasis on the malleability of the physical body, of perfection in all spheres of life, and, last but not least, capitalism and consumerism. I think it’s interesting that choices for plastic surgery are being justified in exactly the liberal and capitalist discourse we so love, i.e., in terms of self-determination, expression, and ‘taking care of yourself because you deserve it’. I honestly do not believe there’s much agency involved in making the choice to have bigger boobs or a smaller waist, or whatever.
    As for genital mutilation or circumcision, these choices are also made within structures of power (patriarchy!) – but they have also symbolic value as a signifier of a certain identity, i.e., as a muslim, or somali woman, or even ‘africanness’ as opposed to westernizing forces in their own societies, or historically, the colonial experience. In this sense, these choices are provided with particular force because of their subversive potential when used within a Western cultural hegemony emhasizing human rights/women’s rights.
    In short, I don’t think the age-difference and conscious choice versus forced decision really is quite useful. Such a distinction perpetuates the ethnocentric, orientalist ideas that women in the west have ‘choices’, whereas those in the east generally don’t. Perhaps such is the case to some extent, but we shouldn’t be blinded by our own distinct positionality within capitalism, idnvidualism, and ‘Human Righteousness.’

  • doubleb

    In short, I don’t think the age-difference and conscious choice versus forced decision really is quite useful. Such a distinction perpetuates the ethnocentric, orientalist ideas that women in the west have ‘choices’, whereas those in the east generally don’t.
    This is completely absurd. I already made a clear distinction which you repeated and then immediately discarded. You went from age and conscious choice to ethnocentric and regional in the blink of an eye. I support the freedom of all adult women to make informed choice, and I oppose the painful mutilation of all children regardless of race or background.
    I honestly do not believe there’s much agency involved in making the choice to have bigger boobs or a smaller waist, or whatever.
    If you go down this path, you abandon all choice in every matter. From a philosophical standpoint, I agree with you. As a strict materialist I don’t think anyone has any choice about anything. But where do you go from there? Adult women don’t really make the choice about how they feel? Then how do you decide that rapists and murderers really make their own decisions either? You can’t have it both ways. If you want any responsibility for any actions you have to give people the same ability to make their own choices.
    None of this very interesting anyway. If anything is evil, FGM as commonly practiced is evil. You are inflicting horrifying pain, humiliation, and trauma on innocent children in the most important stages of their mental and physical development. There is a point where moral relativism ends, and this is far beyond that point. I don’t care about forcing my culture on whoever I have to if this is the result of that culture.

  • Heina

    Plenty of Muslims accept the interpretation you deem false. What do you say to them? I grew up Muslim, and we weren’t circumcised, but there are millions of Muslims who would disagree with that. You saying that Islam doesn’t recommend female circumcisions doesn’t solve the problem of the people who claim that it does. Read any piece on female circumcision in the Islamic world and those who do it will claim that it is Allah’s will. Your opinion on the religious side of it doesn’t negate the fact that others claim the exact opposite.
    As for male circumcision, I didn’t say anything about that. Since you accused me of being against it, I’ll come right out and say that I, indeed, am. The studies on HIV transmission in circumcised vs. uncircumcised men have gone both ways — that is, it’s inconclusive evidence, unless you have an agenda to push. Why would a Muslim man get or spread HIV anyway? Doesn’t Islam restrict sex to after marriage and within marriage? Additionally, saying that there’s no damage is ludicrous. Cutting off parts of genitals is damaging, as it removes sensitive nerve endings and exposes the penis, causing it to become less sensitive in general. I’ve seen a male circumcision done and it’s brutal — babies go into shock due to the pain and treat their parents differently after the procedure. In any case, if circumcision is so important, why not allow it to be chosen and done by adults? It could be a mark of faith that way instead of something forced upon helpless newborn infants.

  • Heina

    “But I get the feeling that because it just happens that a lot of people who are very vocal against circumcision are also very vocal against all kinds of religion, you get this confusion of people rather self-righteously going, ‘you’re wrong! you’re a stupid bible/kuran thumper!’ rather than the more appropriate and focused cry of ‘don’t mess with your baby’s body for religion before he/she’s had the chance to decide for themselves'”
    In a lot of those cultures, parents are everything. They don’t have the concept of the autonomy of the child. The idea that parents can’t do to children what they wish, especially in matter of religion, is bizarre at best and offensive at worst to most Islamic cultures. Either battle-cry would be meaningless, I’m afraid, and cultural change comes all too slowly.

  • jlw

    I think that there is a real issue around the way that we in the U.S. and probably the West in general think about practices like FGM. It’s not so much that we’re acting as the colonist when we say that FGM is a horrible thing, but people who love to make FGM out to be much more horrible than anything that takes place within our own culture [I'm not saying that any of the commenters necessarily are saying this] do have a kind of colonialist viewpoint that we’re the more evolved society that has to teach those other cultures how wrong they are. FGM is a horrible thing, and so are lots of things that happen in the U.S. every day. This also reminds me of an article I read about women in Egypt (I think I might have found it through this site, but I’m not sure) where the women were saying that if Egyptian mothers are going to change their minds about FGM, that change has to come from within Egypt. Americans can’t be the ones to make that change.