Female Genital Mutilation Versus Female Circumcision

The amazing Michelle Goldberg has a great piece in the latest print issue of The American Prospect, but you can also read it online. Essentially, she’s exploring the question, as the title suggests, of “Rights Versus Rites,” when it comes to the much abhorred practice of “female genital mutilation” (by many Westerner feminists) and the much honored practice of “female circumcision” (by many African women). Same practice, vastly different contexts and values–as evidenced by the language itself. Goldberg writes:

At first glance, the two speakers seemed to symbolize the dichotomy between modernity and tradition, cosmopolitanism and cultural authenticity. Fuambai Ahmadu (pictured), the American-born daughter of a Sierra Leonean family, wore knee-high leather boots under a stylish rust-colored skirt. A postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, she looked younger than her 40 years. Beside her was Grace Mose, regal in a red African tunic, matching skirt, and head wrap. Her perfect English was deeply accented by her native Kenya, where she had grown up in an Abagusii village in the country’s southwest region. It was easy to imagine her as a champion of the line of midwives who have made their living cutting girls since the beginning of recorded history, women who are now being jailed in some countries for practicing a trade that once brought them money and pride.

But it wasn’t that simple. Ahmadu, not Mose, is the high-profile defender of female circumcision and the role it can play in inducting African girls into their societies. “My sitting here is a perfect example that female initiation can have a place in a global society,” she insisted. “I don’t see that initiation is somehow an impediment to girls’ development.”…Toward the end of the debate, a Senegalese woman, incensed by Ahmadu, stood up and said, “I really feel very frustrated seeing an African sister defending female genital mutilation.”

This issue–though often presented as a cut and dried human rights problem–is actually deeply complex, colored by culturally rooted values, religion, history, ritual, and so much more. Goldberg does a masterful job of presenting the different points of view with vivid images, rich personalities, and compelling dialogue. It’s further exciting to see a piece of writing where African women, in particular, are not reduced to caricatures–a crime so often committed in mainstream media that doesn’t acknowledge the diversity and complexity of the African continent and those who live there.

Also, be sure to check out Michelle’s new book, The Means of Reproduction.

UPDATE: Michelle responds to the discussion here.

Join the Conversation

  • kandela

    I don’t think anyone here is arguing that the physical consequences for men who get circumcised are as dire as they are for women. Yet Male circumcision gets discussed because the morality and ethics are similar in many respects. Evaluating why we might consider one to be fine and not the other is enlightening for both. These discussions are useful for refining our arguments, and our ethics.

  • Alexander

    I’m just saying that Type 1a FGM is very similar to MGM. It is still protected by the UN, yet MGM being analogous to Type 1a of FGM is not protected by the same organization.
    I could never argue that more extreme cases FGM are not more severe then MGM (at least the version of MGM I’m talking about). I’m simply saying that MGM like type 1a FGM should be protected. On moral grounds if nothing else.
    Side note, in Italy yes they castrated boys (removed testicles) to keep their higher pitched voices for choir and the likes. This is a form of MGM, and circumcision is a milder version of MGM. But like all forms of FGM it deserves to be protected too.

  • questioning?

    Africa and the Americas South of USA are not “Western.” It is Eurocentric because it means “white,” and is often used to replace “industrialized” or “developed” or “middle class.” This usage ignores the industrialized, developed world with a middle class, that is not white.

  • Brian

    While some circumcisions are for practical reasons (for instance, Botswana is going on a circumcision spree to cut HIV infection rates (http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20090507/hl_afp/botswanahealthaids_20090507214654)), the usual motivation in the cultural context of most people here is mostly cosmetic/tradition. The hygiene benefits are fairly minimal, and the sexual use/satisfaction benefits are pretty minimal.

  • Alexander

    I disagree. AGAIN Type 1a FGM is essentially the same thing as MGM. All anyone had to do to shut me up is say they deserve equal protection. Disagreeing with this simple FACT. Will always cause me to speak out.

  • Brian

    Most of the people writing laws (at least, say, in North America) are men who were circumcised as infants, so you’d have a much harder time convincing them there’s anything wrong with it (nevermind that it’s mutilation), since their first hand experience says otherwise.

  • vhs

    Removing a part of somebody’s body that is necessary for her well-being and “violating their human rights” ARE essentially different things.
    Bodyparts, diseases, pain, sex are very real and physical things. Human rights are legal constructs. Imagine a law was passed that said we normal citizens have no right to go to Mars… annoying yes, but not really affecting your life even though it might be a “violation of your rights”. We are using the word “break” in fundamentally different ways when we say “you broke your arm” and “you broke the law”. Now, the law – or the human right – might be a good construct, but that would be because it relates to something “more real” (like a law against breaking somebody’s arm). Then it’s justification is not itself – and the “bad” is not just that “you violated a legal construct” but that you violated the physical and real thing that the construct told you not to violate.
    There is therefore very big differences in female and male circumcision. Especially if all arguments against male circumcision are just metaphysical and cultural – the arguments against female circumcision are very physical and biological. Male circumcision might cause psychological issues but only in the relevant cultural context (and not having it done might cause cultural-psychological issues in other contexts). Female circumcision have proven objective physical problems independent of culture and whims.
    This doesn’t mean I think male circumcision is not problematic (mostly because of cultural and psychological issues), but it is a quite different from this issue.

  • Alexander

    I disagree. AGAIN Type 1a FGM is essentially the same thing as MGM. All anyone had to do to shut me up is say they deserve equal protection. Disagreeing with this simple FACT. Will always cause me to speak out.

  • vhs

    Actually, male circumcision is only normal in the anglo-saxon part of the occidental world. That is: England and it’s former colonies, but not in mainland Europe. As England introduced it in the colonies it is also pretty normal in several oriental parts of the world (besides the Muslim and Jewish) such as South Korea – but that comes from a western practice. It was a standardized practice in the US (and England etc) until quite recently based on false medical myths.

  • Christopher

    I have now pointed you to enough sources that it is not necessary for me to share my personal experience, which is anecdotal anyway.
    I didn’t say that they *can’t* feel pleasure – they just feel less. I don’t doubt that this reduced pleasure is enough for some men – some people are perfectly happy to live their entire lives within 20 miles of where they were born too, but that doesn’t mean that it will satisfy everyone.
    If you really want to know what it’s like, just imagine – how would you feel if your parents had paid someone to cut off your labia and clitoral hood when you were an infant? No, seriously, imagine this for 15 minutes – what would it feel like? How would discovering your sexuality have been different? Your body image? Imagine every other woman you ever meet thinks this is the greatest thing ever and insists that you have no right to feel mutilated: you still have your clitoris, after all. How does that make you feel? How does sex feel different? Masturbation? What do you do to deal with the dryness? How would you have even learned that parts of you were missing? How does it make you feel that men think that intact women are ‘dirty’? What jokes do you think that other women will make about the cutting/intact genitals? What does your mutilated vulva look like without any folds?
    Hopefully this will help you understand.

  • FLT

    Whatever a sentient adult wants to do to own’s own genitals is ok.
    Ritual child abuse is not.
    Feministing owes its members an apology for even __considering__ validating this horrific stance, no matter how cute, black, youngish, or female the apologist is.

  • Pantheon

    I just went back and looked at the article, and I noticed that it said that this woman was 22 when she was “excised” (what exactly does that mean? removal of the clitoris, or something else?), and so although she went back with her parents to their original tribe, she was an adult and it was her choice.
    But the other thing I noticed is that it says they took her *and her 8 year old sister* to the tribe to be initiated. So that means that she is not only advocating adults being allowed to do this kind of thing, but she advocates doing it to children.
    How do you think her little sister feels about this? Especially growing up in the states. She was too young to really have a choice. Do you think she’ll grow up and be angry that her old sister, an educated woman in her 20s, didn’t stand up for her little sister’s right to make that choice once SHE was 22? Do you think she’ll feel betrayed? Even if she might have eventually chosen it for herself, having it chosen for you at a young age is a very different experience.

  • Christopher

    Yes, many boys have died from circumcision, even in the western highly medicalized setting. The negative outcomes of circumcision are very poorly reported, so I can’t give you reliable data. Also, I do not believe that death is the worst possible outcome. I think that David Reimer’s experience might have been the worst outcome.
    Your characterization of male circumcision is simply incorrect – it is contrary to the evidence linked to by me and others. Problems are not generally attributed to circumcision, so the assertion that they will have no problems does not support your argument. I think it would help if you did some more research – you might discover a study that showed that partners of circumcised men are significantly more likely to experience vaginal dryness than partners of intact men. MGM is not just a men’s issue – it affects women too.

  • Christopher

    That doesn’t sound right. Is it possible that you are mistaking some other structure, or a very small remnant of the frenulum for the actual frenulum?

  • lolanne

    For all of those who say that Western countries do not condone FGM or the mutilation of women — ARE YOU KIDDING?
    What about implants?
    What about vaginaplatsty?
    Western culture is SOO pro female mutilation its crazy. Now I know what people are going to say “its an adult woman making a choice” BUT its an adult woman who is duped into beleiving that she has to mutilate herself to abide by some patriarchal discourses that women are only valued for thier body.
    So the women who support FGM in Africa (and I know there are some..as I personally know academics who have SPOKEN to these women)…they support it and maintain this tradtion for the same reason we support a woman’s “right” to get implants — that if she wants male attention and to be part-of male culture that is focused on the male gaze…they have to do it.
    To me its the same thing. And its done for the same reasons. Women are INFERIOR to men…because they are lead to beleiev that they need to mutilate themselves. I am a woman and completely disgussted with women with implants and the men who prefer them to real breasts…as I am disgusted with FGM. When are women going to stop being moronic dupes of patriarchy and acquiesing to the male gaze?

  • ggies

    Ancient Egyptians were practicing male circumcision whilst Europeans barely had a Europe. Do you really think in 4000 years that this idea just vanished until the Brits went round spreading their particular brand of ‘making life better’?

  • Ariel

    Well said, except this part “I am…disgusted with women with implants…” It isn’t fair to be disgusted with these women since they are merely trying to be “acceptable” (whatever that means) in society. Our society has mandated that women must go through whatever procedures they must go through to be acceptable or beautiful. Your disgust is better spent on the society that demands this, not of women who partake in the practices. Otherwise, you’re just blaming the victim.

  • http://daltonator.net/durandal/blog/ Newbomb Turk

    Really? Does that mean anyone who is not a man has no right to condemn the cultural tradition of wife-beating? Does that mean anyone who was not from India had no business condemning Suttee (where a woman was thrown on her husband’s funeral pyre)?
    British General Charles Napier had the best response to the latter:

    You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

    Cutting a baby’s genitals is barbaric and cruel, not matter which culture does it and no matter which gods or spirits it’s intended to placate. If your “culture” or religion demands it, then it’s time to find a new culture or religion.

  • Tecolata

    Amen! EXACTLY what I thought! I mean, it’s like, you talk about battered women and someone starts endlessly asking “what about battered men?” It’s as if nothing is really very important unless it happens to men.
    If someone wants to have a long discussion on male circumcision, fine, but not by hijacking a discussion on female genital removal.

  • Newbomb Turk

    Exactly. Modern Jews don’t sacrifice animals anymore, either.

  • Tecolata

    I am disturbed by these comments that the so called mild forms of genital cutting don’t really do harm or not a lot of harm or at least no worse than male ritual circumcision.
    I would encourage folks to read Jihan Sadat’s courageous description of her own cutting. She described how, when she was 12 and her sister 10, they were awakened at night by people tying blindfolds over their eyes. The girls were terrified, screaming, crying. They were carried to the bathroom, calling for their mother, held down still blindfolded, their legs spread and the hood of the clitoris cut off. After the cutting the blindfolds were removed and they saw their mother had been there the whole time. Ms. Sadat said that worse than the physical pain was the betrayal, that the one whom they cried out to for protection watched them being terrified and hurt. She said she never again trusted her mother.

  • Newbomb Turk

    Slavery also dates back thousands of years and so does FGM. There’s no excuse for any of these barbaric rites -especially not in the modern world.

  • earthling

    Now much ‘nuance’ dya reckon a little girl sees when she’s having her labia cut off with a piece of broken glass?