I took a class last Spring titled Global Bioethics, in which we discussed controversial health topics and their ethical implications. What I found most fascinating was the topic of female genital cutting, or FGC. Although it was something I had only briefly heard about before, what I knew about FGC led me to believe it was a cruel and unusual practice that epitomized the oppressed status of women in these cultures. However, it was interesting to discover how one-sided the information I had been reading all of this time actually was. There is a lot more to the story than “man oppressing woman,” and it is a topic that needs a lot more exploration in order to more adequately understand it.
There is currently a lot of debate surrounding the topic of female circumcision, which is often called female genital mutilation by the Western World. These practices are widespread and performed for various reasons in many cultures throughout the world. Through immigration these practices have come to the United States, but are often misunderstood and looked down upon by individuals and institutions here. There is a lot of misinformation given to people, and many people in the United States do not understand FGC’s place in other cultures.
Female genital cutting (FGC), or female circumcision, refers to a variety of practices that involve the cutting female genitalia. There are four basic forms: ritualistic circumcisions, involving a nicking of the clitoris; circumcision (‘sunna’), which involves the removal of the clitoral prepuce and can be equated with male circumcision; excision or clitoridectomy, the removal of the gland of the clitoris and sometimes part of the labia as well; and finally infibulations, the most extreme form of cutting where virtually all of the female genitalia are removed. Cases of infibulations are the most commonly documented type in the West, described in horrific detail in newspaper articles and other forms of media. In an article from the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff even calls the practice “a rite of torture for girls.” Before learning more about the topic, I was guilty of assuming the cases I learned about from the media were representative of most uses of the practice.
Despite the emphasis on these extreme circumstances and the sensationalized topic, in reality only about ten percent of FGC occurrences fall into this fourth category. These horrifying stories are the exception, not the rule, and represent the most extreme cases. According to the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa, “Western media coverage of female genital modification in Africa has been hyperbolic and one-sided, presenting them uniformly as mutilation and ignoring the cultural complexities that underlie these practices.” FGC is looked at from a limited perspective, seen as something barbaric and dehumanizing. The term the West uses, “mutilation,” contributes to the horror surrounding FGC. This label has a negative connotation and assumes irreversible and serious harm, which has not been proved by current research.
Fuambai Sia Ahmadu
It is often argued that FGC exists in societies where men control women and where women exist as sexually constrained, tradition-bound, uneducated, oppressed individuals who are forced into this so-called mutilation. This is seen as contrasting the emancipated, financially independent and sexually liberal Western woman. However, many African women value the practice of FGC, but the media rarely (if ever) portrays this outlook. There has been little or no effort to include immigrant activist women, like Fuambai Ahmadu, who are already committed to working to limit the practice in its extreme forms, in conversations about FGC. Ahmadu went through female initiation in Sierra Leone by choice, traveling back from the United States as an adult. She works at the National Institute of Health in Maryland and is a highly educated and independent woman who wishes to shed more light on the cultural relevance of FGC. In her native culture, FGC is a traditional practice, which is the main justification for the continuation of the practice of worldwide. Female circumcision, not unlike male circumcision, celebrates coming of age and a transition from youth to adulthood. No one is “forced” into the practice, and in a study conducted with members of FGC communities, over 80% of both males and females approve of and support the procedures. Genital cutting is considered a central part of forming and maintaining a cultural identity. The association between patriarchal societies and FGC is not well defined, and most female genital surgery is controlled and performed by other women. There are almost no male-dominated societies with surgeries for females only, and a majority of the most sexually repressive cultures do not participate in the practice.
In fact, one can more easily understand FGC when it is compared to male circumcision. Male circumcision is a surgery that the majority of young men in the United States go through and is considered commonplace and necessary. Despite new evidence that the process might actually be unnecessary and even harmful, many people still continue the practice (although this may be beginning to change). Even though 90% of female circumcision is considered homologous or less invasive, members of Western society tolerate male circumcision much more frequently. The reasons for circumcising a young boy in the US are almost identical to a small girl in other cultures: cleanliness, preventing illness, looking like other children or parents, and the social norm which dictates that altered genitalia are more attractive to the opposite sex. An uncircumcised penis and clitoris are considered virtually the same in attraction and hygiene, and both can lead to health concerns. To an immigrant woman in the United States, the decision to circumcise her daughter is just as easy as the decision many make to circumcise sons.
Another one of the most expressed negative viewpoints of FGC relates to women’s health. A common thought is that the practice is harmful to woman in many ways, especially in their ability to enjoy sexual encounters. However, the complications most commonly associated with FGC are the results of the most intense and extreme processes. Overall “facts” and “evidence” regarding FGC’s negative health effects are limited and not reinforced by any real proof. Contrary to popular belief, research by gynecologists, among others, has demonstrated that most women who have undergone these surgeries have healthy sex lives. The supposed morbidities resulting from the practice, including infertility, painful sex, vulval tumors, menstrual problems, incontinence and endogenous infections, have not been found to correlate with incidence of FGC. In fact, rates of occurrence were the same regardless of whether or not a woman had undergone the surgery. Medical complications are the exception, not the rule, similar to any other medical procedure.
The Western World often unwittingly imposes its viewpoints on other cultures. A cultural practice to improve hygiene and increase aesthetics of genitalia is seen as mutilation in a region where one of the fastest growing types of cosmetic surgeries is genital. Western women who are willing to change the appearance of their genitalia for cosmetic reasons frown upon a similar practice that is arguably rooted in more value, when it applies to immigrant women. With more and more immigration in recent years, and women increasingly on the move, the topic of FGC has garnered more attention in the United States. There is a large call to eliminate the practice by making it illegal for health care practitioners to administer it. This is not the most effective course of action. The concept of FGC has been separated from its real meaning and context. In order to successfully address the topic, the practice needs to be looked at through a less biased and more culturally sensitive viewpoint. Cultural relativism is the idea that each individual society has a unique culture that is no better or no worse than others, and moral claims derived from the outside have limited validity within it. Because FGC is a central and long-standing tradition in many cultures, the West cannot claim it to be morally wrong without considering more of the facts and looking at the practice within its context. People have the right to decide what cultural practices they follow.
Before we make judgments on other cultures’ practices, we should try and find more information and view them from a framework like Cultural Relativism that allows one to attempt to place a practice within a specific cultural and social context. Although there are some values shared universally, the concept of what is morally right and wrong varies, and FGC needs to be looked at through a non-Western lens. However, although it is important to try and view practices from another perspective, one must be careful to not be passive and claim all practices are okay because they are part of a culture. Cultural Relativism is a helpful tool to broaden one’s understanding of Female Genital Cutting, as it allows one to have more information before making judgments on the morality of the practice. It is important for everyone to attempt to step away from limited viewpoints so one does not make unfair generalizations about practices they don’t truly understand.