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Female Genital Cutting: Mutilation or Modification?

by Sophie Cong

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According to a 2005 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study on female genital cutting, 98 percent of Somalian women are missing their clitorises, labia, or are simply fused shut save for a small opening for urination and menstruation. In Guinea, 96 percent; Djibouti, 93 percent; Egypt, 91 percent.

Conversely, according to Xujie Fu of the Center for Disease Control and Protection, approximately 70 percent of American men and 30 percent of men worldwide are circumcised. Yet the mention of female circumcision causes uproar.

Female circumcision, or, as preferred by the World Health Organization (WHO), “female genital mutilation,” is a criminal offense in most Western countries. One reason for this is that as a ritual, it is frequently performed by older women in unsanitary conditions with unsterilized, nonmedical tools such as old razors, scissors, and twigs.

It is associated with increased yeast infections, decreased sexual pleasure and satisfaction, infertility, increased risk of complications during childbirth, and even death.  Its eradication is the goal of tens, if not hundreds of organizations around the world.  Women who have undergone female genital surgeries in their original or ancestral countries and then immigrated to the West are simultaneously shamed and pitied. Yet women still opt for the procedure. In fact, Egyptian women felt so strongly about their country’s outright ban on female circumcision that they went to back-alley clinics to have the procedure.

Why would a woman opt to have her genitals cut open and stitched back together? One answer is that it serves as a rite of passage and a bonding experience. The procedure sometimes occurs as part of an initiation into the Bondo Society, a female secret society. It allows entry into a place strictly outside the control of men and far from the burdens of daily life.  In some cases, women who have not had their genitals altered are sometimes shunned by the other women in their community or seen as less fit for marriage.

In other cultures, the procedure signifies the coming of age and is accompanied by a shower of gifts from friends and relatives. Another answer is that many cultures alter genitals for cosmetic purposes. For example, some women in the United States and other wealthy, Western countries opt for vaginoplasty and labiaplasty, cosmetic genital surgeries intended to “renew” and tighten their vaginas or reduce the size of labia deemed too large or otherwise unsightly.

Some would argue that this is considered genital mutilation, but others will argue that it is perfectly acceptable in either case, possibly even normal or desirable. In the case of African genital alteration, an initial surgery and a few weeks of healing result in beautiful, smooth genital surfaces, the enhancement of gender identity, and acceptance as a full member of society.

One of the major concerns about any type of circumcision for any reason, cosmetic or otherwise, is that it is commonly performed on young children, even infants. Adults may be able to express informed choice in the matter, whereas infants and children have little to no influence over decisions concerning them.

The question then becomes: is it morally acceptable to alter any part of a child’s body with or without their consent?  Would it be better to wait until the child is old enough to choose, but also old enough to remember the pain of the procedure? Is it right to alter our bodies at all?  How far should we be willing to push ourselves for beauty? For our culture? Why are some types of circumcision acceptable and others criminal?

All these theoretical questions are hard enough as is, but when placed into the context of real people and real cultures, they become even more complex: is it right to deny someone a cultural practice because someone else is uncomfortable with it? Conversely, are there universal truths of what is acceptable and what is not?

Some groups acknowledge the crucial role culture plays in medical discourse.  An example of this concession is this joint statement from UNICEF and WHO.

“Even though cultural practices may appear senseless or destructive from the standpoint of others, they have meaning and fulfil a function for those who practise them. However, culture is not static; it is in constant flux, adapting and reforming. People will change their behaviour when they understand the hazards and indignity of harmful practices and when they realize that it is possible to give up harmful practices without giving up meaningful aspects of their culture.”

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