Politicizing The Female Body: The Problem With FGM

200,000,000. It’s roughly the size of Brazil’s Population. It’s the number of people who use Instagram stories every day. It’s also the number of women in the world who have undergone Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM.

FGM may not be at the forefront of your mind—it’s a problem usually thought to be contained in third world countries with repressive and misogynistic regimes. However, the practice and its various names—female genital cutting, female circumcision—have been popping up in news stories more recently. In April, a doctor in Michigan was accused of and prosecuted for performing the initiation rite on two young girls. More recently, the NHS reported more than 9,000 cases of FGM in England in the past year, and a group in Germany has reported that the cases of FGM in Germany have increased by 10,000 since last year.  Its recent influx into western countries has reminded the world of its existence and prevalence—but what now?

As a general rule, anything with the word mutilation in its name is probably a bad thing. However, the topic of FGM requires more nuance than just labelling it evil—too often the western world has condemned the practice without understanding the motivations, and motivators, behind it. The practice of female genital cutting has no distinct beginning, but has been practiced for thousands of years  in Africa by various cultures for various reasons. Historically, girls underwent FGM at the same time males underwent circumcision; for both sexes, it marked their formal entry into the tribe and into adulthood. In his book Facing Mount Kenya Jomo Kenyatta describes—and defends—the practice.  He explains that in many ethnic groups initiation is the most important custom that people go through. In addition to being accompanied by extended celebrations and feasts, initiation rites brought the community together and often served as an organizing principle among both elders and the initiates; it is crucial for the unification and cultural integrity of the group.

There are varying levels of FGM, ranging from a nick on the clitoris to infibulations, which entails the removal of all external genitals and the sewing up of the vaginal canal. There are no health benefits of any form of FGM, and the World Health Organization states that “procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.” This is not to mention the possible adverse psychological effects and the difficulties it can present for sexual intercourse and pleasure.

Today, the highest concentrations of FGM are usually found in predominantly-Muslim countries, though the practice is not mentioned in any Islamic texts and is practiced by many non-Muslims as well.  According to UNICEF, 98% of girls in Somalia, 91% in Egypt, and 88% in Sierra Leone have been circumcised. Of Somali girls, 63% went through infibulation, compared to 2% in Egypt and 12% in Sierra Leone. While often thought of as a misogynistic practice in which women are always and only the victims, the UNICEF data revealed a slightly different picture; in those same countries, only 33%, 35%, and 25% of girls and women think it should end, respectively. And while there are many women forced unwillingly into the practice, other women welcome it, if mostly for the benefit of social acceptance. In the 1950s, when the government in Kenya banned clitoridectomy, many girls defied the ban—and the men who created it—and took to the woods to circumcise themselves. The practice of female circumcision has been at the center of many policy debates since the 1920s, and the female body became politicized–its most intimate parts the battlefield for the fight between western “modernity” and African traditionalism.

In 2013, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution aimed at the elimination of female genital mutilation in 2013 and WHO declares the practice “a violation of the human rights of girls and women”.  33 countries outside the Middle East and Africa currently have bans on FGM, and 24 states in the US have further legislation on the subject. While this is promising, oftentimes the issue of FGM is treated in such terms as to cast the cultures who practice it as barbaric, ruthless, and uncivilized. Since most people who practice female genital cutting are Muslim, the horror people feel towards FGM becomes translated into hostility towards Muslims—and their migration to western countries—in general.

Elizabeth Yore, head of the #EndFGMToday initiative, declared on conservative network Breitbart News that “it’s clearly in many, many Muslim cults and sects that this procedure is mandated on little girls. Quite frankly…it’s being conducted by their mothers, who take them to mutilators and impose this horrendous abuse on children”.  She goes on to praise the Trump administration for leading the fight against FGM, presumably because of the many attempted travel bans: as she puts it, “we are importing infectious diseases into this country because of migration. We are also importing procedures, barbaric procedures like FGM”. Similarly, the United Kingdom Independent Party—the same party that want both sharia law and burqas to be banned—declared plans for  a “policy of mandatory annual medical checks for schoolgirls in ‘at-risk minority’ groups for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and prosecutions for parents of anyone who has undergone the procedure.”

In doing this, the fight against FGM is no longer one for human rights—it’s one against Islam and immigrants. While the increased incidence of FGM in places like Germany and other European countries is due in part to the influx of migrants from countries with high FGM prevalence rates, it must be noted that the procedure often isn’t taking place on European soil, nor are refugees coming to our countries because, as Yore puts it, we are creating “a safe harbor for mutilators”.

The main issue with Female Genital Cutting is the discussion around it. What should be a nuanced discussion about consent, sexuality, human rights, and culture has become a black-and-white debate of modern vs. traditional, Christian vs. Muslim, liberal vs. conservative. Too often policymakers and advocates have imputed their own beliefs to those who practice female circumcision; as female genital cutting becomes more widespread in Western countries, it will be crucial for policymakers and advocates to first understand the complex cultural, ethnic, and religious reasons behind FGM before deciding to criminalize or put an end to it.