Saturday, December 6, 2008


I just finished up a group project concerning FGC in Mali. I feel like, since starting school, I've made a 90 degree change in my attitude about how FGC should be dealt with. Upon hearing about FGC, most Western women are usually outraged that this happens at all. Most feel immediate eradication is imperative, without exception.

But with that outrage we bring a lot of cultural baggage. For example: many of us think that loss of sexual pleasure would be devastating, we see FGC as violence against women driven mainly by men, we see it as mutilation. But we don't see that, for African women, loss of orgasm isn't nearly as devastating as never marrying or social ostracism, or that mothers and grandmothers (not men) do this to their daughters because they love them, or that some cultures might see certain Western norms, such as plastic surgery, as mutilation. Look at how the WHO presents FGC in it's latest document. A weeping women. Insisting on using FGM. By using such emotion in the discourse, the WHO risks alienating the very women it seeks to protect. Are all circumcised women mutilated? If they don't see themselves as mutilated, what right does the WHO have to say they are?

This is an interesting video-clip, interviewing a traditional cutter in Ethiopia. She lays out the reasons why she believes FGC cannot stop. There seems to be a pervasive idea in countries that perform FGC that the clitoris is poisonous to infants and men. I wonder what these women think happens to Western infants? It is possible that they don't realize Western women aren't circumcised.

I don't want anyone to mistake my beliefs: I think FGC should end and that we should do everything to stop it. But we must be careful in how we approach such an ancient and complicated tradition. Slowly, slowly. The project I just finished wrote up a plan to teach hygiene, not even mentioning FGC. The idea is that slowly, communities will piece together germ theory, wounds, the wounds created by FGC, the fevers and infections experienced by young girls. Slowly, one day, they will realize FGC is not more hygienic. It is not mandated by Islam, it does not increase anyone's pleasure. The clitoris is not poisonous. Slowly, slowly.


Case said...

I am currently doing a project on FGC for my senior year political science class. I came across your blog while searching for information. I love your article. It makes a lot of sense to look at it the way you do. Do you have any sources that would help my research?
Thank you!

Heather said...

Hi Case, it makes me really happy to see someone has read my blog!Here's my reference list for the group paper we wrote. Harm Reduction is the key word to our project. Good luck with your project- come back to the blog!

Ahmadu, Fuambai. (2000). Rights and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision. In B. Shell Duncan, Y. Hernlund (Ed.), Female Circumcision in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change. (pp. 283-313) London:
Lynne Rienner

Althaus, Frances A. (1997). Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage or Violation of Rights? International Family Planning Perspectives, 23, 130-133.

Glanz K, Lewis F.M., Rimer B.K. (2002). Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Masterson JM, Swanson JH. (2000). Female Genital Cutting: Breaking the Silence, Enabling Change. International Center for Research on Women and The Centre for Development and Population Activities

Rosenstock, I.M. (1960). What Research in Motivation Suggests for Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 50, 295-301.

Shell Duncan, B. (2001). The Medicalization of Female ``Circumcision'': Harm Reduction or Promotion of a Dangerous Practice? Social Science & Medicine, 52, 1013-1028.

Case said...

Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

Excellent comment, I posted a longer response on your blog...but it seems to have disappeared. I applaud you on you work, and think you are definitely on the right track. Western ethnocentric outrage is not the key to eradicating this problem. Some cultures don't even SEE it as a problem. I believe sexual pleasure is universal since it is a physiologic response. Also, since all African cultures are not the same, I can't answer your question about women valuing marriage over orgasm. I will say that since the procedures are performed without informed consent, these women and girls are having a choice forced upon them and not been allowed to make their own. But I understand your point, many women do not have alternative opportunities for survival and depend on marriage in many parts of the world. The mothers and grandmothers who force their daughters into this are looking out for their survival and well being. Simply eradicating it by fiat may even cause more harm. Westerners would pat themselves on the back thinking a good thing was accomplished then turn a blind eye to the aftermath. This is a delicate issue that requires cultural understand, and as you said not just outrage and emotion. Good post.