Female genital mutilation, or circumcision, is a terrifying procedure that I first learned about in a grade twelve human rights class. I listened as one of my classmates presented about the topic, discussing all the graphic details of the invasive procedure. As a class of fifteen females, we were all nearly in tears by the end of her presentation, completely in shock of this blatant act of violence against women.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is rooted in traditional customs primarily across countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It affects women and young girls across all socioeconomic classes, ethnic and cultural groups, and religions. It is estimated that worldwide approximately 100 to 140 million young girls between infancy and fifteen years of age have undergone some form of FGM.
In it’s most basic form, FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. This can range from the partial or total amputation of the clitoris, a procedure known as clioridectomy, to infibulation, the most invasive form of FGM whereby nearly all external female genitalia are removed and the vaginal opening is subsequently narrowed to consist solely of a miniscule passageway, approximately the size of a matchstick, to allow for the flow of urine or menstruation. Unimaginable, right?
Since first learning about FGM, I have tried to educate myself more about the procedure and evaluate the true implications it has for women. While it is clear that there are detrimental immediate and long-term implications associated with the procedure on women’s physical health and emotional and psychological well-being, I found it interesting to investigate the impacts of FGM on women’s sexuality. It became clear to me that FGM serves to reinforce patriarchal dominance and the subordination of girls and women by effectively limiting and controlling their sexual health and choices.
FGM calls for women to alter their bodies to advance ideals of femininity and as such, increase their sexual desirability. In countries where FGM is practiced, female genitalia is typically considered to be ugly, offensive, or dirty. Consequently, by removing the external female genitalia, a woman’s vulva becomes smooth and more hygienic and aesthetically pleasing in the cultural context of her community. We can see this idea of a woman’s vulva considered to be “ugly” in Western society as well, and while not as severe, many Western women will modify their vulva largely through hair removal to attain a similar smooth appearance.
In its aim to ensure chastity, FGM reinforces the necessity of women’s virginity to marriageability, family honour, and “purity”. These notions are also prevalent throughout Western society with the introduction of purity balls for instance. Purity balls and FGM both effectively reinforce that a woman’s sexuality and sexual choices are not something that belong to her, but rather something to be controlled by the dominant male in her family, namely her father. Moreover, these practices also emphasize that a woman’s worth is inextricably tied to her virginity, a very dangerous idea to promote.
Most obviously, FGM seeks to suppress and control the sexual desires of women through the removal of the clitoris and other sensitive genital tissues, which also limits a woman’s ability to fully experience sexual pleasure. Women who have not undergone FGM are believed to have uncontrollable sex drives inextricably linked to promiscuity. Though not through an invasive procedure, in Western society women are also led to believe that they should suppress their sexual desires and a woman who does enjoy a health and active sex life is often labeled as a “slut” or “whore”.
FGM very dangerously limits a woman’s ability to freely express her sexuality by instead prescribing and controlling the sexual choices that are deemed appropriate for her. While I do not condone FGM in any form and do view it as an act of violence against women, I also recognize that it is important not to advance a condescending and derogatory rhetoric to women who have undergone FGM. To do so would simply add to the patriarchal oppression of women by ultimately devaluing women who have had this procedure done and demeaning their bodies.
It is interesting to note however, that the underlying motivations for carrying out FGM, specifically surrounding sexuality, are also largely present in Western society. This makes it clear that in order to stop FGM, and other acts of violence against women, there must be a greater, widespread outrage over these damaging “ideals” placed on women and their bodies.