Articles on Shifting Sands
Is FGM/C barbaric mutilation?
When it comes to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) there are disagreements about the language used to describe the practice. Some favour words like ‘mutilation’ over cutting, circumcision or surgeries. And are also particular about the adjectives used with ‘barbaric’ and ‘evil’ commonplace.
The choice is generally based on the position one takes in regard to the practice. So some believe that language is sacrificed on the altar of political correctness by people more concerned with the sensitivities of the perpetrators than the lives and safety of the victims. They want that trend bucked.
Others use less derogatory language, believing pejorative labelling is alienating and unwelcome, with knock-on effects on recipients self-esteem. But their tolerance is thought misplaced so are accused of being apologists who condone the practice.
While I’m far from being an apologist, I prefer the less judgemental word ‘cutting’ but will use ‘FGM/C’ because FGM is commonly used in professional literature, in legislation and for the convenience of my readers. But I think the language of anti-FGM campaigners is important and worry that it may be undermining the wellbeing of those it seeks to help.
So let’s look at some examples, starting with mutilation. The Hosken Report (1979) is credited with popularising the expression Female Genital Mutilation. Until then, cutting and circumcision were the norm. But Fran Hosken wanted these replaced, to stress the severity of the practice, to differentiate it from traditional male circumcision and to place it on the global human rights agenda. Despite being criticised for being ‘ethnocentric’ and ‘reductionist’, the label stuck, gained popularity and is now the most commonly used term.
Users of ‘mutilation’ leave us in no doubt that they are situating themselves firmly on the moral high ground in regard to the practice. Perhaps this serves to not have to take into account the many reasons why people continue to undergo or support FGM/C? And by lumping together all types of genital cutting – from the most minor to severe, the differences can be glossed over into one mutilating whole?
This terminology is far from universally accepted or popular. Front line professionals in contact with women who’ve been cut or are needing to enquire whether they have been, are very sensitive to how recipients might react to this judgemental term. They know that by using it, they might alienate patients from the very people and services attempting to help them.
And consider how women and children at the receiving end of this terminology might feel at being called mutilated. What about the cutters who practise it? There are a myriad of reasons why it continues to be practiced (as discussed elsewhere). Some women who e.g. consider it a social necessity or see it as a necessary cleansing and beautification process may be bemused, if not downright insulted, when told that it’s a barbaric practice and that their genitals are mutilated.
Some users of ‘mutilation’ even believe that alternative descriptions are not permissible. An FGM LinkedIn group owner specifically asked a contributor to not use ‘cutting’ ‘because women living in Africa have expressly asked that we use the term ‘mutilation’ in formal discourse.’ And ‘There are a lot of people here who are doing – and in some case have for decades done – everything they possibly can to protect small girls from FGM, which by any other name is torture. It’s not acceptable to doubt or distort this (my emphasis), albeit considered discussion about ways (to) achieve that aim is of course what the group is actually about.’
Others cite factually incorrect information to record their opposition e.g. ‘To call FGM cutting, or even mutilation, does not convey the full horror. The clitoris, which is the main female organ of sexual feeling, is nearly always cut off. In other words, if one were to try to find a male equivalent, it would be comparable to castration.’
But not everybody agrees. The Orchid Project e.g. doesn’t use that terminology but continues to refer to the practice as cutting, recognising that it’s less value laden and judgemental. They write: ’we have found that FGC itself is not done with vicious intent to “mutilate” a girl. Rather, parents who have their daughters cut want the best for them, and the practice is seen as a necessary step to enable her to be a fully accepted member of the community.’
The Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights also discussed terminology as recently as 2014 and said: ’In our work we prefer to use the term cutting as it is the term used by women, communities and community leaders.’ This is not because they endorse FGM the practice, but rather because ‘the term mutilation makes communities feel stigmatised and condemned, and tends to curtail both discussion and attempts to eradicate the practice.’ So “..we have decided to use the language used by those affected, and again we come back to the reality that one can’t call the act mutilation without calling the woman mutilated.”
Barbaric is the adjective that screams most frequently at us from headlines when the practice is described. The word has dual meanings. One means savage, cruel, inhuman, ruthless etc. Which is what most critics of the practice want to convey e.g. ‘A barbaric practice that shames us all’.
Alternatively, it can mean primitive and unsophisticated. This seems a more appropriate, less alienating and stigmatising interpretation for a practice whose basis lies in medieval societies and the associated educational and social underdevelopment. But these distinctions get lost in translation and the first description seems to win out.
There are some notable opponents to the use of the word for a variety of reasons. Amnesty e.g said ’The use of the word ‘barbaric’ suggests that the people who do this are less than human, which isn’t so because they are being led by social pressure which is what needs to be fought. So we avoid using this word to not judge the people.’
Lecturer, Matthew Johnson has also taken issue with its use, suggesting that ‘decrying FGM as “barbarian” lumps together very different practices conducted for very different reasons, ostracising those who practise them.’
He goes on to say that it ‘transforms what is a complex and varied issue to, in real terms, simplistic condemnation of parents who sincerely believe they are doing the right thing for their children. By extension, their children are also condemned as barbarian heretics and stigmatised as mutilated, compounding emotionally the physical injury inflicted by the cut.’
If we really want to work with, support and encourage people to abandon what are harmful traditional practices, we need to try make the world we’d like them to participate fully in more welcoming and less alienating. Language plays a big role in that.
And as Samuel Johnson opined: ‘Words are but the signs of ideas.’ They express us as individuals and as social beings.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a (volunteer) nurse and midwife in Africa, in Ethiopia and Botswana, where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia.
She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still.
She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.