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Female Circumcision (FGM): A civilising mission?
This prescient piece analysed why Female Circumcision/Female Genital Mutilation had been resurrected as an issue in the West in 1994 and asked ‘What gives Western feminists and international agencies the right to demand a ban on female circumcision in the third world?’ The answers are illuminating.
A civilising mission?
Female genital mutilation, sometimes known as female circumcision, a practice common in some African and Arab countries, is suddenly in the spotlight and under fire in the West.
The first international conference on female genital mutilation, Change Without Denigration, organised by the London Black Women’s Health Action Project this summer, was just one recent event where the issue has been under scrutiny.
It was on the agenda at the United Nations population conference in Cairo in September, and was a focus of debate at an international conference of obstetricians and gynaecologists attended by 10,000 health professionals in the same month. Concern about the practice has been reflected in various articles in the women’s pages of national papers and those women’s magazines that aspire to a social conscience.
Opposition to FGM has united organisations as diverse as the National Union of Students and the Roman Catholic church. Students at Sheffield University this year elected black American author Alice Walker to replace Nelson Mandela as the honourary president of the union, in recognition of her opposition to the practice.
Meanwhile, at a recent Vatican synod on African women, delegates called for the practice to be strongly condemned by the church. FGM, it seems, is an issue on which bishops and students see eye to eye, and against which black minority groups and the Murdoch press can unite in condemnation.
It is not difficult to see why so many people can be outraged by FGM. Those who campaign against it attack the practice as brutal, a violation of human rights and the dignity of women. On the face of it, it is hard to disagree, especially when confronted with lurid descriptions of what FGM involves.
FGM covers a number of different practices. Sunna circumcision, the least invasive procedure, involves cutting away part of the prepuce, or hood of the clitoris, and sometimes the tip itself.
Excision is more drastic and involves the removal of the entire clitoris as well as the labia minor (inner vaginal lips) and the cutting back of the labia majora (outer vaginal lips). The most severe form of FGM is infibulation, where following the excision, the labia minora and major and the remaining sides of the vulva are stitched or stuck together until they heal leaving just a tiny hole for the flow of menstrual blood.
Opponents of the practice emphasise that while the procedure is sometimes carried out in modern hospitals, many societies still resort to primitive methods, cutting women with knives, scissors, razor blades and sometimes glass. Anaesthetics and antiseptics are seldom available, and deaths from shock, septicaemia and infections are common. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that each year more than two million girls endure FGM at puberty, and that worldwide there are between 85m and 115m women who have been subjected to FGM.
All of this no doubt seems alien and cruel to Western sensibilities. But, it’s worth asking, what’s new? Why should a traditional practice such as FGM, which has been going on for centuries, suddenly become such a burning issue today?
When the United Nations first raised the issue of FGM back in 1958, it invited the WHO to undertake a study of the practice. But the WHO rejected the request on the grounds that ‘the ritual operations in question are based on social and cultural backgrounds, the study of which is outside the competence of the World Health Organisation’. Yet today, the WHO has no such compunction about judging the ‘social and cultural’ practices of third world societies. Its latest information pack states that the international community cannot ‘remain passive in the name of some bland version of multiculturalism’.
What has changed? After all, nobody is arguing that FGM is on the increase. If anything, it seems very likely that as traditional communities have become fragmented, fewer women are circumcised today than in the 1950s when nobody wanted to know about FGM.
It is also certain that a greater majority of those whose families still continue the tradition have access to modern medical care, so making FGM somewhat less of a risk to women’s health than it was in the past.
There is nothing intrinsic to the practice of FGM which can explain why it has become a major international issue almost overnight. The current furore about the practice seems to make sense only if it is set in the wider context of relations between the West and the third world today. In particular, it fits neatly into the renewed campaign of demonisation aimed against Africa and its peoples (see F Furedi, ‘At the heart of Rwanda’s darkness‘, Living Marxism, September 1994).
FGM has been taken up by bodies like the UN because it provides one more stick with which to beat the third world for its barbarism, and so allow the West to bask in a sense of its own moral superiority. The fact that feminists and other prominent Western liberals are prepared to give that stick a politically correct point makes it an even better weapon for the Western authorities in the nineties.
To get a sense of what’s really behind the anti-FGM campaign, you only have to look at the way the issue has been taken up by the media. Accounts of FGM are peppered with allegations about African and Asian doctors who can be paid to do the operations on the sly in private Harley Street clinics–the implication being that respectable white, British doctors would never perform unnecessary procedures for cash.
There are stories of Asian families who drag their daughters ‘back home’ for the operation when they reach puberty. In the USA, at a time when the Clinton administration is sending back Cuban and Haitian refugees, a Nigerian woman, Lydia Oluloro, has become a cause celbre by winning the suspension of her deportation on the grounds that her two American-born daughters would be forced to undergo FGM in Nigeria. Apparently the horrors of US-trained death squads in Haiti or starvation thanks to a US embargo in Cuba pale into insignificance compared to the evil practices of black Africa.
By reinforcing notions of a clash between third world barbarism and civilised Western values, the FGM issue is providing another excuse for outside intervention in the affairs of African and Asian peoples.
In America, the National Organisation of Women has argued that congress must ‘strongly oppose the granting of “most favoured nation status” to any country where FC/FGM is practised, and whose government is not actively engaged in opposing, outlawing and eliminating FC/FGM’.
No doubt the Washington feminist lobby applauded the recent decision by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to make combating FGM a condition of its loan to Burkina Faso. But while it might make Hillary Clinton’s friends feel good about doing their bit for women around the world, the implications of the anti-FGM campaign are nothing for people in the third world to cheer about.
All aid to Somalia, a country where female circumcision is widely practised, would be in question if the link between FGM and financial support were systematically pursued. As Rakiya Omaar, Somali co-director of Africa Rights has said, ‘Somalis cannot comprehend the focus on this issue when their entire country has fallen apart’.
You can understand their lack of comprehension (especially when the collapse of their country had been facilitated by the bloody military intervention of the USA and UN–the same bodies now chastising Somalis about FGM).
The idea that women in the third world, whose first priority is often one of basic survival, should be obsessed with the same concerns as Western liberals in Washington and London is bizarre. Even the WHO is forced to concede that women in the third world are ‘frequently faced with issues of their own and their families’ survival and may not see FGM as an immediate priority’.
The concern with FGM in the third world has a domestic spin-off for the authorities here, too, as a means of criminalising and cracking down on immigrant communities. The UK-based Minority Rights Group International, which has consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council, argues that there is a need for ‘clear and unambiguous legislation’ to incorporate FGM into the ‘framework of protecting children from abuse’. FGM is already illegal in Britain under the Prohibition Act of 1985 which provides that anyone found practising or aiding the procedure can be imprisoned for up to five years. The police have stated their commitment to bring prosecutions under the act, and worked with the anti-FGM campaign Forward to nail a Harley Street doctor exposed for FGM by the Sunday Times.
Forward has also declared its intention to work with local authorities in ‘child-protection intervention’ in immigrant families. Community Care magazine, in an article highlighting how local authority social services departments are already targeting the practice, recently reassured us that Lambeth Social Services Department is to employ a team of social workers with the specific brief of determining which young African, Asian and Middle Eastern girls are at risk of FGM, so as to place them on the Child Protection Register.
Somali health workers have objected to being besieged by social workers asking, ‘Do you know anyone who has taken their child to Somalia for the operation?’. The prospect of an army of doctors and social workers, backed up by the police, trawling through minority communities demanding to inspect their children for signs of genital mutilation, or interrogating parents over intimate family details and travel plans, looks like an exercise in degrading entire communities. Yet under the cover of a campaign against FGM, it can be presented as an exercise in saving some girls from degradation.
That is why the current obsession with FGM is such a convenient way for the authorities to justify intruding into the lives of immigrant communities here, and the affairs of third world peoples abroad. Even those who would generally defend the right of Africans to live free from Western dictates will balk at any notion of upholding their right to circumcise females.
It is worth remembering, however, that many African women have demanded the right to continue their traditional practices. As one woman argued, in the face of feminist outrage, at a recent women’s conference in London, ‘You have the right to ask a doctor to put silicon bags in your breasts, why should I not have the right to ask for him to alter my body in the way that I find acceptable?’.
This reaction is only incomprehensible to people who are unfamiliar with the values of the societies where female circumcision is practised. Circumcision cannot be ended without challenging the meaning of youth, adulthood, cleanliness, health and illness in the societies concerned.
Those who advocate from afar that the UN or IMF should impose a ban under threat of punitive action are simply indifferent to the destructive consequences of their campaign.
The current campaign against female circumcision carries on the paternalistic tradition of Western intervention in this field. Back in the thirties, British missionaries mobilised the colonial state in East Africa to curb the practice. In Kenya, the Kikuyu people resisted this intrusion into their cultural affairs–indeed the nationalist movement had its origins in the resistance to the attempts of missionaries to ban female circumcision. The central question raised by Kikuyu nationalists 60 years ago retains its relevance for the discussion of FGM today: who has the right to determine what cultural practices are acceptable or not in African societies? The attempt to determine it from the West might now be couched in the empowering language of feminism rather than the sermons of missionaries, but that does not alter the fact that it is using coercion to impose an outside agenda on the people of the third world.
It is one thing for African women to demand the ending of female circumcision. Only they are entitled to decide on this matter. It is quite another thing when Western feminists and international do-gooders decide to make moral judgements about societies they do not comprehend and for which they demonstrate nothing but contempt.
Such campaigns invariably turn into another excuse for condemning Africa, and legitimising more forceful foreign interventions in the lives of the peoples of the South. If we are serious about helping to achieve emancipation for women in the third world, opposing all such interventions is a good start.
Author: Sandy Deegan
Reproduced from Living Marxism Taboos, issue 72, October 1994.
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