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Leave African women’s genitals alone?

Published 12 November 2018 Associated Categories Interviews
FGM Aus Question Time

This Question Time, broadcast live on 27 August, 2012 from Melbourne, Australia makes for interesting listening, particularly in light of developments that have occurred world-wide in regard to FGM since then. The transcript, reproduced below, is taken from here and covers the 10 – 26 minutes slot in the recording.

Panellists included Sefi Atta, Germaine Greer, Anthony Appiah and Simon Callow. It was chaired by Tony Jones.

Their biographies can be accessed here.

A number of aspects were covered including reasons for it happening and its perpetuation, successful way(s) of ending the practice, demand and response, cosmetic genital surgeries, clitoral reduction, consent, male circumcision, cultural relativism, the need for a more rigorous analysis, the need for intervention etc.

The plea from Sefi Atta that ‘everyone just leaves African women’s genitals alone. The people who are cutting it, the people who are talking about it. It’s enough.’ hasn’t been heeded however.


NICOLE BATISTE: New immigrants are bringing old customs, such as female circumcision or female genital mutilation, to their new adopted countries. Both Australia and the UK have banned this practice, yet it continues. How might we best handle this situation where the rights of the child are maintained?

TONY JONES: Anthony Appiah?

ANTHONY APPIAH: Well, so let’s be let me start by saying that I think, of course, this is a practice that is wrong and so the question is, given that it’s wrong, what’s the best way of bringing it to an end?

What’s the best way of persuading people who are doing this thing in the intimacy of family life, away from the kind of supervision that makes it easy to stop it, what’s the best way to engage with those communities and bring it to an end? By the way, not just bring it to an end among migrants, among people who brought it, as you said, to Australia or to Britain, but to bring it to an end everywhere?

Well, I mean I think there are some useful models around. There is a wonderful program in West Africa, which has succeeded in persuading thousands and thousands of villages to abandon the practice and they way they did it was by going in respectfully, not speaking down to the people but speaking face to face, speaking to them as fellow human beings, as equals, and talking to them about the questions of health and human rights that explain why it’s a bad practice. Not coming in with female genital cutting, female genital mutilation or whatever you want to call it, as the focus but with questions of health, women’s equality, the recognition of human rights at the centre of the conversation.

And then the community itself says, at some point, you know, this thing we do actually isn’t consistent with these ideas that we’ve been talking about, so maybe we should stop. And then the community, the women in the community and some of the men sometimes but certainly the women, get together and they pick a day and on that day they declare that they’re going to stop the practice, because it’s no good if one person does it all by herself or by himself and they also solve one of the problems that’s a consequence of the abandonment of the practice, which is that they have to make sure – it’s a condition of marriage in the traditions where it’s practiced, so they have to make sure that they persuade people in the villages that they marry into that they will marry girls who have not been cut and so you have to work community by community.

You have to work in interconnected communities and, as I say, that works. It’s working. Thousands and thousands of villages in West Africa have abandoned the practice. Now, lots of things have gone on in that process as well. I mean it’s has been made illegal. Governments have put pressure and so on.

TONY JONES: So can I just interrupt there? Where it is illegal, as in Australia and Great Britain, should you take the same approach or simply use the law to stop it?

ANTHONY APPIAH: Well, I think that you’ve got to apply the law and I believe the law is correct so but people are going to I mean, I live in a country in which it’s illegal to smoke marijuana. You probably do too.

Do you think that there’s nobody who smokes marijuana in the United States? People break laws all the time and if you want them to keep the law, it’s not enough just to use the police power. You have actually to persuade people.

So I think you have to engage at both levels and the key thing, I think, is that the engagement has to be respectful because the thing that persuades people is someone speaking to them, as I say, as it were, face to face, not down. Nobody is going to give up anything in the face of someone who comes to them, talks down to them, doesn’t listen.

Somebody was talking earlier about listening. Listening is hugely important in these things. Trying to talk to people about why they want to do it, what function they think it serves. Maybe in some of these West African programs, what they’ve done is to say, look, this, the cutting, is a mark of a transition from girlhood to womanhood so we need to find other ways of marking the transition from girlhood to womanhood which doesn’t involve this.

TONY JONES: Okay, can I put this to Sefi Atta. Is there a purpose to it that you understand?

SEFI ATTA: Well, my parents were educated and clearly they didn’t believe in female genital mutilation. I grew up in a suburb that could be comparable to any suburb here and I was not privy to the coming of age rituals of girls who lived outside it. For me it is wrong and it should be stopped.

I also think that if people come to a country they ought to respect the laws of the country. But again, I mean, in so many countries, for instance, people are not allowed to be polygamists but they find ways to cohabit. I can imagine that they would find ways to continue the practice here and…

TONY JONES: Well, that is actually happening here and in Great Britain, where a recent report says 100,000 women have been identified in British hospitals as having had that procedure so midwives and others are seeing them and reporting it. It’s not necessarily happening in Great Britain, all of them, but some of them are.

SEFI ATTA: Well, I would think there would be enough women in those communities who would feel the same way I do and I would hope that they would recruit women from that community to talk to the people who actually are still in favour of this, to me, very brutal practice.

TONY JONES: Simon, do you have any thoughts on this?

SIMON CALLOW: No, well, what Anthony says seems to be eminently sensible, that persuasion and education seem to be the only way through this but there are many, many things – we have chosen this one particular issue. There are many, many aspects of people from different cultures and with different religions, different faiths, who come to the country and there is a natural tendency on the part of the indigenous population to be suspicious of many of their activities and, in some cases, rightly so and in many cases wrongly so and it’s a balance that has to be struck there too because many people coming from these cultures bring something wonderful to the country that they’re bringing in and we must learn how to absorb that as well.

TONY JONES: Okay, I’d bring you in, Germaine, but we’ve actually got a question directed to you specifically about this from Sharon Lapkin.


SHARON LAPKIN: Yes, Germaine, I’d like to ask you a question about honour killing. Every year at least 5,000 women and girls are honour-killed by their own families for violating the restrictions on female sexual freedom imposed by Islamic culture. In your book The Whole Woman, you defended the practice of female genital mutilation as a legitimate facet of cultural identity and you’ve also justified your failure to speak out against honour killings on the grounds that it’s very tricky to try and change another culture. What good would it be for me to go over there and try to tell them what to do? As an outspoken advocate of women’s sexual rights over the past 40 years, why are you hiding behind cultural relativism and condemning and not condemning the murder and mutilation of women?

GERMAINE GREER: Well, I have never, ever defended honour killing. Never. To mix that up with a question of female genital cutting is dishonest, frankly. I have never confused those two issues.

Now, when it comes to cutting your own body about, there are lots of the things that go on that I think are fairly revolting. I think piercings are probably fairly revolting, depending on where they are. I’m not a great fan of tattoos either but I would never dream of telling people who are disfiguring a perfectly beautiful human body with bad drawing that they have no right to do that.

Now, when it comes to female genital cutting, one of the commonest operations with newborn girls in the United States is clitoral reduction because it is believed that the girls are over endowed with a clitoris. We do interventions at all stages of development of genitalia in males and in females because we think there’s something abnormal or wrong or unacceptable or ugly or something about them. We actually have operations going on now that cost a huge amount of money where women are having their vaginas packed with fat from other parts of their bodies in order to make them tighter, narrower and generally more entertaining to the opposite sex and they pay a lot of money for this and there’s no law that says they can’t do it.

We never, ever have troubled ourselves to find out why female genital cutting became a practice in North Africa. It’s got nothing to do with religion…

TONY JONES: Has it got something to do with sexuality and male fear of women’s sexuality?


TONY JONES: Because that is what’s often stated.

GERMAINE GREER: Yes, I know, but it’s actually women who do it to other women and when I’ve been on the ground in places like Ethiopia where it is practiced by the Harar community and the Oromo community and possibly even the Jewish community, when I’ve actually asked the men if they noticed the difference between women who are sub incised and women who are not, they don’t actually know what I am talking about. They’ve never actually looked.

It is not something that comes from them and, in fact, I don’t – I am not an expert on this and I am very embarrassed to have to even talk about it because it’s actually none of my business but I feel that it is a cosmetic operation and nowadays in the United States, women of Afro-American decent whose inner labia, they think, project too far between the labia majora, they will have them reduced. It is a very common operation.

ANTHONY APPIAH: Can I just say, I mean it seems, if we’re going to have this this is a very complicated set of issues because many, many things are called circumcision. Many, many different practices. There’s a huge difference between cutting a nick in the labia and clitoral excision, removing the whole clitoris, right? And these are all called circumcision.

So first of all you have to decide which of the practices you want to talk about. Then you have to figure out why they’re being done in the communities where they’re being done. I think there are places where it is pretty much explicitly connected with the regulation of female sexuality in the minds of some people because I’ve heard, for example, southern Sudanese men say this, that the trouble with uncircumcised women is that the sexuality is unbridled and you can’t satisfy them.

GERMAINE GREER: They make too much noise is what they say.

ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes. So I mean, so you have to figure out what…

TONY JONES: But Germaine – can I just interrupt there? Germaine, if it were the case anywhere that that was a fact, that that was the reason for female genital mutilation, including clitoral excision, would you be against that naturally?

GERMAINE GREER: Look, this is just a bit too difficult. Clitoral excision is fairly rare and what was discovered by many surgeons working in the United Kingdom is that, in fact, the clitoris was beneath the labia. They’d been closed over it.

Now, you have to ask how people have sex. That’s a question that comes into it. One of the problems that the World Health Organisation has had with women in Africa is that they prize a dry, tight vagina, which makes them much more susceptible to infection and so they’ve been trying to persuade women that this is not a good idea. They make themselves more susceptible to HIV infection, for example, if they do this kind of thing.

We can’t really adjudicate in this. If our own sexual health was so fantastic the rest of the world could copy it…

TONY JONES: To go back to the original question, you can adjudicate in your own country when the practice is made illegal, as it is in Australia and Britain, can you not?

GERMAINE GREER: Well, that’s interesting too because if you don’t allow it to be done in the right circumstances, with the right equipment, you’re actually sending it back home. Now, you know, imagine that we say, for example, made male circumcision illegal, which we could do, well, then we’re going to send it back into the villages, having people doing it, having amateurs do it. I think it’s got to be, in the end, the clients’ demand and what we have to deal with is that.

TONY JONES: I’m just going to go – we’ve got a hand up there in the third row. We’ll get a microphone over to you but, sorry, Anthony, continue.

ANTHONY APPIAH: Well, I just think that you can’t I mean you have to make a judgment yourself about whether it’s something that you think is right. That’s separate from the question whether you think there’s any intervention that you could make to do anything about it.

But first, I think, and in order to make that judgment, you have, I think, at least to do two things. One is to distinguish between the very many different things that we’re talking about, as you rightly did, and the other is to try and figure out, you know, what it’s doing in the culture so in order that so you can…

TONY JONES: Can I just…

GERMAINE GREER: Yeah, but there is one thing…

TONY JONES: Hang on. I’m just going to – I’d like to actually hear…

GERMAINE GREER: But there’s one thing we can be sure of…

TONY JONES: All right, briefly.

GERMAINE GREER: That when foreigners become very anxious for you to stop doing something, then that practice accumulates value. This is what happens with the Malmal.

TONY JONES: Well, I mean, just to go back to what I said before, we’re not talking about foreigners here. We’re talking about people who have become Australian or become British. It’s other Australians and their law that are asking them not to do this. But I’ll got to Sefi.


TONY JONES: What do you think?

SEFI ATTA: Well, as an African woman, I think some of the rhetoric tends to be reductive and a bit disrespectful and if I can say one thing it would be that I hope that everyone just leaves African women’s genitals alone. The people who are cutting it, the people who are talking about it. It’s enough. It…



TONY JONES: Well, we do have a questioner three rows back with her hand up. We’ll get a microphone to you. Just hang on. Yes, go ahead.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Germaine, I just wanted to go back to your point before about equating female genital mutilation with other cosmetic procedures. I was just wondering whether you really can, based on the fact that most of the procedures that you mentioned are voluntary and generally, from my understanding, the patients, I suppose, of the female genital mutilation operations, I guess, are not doing it on a voluntary basis and from my understanding a lot of the women who force this upon them often do it because they themselves had it done to them to them, I mean it’s not exactly a voluntary process is it?

TONY JONES: Okay. Germaine, a brief answer?

GERMAINE GREER: It’s not something I could decide. Certainly if you’re talking about children below the age of consent, then this would be true. But I ask you to remember that we perform circumcisions on boys at birth and they don’t get a chance to say yes or no to that and it is a painful procedure. Insofar as anybody is subject to mutilation as a child, this would appear to us to be completely unacceptable but we are going to have to be a bit more rigorous about it and a bit less…

TONY JONES: You mean more rigorous in stopping it happening to children or more rigorous about what we think of it?

GERMAINE GREER: No, a bit rigorous in establishing why it is we’re so sure that what other people do is wrong, whereas what we do happens to be right. It’s not that easy.

TONY JONES: Okay. All right. I’m going to call a halt to it there as Sefi suggested and we’ll move onto another question.


Camille Nurka wrote an interesting piece Female genital cosmetic surgery: a labial obsession in response to the broadcast. The comments afterwards are also worth reading.

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