Articles on Shifting Sands
Women should be free to choose circumcision
It’s generally accepted in the West that women are equal before the law and have bodily autonomy. This is now mostly uncontentious, even in regard to abortion.
Here, however, I want to illustrate that in regard to female circumcision (when called Female Genital Mutilation – FGM), autonomy and equality are legally denied to specific women in the UK. Yet circumcision is not illegal for men. Or for ‘other’ women, because what’s termed ‘FGM’ for some is genital cosmetic surgery for others.
Additionally, the FGM law infantalises specific women by defining them as children.
Let me elaborate
In the West, female circumsion is generally discusssed in regard to racialised “others”. In 1985, the UK’s FGM law specifically differentiated, and made illegal, what was carrried out as a cultural practice from that done within a Western context, for medical reasons.
Female genital cosmetic surgeries
Ironically, now, to fit a new, western, cultural ideal, cosmetic surgeries have grown in popularity, mainly among white women, and teens, Many have genital surgeries like labiaplasty. These, for ‘others’, are termed ‘FGM’.
Good data is hard to come by, but we know that more than 200 under 18s had labiaplasty, on the NHS, as far back as 2015-16. And it’s estimated that four per cent of labiaplasty, in the US, has been performed on girls and teens.
Generally, wherever female circumcision is practiced, so is male. Yet the female type only is illegal, despite that some symbolic and minor forms like clitoral pricking and hood removal, are far less severe than male circumcision is.
“FGM” in under 18’s
Most of the circumcised women and girls in the UK, have undergone a form of the practice before migrating. Now, despite hype to the contrary, the only types of “FGM” under 18’s undergo here are genital piercings, seen predominantly in pregnant, caucasian, teens. Piercers, quite rightly, are not being prosecuted for this.
“Girl includes woman”
Another anomaly relates to when a girl legally becomes a woman. In the UK it’s 18 years. But exceptionally, in section 6(1) of the UK FGM Act 2003, “girl includes woman”. So specific women are considered children, legally incapable of ever consenting to female circumcision or genital cosmetic surgeries.
A minority of circumcised, African women will have been infibulated – had their external labia sown together. This is traditionally done in childhood. Some girls will have experienced problems as a result, while others won’t.
In growing up, this will have informed a girls’ sense of herself. Some grow to like the smooth, closed look of their vulva. What after all is normal for some is abnormal for others.
Almost 4,000 infibulated or deinfibulated women and girls were seen in the UK’s health service between 2015-20. It’s probably fair to assume that, given the choice, a percentage might have liked to be re-infibulated. But a woman cannot be re-infibulated, because, legally, she’s considerd a child.
This was the basis for an unsuccessful FGM trial of a medical doctor in London, in 2015.
Similar applies in countries like Kenya where female circumcision is also illegal, and anti-FGM activism rife. Consequently, uncircumcised women are being ostracised for not having undergone this rite of passage. So it’s been driven underground.
In November, 22 Kenyan women were each jailed for four months, for willingly choosing to be circumcised as adults. Many anti-FGM activists, believing the women incapable of consenting, support their imprisonment. But in devaluing their consent capacities, they actively collude in undermining what agency these women have.
A brave Kenyan Doctor, Tatu Kamau, is seeking to have female circumcision decriminalised, believing it infringes women’s rights there. She also believes it hypocritical that only men can legally be circumcised.
The way forward
I believe that selectively using the law against sometimes harmful, traditional, cultural or religious practices for women, is wrong. But the way to right that wrong is not to criminalise male circumcision, rather to de-criminalise female.
Women should have the freedom to choose what they do with their bodies. And it’s far better to persuade people of the need for change, than to force it on them.
This video was my contribution to the charity Worldwrite & Worldbytes Freedom Babbleon, on December 19, 2020. The event attracted 100 contributions from around the world, who gave their take on why freedom and free speech are essential for humanity to thrive.
29 Dec 2020
The video, “Is labiaplasty genital mutilation? Cultural imperialism at the WHO” adds a valuable contribution to this discussion.
31 March 2021
On 17 March 2021, the Kenyan High Court dismissed Dr Kamau’s petition and upheld the constitutionality of the Act. The Kenyan Constitution defines ‘youth’ as persons 35 years and younger.
The Court raised the following issues for determination:
- whether FGM/C is a harmful cultural practice
- whether the right to participate in a cultural practice such as FGM/C could be limited under Article 24 of the Constitution.
- whether the Act violated the right to culture
- whether the right to participate in a cultural practice such as FGM/C could be limited under Article 24 of the Constitution
- whether the right to culture under Article 44(3) entails the element of consent
The court recognised that culture is dynamic and changes depending on factors such as “education, religion, inter marriage, urbanisation or influence from other communities”. Only those aspects of culture that are not harmful are protected under the Constitution.
The Court also directed the Attorney General to forward proposals to the National Assembly to change the Act to prohibiting all forms of harmful practices of FGM. This should include Type IV, recognised as harmful by the World Health Organisation, but not by the Act.
Criminal Offences relating to FGM in NSW was published 30 July 2023.
In this recently published piece regarding FGM in Australia, the author reminds us of what happened and makes an important point in regard to adults and consent. Just as in the UK, women are legally considered children in regard to FGM.
“The fact the person consents to the procedure is not a legal defence, regardless of whether the person is a child or adult.”
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa 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.