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Culture or torture? - Female Genital Mutilation.

Trigger Warning: FGM, Violence towards women.

Written By: Mahnoor Ali

Edited By: Reema Dudekula


Imagine going through your entire childhood as a young female being told by your community, time and again, that your body is defined by the pleasure it brings a man and that female pleasure is sin. And there is only one way to save yourself from this sin.

The constant fear of anticipation looming in the back of your mind that one day you will be coerced into partaking in a tradition that has existed within your environment for years. A day that will ultimately change you for the rest of your life both physically and psychologically. It’s something you can neither fight nor opt-out of. It’s a fate most women would shudder at the thought of.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an act that involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia and/or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Though recognized internationally as a violation of the health, human rights and integrity of girls and women, the UN estimates that 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM. FGM is mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15. Notably, this data has been collected from countries where instances of FGM have actually been officially collected and reported nationally. I can say with certainty that the actual number is much higher.

Although FGM is illegal in many countries, it is still routinely carried out in parts of the world. Primarily concentrated in 30 countries in Africa and the Middle East, FGM is a universal problem practiced in some countries in Asia and Latin America as well. FGM continues to persist amongst populations living in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand as well.

Often performed against the will of many girls, carried out for a wide number of reasons, none of which have positive health implications. The most frequently cited reasons for carrying out FGM are religion, social acceptance, “hygiene”, a way of preserving a girl's virginity, making someone "marriageable, control female sexuality and enhancing male sexual pleasure. Health professionals worldwide have highlighted it as a form of violence against women and a violation of their human rights.

For those who view the practice as honourable, ask yourself:

How is cutting or partially/completely removing parts of the female genitalia an honourable thing for women?

What is it that makes it honourable?

Is it the pain, the psychological trauma or the permanent mutilation of a young girl's body?

The glaring fact is that this practice leads to a tremendous amount of pain, infections, a battle with childbirth, infertility in women, and in severe cases, even death. Psychologically, the trauma felt by the infants and children that go through the procedure is the same “intense fear and/or helplessness” adults face when restrained and physically injured; they are just incapable of articulating it.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic saw a surge in domestic abuse cases across the world. Disproportionately affecting girls and women, which resulted in a shadow pandemic disrupting one of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - eliminating all harmful practices including, female genital mutilation.

FGM is distressing and damages women's relationships and how they feel about themselves. These are the secondary effects that pile onto the severe bleeding, problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths. FGM is not only an act of violence, but it also hierarchises and perpetuates inequality and denies the right to bodily and psychosocial integrity of women and young girls.

“If gender equality were a reality, there would be no Female Genital Mutilation” - Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director.

Although the practice has been around for more than a thousand years, there are reasons to think that FGM could end in a single generation. When it is defended, those who practice and those who choose not to involve themselves choose to hide behind the reason of ‘culture’. ‘Culture’ and its relationship with Human Rights has always been an important point of focus. The primary focus when speaking about culture there is a necessity to define what we mean by “culture” in the given context. Culture can mean different things and cultures and societies are never as homogenous and they appear to be. There are cultures that preach against violence yet defend FGM under the veil of culture or tradition. Women are labelled as unhealthy, unclean or unworthy if they don’t have it done. Culture is more than often an obstacle to change especially when it is instilled in every aspect of public life.

“FGM limits choice limits futures and limits the lives of millions of girls worldwide” - Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director

There is an unspoken understanding that some countries are unable to achieve transformational change as there is a persistence of patriarchal culture, tradition and customs still prevalent in many parts of the world. Experts have concluded that culture tends to present itself as a barrier to attaining women’s human rights. CEDAW asserts that culture, custom or religion should in no way condone violations of human rights and that the excuse of claiming that it is part of one’s culture cannot justify any deviation from the ‘culture of transnational modernity. Cultural differences are respected but within certain limits.

The concept of universalism is understood as an ambition to achieve uniform and universal knowledge accepted to comprehend the functions of the world. The idea that there are some universal laws that we abide by as a society, such as knowing that we should not murder, or steal and that most universal values can be discovered and justified through logical reasoning. But the problem is that ‘universalism’ is arrogance. The idea of natural law, which is understood as an assumption that everyone will arrive at the same conclusion as to what is believed to be natural, is flawed as what is natural to one person is not the same as what is natural to another. So how can we expect that all societies and cultures will come to the same conclusion on the problem of FGM?

The Case of Singapore

Though a taboo subject and one that is officially declared a violation of human rights by the UN, FGM, or rather FGC (Female Genital Cutting) still occurs in modern Singapore and there is no law or legislation banning it. Referred to as ‘sunat perempuan’, the procedure is practised across the island by various Muslim doctors. This practice is more prevalent in the Malay Muslim community compared to other local Muslim communities, the procedure is prevalent amongst the Singaporean female Malays, who make up about 13% of the population and it is assumed that around 60% of Malay women have been cut. It is common amongst this specific group as they usually follow the Shafi’i school of thought where there is a vague mention of the compulsion of female genital circumcision.

However, as a Muslim female, having read the Quran, I have not seen any evidence of circumcising girls or asking new convert women to be cut. To blame the practice on culture is redundant as culture is dynamic and changes according to time and place. If a cultural practice is found to have many potential harms and no proven benefits, it should cease to exist. Social pressures definitely contribute to the continuation of this practice in the country. Young parents could possibly be facing pressure from older relatives. Them succumbing to the pressure reveals many parents’ hopes and anxieties about raising their daughter to be a ‘good’, religious, and chaste Muslim woman. Having tough conversations amongst the community as well as at a legislative level will be the only way the country can reduce the possibility of FGM.

The concept of cultural relativism understands that each culture has its own moral values. This concept also assumes that people are defined by the culture they reside within instead of having their individual characteristics, views and personalities. This idea boxes people in an assumption that presumes to explain who they are, and barricades them from avenues that they may prefer to embrace. Activist and Malian singer Inna Modja is a clear example of proving this ignorant and narrow-minded concept wrong. Stating that

‘As an African woman, I went through Female Genital Mutilation. I know what it is and I know how harmful it is. And I want to protect those younger girls and those generations coming because FGM has to end.'

A divide has been created between the West and the rest of the world as a result of this cultural relativism. At the same time, people who believe that their values are universal are dangerous, because an unjustifiable indifference is fostered through such an attitude. There has only been one instance of FGM in the UK where action was taken. However, across the globe, no legal action has been taken out of fear of infringement on religious or national customs and traditions and it is difficult to take action when the general population see no issue with conducting FGM even if there are individuals who oppose the practice.

To promote the elimination of FGM, coordinated and systematic efforts are needed, and they must engage whole communities and focus on human rights, gender equality, sexual education and attention to the needs of women and girls who suffer from its consequences. The increase in cases is so dire that this year the theme: "No Time for Global Inaction, Unite, Fund, and Act to End Female Genital Mutilation." #Act2EndFGM was brought to attention by the UN and its subsidiaries.

FGM has lasting physical and mental consequences that need to be discussed so that girls and women no longer have to suffer in silence. Though genital cutting may have been/is viewed as an initiation rite for girls, to prepare them for their future. Nowadays it’s become more controversial and it usually takes place discreetly. And the girls who are cut are getting younger and younger. This is because the younger a girl is, the less likely she’ll be to discuss it with her friends or report it to anyone. Societies must work to educate girls on their right to decide what happens to their body. And as well as the need for legislative change, it's essential that the traditional attitudes and social norms that allow FGM to continue are tackled so that open honest discussions about the risks and consequences of FGM may happen.

FGM is not something that “purifies” a woman or preserves her virginity. It is a procedure that mutilates a woman’s body and damages her in the most appalling of ways. It needs to be stopped.

If we don’t protect our girls, who will?

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