By Betty Njoroge
For a movement that is touted “the oldest singular campaign directly targeting Female Genital Mutilation”, the failure of the anti-FGM movement to reverse the spread of female circumcision in the 21st century speaks volumes of the approaches taken.
The international campaign against female genital mutilation which adopted the acronym CAgeM in 2011 continues to specifically target cutting communities in Africa and Asia and has spread its activism to Europe and America to try and stem the practice among immigrant communities. Note â€“ they focus on immigrant communities, and not the population as a whole. It is just a fact that their decision to focus on people of color globally is just racist.
How can an international movement only seek to stem female Genital “Mutilation” as they call it among non-white communities while pointedly ignoring the fact that white women undergo cosmetic genital mutilation themselves all in the name of labiaplasty? Is it the fact that plastic surgeons are the ones who perform this harmful procedure? Indeed, why is it that labiaplasty is even legal in western countries while FGM is illegal in the same country?
It’s just racism, plain and simple blatant in your face, RACISM. Even the term female genital MUTILATION is an expression of this racism. That when women of color undergo cutting of their labia they are MUTILATED but when white women undergo the same cutting they are still WOMEN. The fact that one form of genital cutting is illegal while the other is legal is just telling of the mindset of those who create such laws. Mutilation is a word I despise, and for the purposes of this article I substitute the M in FGM to mean MODIFICATION.
What exactly is the purpose of labiaplasty in the first place? To modify white vagina into some anatomically androgynous Barbie doll pussy? According to a 2008 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, Up to 37% of women who undergo labiaplasty do it for aesthetic reasons only.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines female genital mutilation as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The WHO writes that the term is not generally applied to elective procedures such as labiaplasty. How convenient to decide that one form of needless cutting is legal, but another is not!
We keep being told that FGM is harmful to women, that women who are cut suffer dire consequences during birth. So doesn’t the white woman also undergo similar consequences after labiaplasty? How can a right thinking surgeon perform cutting of the labia for the sake of some ridiculous aesthetic ideal when he knows very well that this woman will face some dire consequence during child birth? It’s a bustling industry by the way, with the average labiaplasty plastic surgeon earning nearly 250,000$ USD in the US!
It’s clear why a doctor would do that. It’s because labiaplasty, done under sterile conditions, and with the right post operative care, is not likely to cause a danger to the woman’s health and also because it’s a lucrative industry. In fact the sheer irony is that while FGM is declining among people of color, it’s on the rise among white people!
The question then becomes why not accord women of color the same health facilities should they wish to cut themselves? Why not allow women of color to make an informed decision on cutting their own bodies?
Well, because women of color don’t own their bodies. From birth, women of color are owned, by their parents, and then their husbands and in countries where FGM is illegal even the government owns their bodies!
Women from cutting communities have been so dehumanized that the FGM movement focuses solely on the vagina of these women and pays no heed to the fact that women can actually make a choice to cut their own bodies. The anti-FGM movement seeks to save women’s pussies from the women themselves!
To be defined as “primitive”, “ignorant” and “victimized” when you actually chose to follow a traditional practice is not only insulting, it reduces the woman to nothing more than an object to be humiliated. It is no surprise that the practice of female circumcision refuses to die in cutting communities. Because when such racist insults are directed at you, simply because you are a person of color, you will do whatever it takes to cling onto what little dignity and self-identity you have.
It’s a well known fact that communities that cut attach great importance to circumcision and that value is hinged on the woman’s self-identity. Such that, when a woman is cut they are accepted, respected and are considered valued partners for marriage.
In a study by World Health Organization (WHO), covering 1,744 women aged between 15 and 49 in North East and North West Somalia, 90 percent of the women responded that they preferred that the custom be preserved (World Bank & UNFPA 2004). The fact is, within the Somali community, it is the women themselves who prefer and choose FGM despite the health risks involved.
Indeed FGM is very common in Somalia, with more than 90% of girls being subjected to the most severe form of circumcision known as Infibulation. Infibulation is defined as “the removal of the labia minora (inner lips) and labia majora (outer lips). When the labial tissue heals, it forms a wall of skin and flesh across the vagina and the rest of the pubic area” (Wikipedia). It’s usually done on prepubescent girls and as you can imagine it is quite a grueling and painful procedure. Despite this, the women themselves prefer it!
One of the biggest campaign lies that the anti-FGM movement preaches is that the girls don’t have a choice. Clearly they do have a choice and they choose to be cut because it is what they use define themselves, as adults or because of communal values of virginity and purity. They choose FGM just as much as the western women choose it. Why is it that the western women aren’t considered forced into labiaplasty?
It is quite surprising to note that even in a stateless country like Somalia; women can access professional health care when it comes to FGM. The World Bank (WB 2004) argues that the “medicalization” of the procedure started as far back as at the time of Somalia’s independence, when a Lebanese doctor started carrying out the procedures at the Martini hospital in Mogadishu. The simple reason for this is because these health professionals recognize that women can indeed have power and choice over their own bodies and are not just pussies to be saved by random white people.
What irks me the most about this anti-FGM movement is the lopsided tales of horror and the refusal to acknowledge that there are indeed legitimate concerns that compel women of color to cut their bodies. We are told how women of color and especially from the global south are in peril of losing their very lives if they cut their own bodies but there is no tandem recognition of the rights of those women over their own bodies, and the utter refusal to provide safe medical options for women of color who wish to cut their bodies.
In fact the focus on genitalia even drives some activists to suggest that little girls in Britain should have their genitals checked routinely to prevent their parents from cutting them! What an utter violation to suggest and sheer child abuse to boot. Would they check little white girls’ vaginas? Because even white people take their daughters for labiaplasty!
The refusal by the anti-FGM movement to acknowledge that women of color attach equal value and importance to cutting as do white women is purely racist. That our values as people of color are insignificant compared to the aesthetic values of white people. It’s a refusal that tells us that our bodies are not ours to own and cut as we choose but the white women can cut themselves legally and safely. That even our circumcisers are “primitive” and brutal, while the western circumciser is a surgeon who is respected as a medical practitioner.
I challenge the likes of CAgeM to not only change the term “mutilation” to “modification” but to also actively advocate for safe medical procedures for women of color not only in the West but around the world. I challenge them to consider women of color as PEOPLE and not just vaginas. I challenge them to recognize that women of color have values and their values are just as significant as the values of white women. I challenge them to stop segmenting and racially applying the law but to be just and fair to all women.
I challenge them to recognize that women of color are not “victimized” by the choices they make over their own bodies just as white women are not victimized. I challenge them to treat us with respect and accord us our dignity for once and to stop treating women of color as though they are just body parts.
The fact is, FGM is nearly impossible to eradicate as long as women attach a personal and legitimate value to the practice. It is utter hypocrisy and sheer bigotry for this sort of racist activism to reject these values simply because they are the values of people of color.
Indeed the anti-FGM movement is just steeped in racism that dehumanizes people of color directly and it is an abhorrent practice that should never be tolerated in a free and just society. You cannot claim to be defending human rights while denying that women of color do indeed have rights over their own bodies and that access to adequate health care is also their right!
Read more from Betty’s blogspot at Incredible Kenya