May 28, 2024

The ultimate hot potato: female genital mutilation is not as bad as it seems

Is female genital mutilation really as bad as they say?

It’s hard to think of a more reviled practice than female genital mutilation. It is a crime in many countries – and the United Nations human rights committee has just passed a resolution calling upon the General Assembly to condemn it. This could take place as early as this month.

A spokesman for Amnesty International summed up the outrage: “FGM is an indictment of us all that a girl or young woman can be held down and mutilated is a violation of her human rights and, shockingly, an estimated 3 million girls are at risk each year.”

However, believe it or not, there are another side to this story. Here is a health adviser to the vice-president of Sierra Leone, Fuambai S. Ahmadu, speaking to an anthropology conference in San Francisco last month: “How can Western public health officials, global health institutions and feminist organizations maintain a straight face in condemning African female genital surgeries as FGM and yet turn a blind eye, even issue guidelines for the performance of very similar and sometimes more invasive female genital surgeries on Western women under the guise of cosmetic surgery?”

Dr Ahmadu’s perspective is not a popular one, to say the least. But a group of which she is a member, The Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa, has issued a vigorous rebuttal of allegations of sexism, oppressive patriarchy, torture and mutilation which dominate in the Western media. It has been published in the current issue of a leading bioethics journal, the Hastings Center Report.

The authors’ aim is to “move the coverage of the topic from an over-heated, ideologically charged, and one-sided story about ‘mutilation,’ morbidity, and patriarchal oppression to a real, evidence-based policy debate governed by the standards of critical reason and fact checking.”

The claims and counter-claims are too long to list. But the authors – about 15 of them, mostly from Western countries – make the following points about female genital mutilation (or “female genital surgery”, as they call it):

  • Medical research has found that a high percentage of women who have had genital surgery have rich sexual lives.
  • Medical complications are uncommon.
  • Those who value female genital surgery view it as aesthetic enhancement, not mutilation.
  • In almost all societies where female genital surgery is performed, male genital surgery also takes place. Women are not singled out.
  • The link between patriarchy and female genital surgery is unfounded. The practice is not customary in the world’s most sexually restrictive societies.
  • Women manage and control female genital surgery in Africa and groups that fight against female genital surgery weaken the power of women.
  • Criticism of an influential 2006 WHO study in The Lancet about “deadly consequences” has been ignored. The evidence does not support sensational media claims.

Provocatively, the authors argue that women and girls who have undergone genital mutilation should not be stigmatized or taught to expect sexual dysfunction. This might cause “psychological mutilation”, potentially compromising the development of a normal and healthy psychosexual life.

Female genital mutilation is too hot a potato to take sides. But as Nawal M. Nour, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, writes in a sympathetic response to the advisory group’s observations, “Speaking as both an African woman and an obstetrician-gynecologist, I hope that this practice ends during my lifetime. However, the impetus to abandon female genital cutting must come from within each community; a ban on it cannot be imposed by outsiders”. 

Michael Cook
Creative commons
female genital mutilation