FGM stands for female genital mutilation, and refers to the practice of partially or totally removing external female genitalia. FGM is most commonly performed in specific countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and is sometimes referred to as ‘cutting’.
FGM is rarely carried out for health reasons and is rooted in social convention. Motivations for the practice include the belief that it is a necessary rite of passage for women and girls (hence cutting is typically a procedure performed on minors). Other factors influencing cutting include the belief that girls who have undergone FGM are more likely to remain virgins until marriage, and that cutting is a ‘clean’ and ‘feminine’ thing which makes girls desirable.
The World Health Organisation is clear: FGM is a violation of the rights of women and girls.
Yet, our conversations around FGM (particularly in western media outlets) typically racialise the practice and emphasise how alien it supposedly is to ‘western’ culture. Consider the BBC report I have discussed previously on the first UK conviction for FGM; the report led with details about how the practice was somehow ‘other’ by emphasising the victim’s mother’s attempts at black magic to fend off social services. This emphasis was unnecessary, and served only to obscure the real crime at hand.
Additionally, FGM is typically performed by women themselves, who carry out the practice on young girls. While most would agree that this practice is child abuse, the fact that the agents of FGM tend to be female may raise doubt as to whether this is actually a form of male violence, linked to a wider pattern of global violence against women and girls, as upheld and perpetrated by men.
But it is, and here’s how the practice links to other forms of violence against women and girls.
The idea behind FGM is about keeping women ‘in their place’ through violence and degradation
At its core, the notion of FGM is about keeping women in their (rather arbitrarily defined) ‘place’. Ultimately, FGM can be a life-ruining process for those who have undergone it – it leaves women with life-long pain and scarring, as well as reduced sexual desire (often pain related). An explicitly stated motivation behind FGM is to prevent women from being sexually promiscuous or from having pre-marital sex; fundamentally, women who have been cut often struggle to have sex throughout their lives because of the damage that has been done to them. That women and girls might not have sex simply because they are in so much pain is terrifying, and yet at the heart of it this is why FGM is carried out. Keeping women ‘pure’ and ‘chaste’ is one thing, but removing their sexual agency – or desire to have agency – further turns women into objects who exist not to exert their own will but to bow to the will of men.
When I consider the practice of FGM, I am often reminded of a few lines from 14th Century poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue. The Wife of Bath, a proto-feminist character, spends her prologue talking us through her relationships with her husbands (she has had five), and running through a certain relationship which has been abusive. She says that the abusive partner told her she was ‘like a cat’:
Thou seydest this, that I was lyk a cat
For whoso wolde senge a cattes skyn
Thanne wolde the cat well dwellen in his in
And if the cattes skyn be slyk and gay
She wol nat dwellen in house half a day
The idea behind this is that by mutilating or scarring a cat, its owner will force it to stay in the house with them. Cats who have shining coats and no scarring, according to the adage, will roam about all day. Thus for The Wife of Bath’s abusive husband to compare her to a cat in this way is an indication that he sees her much like an owned possession, who must be brought under ‘control’ through fear and pain. FGM uses pain and mutilation to entrap women by reducing their confidence and comfort and by showing them that pain is a woman’s lot. Such a process is carried out to keep women within a sphere of male control – and though it is carried out by other women, this does not mean that the notion behind it is any less misogynistic.
But fundamentally, FGM cannot be categorised as a ‘Medieval’ or ‘backward’ practice – too often we (particularly in the west) use these labels to condemn the sort of violence against women seen in other countries without taking any progressive steps to tackle it.
You see, the violence towards women seen across the world (including in the UK) is all part of the same system which seeks to keep women in their ‘place’ through fear. For example, whenever there is a spate of sexual attacks in the UK, typically some police force will issue a warning to women not to go out alone at night. These warnings are usually condemned but they are issued time and time again. Consider that in 2019, Nottinghamshire Police urged women not to go out alone at night, saying that it was a risky thing to do. The force issued this guidance in response to a female caller’s concerns about feeling on edge when out late alone. Instead of characterising the atmosphere which frightens women as the fault of men, women are instead blamed for putting themselves in precarious situations. Thus, essentially, women are consigned to a specific ‘place’ by official forces and seen as asking for trouble if they leave it.
FGM ultimately stems from the principle that women are the objects of the men in their lives
FGM, like all forms of violence against women, is about male ownership and objectification. FGM is designed to reduce a women’s sexual agency, thus turning her into an object lacking volition of its own.
FGM leaves life-long scars, and these scars are a constant reminder of the fact that men seek to control and possess women by hurting and intimidating them. This kind of motivation for hurting women is found everywhere we see systemic violence towards them. Every time a man claims to have killed a woman because he was ‘jealous’ or because he couldn’t cope with her leaving him is an example of the male objectification of women. These men act and justify their actions because as a global society we have not yet fully reconciled ourselves to the fact that women are independent beings who ought to have full agency of their own – and not be beholden to men all the time. Seeing female infidelity or agency in leaving a relationship as the ‘cause’ of a woman’s murder isn’t just victim-blaming – it is a sign that we still, in some way, believe that women ought to be the objects of men in this world.
FGM, and all other forms of violence against women, are ultimately about objectification and possession.