What power has the use of language in the FGM debate?


30 October 2012

Guest blog by Vivien Cohen, 28 Too Many Volunteer.

There are many euphemisms in the English language. People don’t die, they ‘pass away’. My grandma never went to the toilet; she ‘went to spend a penny’. Our society has a long and rich history of euphemising when we find a topic unseemly, reprehensible, embarrassing or difficult to confront.  It seems to me then that the term ‘Female circumcision’, as it is widely called, deserves a prime position amongst our most incongruous of euphemisms. Incongruous because between this term often used to describe the process and the actual process itself, there exists a chasm of immeasurable proportion.

 The term ‘female circumcision’ would suggest that the women subjected to this practice go through the equal and opposite process of a male circumcision.  Perhaps if we were to stop using the euphemism of ‘female circumcision’ and put more emphasis on the use of the more appropriate term of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) people might be able from the outset to begin to grasp the plethora of horrors inherent in this practice; a practice so wholly unacceptable in today’s society it is almost mind boggling not only that it is still so widely undertaken but also that so many people are unaware of the finer points of it.

Personally, I find male circumcision somewhat questionable. It is arguable that a circumcised man may lose sexual feeling or be in some other way sexually affected by his circumcision in later life. It is arguable that a male circumcision  may traumatise or hurt the child who is to be circumcised (arguable, as a Jewish circumcision will be done when the child is no more than 8 days old, and Muslim circumcision will generally be carried out under local anaesthetic as part of a hospital procedure.) It is arguable that circumcised men have part of their sexuality stolen and will grow up having had no choice in giving away what was forcibly taken from them.

When it comes to ‘female circumcision’ (FGM), there is no argument. There is no question.  A woman who has undergone FGM will almost certainly loose sexual feeling to some degree and in the majority of more severe cases will find sexual activity uncomfortable at its best and incredibly painful at its worst. A girl who has been subjected to FGM will remain traumatised- emotionally, physically and sexually- for many years, if not for the rest of her life. FGM is generally practiced on girls up to the age of 16, whilst it tends to be only more affluent families who can afford painkillers, and very rarely hospital procedures.  It is therefore inherently likely that when a girl has FGM forced upon her she will become unavoidably emotionally and physically scarred.  In addition to this the procedure itself is much more dangerous and runs a high risk of leading to death either from blood loss or from future infections or health complications. Finally there is no debate as to whether girls who have undergone FGM have had something stolen from them; what is stolen from these girls is their innocence, their sexuality, their privacy, their power, their freedom and their basic human right to choose.

In the Old Testament, male circumcision is supposed to represent man’s covenant with God, whilst according to the Hadith Muhammad and his disciples were circumcised to demonstrate their inclusion in the Islamic fold and faith. It is my opinion that ‘female circumcision’ represents neither covenant with God nor demonstration of faith- it is rather a demonstration of deep seated misogyny and the power that some men still have to subjugate women.

 In the July 2010 Guardian article, ‘British girls undergo horror of genital mutilation despite tough laws’, Asha-Kin Duale talks of how FGM can bizarrely serve as a tool for women to regain some power. Ms Duale states “It is a power negotiation mechanism, that women use to ensure respect from men. It […] is a social tool to allow women to regain some power in patriarchal societies.”  Tragically this ‘negotiation’ is the only way that some women have of eking out any sense of empowerment from what is essentially an entirely disempowering ritual. In a situation in which one’s very survival- be it physical, emotional or sexual- is threatened, survival techniques evolve whereby women start to not only accept what is happening to them, but also to use what is happening to them as a way of farcically gaining level footing with the men who oppress them.

It seems highly contradictory that women stand to ‘gain’ from this practice in other ways too. FGM remains a ‘rite of passage’ and a way of initiating girls into their communities; for many, to not have it done would leave them feeling outcast and ‘abnormal’. A ‘circumcised’ girl can be counted among her female friends and relatives who have also undergone FGM as part of their journey through puberty and into womanhood, and her ordeal is therefore seen as something which is to be celebrated. In many cultures a girl who is ‘uncircumcised’ may be seen as unclean while a ‘circumcised’ girl will achieve a higher level of perceived beauty and sexual attraction.  For many, being ‘uncircumcised’ is associated with promiscuity- a ‘circumcised’ girl is seen as pure and unspoiled and may therefore earn the right to a respectable marriage. For many of these girls,  to not undergo FGM would leave them feeling ostracised from their communities. Part of education about FGM is changing such perceptions and making sure that future generations grow up in a world where for them FGM will never be seen as necessary or the norm.

The habituation of FGM shares more with the aforementioned perceived ‘benefits’ bestowed upon its victims than with any kind of religious necessity, a common misconception. Ms Duale points out that FGM “…has no basis in Islam; none of Muhammad’s daughters had it done.”  The inhabitants of this world have a shared history of and ability to commit heinous and horrific acts in the name of religion and under the guise of it. Even if FGM were a religious edict, it would not be right. The fact that it is a centuries old custom does not make it right either, as a global community we must move on and away from our barbaric pasts, not emulate them.  FGM is not a religious requirement, nor is it a health requirement, nor is it anything but harmful and detrimental to generations of girls and women who are unable to escape it.

In the fight against FGM it is necessary to remember that there is a need for cultural sensitivity. Being vehemently anti-FGM should not be synonymous with the criticism of any one culture, people or religion. As a global community no one person has the right to turn to another and criticise their way of life. Yet as a global community we are bound by our shared responsibility to help those who are vulnerable or at risk. Our duty to the next generation of at risk girls supersedes our duty to anything else. Anyone can find themselves vulnerable to becoming so deeply entrenched in a system that they cannot see past it. The perpetrators of FGM are more often than not women who have been through FGM themselves; mothers who have been mutilated are complicit in the mutilation of their own daughters, thus upholding the cycle of violence.  We need to come together to protest, to advocate education and to support those who refuse to continue this violence in their own communities.

 28 Too Many aims, among other things, to do just that. Their website outlines four main focus goals; ‘Mapping community level best practice’ (involving the grouping of data and the networking of not only incidents of FGM but also those organisations working to eradicate it), ‘Sharing Wisdom’ (advancing education and awareness of FGM), ‘Offering Support’ (providing medical and emotional support and assistance for those women who have been exposed to FGM) and ‘Advocacy’ (working to put the spotlight on gender based violence in general and advocating women’s rights and the anti FGM movement.) In essence, 28 Too Many hopes- through education and direct action- to eradicate FGM in its entirety and to confine it to where it belongs, the past. FGM is an act so overtly violent and traumatising that it is akin with an obvious and outward attack- yet the practice itself conversely remains relatively subversive and covert in its nature.  A surprising amount of people are either unaware of what FGM actually entails or unaware of its existence at all.

A particularly important aspect in the fight towards the eradication of FGM is education; of those communities where FGM is still present, but also of the wider population who are simply unaware of the details of it. In order to help 28 Too Many one of the first things you can do is educate yourself and others and help to spread awareness and understanding. 28 Too Many can facilitate educational talks at Universities, Churches and other local groups as well as providing educational materials such as leaflets and films. You can find on their website various examples of poignant and informative films about FGM, should you choose to organise your own screening and subsequent discussion in order to better educate and spur to action your community. The charity can provide you with leaflets and other materials to be handed out at your own discretion and also suggests tactics that can be used to attract attention and raise awareness, such as the baking and handing out of 28 Too Many gingerbread women. In order for FGM to gain importance on the political agenda in needs to become apparent that people are standing up and taking notice of a very real problem.  If you feel able to help this happen then lobby your MP- not only about FGM in the wider world but also about the thousands of girls in theUKwho are forced to undergo FGM every year.

FGM is a cultural tradition that is steeped in blood and its physical and mental effects are permanent. The women who undergo it will never be able to forget the day that they were robbed. They will bear the trauma and the physical and emotional scars of their abuse for the rest of their days. I started this piece by talking about the misnomer of ‘female circumcision’. Of course the misuse of a name is nowhere near as important as stopping the practice itself. Yet I do feel that for the battle to be won, awareness needs to be spread- and in spreading awareness we must make sure that  no-one can be under any misapprehension as to the true nature and the true horror of FGM. We must work to save future generations from FGM and in order to do this we cannot remain silent, simply allowing it to continue.  If we remain silent then we are culpable in the enabling of this practice. Until the world speaks out we will not become part of the solution, but remain part of the problem.

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