In America, we are neck deep in political campaigning. Men and women are debating the best approach to a variety of issues. There is so much discussion because the issues are complicated and often deeply entrenched in American culture and history. Millions of armchair politicians weigh in on the issues with an “all you have to do is this” mindset. These issues persist despite decades of political efforts. In spite of political promises, change is often slow, if it happens at all.
When addressing issues that are deeply rooted in culture, religion, and family tradition, we must expect that change will take time, will take cultural sensitivity, and will take powerful, unwavering forces. Such is the case with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
For many in the United States, this is an unfamiliar term. If we have heard of it at all, we likely do not know the details. We are more familiar with male circumcision, a procedure highly criticized as being painful and unnecessary. Proponents of the procedure cite Biblical mandates and long standing traditions. Every day parents of young boys all across the Western world are given the choice of having their son circumcised in virtually every hospital. It is a practice still widely performed and culturally accepted.* Our Western worldview applies this debate to the African and Middle Eastern Tradition of Female Circumcision and dismisses the idea as nothing more than a small inconvenience and probably not terribly detrimental to the child. However, here is where their comparisons would be lacking.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as Female Cutting or Female Circumcision is not the same as the male procedure of a similar name. According to the World Health Organization, these are the 4 levels of FGM.
Female genital mutilation is classified into 4 major types.
Type 1: Often referred to as clitoridectomy, this is the partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals), and in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
Type 2: Often referred to as excision, this is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva), with or without excision of the labia majora (the outer folds of skin of the vulva ).
Type 3: Often referred to as infibulation, this is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy).
Type 4: This includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for
non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.”
If you are interested in reading more or seeing a diagram that explains this, click here.
This tradition of FGM is deeply rooted in the cultural traditions of people in a number of African and Middle Eastern nations. While often these nations are predominantly Muslim, it is less about religion than it is about culture and tradition. Marriage traditions dictate that a woman must be cut. Families who might be willing to forgo this rite of passage are fearful that their daughters will have no marriage prospects. This is particularly problematic in societies where women are expected to marry and have children. While a seemingly male enforced ideal, the cutting is often done by the women in the village. The age of the girl varies from community to community, and often is done as a part of a larger rite of passage celebration. Some of the girls cut are preschoolers, while others are in the early stages of puberty. FGM is a complex issue.
At the root of this tradition is a belief system that as American’s we should not presume to fully understand. We can read articles about Koran verses or the oppression of women, but we are not likely to really get a full picture. What we can understand is the devastating impact of cutting. Outside of the obvious physical pain and trauma of the cutting experience, the cutting (and subsequent sewing) can lead to infection and scarring that impedes the birthing process. Women who are cut have significantly higher rates of mortality during childbirth, infant mortality, and tearing that can lead to fistulas. The very act designed to assure a woman’s purity for her husband is very often the reason for her death or that of her child’s. In some cases the purpose of cutting is to reduce a women’s sexual pleasure to prevent her from being unfaithful. This ideology robs women of the same opportunity to experience pleasure in the God created act of sex within a marriage. There is no male equivalent designed to keep a man faithful in his marriage.
So how can we, as Americans, speak into a culture that is not our own and act to change something that we really don’t fully understand? When is this imperialistic in nature, and when is it righting an injustice? Drawing the correct line at times may be challenging, but it can be attempted. As we see more and more women from within these cultures rising up to make these changes, when we see more and more men saying that they will not do this to their daughters, or require this for the brides of their sons, we can confidently move forward in supporting a cause that we find oppressive and unjust. We can weigh traditions against Biblical principles. Does this tradition steal from women their God created dignity and equality?
Chose an organization that is working at the grassroots level, run by people from these communities who understand the intricacies in a way you cannot. Support the work of people like Sister Ephigenia Gachiri, who took the time to learn all she could about the process and the culture behind this practice before creating the Termination of Female Genital Mutilation (TFGM) Campaign. Her alternate rite of passage ceremony is replacing an age-old tradition with a safer and healthier ceremony. She is changing the lives of young women, but more than that; she is changing a culture.
Take some time to read up on this and other causes before you take a stance. Read the arguments on both sides, learn about the organizations acting and what their philosophies are, and then don’t stop there. Make a choice not to give in to apathy, but rather to make a difference. Change the life of single girl and help change a culture.
* The debate over male circumcision is a valid debate, but not one that we will be addressing in this particular article.
all photo credits: Melissa Morrison