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Waris Dirie | FGM vs Circumcision

Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-Chief
Last Modified: 16:00 PM EDT, 3 May 2012

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is currently one of the most egregious women’s rights abuses occurring globally. It is a subject that is hard to discuss because of its intimate, sexual and graphic nature.

However, it is exactly because of the life-long psychological and physical effects this barbaric practice has on its innocent and unwilling victims, that it is incumbent upon us to publicize this abuse until it is eradicated.

This issue was first brought to the public’s attention by Waris Dirie, Somalian author, activist, and victim of FGM, when she published her memoir titled ‘Desert Flower.’ The book was subsequently made into a movie in 2009, and Liya Kebede, an Ethiopian supermodel, played Waris Dirie in the heart wrenching but ultimately victorious story of survival.

Initially, when we featured a post about this topic, a number of readers commented about male circumcision and how this is just as barbaric as FGM and should also be classified as a human rights abuse.

Though it is true that any type of unwanted genital mutilation is a crime, the major differences between male circumcision and FGM are as follows:

    1. Most boys are circumcised at birth, or in the case of Jews and some Muslims, on the 8th day of life;
    2. Men who are circumcised later in life often elect to have this procedure for personal, religious, or health reasons;
    3. The surgery is performed in a sterile environment, usually under anesthesia;
    4. Male circumcision is usually performed in a non-invasive manner that ultimately results in few, if any adverse psychological effects.

By comparison, FGM has more in common and correlates best to physical castration in men.

    1. Girls who undergo FGM (aka female circumcision) are forcibly mutilated anywhere between 13 and 15 years of age;
    2. The ‘procedure’ occurs without anesthesia in unsanitary environments;
    3. Rusty razor blades, old knives, or shards of glass are used to cut the flesh;
    4. The clitoris and the inner and outer labia are torn away;
    5. Finally, the wound is crudely stitched together and must be cut open for sex and childbirth.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are benefits to men and boys becoming circumcised particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Strong evidence from Africa indicates that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection in heterosexual men by 38-66%, and studies have concluded it is cost effective in sub-Saharan Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommends circumcision be recognized as an intervention as part of a comprehensive program for prevention of HIV transmission in areas with high endemic rates of HIV.” (Source: WHO)

The effects of FGM are profoundly debilitating and deleterious to women’s reproductive health and serves no useful purpose. It is a practice deeply rooted in misogyny, tyranny and the concept of women as chattel.

Men who have been circumcised can still enjoy a robust sex life filled with numerous encounters, whereas women who have undergone FGM must suffer immense pain to remove the sutures, and as one can imagine, sexual intercourse thereafter would be excruciating.

In the Europe between the 16th and 17th centuries the ‘Chastity Belt‘ was developed to prohibit women from having sexual intercourse. This device was also a contrivance of men desiring to control the sexuality of the women in their societies.  In comparison to FGM, a ‘Chastity Belt’ was infinitely less egregious, but definitely a women’s rights violation.

Surprisingly, FGM procedures are on the rise in Western nations such as the United Kingdom.  It is easy for most people to acquiesce in the face of such a daunting problem that is occurring half-way across the world. It is also more comfortable to believe that this is an Islamic problem though FGM is no prescribed in the Quran.

It is easiest to effect change in one’s backyard, and thus, in Western societies where there are no health reasons to recommend FGM it is up to the medical establishment and authorities to intervene and halt these procedures.

Misogyny like rape, is less about the object of abuse, in this case, women, and more about control. The net result of FGM is that it diminishes all women everywhere even if it hasn’t personally impacted your life or those of your friends and family.

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Editor: @ayannanahmias

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About Ayanna Nahmias

Ayanna Nahmias was interviewed on Radio Netherlands Worldwide program titled 'The State We’re In,' about her life in Africa and her determination to transcend her past. She started the Nahmias Cipher Report to provide information to readers about life in emerging economies, and to provide alternative insight into the challenges faced by women and children living in these countries. The blog features stories from around the world to inspire other people to persevere and triumph in the face of great adversity. She blogs about current events in emerging economies, international politics, human rights abuses, women’s rights and child advocacy.

View all posts by Ayanna Nahmias

11 Comments on “Waris Dirie | FGM vs Circumcision”

  1. Laura MacDonald Says:

    Your points favouring the distinction between female and male genital cutting are seriously illogical:

    1. Would FGM become acceptable if it was performed on babies?
    International response: No! In fact FGM is frequently performed on infants – see for example the examples of Nigeria and Malaysia. The 2008 Interagency Statement on FGM notes that average age is dropping – but it doesn’t see this as a reason to celebrate.

    2. Would FGM become acceptable if performed in clean clinics with anaesthesia?
    International response: No! In Egypt in 2007 the government acted to STOP FGM being performed in sanitary conditions with anaesthesia – because medicalising FGM is deeply unethical and makes it much harder to eradicate.

    3. Would FGM become acceptable if performed with a clean shiny scalpel or razor, straight out of a sterile packet?
    International response: No! As above, the WHO takes a strong line against the medicalisation of FGM while noting it may be increasing.

    4. Would FGM be acceptable if the clitoris and outer labia were left intact?
    International Response: No! The WHO and UN define 8 forms of FGM, including the excision of the clitoral hood only (type 1a), and its simple incision (type IV) – as above see their 2008 statement. They devote a whole section to why even type IV must be seen as a violation of human rights. This is no side issue: hood cutting is a norm in Indonesia and Malaysia – an area with a population of 280 million.

    5. Would FGM be acceptable if it didn’t involve infibulation (narrowing the vaginal entrance)?
    International Response: No! The WHO notes this is a relatively rare practice; the overwhelming majority of FGMs do NOT involving infibulation (again see the 2008 statement); FGM is opposed in all its forms.

    You cite HIV protection as a reason for male cutting but don’t mention that research (Stallings, Tanzania) has found that female cutting appears also to protect against HIV. This research was found so inconvenient that after being publicised at an AIDSconference it was shelved and has barely been mentioned since. Double standard, much?

    You also cite that FGM is not mentioned in the Qur’an while failing to mention that male cutting is entirely absent too. In fact the Qur’an teaches that the body is perfect, and that wilful alteration or mutilation is satanic.

    And you cite chastity belts as another example of primitive attempts to control female sexuality without mentioning the range of cruel equipment Victorians designed to prevent and punish male sexual urges. Nor do you mention that mass male circumcision in the anglophone world was adopted as a means to reduce male pleasure.. something Victorians considered a self evident result, and which subsequent research has confirmed.

    This is a poor piece of writing Ayanna, full of bias, misrepresentation and flawed logic. Perhaps the worst thing is that your statements seem to propose a set of conditions in which forced female cutting would be justified. These conditions – performance in hospital, a few days post birth, with no infibulation and minimal excision, and alongside claims of reduced genital infection risk – are increasingly happening. So you are propping up the thing you claim to hate.

    Reply

  2. feministintactivism Says:

    “Most boys are circumcised at birth, or in the case of Jews and some Muslims, on the 8th day of life”

    The majority of boys globally are cut at puberty in unsanitary ritual conditions.

    “Men who are circumcised later in life often elect to have this procedure for personal, religious, or health reasons”

    Less than 1 in 16,000 men ever opts to be circumcised, and adult women also choose to have their genitals altered in advanced medical settings for cosmetic reasons.

    “The surgery is performed in a sterile environment, usually under anesthesia”

    Only America, Canada, Australia and South Korea practice sterile medical circumcsion. The vast majority of procedures are unsanitary. The vast majority of medical circumcisions that have been performed involved no anesthesia of any kind, and the anesthesia that is beginning to be used in some medical circumcisions is never adequate. Sometimes it consists soley of a sugared pacifier, which is basically a gag that does nothing for the pain. The amount of anesthesia it would take to properly anesthetize a circumcision is unsafe to use on infants and hence is never used.

    Hospitals are also not necessarily sanitary. There are many antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are more common in hospitals than anywhere else, and standards of care around circumcision are lower than for any other surgery.

    “Male circumcision is usually performed in a non-invasive manner that ultimately results in few, if any adverse psychological effects.”

    Removing half the surface area from a child’s genitals without anesthesia in procedure that has caused hundreds of deaths is always invasive. The foreskin is penetrated by force, torn from the glans, clamped, crushed, and cut along with the frenulum in most cases.The entire cultural rationale behind circumcision is an adverse psychological effect – FGM would not exist if MGM didn’t exist. Another adverse psychological effect is the belief that there is some part of the human body that is always diseased and pathological.

    Foreskin from male circumcision is also a very big business – it is sold to cosmetics companies for use in various products. No other sexual violation is done for the profits of large corporations. Male genital mutilation is industrialized.

    “By comparison, FGM has more in common and correlates best to physical castration in men.”

    Castrating a man would totally destroy his ability to reproduce. No form of FGM is intended to have that effect.

    “The ‘procedure’ occurs without anesthesia in unsanitary environments.
    Rusty razor blades, old knives, or shards of glass are used to cut the flesh”

    The above also describes the majority of male circumcisions.

    “The clitoris and the inner and outer labia are torn away;”

    The clitoris is 90% internal. The glans clitoris is removed. The male equivalent of the labia and glans clitoris are the foreskin and frenulum, which also contain a similar or greater amount of tissue by volume.

    “Finally, the wound is crudely stitched together and must be cut open for sex and childbirth.”

    Infibulation is 15% of FGM cases according to the WHO. And in cultures that practice infibulation, there often IS no intercourse in marriages and husbands simply ejaculate on the outside. Cutting and sewing repeatedly would wipe out the majority of women in these cultures, yet mass numbers of deaths are not being reported.

    “According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are benefits to men and boys becoming circumcised particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

    Any claim that any genital surgery has medical benefits causes parents to force it on their children, even in areas outside Africa. Boys are being lured with sports and toys in exchange for part of their body.

    “Strong evidence from Africa indicates that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection in heterosexual men by 38-66%, and studies have concluded it is cost effective in sub-Saharan Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommends circumcision be recognized as an intervention as part of a comprehensive program for prevention of HIV transmission in areas with high endemic rates of HIV.” (Source: WHO)”

    The studies claiming that circumcision reduces HIV infection were badly flawed and basically rigged. The cut men were not able to have sex for weeks, and also got condoms and sex ed. The control groups did not. Even then, the reduction was less than 2% and many infections were from IV drug use.

    Genital cutting on anyone under the age of 18 is sexual assault and genital mutilation. There must be a hard line against all such practices even if they have medical benefits – there will always be a way for someone to fabricate benefits for any surgery including FGM. There are studies showing that infibulation prevents HIV because women cannot have sex. The only clear difference between these practices is the ethical standards being applied to them. The debate over them is so heated because one side says that there are 150 million victims when there are actually 1.3 billion victims of both sexes.

    “The effects of FGM are profoundly debilitating and deleterious to women’s reproductive health and serves no useful purpose. It is a practice deeply rooted in misogyny, tyranny and the concept of women as chattel.”

    This statement is true of male circumcision as well. It is also misogynistic – an attempt to turn the penis into a blunt weapon. Women are then cut in order to better fit cut men. But this practice is not perpetuated by men and is not rooted in tyranny. It is worse than that because the outcome is horrible but the intent is good. That is more dangerous than hate. Women who cut their daughters do not hate them. They honestly believe that they are doing something beneficial.

    “Men who have been circumcised can still enjoy a robust sex life filled with numerous encounters, whereas women who have undergone FGM must suffer immense pain to remove the sutures, and as one can imagine, sexual intercourse thereafter would be excruciating.”

    This statement is a direct claim that all circumcised men enjoy sex and that complications do not exist. The fact that men are able to perform intercourse does not mean that they are enjoying it, and they may not be able to orgasm even if they can ejaculate (ejaculation and orgasm are separate events). The majority of women who have undergone FGM are not infibulated, and also claim to enjoy sex.

    There are millions of men who are suffering complications, and millions more who have problems and do not realize they are related to circumcision.

    Circumcision is sexual assault and mutilation by the same standards as FGM. Any argument that circumcision can be beneficial or any reference to it as anything other than sexual assault and patriarchal violence is a direct endorsement of all ritual mutilations including FGM. They cannot be combated separately.

    Let me simplify this: “Male circumcision has medical benefits” is a direct endorsement of FGM and is triggering to male survivors who cannot enjoy their bodies and some of whom are not able to reproduce normally.

    Reply

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