Criticism of FGM should not be conflated with anti-Muslim bigotry. We need a critical conversation on the practise to protect women and girls.
I grew up surrounded by women, and it was lovely. I was curious about their lives. Like many young girls, I played “dress up” in their clothes which were too big for me at the time, I asked them endless questions about their love lives and I watched attentively as they applied their make up for special events. To me, they were all beauty queens or celebrities. They were my role models.
As I got older, I was appointed as a bridesmaid to weddings of women in my family. Perhaps not in the typical sense of a western wedding — of which I have little experience. I was often a witness to Islamic contracts before a wedding until my early adulthood when I decided I would rather not put a scarf on my head. Nonetheless, I gave my female relative and bride-to-be my favourite neck scarf to wear on her head as she had forgotten hers for her destination wedding.
I always thought the Islamic contract aspect of the wedding was archaic. To me, it was an interruption to the celebration itself. I also hated the feeling of wearing female Islamic garb. That evening, the female witnesses de-veiled, the bridesmaids and I wore violet dresses (at the request of a very picky bride), and celebrated with food, music, dancing, and gender integrated socialising. A female elder sat next to me in the middle of the wedding and she told me she was not upset that I did not enter the mosque. I told her, ‘You know, I have never seen photos of your wedding’. She laughed and said, ‘Good! It was nothing special. My dress was simple, not very beautiful. But at least my husband was excited to see me. Probably for the first night together more than anything else’. She shook her head and laughed, ‘You know, men’.
Although the jokes were funny to me, I was curious about Islamic wedding traditions. Over the next few days, still surrounded by family and elders, I asked more about common traditions. The elders seemed in agreement that the contract portion of an Islamic wedding was outdated and the real celebration lies in the connection between what they called ‘two love birds’. However, they agreed, ‘where is the harm if this is always how it has been done? What can we do? It is not hurting anyone and it keeps the traditional ones quiet’.
The elder woman I spoke with during the ceremony about her ‘not-so-special’ wedding walked with me along the beach. She told me how amazing she felt seeing how we all supported the bride and how many friends arrived to witness this union. Her sentiments prompted me to ask her about her own support system and wedding day.
Where she had grown up in the Middle East, she knew many women from tribes which hailed from parts of Africa and were actually victims of female genital mutilation, or FGM. She told me that although she felt her wedding was simple and humble, she was forever grateful that she was not forced to undergo that procedure for the sole purpose of being a ‘desirable bride’. She felt, ‘if all a woman has to do now is say a few words at the witness of an imam — some man with a book and a beard — and it makes the community happy and quiet, then so be it’.
Her friends at the time of her own wedding, just about a half century prior, told her that she was lucky to be ‘uncut’ and that they felt pain every day. They told her the romantic aspect of marriage seemed beautiful to them, but something reserved for fictional love stories. The act of being physically intimate with a man was not only off-putting, but a terrifying thought to them. They were raised to believe that pleasure during sexual intercourse is reserved for the man, and the only pleasure for the woman is to be a vessel for a child, preferably a baby boy. A woman who is ‘uncut’ is considered ‘undesirable for marriage’. And an unmarried woman is ‘a disgrace to her family and community’.
‘I will never understand,’ she said, ‘for my husband and myself, our only requirements were that we finish our education and we have enough money saved. We were in our early twenties. We always loved each other and we knew we would get married one day. I do not understand why the requirement for these women was to suffer and sometimes I wonder how they are doing’.
She went on to tell me that her friends were also taught that FGM was a means of protection, especially for women who work in rural areas late into the night. They told her the procedure would protect them from rape when they are tending to crops and performing other outdoor chores alone. Essentially, they were brainwashed from a young age to find honour and solace in this practice they later grew to regret, as it caused them chronic pain and fear of intimacy. Many were told that the procedure must take place at a young age, because women in their region have a ‘higher libido than other women’ and the procedure would ‘normalise’ them.
This conversation stayed with me for many years, and stays with me today. Her eyes as she recounted her story were full of sadness and sympathy for those women whom she called friends. A few years later as I immersed myself more in anthropological and sociological studies, I came across more material regarding FGM. I wanted to see how empirical evidence compared to the stories I heard.
‘Many are afraid to speak out as there is that fear of being judged. Everyone thinks it’s not the girl in Manchester, in Cardiff or London being taken away and having FGM but it’s exactly these girls, they are not girls who are immigrants or here on holiday’ -Nimco Ali, anti-FGM activist and founder of Daughters of Eve
FGM is a cultural phenomenon prevalent in mostly Muslim communities and is particularly prevalent in African Muslim communities. Contrary to popular belief, FGM is mentioned in the Islamic hadith however, it is not an accepted hadith by all Muslims. The practice of FGM is worldwide and transcends religious and cultural backgrounds.
Today, we are taught about cultural sensitivity. Often, to criticise a cultural practice can mean landing oneself among the ranks of xenophobes or other bigots. However criticism, no matter the culture being placed under scrutiny, is necessary. If a practice is harming individuals at an alarming rate, the problem must be recognised, and steps towards ending the problem must be taken. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 3 million girls are at risk for undergoing female genital mutilation procedures every year. Of these 3 million girls, the majority of them are under the age of 15. There is no way to clarify the exact numbers due to under-reporting.
As individuals living in free societies, many feel that condemning archaic practices that do not apply to them is none of their business and perhaps even misconstrued as a form of bigotry. However, remaining silent when presented with human rights violations under the guise of cultural sensitivity is in fact bigotry in and of itself. Our silence gives the platform to FGM apologists who come in a variety of packages. Many present themselves as innocuous and well-integrated in modernised society.
FGM Apology in Academia and in the Media
Fuambai Sia Ahmadu is a Sierra Leonean-American anthropologist who is credited with writing the opinion editorial, Defending FGM. In the article, Ahmadu addresses orientalist themes and what she perceives as a pitfall of humanitarianism and ‘post-colonial feminism’. She argues that FGM, for her, was a glorious process which gave her sexual liberation, the ability to orgasm from sexual intercourse, and is a practice which is often misrepresented by western human rights activists. Ahmadu makes the argument that FGM as she experienced is not much different than what western cosmetic surgeons refer to as cosmetic procedures ranging from labiaplasty to ‘vaginal rejuvenation’. Ahmadu believes that the African procedure is being appropriated by western cosmetic surgeons whilst her procedure is condemned as a human right’s violation.
The aforementioned arguments by Ahmadu are not cogent because they compare women and girls facing serious human rights violations with women who are not facing the same severity of oppression. For example, Ahmadu’s defence of FGM by comparing it with vaginal cosmetic procedures are misleading because consent was given by those whom she is describing, whereas ritualistic FGM is typically not consented. The anecdotal is not necessarily empirical and in the case of Ahmadu, her experience is a description of an anomaly. She was an adult at the time of her procedure, was given a detailed description of what to expect, and gave explicit consent. This is not the case for the majority of women who face such procedures. Many women suffer due to inhumane religious and cultural practices which may require intervention by allies, be they western or not, for the sake of global women’s welfare.
In western rhetoric revolving social issues, victim-hood is a recurring subject. Identifying who is and who is not a so-called victim becomes a complex topic. Arguably, identifying an individual or a group of people as victimised becomes a tool of Orientalism. However, this theoretical framework can prove malevolence if identifying a victim is completely avoided in the name of political correctness or perceived ethics. We must recognise that there are times when we as individuals living in a free western society are in the position to stand with those who need our assistance.
Ethical analysis requires nuance because the theoretical framework is not static in every case. For example, when discussing the human rights violations that women in Muslim communities face, one may argue that women in Christian or Jewish communities face similar issues. This form of counter-argument is problematic because Islam is politicised. There are fewer parts of the world which are openly ruled by Canon Law, for example, than parts of the world ruled by Shari’a. This matters because there are many tenants of Shari’a which are blatantly sexist and oppressive for women and girls.
Additionally, self-imposed segregation is highly common in Islamic communities. In many cases, Islamic teachings encourage self-imposed segregation. Many so-called outsiders may feel uncomfortable criticising those who come from a tight-knit cultural or religious community, but the reality comes down to caring for our communities as a whole. It is the duty of ourselves as individuals to uphold the values of where we reside.
Defeating Double Standards
Currently, western societies are failing at addressing human rights violations and are arguably welcoming their apologists. For example, Ahmadu was invited by SBS-Australia in 2013, a national public television network, with no notable feminist outcry. Human rights activist and FGM survivor Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, was forced to cancel her 2017 tour in Australia due to security concerns and was even met by a smear campaign from the Muslim community. A campaign which was celebrated by many in the so-called feminist community.
Another instance of welcoming such rhetoric occurred in Dar-al-Hijra mosque, located just outside of Washington, D.C., where this year Imam Shaker El-Sayed spoke in favour of FGM citing that it may be ‘prescribed’ if a girl appears to be ‘hyper-sexual’. The comments were later condemned by the mosque after localised outrage which quickly grew to worldwide outrage at these statements thanks to a video of the lecture which was posted to the internet. Many religious centres are well-known for hosting extremist ideologies, but they are rarely condemned without the help of whistle blowers.
Incidences of FGM in the west, such as the recent arrests made in Detroit, dismissed as isolated incidences are toxic to society as a whole and have global implications. Ahmadu’s deplorable stance on conflating the condemnation of FGM with anti-African bigotry is only one indication that cultural discourse requires improvement. This is especially evident when victims of FGM both in the western world and elsewhere find themselves ignored by the masses or are even forced to de-platform when attempting to speak out.
The discussion surrounding women’s bodies is a complicated one due to the variety of voices that are present in the global social arena. Defending the stances of regressive, anti-woman voices — no matter how eloquent or charismatic in delivery and appearance — should be met with reason and resistance. In my early adulthood. finding that a simple religious wedding ceremony was slightly off-putting is now, in my opinion, a minuscule concern in comparison to the violence against women and girls which occurs today and which our societies continue to defend. A line must be drawn between respect for culture and respect for quality of life and human rights for all. If a cultural practice includes human rights violations, it deserves no respect at all.