As I am sure many of you are aware, there is often a silence surrounding the issue of female genital mutilation.
So much of this silence comes from the belief that FGM is something unique to African and Muslim communities, and that ‘cultural sensitivity’ dictates that women and men outside the FGM practising community must not speak about it.
But we need to start breaking this silence, and we need to start seeing where there are links between the issues around FGM, and the wider, encompassing issues that exist around controlling women’s sexuality, women’s bodies, as well as the cultural idealisation of women’s sexuality. This isn’t a cultural problem just for African women. It is part of a much wider issue about the way we think about women’s bodies and violence against women.
When we listen to the women and the men in the film The Cutting Tradition, we hear attitudes towards women’s bodies and sexuality that we are all familiar with. We hear that women’s labia and clitorises are ugly, that they dangle down, that they are not “neat”. This is used to explain why girls are cut by the FGM practising communities in the film, and we see this very same language being used towards young girls, girls as young as sixteen, who are seeking labiaplasty. They have their labia cut and trimmed to achieve “neatness”. This procedure happens in order for the woman to fit a narrow and male defined version of sexy, learned from porn movies. Ironically, if it wasn’t so upsetting, in the quest to achieve this narrow definition of sexiness, the surgery often causes a loss of sexual feeling. Labiaplasty is now so mainstream, that celebrity doctors go on TV on Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies and help young girls achieve the ‘designer vagina’ they have seen in porn movies. Girls are learning that their genitals are ugly from an early age, and are hearing a message that they need
correcting in order to fit the idealised version of femininity sold to us. The setting may be different, but the language, and the source, is the same.
Because just as with FGM, this all stems from a hatred and disgust of women’s bodies and sexuality, and a desire to try and make them fit into a dominant cultural view of what is correct. And although FGM, and labiaplasty are ostensibly done by women or chosen by women, they are ultimately done in order to please men, either by creating the ‘perfect vagina’ of porn, or by readying the girl for marriage.
Female genital mutilation, from the operations done on wayward or historical girls in Victorian England, to the cutting tradition across the range of cultures we have seen in the film today, to labiaplasty happening in expensive doctor surgeries across the world, all of it is almost always rooted in the same source – a desire to control women’s sexuality and a disgust over women’s genitals and sexuality.
FGM does not standalone. FGM is not a cultural issue. It is not something that we cannot or should not talk about. Lets start seeing FGM as part of a pattern of gender based violence that oppresses all women. Because when we do that, we can start to tackle the very roots of the problem, and end this human rights violation.