TL;DR: Racialized women are stereotyped as being child-like and incapable of consenting to what happens to their own bodies. This is wrong. Importantly, the guidelines created by the WHO to define what they call “female genital mutilation” is maintaining these stereotypes; as it assumes no racialized woman ever has, can, would, or should consent to any form of genital modification. This is also wrong. Stop calling all alterations of the female genitalia an act of mutilation (with or without consent, regardless of race/ethnicity). That is a logical fallacy called stacking the deck, and it’s wrong. The WHO leaves all white women who modify for aesthetics to go about their business, but paints all racialized women who modify (with or without consent!) as helpless victims. It’s racist, this is wrong, and it needs to stop. Modifying without consent is wrong, is rightfully called mutilation, and should stop. BUT! Upholding racist stereotypes isn’t helping either women who have been mutilated or infants, girls, and women who are at risk for being mutilated. Full stop.
The right to say “No” doesn’t mean much if one does not also have the right to say “Yes”. This is the crux of my argument here: I am not even addressing the matter of non-consenting persons, because that need not be argued at all. But what I do find important enough to write 3,000+ words about, is how we construct the illusion of choice where there is only one real option — to either declare “No” or be deprived of the right to participate in one’s ancestral cultural traditions anyway.
This politically charged topic became a global campaign in the 1970s, initiated in large part due to radical cultural feminist activism, to categorically eradicate a distinguished set of traditional cultural practices originating in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Prior to that time, North America quietly carried out its own history of participating in these practices, at the expense of the sexual autonomy of many young girls. Those who had been infibulated, cauterized, or treated with clitorectomy, were clinically diagnosed as medical problems, for what was considered masturbating “too frequently.” No similar clinical treatment was ever enacted by medical communities against young boys for the similar “problems” (although some were subjected, by religious institutions and family members, to abusive treatment). The medical communities of North America also continued until the 1990s to surgically reassign intersex infants and children, with what passed as a socially prescribed phenotypic sex, often without the consent of either parent or patient. When that table turned, it seems, the entire Western medical community also turned its morally condemning gaze onto the set of female genital cutting practices defined by the World Health Organization as mutilation.
Most recently, an Afro-Swedish artist gained instant world-wide fame when he created and successfully exhibited an “art installation” in which he screamed (wearing black-face) as the “head” of a cake shaped like a caricature of a black woman’s body (complete with neck rings and black icing). The reason he was screaming? Participants were cutting slices out of “her” body, starting at the clitoris. You can see a 40-second video clip of this alleged attempt to “raise consciousness” about the suffering and experiences of black women who have had their genitals cut, by clicking here. I strongly encourage that everyone take a moment right now, before reading the rest of what I have to say, to read this article first, which presents a grossly under-represented perspective in critique of the “art installation”, as well as the distinguished lack of black voices in the current dialogues about FGM resulting from that particular exhibition.
The World Health Organization Campaign Against FGM
It is quite easy to locate information the WHO has compiled, in order to raise awareness of what it defines as “female genital mutilation”, or FGM. Any search engine will bring up WHO fact sheets, such as this one, about how many young women, girls, and/or infants are assumed to be at risk of undergoing some form of FGM, in addition to a description of the various aesthetic results and actual medical risks of these many different practices. Fact sheets and academic articles also occasionally contain depictions of the aesthetic products of the four types of FGM as defined by the WHO, adjacent to descriptions of what has changed from medical anatomy. I do not care to dispute these facts, as I accept them as a part of the global reality. But I do intend to dispute the manner in which this information is constructed by default and distributed to the world, as hundreds of cultural anthropologists already have been doing for decades.
Stacking the Deck With Western Standards for Mutilation
First and foremost, the exclusive focus of the WHO campaign is the aesthetic result of these practices (the matter of consent is addressed below, because the WHO completely neglects it — see below). Focus on aesthetics isn’t really surprising, considering that the word mutilation directly implies that a disfiguring change has taken place. This careful word choice, which I would argue is very much a deliberate polarizing act on the part of the WHO, guarantees that all dialogue about FGM is focused by default on enforcing intactness as a necessary attribute for the full expression of female genital beauty (and function). It simply does not allow for the existence or validity of a different beauty standard (or sexuality). When an argument is constructed in such a way as to reject criticism, this is referred to as stacking the deck. When we look at WHO fact sheets on practices and aesthetic results of FGM, we observe that FGM is described as medically unnecessary alterations of the female genitalia. The WHO exhibits no trouble at all, painting all alterations of the female genitalia as mutilation, but clearly expresses through its actions that only racialized women are incapable of consent.
Indeed, you will not find me arguing whether or not any variation of female genital cutting is medically necessary, because it’s not. However, it is also medically unnecessary to use surgery to make the inner labia of Western women more symmetrical or smaller, or to surgically tighten the walls of their vaginal canals to make them more sexually exciting for individual men. It is also medically unnecessary for a piercer to conduct such elective body modification procedures as clitoral prepuce piercings, splitting, or removal; piercings in the inner labia or outer labia; or a piercing called a fourchette or female guiche, which is placed through the perineum by piercing from behind the vaginal introitus. Yet these medically unnecessary procedures, which are all forms of female genital cutting that sufficiently meet the WHO category requirements of Class I, II, or IV FGM, are conducted every day in plastic surgeon’s offices and piercing studios throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe. I personally have had a total of four genital piercings that are described by the criteria for Class IV FGM. I have also had more than one female sexual partner, who have undergone one or more surgical alterations of their genitalia, in order to have a more satisfactory aesthetic appearance and/or sexual function — all to satisfy their male sexual partner(s).
In fact, plastic surgeons in the US and Canada, who offer their services in the form of medically unnecessary alterations to the female genitals (which offer those patients no real health benefit), openly advertise these services. Here’s an example of one of those surgeons. And while piercers don’t plaster their female genital piercing portfolio all over the internet, they don’t have to. I knew after reading an article on female genital piercing in an issue of Playgirl (note where the features lists “Let your sexual freedom ring” — how could I ever forget that article?), that any piercer with enough experience (or the illusion of enough experience) would give me one if I gave them enough cash. I succeeded in getting my first genital piercing before I was considered legally able to provide consent in this country (which was attributed to me a remarkable four years after I was considered legally able to consent to penile-vaginal sex with someone who is within two years of age). Yet my piercers, and my previous sexual partners’ doctors, aren’t all being brought up on charges of human rights violations. So I ask myself: what’s the deal, WHO? But I already know the answer.
Presumed Categorical Lack of Consent on the Part of Racialized Women
What stands out to me about the definition and description of the various risks and aesthetic outcomes of female genital cutting practices across the globe, is the lack of declaration that consent matters, or has any bearing on the issue at all. To the WHO, consent on the part of racialized women is irrelevant to the conversation about what happens to their bodies — this reflects an offensively ignorant, stereotyped vision of women of “the Orient” as helpless victims with child-like faculties. It is both assumed and implied that no brown-skinned girl or young woman ever has, can, would, or should consent to any form of female genital cutting. While I will not dispute that infants and very young girls are unable to provide consent (nor will I dispute that therefore, it is unethical to conduct female genital cutting on infants and very young girls), what about the rest of those girls and women who have been given various forms of FGC? Is the appearance of their genitalia after the fact really of greater significance, than whether or not they provided consent? Is social pressure to conform to the group identity within religious communities to blame, for young women and girls who continue to experience FGC (consenting) and FGM (non-consenting), even in tribal pastoral communities that have existed since long before either Christianity or Islam were present in their homelands and communities?
I remain skeptical; and I feel it is the responsibility of everyone outside of medical communities, directly effected religious and migrant communities in Western countries, and directly effected communities in the homelands of these practices, to remain equally skeptical. Cultural anthropology has a rich history in recent decades, of engaging directly with this difficult subject, both with individual women and with their communities, where the practice of female genital cutting has been experienced and/or maintained. Many tribal pastoral communities, such as the Hamer people operate relatively independently in remote areas of African and Middle Eastern countries. Some other communities, like the Maasai people (note: this wikipedia article is a relatively brief, and therefore poor quality, representation of the extensive anthropological study that has been compiled to date), are relatively well-known though less remote, frequently receiving welcomed contact from various interested groups. Female genital cutting is not practised in all tribal pastoral communities, though various forms of body modification have been observed, among which FGC can be included. Of those pastoral tribes who have been known to conduct forms of FGC, many do operate with consent. And while that consent may not always fulfill Western requirements of informed consent, it is still there.
Analogy: Green & Red Balls
Imagine there are two ball pits. One represents North America, and it is believed to be full of green balls. The other represents Africa and the Middle East, and it is believed to be full of red balls. Green means yes, consent was established. Red means no, there was no opportunity to provide consent or refuse. That means that in North America, where the dominant culture is white-washed and Westernized, it is assumed that all Western women are capable of consenting to having their genitals altered. Whereas in the Middle East and Africa, where the dominant culture is neither white-washed nor Westernized, it is assumed that all women are incapable of consenting.
The WHO creates all sorts of information and fact sheets, and is quoted everywhere in literature — it is the WHO itself that advances the claim that the ball pit is full of only-red-balls-ever in the Middle East and Africa, and the rest of the world blindly accepts it. Cultural anthropologists enter the ball pit and wave their arms around trying to call attention to the presence of green balls when they find some. The WHO says “No, it’s red. You can tell by its shape.” The cultural anthropologist, taken aback, says “But it’s green. It’s not the same shade of green as over there in the other ball pit, but I know what green looks like.” The WHO takes all those green balls and paints them red, handing them back to a stunned anthropologist. The rest of the world continues to believe that in Africa and the Middle East, women’s consent doesn’t exist, therefore there are only red balls in their ball pit.
Meanwhile, in North America, in the ball pit full of green balls, we’re hiding a secret. Many of those green balls were in fact red at one time or another, until someone painted over it with green. We take great pride in the belief that all the balls in our ball pit have always been green, and will never be red unless they come from somewhere else. We think we have a superior type of ball, too. Whereas ours are small and perfectly (unnaturally) round, in the other ball pit, they are a little bigger and sometimes they aren’t quite round. Even though they’re still balls, and you can still roll them, we just have it in our head that ours are better. Our medical doctors told us so, and offer services for “correcting” the roundness of our green balls, even if the only issue is just that they are a little bigger than the rest.
Once in a while, a couple of those slightly-bigger sometimes-not-quite-round red balls make their way into our ball pit of green balls. Next thing we know, the person who brought those red balls over wants to make more of them, and our doctors educate them on how green (consent) is far better, but also being perfectly round is just the best way to be. Our doctors convince them to accept that green is better, and rightfully so, but they do this by threatening to take their balls away forever and refusing to deal with making red balls (which would get our doctors locked up). The entire world continues to deny the existence of green balls where all the red ones come from, and we just keep doing little touch-up jobs on the paint whenever the green chips off of one of ours. We also repeat, like a mantra, “They’re all green here. You can tell by the shape.”
I’m arguing here that it’s wrong to paint all the green balls that are unearthed in the Middle East and Africa with a red paintbrush. I’m arguing that it’s wrong for the WHO to allow everyone else to believe that there are only ever red balls in that ball pit, while it continues to create all the information that everyone relies on to argue that the ball pit only contains only-red-balls-ever. I’m also arguing that whether it’s perfectly round or slightly not or slightly bigger or it’s always been small, it’s still a goddamned ball. What difference does it make unless you’re trying to fit them all through a perfectly round tunnel of a particularly restricted size?
If consent means green and red means no-consent, green is way moar awesomer. I will never dispute that red is terrible. But I ask that the WHO put the goddamned red paintbrush down, and acknowledge the important distinction between green and red — consent and a lack thereof — instead of disseminating information that says that shape is more important. It’s as simple as that. Otherwise, we continue to see conversations that evolve straight from the tired old racist stereotype, that all the balls from their ball pit are red, and they are never ever ever green ever.
A Dialogue of Western Arrogance Unfolds
Medical communities around the globe are bound by a commitment to non-maleficence, and as such, have adopted the stance of engaging with effected communities and individuals, in an effort to educate them on the very serious risks of practising FGC. Many medical doctors in Western and African countries are required by law to refuse to provide these services as well. But there is another side to this commitment, especially concerning Western doctors, that is rarely acknowledged (if ever): a North American doctor is strictly prohibited against conducting any purely elective (i.e., medically unnecessary) modification of the human body that results in a deliberate aberration from social norms of beauty (this has been criminalized throughout the continent, as a form of medical malpractice). Medical doctors have a number of legitimate reasons for being opposed to both FGC and FGM as if they were the same thing — in medicine, these practices are indistinguishable except by who (in theory) is consenting and who is not; and they categorically contradict Western medicinal values, by virtue of being medically unnecessary.
The answer Western medical communities offer is to engage with and educate effected individuals, their communities, and those who are at risk. In fact, engagement and education has become a global effort — one I fully support. Outside of medical communities, however, when the conversation comes up, it consistently reveals a hostile ideological atmosphere of unchecked racism and cultural imperialism. The dialogue consistently comes back to the Western medical standard of how mutilation is characterized, coupled with the presumption of a categorical lack of consent. The dialogue rapidly becomes shaped by the expression of an urgent need to colonize all areas of the world where this practice happens without the approval of Western hegemony in order to categorically eradicate these practices, or brown-skinned baby girls will continue to be held down and butchered in the name of Islam. And until the WHO changes their 50-year-old detailing of why FGM is a problem, this racist/imperialist bullshit will continue. The colonize-and-eradicate position reflects a blatant and callous disregard for the relationship between the current generation in North America and the global history of colonialism — a total disregard constructed, promoted, and maintained by the WHO’s current definition of FGM.
Individuals outside of medical communities and outside of communities that are directly effected by the continuation or termination of FGC/FGM practices, who insist on adopting the colonize-and-eradicate stance towards these issues that have absolutely no bearing on their personal lives, are the bearers of the onus to ask themselves what they are accomplishing. Are they advancing the rights of effected women and their communities by promoting an attitude towards them that diminishes the value of their cultural background? How about by promoting an attitude that implies that their capacity to consent is completely irrelevant to any conversation that concerns what happens to their bodies? Or by actively denigrating beauty standards that don’t conform to those advanced by Western hegemony? Spoiler alert: the answer is no in every case. Dissent, insult and eradication are not sought by the racialized women who have experienced either a violation of their rights or a modification achieved with their consent. Our unchecked racism and imperialist attitude are not solicited by communities where infants, girls, and women are at risk of being mutilated. And nothing will change (even though it should, in the case of non-consent) if we base our support for cultural change from within on centuries-old racial stereotypes and imperialist entitlement to colonize all racialized female bodies.
This entry was edited on April 21 by the addition of the TL;DR disclaimer now located at the top, as well as a couple of important statements that were previously missing, and a few extra words throughout , in order to more accurately reflect the argument contained in the TL;DR disclaimer (which seems to magically get “lost” otherwise). It was edited again on April 23 to include the entire gross oversimplification that is the red and green ball analogy. And finally, a few words were added again on May 11, to focus the point of this blog entry from the very beginning of it.