— Marcella Mizzi

ROME– Every day, women are confronted with patriarchy’s control over them. Society tells them how to look, act and live their lives. Abortion bans, veils, ideal standards of beauty and femininity are all meant to control the ‘dangerous’ female body. Few forms of control are as misogynist as ‘FGM’ or Female Genital Mutilation. This harmful practice intentionally alters or causes injury to female genital organs for non- medical reasons. What is behind this illegal cultural practice?

The WHO estimates that around 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM. Most of them live in Africa and the Middle East, although several immigrant communities have brought it in US, Europe and Australia as well. Girls as young as 18 months are cut in insalubrious environments by the communities’ grandmothers, elderly women who perpetuate the practice. In countries, such as Egypt, FGM is undertaken in clinics by healthcare professionals, making the procedure appear more acceptable. Such experiences have obvious negative psychological and physical repercussions on the girls, who later on will become complicit to having their daughters and granddaughters cut as well.

There are four different degrees of FGM. The most extreme and severe is Type 3, also known as infibulation, in which the girl’s genitals are completely cut and stitched together until she is married or in marriageable age. They will be opened again only for reproduction and child birth. This is deemed to be women’s only role in rigid gender-based societies.

The justifications behind the mutilation of the female body are plentiful and include cultural, social, moral, financial and sexual reasons, as well as pure aesthetics and cleanliness. FGM is considered to be a prerequisite for marriage, which is still for many women in developing countries a must for survival, to gain social and economic status. Parents who agree to the practice genuinely believe that allowing their daughters to be cut is the right thing to do. Even those who are against it, face enormous pressure by their communities. FGM is a necessary practice, a rite of passage between childhood and adulthood. Men in these communities consider cut women more attractive, as well as feminine and modest. This is because the mutilation will make sex unpleasant or extremely painful, thus deterring any threat of extra-marital intercourse. Uncut women face social stigma within their communities, being labelled as prostitutes, unclean and unworthy of a husband.

Few outside of these communities would regard FGM as a positive cultural tradition. In 2012, the UN General Assembly banned the practice in its Resolution on the Elimination of FGM. It is a violation of the right to health as girls and women face immediate and long term risks to their health, ranging from infections, heavy bleeding and even death. It is also a violation of the rights of children, as it is often practiced on minors whose best interests are not properly taken into consideration. Moreover, the right to sexual and physical integrity as well as the freedom from torture, cruel and inhuman treatment are violated as the extremely painful mutilation is exercised without the girls’ consent and will prevent them from ever experiencing sexual fulfilment. Lastly, it is a violation of the right to be free from discrimination, as it is a blatant gender-based discrimination girls face in order to be in conformity with male desire.

Embedded gender inequality and hatred against women is what lies behind the official excuses of marriageability, femininity and health benefits. Nobody asks these girls and women what is best for their health and integrity. Patriarchal society puts them at the disposal of what men want.

Women suffer in silent and rarely have the power or the courage to bring the issue out in the open, where it can become political. As with most issues concerning women, FGM is relegated to the private sphere, and so, it is left at the mercy of tradition and culture. Governments instead, must do whatever in their power to bring these issues out to the public sphere. To be truly effective, they must enact laws that prohibit the practice, as well as invest in education and awareness. As for the international community, a lot must be done to pressure governments to join the international outcry. A positive example is the Government of Somalia, which is taking a progressive stance of supporting female Somali political leaders and survivors of FGM in banning the practice. Any concrete result is yet to be seen, however, this change of attitude is indeed welcome.

Further Reading:

Are you Cut for Marriage? The FGM Practice
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