Why talking about 'mutilation' is problematic
Zero Tolerance Day
Today is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. CHOICE is defending the sexual and reproductive rights of young people worldwide, which include the right of girls and women to their bodily integrity. However, today we won’t be tweeting #endFGM, nor will we be shouting “Zero Tolerance for FGM”. Why? Our Youth Advocate Linda explains the problem with the term ‘mutilation’ and the dominant discourse around it.
Female circumcision constitutes a personal, intimate and often painful bodily experience for the women and girls who endure it. Simultaneously, it constitutes a global political issue and one’s choice of tone and terminology may be taken as a political statement.
Some refer to the practice with the culturally sensitive term ‘female circumcision’, as it is the terminology preferred by many subjects and practitioners. Others opt for medicalized language such as ‘traditional female genital surgeries’ or ‘female genital operations’. Opponents of the practice, use the term ‘female genital cutting (FGC)’ to show the dangers associated with the practice, or, more radically, employ the term ‘female genital mutilation (FGM)’ to reinforce the idea that the practice violates the human rights of women and girls. Unfortunately, this discourse, however well meant, contains strong undertones of cultural imperialism.
Being labeled ‘mutilated’
It is difficult for me, considering my own circumcision ceremony, to accept that what appeared to be expressions of joy and ecstatic celebrations of womanhood were actually – following the language of the anti-FGM discourse – “a brutal violation of my rights which deprived me from the chance to reach my full potential”. For me, my circumcision ceremony remains one of my most cherished memories from life in Guinea. As such, I had great difficulties growing up in The Netherlands, where I was labeled mutilated. For years, I was afraid to tell people that I was circumcised let alone add that I was proud to be circumcised. I felt like I was doing something wrong by accepting my body for what it was, embracing my inscriptions and the link they had to my Fulani ancestry.
Why the anti-FGM discourse needs to change
Employing the term ‘mutilation’ illustrates a one-sided and skewed understanding of the controversial practice. The dominant anti-FGM discourse leaves no room for the great diversity among women who have undergone the practice. Some women might indeed feel mutilated and therefore strengthened and acknowledged through this terminology, but for some – like me - the term ‘mutilated’ is simply very disempowering.
I wonder, whether supporters of the anti-FGM discourse ever think about the possible harmful implications the label ‘mutilated’ has on subjects and practitioners of female circumcision. I strongly believe that protecting the rights of girls and women who are forced into circumcisions is surely a noble and legitimate cause, but mounting a global campaign calling over 200 million African women mutilated, is morally unjustified. After all, in its quest to liberate women and girls from harm, the anti-FGM discourse radically reinforces imperial stereotypes of African culture and peoples as barbaric and imposes a western image of a ‘normal’ body and sexuality on African women whilst establishing them as the oppressed ‘other’.
Her body, her choice
We assume Linda's powerful story, in which the personal becomes political, explains well why we don't use the term ‘mutilation’ today: it can reinforce the victimization of African women instead of empowering them. But let's be clear, we do believe in the cause to get extra attention today for girls and women's right to bodily integrity: to have nothing happened to your body against your will. We believe this includes not having your body labeled as ‘mutilated’ against your will. Every body is different and every woman experiences and relates to her body in her own personal way and should feel the freedom to do so. #herbodyherchoice