There is currently a MONSTROUS DEBATE brewing in the US surrounding female genital cutting*. The Academy of American Pediatrics is reviewing its policy on paediatric genital surgery in girls, and has caused uproar for mooting the idea of a “ritualistic genital nick”.
The committee aims to address the ethical dilemmas of doctors dealing with East African families who say plainly that if the American doctor does not perform the procedure, they will fly their daughter to Africa to undergo the surgery there, where it is likely to be much more radical, painful and life-endangering.
The committee’s chair, Seattle paediatrician and bioethicist Dr Doug Diekema, says the putative ‘nick':
“would remove no tissue, would not touch any significant organ but, rather [it] would be a small nick of the clitoral hood which is the equivalent of the male foreskin – nothing that would scar, nothing that would do damage”
The ‘nick’ is being hailed as a major capitulation to politically correct cultural relativism, as a legal step backwards for America (where FGC is totally illegal), and as an undermining of feminists and community activists who have campaigned against the practice.
Two members of US Congress are proposing a bipartisan bill called the Girls Protection Act that would make it illegal to transport a minor outside the United States for the purposes of undergoing FGC. Many European countries, beginning with Norway, already have similar legislation.
FCG is illegal in Australia, but an ABC report from February 2010 suggests that the surgery is being performed illegally as children are sometimes admitted to hospital with post-operative complications.
Zeinab Mohamud, who works at the Family and Reproductive Rights Education Program at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital, says that the practice is cultural, not religious. “When something is cultural and the people have been doing it for so long, it’s not easy to either eliminate it or to say, ‘you have got a bad culture’,” she told ABC News.
As a feminist, I find it difficult to articulate a position on this. I am strongly against genital surgery for any reasons but functional ones (for instance, repairing fistulas). I find clitoridectomy and infibulation to be mutilative procedures aimed at destroying women’s sexual pleasure and autonomy, and I do feel uneasy about any move that could be interpreted as officially sanctioning the cutting of otherwise healthy minors who are legally unable to consent.
But at the same time, I find it ironic that there’s such an outcry against a proposed, hypothetical and (it seems to me) minor surgery in a country where it’s becoming increasingly mainstream for women to pierce, bleach and surgically reshape their own genitals. If we’re starting a debate about genitals and feminism, I would be uneasy for it to focus only on ‘primitive’ practices endured only by African and Muslim girls.
* I’m using the term “female genital cutting” or FGC here in order to create a neutral tone. “Female circumcision” has been criticised for understating the invasiveness of clitoridectomy and infibulation, whereas “female genital mutilation” has been criticised for increasing the stigma for patients who’ve had these procedures. See here for more information.