The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Nick/Cut

Posted by Mel Campbell on May 24, 2010

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.

10 Responses to “Nick/Cut”

  1. Y said

    I don’t think that it’s so ironic when the FGC that is the cause of outcry is on defenceless minors unable to consent. Adult women surgically altering their genitals is certainly an issue for feminism, however the fact that they are able to consent is a huge part of the differences between both those scenarios for me.

    I don’t think these subjects need to be conflated at all times, I think the FGC of babies can and should at times be discussed as a social and feminist issue independently of the FGC of women because of the complex differences in motivation and social pressures surrounding the issues. Of course they can be compared and discussed together but it seems to me you are saying “if you talk about the forced surgery on babies you must also speak of surgery performed on consenting adults because they are both about genitals” and that to me is a very simplistic take on both these scenarios.

    What is more ironic to me is that FGC is causing the outcry but not MGC, which is probably more prevalent (about 10% in Australia) and is equally as disrespectful to the bodily autonomy of the babies it is being performed on. What is entirely missing from the discussion is forced genital surgery on intersex babies to ‘correct’ their genitalia.

  2. Destructor said

    Surely the difference is that some women (and men) have the right to choose to pierce, bleach and surgically reshape their genitals; whilst infants, male and female, have genital mutilation thrust upon them. If we’re going to have a debate about this, put me on the side of not forcing a parents’ backwards religious flagellation on their children, please.

  3. lilacsigil said

    You are missing one important point in your comparison – women who pierce, bleach and surgically reshape their genitals are adults, who have consented to do so. The very minor form of FGC described here should, then, be available to those women. But it’s not adult women who are subject to FGC – it’s girls. If the cutting really is important as a religious and cultural ceremony, make it available to adults who so choose. And yes, I think the same about circumcising boys and men.

  4. “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.”

    Well put. I agree entirely. Whilst I do not agree with the practice of FGC, or for that matter, male circumcision, I do find it hypocritical that there can be so much outcry against a ‘foreign’ and ‘primative’ cultural practice, yet, at the same time, we fail to see the damaging practices that mainstream western culture is placing on women. I’d like to see them both brought to popular debate.

  5. James said

    Hmm. One the one hand, I wonder about the specificity of such a Girls Protection Act – if the signatories were serious about this whole business of autonomy and preservation of natural sexual pleasure, why not ban all non medically-indicated genital procedures, and transportation for that purpose, etc? On the other hand, perhaps it is better to protect some than none at all, as I would imagine such a ban would never pass.

  6. Stuart said

    Let’s try that again…

    “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.”

    I don’t think this qualification is really part of the issue. The latter operations are done by choice, the former is not. I think your earlier point about minors being unable to consent is more salient.

  7. Natasha said

    I feel a bit the same about this as I do about the burka debate – I don’t really like the practice but I can see that a ban is only likely to be harmful for the very people whose rights and well-being we are indignant on behalf of in the first place.

    I really think this issue requires a two-pronged response. You need to address the culture that imposes the practice in the first instance in a top down sense (to clarify re: burka wearing, my opposition is not to the garment but to a lack of choice for some women). So not targetting the practice itself but the values and perhaps dogma that is imposing it, and try to address that – a HUGE task I know. And at the same time you need to acknowledge that the practice is going on and ensure that it doesn’t further exclude or harm the women it targets. So yes, in the case of genital cutting, perform it in a clinically safe environment that minimises risk.

    But to undertake one of these approaches without also undertaking the other is pretty useless in my opinion.

  8. jo said

    This is horrifying. I came across an article yesterday saying that Australia is considering it too:

    http://www.news.com.au/national/push-to-let-australian-doctors-mutilate-genitals-of-baby-girls/story-e6frfkvr-1225872274181

    A significant issue is that FGC is performed on children against their will. It is a different matter for an adult woman to make a choice about what she does with her genitals.

  9. Jaa said

    Great post. I also was in two minds about this. Mutilative surgery is slicing open your boobs to shove silicon in or injecting your face with botulism.

    I think it comes back to that idea of legalising something = condoning/promoting it, which I don’t necessarily think is true. eg Legalising weed or prostitution or homosexuality or abortion all come from different points of view relating to any ‘moral’ ground, but the basis of it is about recognising you can’t and won’t prevent it it occurring, so make it safe, available and transparent.

    But legalising prostitution ignores the core subjugation of women, and neither will this.

  10. Jaa said

    I meant so will this. ehh.

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