By Senti Sojwal
Monday, November 26th, the United Nations General Assembly approved a long awaited resolution to globally ban female genital mutilation, which approximately 140 million women worldwide have had to endure. Though already outlawed in most countries, the UN resolution marks the first time the issue has been denounced at such a high level. 110 countries co-sponsored the resolution, which calls on states to condemn the practice and launch educational campaigns to eliminate it as well as enact legislation to prohibit this form of violence against women and to end impunity for violators. The resolution has been hailed by some feminists as an important victory, but critics argue that the discussion takes place in an attitude of cultural imperialism, perpetuating binaries between the “liberal West” and the “backwards East”.
African women who have undergone the tradition have spoken out against opponents of the procedure, arguing that they “exaggerate the medical dangers, misunderstand the effects on sexual pleasure, and mistakenly view the removal of parts of the clitoris as a practice that oppresses women.” Clearly adopting an attitude of cultural superiority and labeling certain traditions as barbaric is not a productive way to enact social and political change, but the question of how to move forward in this case is not easily answerable. Painting a picture of traditional practices as “uncivilized” is just as harmful as regarding resolutions such as this one as solely “imperialistic,” and ignores the nuances in discussions of cultural perception. Adult females should be able to decide for themselves if and when they would like to partake in the practice as an initiation rite, just as adults decide to pierce their genitals or “enhance” them with cosmetic surgery. The issue is complicated by the fact that oftentimes young girls are subject to FGM without their consent, and in unsafe medical conditions.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as clitoridectomy and female circumcision, usually involves removing the clitoris and/or labia and other genital parts. It can lead to infection, painful sex, complications in childbirth, and death. The centuries-old practice, which stems from the belief that FGM controls women’s sexuality, enhances fertility, or is religiously required, eliminates any sexual pleasure derived from the vaginal area. According to the UN, 70 million girls in 2010 alone were subject to the practice. Amnesty International has claimed that FGM is commonplace in 28 countries in Africa as well as in Yemen, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia, and certain parts of South America, but it is also a worldwide concern because it is practiced by immigrants in diasporic communities.
Some critics have criticized Americans and Europeans for outlawing FGM while endorsing other forms of genital mutilation like male circumcision and vaginal cosmetic surgery for women. Others argue that banning FGM is not the solution, since girls and women can be ostracized from their communities if they do not undergo the procedure, and will be subject to greater discrimination. The comparison to male circumcision is a powerful one, and should encourage those of us in the “liberal West” to examine our own cultural practices. Whether or not the UN resolution will lead to greater female empowerment worldwide, it has clearly sparked a thought provoking international debate on agency, cultural relativism, and female oppression.