Words matter, especially when they’re about FGM/C.

For the past couple of months, one particular topic has been following me around. I wrote a final paper on it last semester. A paper on the same topic crossed my desk for editing about a month later. And finally, this past week as part of another course I had to comment and peer review yet another paper on the issue. What is it, and what do I feel so compelled to blog about it?

So let’s talk about FGM/C, also know as Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision. If you have issues with this topic, and need to “applesauce” it, which we say in our friend group as a safe word, then please, scroll down and read another one of our lovely posts on a less violent and uncomfortable subject. But if your curiosity is piqued and you want to know more, read on.

I won’t go into the details of FGM/C here, if you’re unfamiliar feel free to consult the UNHCR or other organizations for info.

Also, this is going to be a long one, folks.

When I wrote my paper on FGM/C, I spent a decent amount of time reading the writings, statements, interviews, POVs, etc. of women who had been through the process. I particularly liked Empathy and Rage: Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature because it opened my eyes to why so many people (including both writers of the other papers) get FGM/C wrong, and how the current views in our millennial culture grossly misrepresent it and the people that the practice impacts.

Let me be clear. I do believe that FGM/C is a human rights violation and that we, as an international community, should support the women and communities who are trying to provide those alternatives to the practice. However, I vehemently disagree with the way FGM/C is represented, how the women and communities in regions where FGM/C is practiced are not given voice or agency, and how judgmental, paternalistic attitudes attempting to “address” or “end” the practice are used to discuss the issue.

The broad, sweeping stereotypes regarding “cultures” that practice FGM/C, or as the papers I read described “Africa” are usually the first issue that comes up. “Africa” is a region of the globe, not a homogenous collection of similar or like-minded states. In fact, there is arguably no place on earth that has as numerous and disparate groups as in Africa. So while it may be convenient for writers to broadly generalize, such stereotypes are perpetuating the white man’s burden and sentiments of a backward Africa, and are completely unhelpful at promoting effective, locally contextualized programs or projects.

Addressing locality of an issue is a logistical necessity, but rather than alienating particular groups or regions, I believe it is best to approach the topic more broadly. Rather than saying, “African cultures practice this horrible practice and we must work to end it,” why not first acknowledge that there are terrible human rights violations occurring in all nations? If we must point fingers, then at least we will not fall into age-old trap of “a spec in another’s eye, a log in our own.” If outside involvement must happen, at least take up the fight not from a single perspective, but only while acknowledging others’. And perhaps the best way to assist is to simply stop perpetuating stigmas about the cultures in which FGM/C takes place.

Maybe now is a good time to pause and recognize all the amazing work that women across disparate groups practicing FGM/C are already doing to make great strides in replacing this practice with other coming of age traditions, with education, and alternatives that provide a similar function within the society while not perpetuating violence against women or supporting any patriarchal structures. This seems to be underappreciated (read: not mentioned) in the peer papers that I’ve read.

It is also important to note that some women feel empowered by this practice, and no matter what myself or any other western millennial believes personally about its status as a human rights violation, the voices of those women should be recognized and validated. I can understand and respect taking proud ownership of one’s body and what it has gone through, especially when the process is an historical and cultural tradition. All the more power to you.

Moving right along with my other concerns.

Words have immense power. Words such as “barbaric,” “horrifying,”and “atrocious” when used to describe FGM/C are not limited only to the practice itself, but are implicitly thrust upon the societies and people who practice it. It is not appropriate to use caustic words to rile up people and make a call to action at the expense of degrading other people and societies. When will we stop self-righteously picking pet projects and waving around our white savior flag? Because that’s what I feel like many of my peers, and even myself, are often tempted to do.

My plan is not to throw my hands up in surrender and say, well, I can’t do anything because my actions will be degrading other cultures. Not at all. I am not saying that we be culturally relativistic. Although, because people from those cultures are standing up and calling to end the practice of FGM/C themselves (and these are the people we should be supporting, either verbally or perhaps with financial assistance), there is an argument to be made that we could in fact, support the end of FGM/C and still be culturally relativistic (if excluding the option that they are only doing this having been influenced by Western notions, and I doubt this).

I believe that this is the best place for me to stand. Behind the women and communities from societies practicing FGM/C and support them in their efforts to change the status quo for the better of all humankind. I will stand in solidarity as much as possible. My hope is that this post will help remove the stigmas and social constructs that are making their work more difficult.


‘Till next time,