FGM, vaginoplasty and the flawed female

Although women’s rights and gender equality have come a long way, especially in recent decades, violence against females has by no means been eliminated. Sex trafficking, economic exploitation in sweatshops and lack of structural support to raise children are only some of the global problems facing women. One particularly harmful practice is female genital mutilation (FGM), which the World Health Organization and UNICEF define as the “partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural of other nontherapeutic reasons.”

WHO categorizes FGM into four different groups based upon how much of the vagina is removed — with the most extreme being “pharaonic circumcision,” (infibulation) which involves the “excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening.” The end result is a smooth patch of scar tissue and a small hole for urination and menstruation where the vagina used to be. This procedure is usually carried out by local practitioners on girls anywhere between two weeks and 15 years old. The immediate medical implications are usually pain, bleeding and infection, while long-term consequences involve psychological trauma and increased risk of stillbirth or postpartum hemorrhage. These latter problems are largely due to the fact that once a female has had her vagina sewn shut, she must undergo deinfibulation to either have intercourse with her husband or to give birth. Each time the genital tissue is stitched and opened and stitched back up again, the risk of complications increase. This is just one aspect which differentiates female circumcision from male circumcision, which are neither medically nor morally equivalent.

In response to these health criticisms, some areas have begun the medicalization of FGM, performing the excision in hospitals with anesthesia. Performing FGM in a sterile environment only decreases the chance of infection and hopefully bleeding, without removing the need for deinfibulation for intercourse or childbirth. Oftentimes, because the child is under anesthesia, more tissue is removed. What this concession fails to acknowledge are the fundamentally demeaning justifications for FGM, which range from preserving a girl’s morality and fidelity to making her spiritually pure. The justification is that a female is not naturally pure or clean, nor can she be trusted to remain loyal to her husband — she must be physically forced to do so. The fault, under this ideology, is with women, who would run rampant as seductresses driven only by lust were it not for removing their vaginas. Infidelity is the realm of females — never mind the promiscuity of husbands.

This phenomenon is far from a distant, strange ritual practiced by other people and other societies. The thematizing of the natural female body as imperfect and undesirable in the ideology behind FGM is rampant in Western cultures, perhaps most notably in the recent popularity of cosmetic vaginoplasty among American women. The so-called “designer vaginas” are often reconstructions of perfectly healthy, normal vaginas to “idealized” vaginas with reconstructed folds and unperforated hymen. The reconstruction of hymen especially highlights the status virginity is given. While there are plenty of legitimate medical reasons to get vaginoplasty, the main reasons for the cosmetic approach are aesthetic appeal and increased sexual pleasure.

Of course. The problem, again, lies with the woman. She is not attractive anymore to her husband not because of a mutual inability to communicate or a lack of respect, but because her vagina is ugly and unsatisfactory. But the good news is that she can fix this flaw easily, with a price. This materialist attitude which provides passive consumption as the only means of action is a large contributor to the ideology of female imperfection and inadequacy in America. That is not to say that these women themselves are not at fault for lacking some sense, but simply that the cultural norm of asserting female flaw combined with social passivity promotes and exacerbates such behavior.

While the adolescent girls who undergo FGM have no choice in the matter, unlike the wealthy ladies that undergo vaginoplasty, the fundamental link between these two procedures is that they are symptoms of a much deeper disease — acceptance of the idea that the natural female is defective and sub-par. Stopping FGM through grassroots education is only the first part of treating the problem.

As for the underlying illness, all women must fight to eradicate it.

Lily Yan is a sophomore in Davenport College. She is the tabling co-coordinator for the Amnesty International club at Yale.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Amnesty International is addressing women's issues in a more serious and logical way than the Yale Women's Center.

    Good article.

  • Tony

    "… female genital mutilation (FGM), which the World Health Organization and UNICEF define as the 'partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural of other nontherapeutic reasons.'"

    How does that balance with this statement?

    "This is just one aspect which differentiates female circumcision from male circumcision, which are neither medically nor morally equivalent."

    You've taken the most extreme type of FGM to make your comparison, while ignoring the other types you listed in the first sentence. Your statement is indefensible in logic. The WHO definition includes "partial" removal and "other injury" as mutilation whenever there is no medical need. Replace female with male and the definition is exactly what happens to males as a matter of routine. Aside from total removal - which does occur accidentally - male and female genital mutilation are medically and morally equivalent. They are both medically unnecessary genital cutting on a non-consenting individual.

    Although it's clearly indefensible because the act is the same, if you're going to argue that they're different, you need to provide context. How often does the most extreme form of FGM occur? How often are the other types performed?

    You only provide the excuses offered for FGM. For example:

    "What this concession fails to acknowledge are the fundamentally demeaning justifications for FGM, which range from preserving a girl’s morality and fidelity to making her spiritually pure."

    How is circumcising an infant male to make him acceptable to God any different? It is not a factual medical need for circumcision. Parents believe it is required by God. The child may believe that, or he may reject it. But when it's imposed on him, he cannot later reject the physical damage. Just like females cut for subjective, irrational reasons.

    "The fault, under this ideology, is with women…"

    Male (and female) genital cutting began in the United States as a tool to prevent masturbation. The fault was with men (and women) not being able to control themselves according to the "proper" use of their bodies, as designed by God. It may be interesting that we use different reasons today, but we perform the exact same act. That's all that's relevant. If doctors knew then that circumcision reduced pleasure, how have we forgotten it today?

    (Females weren't "circumcised", exactly. Generally, doctors poured carbolic acid on the clitoris. This eventually stopped because doctors determined that women didn't enjoy sex enough, so any dampening of their capacity for pleasure would hurt procreation. Men were deemed to enjoy sex more than enough, so the reduction of pleasure continued as a feature of the surgery until other excuses appeared.)

    "…acceptance of the idea that the natural female is defective and sub-par."

    How is circumcising males any different in the absence of medical need for the surgery, which is the case in almost every male circumcision performed? The natural male is "defective", so he "needs" potential medical benefits. The natural male is sup-par, because women won't want to sleep with him or God will reject him or he won't look like daddy or he'll get teased in the locker room. We could debate the degree difference in the irrationalities for male and female genital cutting, but they're all unarguably irrational, independent of the gender to which they're applied.

    The federal and state anti-FGM laws in the United States specifically exclude religious and cultural (i.e. non-medical need) reasons from consideration. This includes the most severe FGM you mention, but it also includes a symbolic pinprick. The law understands that the female has an individual right to be free from unnecessary genital cutting without her consent. Through absence of equal protection for males, the law encourages gender discrimination in open defiance of the Constitution. You're willing to agree with that? Why? At least offer a detailed explanation rather than a dismissive sentence without any accompanying argument why they're allegedly not the same.

    In case it's not clear, I think FGM is vile in any form, for any reason. But I also know that the underlying act is exactly the same for MGM. It is no more defensible or less vile.

  • Andre M

    The article posted by Lily Yan GFM, vaginoplasty and the flawed female evokes sympathy from me, while at the same time eliciting sadness that the male is not protected in the US as females have been since 1976. Male and female anatomy arises from the same embryonic tissue, and as in the female, where both the hood (her foreskin) and the clitoris are two of the most sensitive areas on her body, so too, the male has his foreskin and glans. The tragedy here, for those who have studied basic penile anatomy, understand that 75% of the 20,000 nerve endings of the penis (of which the foreskin is an integral part, not ‘what skin comes before the penis’ as it is typically regarded), are summarily excised from the owner of that penis without any consent or medical justification, something that in *any *other *body *part, even those that have relatively little nerve sensations, like the earlobe for example, would have both the doctor and the parents arrested and thrown in jail. We need to educate ourselves about what it is we’re doing to baby boys if we are going to speak intelligently on this matter, and Lily, you could benefit humanity further by understanding the entire breadth of the issue and realize this is a human rights tragedy and not only an easy win for women’s issue. Disregard the media and start with CIRP.ORG and CIRCUMCISION.ORG if you want to educate yourself on the facts. Learn more. Become wiser. Become a more compassionate human being.

  • Hieronymus

    In the following, I am indeed in earnest:

    Why--oh why--do you limit this to women? Why is genital mutilation not a HUMAN rights issue?

    You write: One particularly harmful practice is female genital mutilation (FGM), which the World Health Organization and UNICEF define as the “partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural of other nontherapeutic reasons.”

    “partial or total removal of the external genitalia or other injury to the genital organs for cultural of other nontherapeutic reasons.”

    How on earth does this differ from circumcision done to boys (a.k.a., in some circles, MGM)? Yes, some readers will laugh, or be outraged ("It is TOTALLY different!"), but objective refelection should show that it is not. It is, at best, done for CULTURAL and other NON-THERAPEUTIC reasons.

    Please note: "therapeutic" means as a corrective, not as a preventative (this, in anticipation of those who advocate MGM as a way to reduce the future incidence of AIDS. By way of analogy: one can cure one of women's greatest killers, breast cancer, by early "preventative" excision of the breasts… strangely enough, most refrain."

    So: brava! on your crusade against unconsented, unnecessary procedures performed on minors' genitals; but please expand your single-gender (as you yourself note) efforts to encompass ALL humans.

    (BTW: the US FGM law would have outlawed ALL procedures, but at the last moment, "enlightened" folks realized that the language was gender neutral, and thus would have recognized circumcision for what it is…)

  • Hieronymus

    Poster #2 said it better than did I.

    Re-reading the original article (with which I agree, insofar as it goes), I am, as usual, amazed by how casually and assumptively ppl dismiss the male argument.

    It. is. the. same. thing!

    It is the EXACTLY ANALOGOUS procedure under the law--and equally superfluous, detrimental, and downright dangerous.

    I would be deeply impressed were the author (and I agree--a MUCH more rational case than any presented by the Yale Womyn's Center) able to expand her understanding/acceptance of the central HUMAN issue here.

  • Anonymous

    I am so happy to see a woman posting about serious human rights issues! Yes, this is a human rights issue, but the fact that this woman even posted something more serious and more thoughtfully than the YWC's anger about a "slut" sign. This girl and Amnesty International truly realize what the most serious issues to humanity are. Amnesty, keep up the good work!

  • Anonymous

    What poster #2 said.

    Male circumcision is morally and medically equivalent to many forms of female circumcision (excluding clitoridectomy).

    Why is it illegal to make an incision on a girl's genitals (even without removing any tissue), yet boys routinely have the most sensitive part of their penis ripped away from the glans and cut off?

  • Anonymous

    ::chirp, chirp::

    So, uh, like, where are all the women's rights activists on this one? I mean, they got SOOOO bent outta shape on the freedom of speech thing, but nary a sigh with regard to freedom from genital mutilation?

    I look forward to the Women's Center's lawsuit against genital mutilation, both F and M, in the near future. "Premeditated Hate Crime?"

  • Anonymous

    #7, because it is a holy rite for certain religions, such as judaism, where male circumcision is performed when the baby is 8 days old.

  • Anonymous

    Dear Tony, Andre, Hieronymous, et al:

    As to male circumcision as a human rights concern:
    This article is written from the perspective of a member of Amnesty International, a group which the author and I represent at Yale. AI was originally founded to free prisoners of conscience, and as we have added more issues to our list of official concerns, we have had to be careful of what other issues we adopt. Recently there was a debate within Amnesty International as to whether or not we should support some forms of abortion as human rights. Male circumcision has, as some of you have written, attracted very little outrage. For this reason (and presumably others) AI emphasizes FGM as a problem over male circumcision.
    And there is only so much space in one column; you may certainly submit your own letter to the editor of the YDN if you are dismayed at male circumcision.

    As to this article versus the Yale Women's Center issue:
    It's irresponsible to deal with only one issue at a time. You can't let a homeless man starve right outside your door; just the same, you shouldn't allow peaceful monks to be tortured in Burma. One or the other may be more severe of an issue, but we can't afford to deal just with the most severe cases. To deal only with severe problems is complacency, and it is reprehensible.
    Amnesty International, for its part, opposes discrimination against women in all forms. This column points out the inherent disrespect for women in our culture, the same disrespect that underlies the current issues with the Women's Center.

    Let's all sign our comments, or at least put your initials.

    Edwin Everhart, SY 2009
    Coordinator of the Amnesty International club at Yale

  • Hieronymus

    #9: "#7, because it is a holy rite for certain religions."

    This is EXACTLY the canard against which the author is fighting. You see, FGM is a holy rite in certain religions/cultures as well--it is that very superfluity that the author criticizes. Examine your own bigotry (in the classic sense--perhaps "chauvinism," again in the classic sense, is more appropriate/less inflammatory): just because *your* bible (and, yes, I am making an assumption there) is the book of choice for mainly civilized/industrialized folks, whereas the population engaged in FGM comprises mainly people of color is no reason to cry out "but OUR genital mutilation is an edict from Y-hweh." (Not to mention, I do believe the original circumcision was more of the pinprick--or, slight mohel "nip"--variety, versus the, er, over-zealous excision favored by today's Jews--and NON-Jews, who, by your definition, have no excuse…).

    #10: "[Y]ou may certainly submit your own letter to the editor of the YDN if you are dismayed at male circumcision."

    Ah, so, then, I see: it's okay to lobby for only certain SUB-sections of rights… I get it, so I am free, without criticism, to fight for lower taxes for the rich, set-asides for whites, equivalent privileges for men in the workplace/government/society, as opposed to, say, "justice for all." GREAT way to display your innate hypocrisy. Thanks for the heads-up.

    "Amnesty International, for its part, opposes discrimination against women in all forms."

    But not discrimination against all peoples/genders/races? Weird…

    "This column points out the inherent disrespect for women in our culture, the same disrespect that underlies the current issues with the Women's Center."

    And the same operation conducted on the male genitalia somehow is a mark of respect? Again, weird…

    G-d I love hypocrites.

  • Tony G.

    Edwin,

    "… For this reason (and presumably others) AI emphasizes FGM as a problem over male circumcision.

    And there is only so much space in one column;…"

    If that's what the essay did, I would've nodded my head in agreement and moved along instead of writing a rebuttal. FGM is a worthy topic, and AI can put its support wherever it feels most needs attention. But Ms. Yan specifically went out of her way, with one unsupported statement, to further the logic-free belief that gender has a bearing on the indefensible existence of genital mutilation. We are all free to advocate for the issues we're passionate about, even if it's a specific subset of a larger problem. We are not free to dismiss anyone's rights simply because that person was born the wrong gender in a society that adheres to irrational, anti-science traditions biased by gender.

    To Anonymous #9,

    Most religions have reformed to toss out those tenets not compatible with a modern understanding of rights. We no longer stone adulterers, for example. This is another tenet whose time passed long ago.

    Note that the issue is not circumcision as a religious rite. I do not care about that; an adult should be free to have himself circumcised if he beliefs his God requires it. I suspect a significant majority would do so.

    The issue is infant/child circumcision as a religious rite. It is the parents practicing religion on the child's physical body, causing permanent damage and change. That's wrong, morally and ethically, regardless of the child's gender.

    If you'd like to consider the religious requirement to circumcise children, I suggest "Marked In Your Flesh", by Dr. Leonard Glick. His research suggests some very interesting facts about the origin of infant circumcision in the Old Testament. To give a little away, evidence suggests it wasn't added until centuries after the original text of Genesis was complete.

    Also worth noting, traditional Jewish circumcision is nowhere near as invasive as today's medicalized version. Typically, only the foreskin protruding beyond the glans was removed. I would not support that, either, but it's far different than the hack-job most circumcised boys now suffer.

  • Hieronymus

    Gosh darn I love you Yalies! Great job, Tony G. (#11).

    And thanks for drawing my eye to Edwin's phrase (that I had previously missed): "Male circumcision has, as some of you have written, attracted very little outrage."

    How many times--HOW MANY TIMES--do we hear the counter-argument? For example, the issue of gay marriage brings forth, to smack back those who cite "tradition" as a reason to keep marriage as it has always been, cries of "Oh, yes, and no one was outraged by laws forbidding miscegenation prior to the Civil Rights Movement."

    So…"lack of outrage" (as measured by…what?) is, to Edwin, a valid argument to ignore fundamental human rights abuses (or, in the case of FGM, HALF of potential human rights abuses, although as a percentage, it is likely the majority).

    Seriously, Edwin: reflect on what you wrote and see whether you might, under certain (and not necessarily rare) conditions, regret someone else's use of that excuse.

  • yaledude

    I commend Lily Yan on her article; well researched, informative--like many have said, a more logical argument than some we've seen on campus lately.

    As for the many posts on male circumcision: while Kellogg propaganda may have started the initial rise of circumcision in the US, I think that it is wrong to assume circumcision a useless procedure just because someone 100 years ago wanted it for the wrong reasons.

    Don't forget that male circumcision offers myriad benefits. Many conditions are less likely because circumcision removes the Langherans cells in the inner foreskin, where microorganisms get trapped and proliferate. Examples of these conditions are urinary tract infection, HIV, and HPV. I know a urologist who tells me about dangerous incidences of phimosis and paraphimosis in uncircumcised men. Don't confuse female circumcision (a procedure done primarily for misogynistic purposes) with male circumcision (a procedure which offers medical benefits and which is mostly offered with analgesics). To say that female and male circumcision are the same is wrong.

    Unfortunately, much of the literature out there on male circumcision is biased. But please: do your research before you start saying that male circumcision is "superfluous, detrimental, and downright dangerous."

    Get a surgeon who doesn't suck, and it won't be dangerous. And detrimental? There's a reason why uncircumcised boys are 10 times more likely to get urinary tract infection.

    I agree with Ms. Yan that female and male circumcision are not morally and medically equivalent; though this is a divisive issue, many medical professionals will at the very least agree with Ms. Yan's statement.

  • Hieronymus

    "Many conditions are less likely because circumcision … urinary tract infection, HIV, and HPV"

    Teaching your boy to…CLEANSE or to use condoms (they don't call 'em prophylactics for nuttin') also reduces the conditions you note

    "phimosis and paraphimosis"

    Treatable upon arrival; why do "preventatives?"

    BTW: those who favor so-called FGM cite the VERY SAME BENEFITS! (It's true; check it); so, if you promote those benefits for MGM, you are in de facto support, twould seem, of FGM. Weirdo.

    I repeat: routine circumcision is "superfluous, detrimental, and downright dangerous."

    There's a reason why uncircumcised boys are 10 times more likely to get urinary tract infection.

    Yes, and removal of breast tissue at an early age reduces breast cancer rates in women; let's do it!

    Are you folks TRULY this bereft of analytical ability? I mean, aren't y'all at Yale to learn to examine "conventional wisdom?" Have your parents REALLY paid half a mil for NOTHING?

  • Tony G.

    yaledude:

    "Don't forget that male circumcision offers myriad benefits."

    Personally, I'm not forgetting it. But in the clash with ethics, those potential benefits are irrelevant to informing us on whether to impose surgery on a healthy child. The child is healthy, male or female. He or she does not need surgery, no matter how safe it might be. It is wrong, medically and morally, to impose it.

    Also, I do not want those benefits for myself, preferring to take my chances with a whole body and to trust in medical treatments that work for females. Just like females forced to undergo FGM, I did not get my choice.

    "There's a reason why uncircumcised boys are 10 times more likely to get urinary tract infection."

    Females get more UTIs than intact and circumcised males combined. Your logic is subjective, omitting both human rights and a contextual analysis of risks.

  • Suzie Que

    I cannot believe that an article about Female Genital mutilation gets hijacked by a bunch of guys writing about Circumcision. Write you own damn aritlce, boys!

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