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.