Culture is often used as a blanket ban to smother the flames of debate. I recently read Sue Lloyd Roberts’ book about her extraordinary lifetime in journalism. I bracketed the following passage with my pen as it struck me as so universally pertinent: ‘How many crimes are committed against women in the name of tradition the world over? Why, as human kind grows better informed, globalised and apparently more knowledgeable, does the reverence for outdated and inexplicable tradition persist, flouting reason and even the law? How convenient for the aura of tradition to obscure misogyny and even legitimise criminal behaviour.’
Now this all sounds like I am teeing up to agree with Daniel Sharp, but I assure you, I am not. To compare the barbaric act of Female Genital Mutilation to male circumcision is wrong for a number of reasons. Firstly, and least seriously, it smacks of an unproductive ‘men too’ example of jumping on the bandwagon of a cause that in reality is completely gender based. This article does not intend to weigh in on the debate around the nuanced legality of circumcision but to point out that the two practices are not synonymous or even analogous.
Firstly, the origins of circumcision and FGM are different. FGM is used to control women by depriving them completely of the ability to experience sexual pleasure. Male led societies feel that with women’s threatening voracious sexuality now under-control they can sleep sounder at night knowing that their women’s virtue is intact and they are less likely to rebel. Of course this is only partially true, FGM is no guarantee against rape, which would still be seen cross-culturally as an infringement of a woman’s virtue not an act of violence. Secondly, the reason a woman is more likely to be subservient after the act is because of the pain and trauma inflicted upon her, it is the terrorising use of unimaginable pain to act as a deterrent to defiance.
There is by no means medical consensus in support or against male circumcision. There are many studied benefits including the reduction of the transmission of HIV and even lowering the risk of cancer; however, some medical bodies have suggested risk of infection and a recent interview of Tom Rosenthal suggests sexual anxiety. Circumcision is also a medical as well as cultural practice for treating balanoposthitis and a handful of other conditions. There is however medical consensus on FGM; it is wrong, it is damaging and in the worst cases, deadly.
The health effects of FGM are devastating, it can make sexual intercourse excruciating and childbirth a fatality risk to both mother and child. The act itself can cause death through bleeding or infection and even shock. The ‘less serious’ cases (as termed by Sharp) include kidney infections, abscesses and genital ulcers, chronic back and pelvic pain. This is gruesome but necessary information. These are not the minority of cases, but the majority experienced by FGM. There is no version of FGM that is ‘less serious than circumcision’.
Don’t take my white woman word for it either, the voices rising against FGM are from the communities that practice it. Fahma Mohamad from Bristol has spoken out against the practice in her community since she was a teenager and has since met the Secretary General of the UN. Isa Touray is the executive director of the NGO GAMCOTRAP fighting against FGM in her native Gambia and in other places in Africa, travelling with her organisation offering education within her own culture. There is no such internal cry from the Muslim or Jewish community over male circumcision. Let us listen to the brave men and women fighting this injustice within their own culture and get behind them. FGM is abhorrent, it has no parallel.