Chat Corner: Angie and Sebastian discuss Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

After reading an article in The Atlantic titled “Why some women choose to be circumcised,” Angie and Sebastian discuss the moral and ethical dilemmas surrounding female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting. The conversation is edited and compiled.


Courtesy of The Atlantic

ANGIE: This article makes me really uncomfortable but it is really interesting at the same time. I don’t know what I think about any of it.

SEBASTIAN: I concur. There’s a good book by Kwame Appiah called Cosmopolitanism that talks about FGM and other cross-cultural moral dilemmas.

ANGIE: One of my main area of study in college was post-colonial feminism, I was always met with these moral dilemmas. FGM is bad. It isn’t healthy and it purports destructive ideas about female bodies. I understand it is a custom accepted by women within practicing groups of people, but I can’t accept the practice.

SEBASTIAN: What I find more interesting than the moral status of FGM is its prominence as an issue among progressive Westerners. There are many, many different ways that we could use our relative privilege and influence to improve the livelihood of women in Africa. Why the focus on eradicating FGM? I feel like it says more about our cultural and sexual mores than it does about the ones in Africa that we fixate on the issue.

ANGIE: It is dangerous and unhealthy.

SEBASTIAN: But that rationale applies to a bunch of different practices that are more widespread and less culturally fraught. Wouldn’t it make better policy to focus efforts there?

ANGIE: FGM is widespread. 29 countries across the Middle East and Africa participate in the practice. UNICEF estimates approximately 130 million women and girls have undergone the procedure. The Atlantic article is one ‘positive’ story of a group of people who practice FGM, but there are also negative stories of infibulation. It may cause issues with childbirth and there have been studies that show instances of PTSD and dyspareunia (sexual dysfunction). In many instances it is a social obligation.

SEBASTIAN: I agree with you that FGM is dangerous and unhealthy, and that many of the women who have the procedure done do so due to social and family pressure.

ANGIE: The average age of a young girl having the “procedure” is 15, often through force. Martha Nussbaum claims that “the distinction between social pressure and physical force is morally and legally salient.”

SEBASTIAN: Ok, I will also concede the point that many of the girls who experience FGM are very young and physically forced to undergo it.

ANGIE: I think the thing that confuses most people, is that the practice crosses religious and cultural lines. You can’t blame Muslims, because Christians do it as well. You can’t blame tribes, because it happens in cities too. Maybe the better approach, as opposed to telling large groups of people their customs are wrong, is to improve literacy rates in poorer areas of Mali, Ethiopia, and Somalia. And evolve discussions on sexual health and reproduction.

SEBASTIAN: In the broad universe of shitty things that happen to women in the developing world, why focus on FGM? In Somalia, 98 percent of women undergo FGM. If FGM was eradicated in Somalia tomorrow would women’s everyday lives be any better? I agree with you that improving literacy rates and economic well-being are the first steps here. It seems like FGM is a secondary or tertiary challenge.

ANGIE: Yes, their lives would be better. They would be far from perfect, but they would be better. Articles like this Atlantic article are important to allow Western activists to understand why FGM is a custom in certain communities. Understanding why something occurs instead of outright dismissing it is essential to addressing the issue at large. I agree with you, FGM is probably a secondary issue in the broader challenge of improving women’s lives in the developing world. Included in this are period shaming, child brides, forced prostitution, literacy, economic well-being, and many other issues which affect the daily lives of women.

SEBASTIAN: My concern is that in an environment where international development money is extraordinarily scarce that any dollars going to fight FGM is another dollar that isn’t going to improve economic security and literacy. Without which, anti-FGM advocacy is going to be less effective.