Photo source : https://www.gov.uk/government/news/breaking-the-cycle-of-female-genital-mutilationcutting-fgmc
Reasons, why female genital mutilation is practiced, are manifold and mutually dependent. Among these are sexual morals, marriageability, religion, alleged health benefits, male sexual enjoyment, aesthetics, social pressure and most importantly cultural tradition.
FGM is deeply rooted in the local culture. It’s part of the community’s sense of identity.
These communities view being a wife and mother as the highest value. To get married, premarital virginity is required. Being circumcised is proof of being a virgin.
If this condition is not met, it has not only negative consequences for the bride but her entire family. A family’s honor is closely linked to the woman’s sexual behavior.
In these communities, familial rights have a higher value than individual rights.
This is one of the reasons why western feminism could not be established on the African and Asian continent. It does not acknowledge the culture, tradition, values and economic situation of the countries afar.
Many women of communities where FGM is common, see marriage as something they want to attain. To go even further, what is perceived by us as torture, is in these cultures a procedure that is arranged and paid for by loving parents who really believe it’s in their daughters’ best interest.
It’s crucial to understand the underlying belief system that enables and attempts to justify the practice. More than that, we need to accept that our way of living and understanding of feminism is one concept among many. It works for us because it developed from our history, our tradition and our political and socio-economic backgrounds. Often it is criticized that western NGOs try to impose their belief sets and morals on countries that have a different culture. It’s compared to white saviorism and cultural imperialism and rightfully raises the question of what qualifies us to spread our ideals on other continents.
But can culture alone defend a practice that interferes with women’s health and sexuality?
Cultural relativism is not the absolute refusal to ask moral questions and explore what is just, rather it tries to find a balance between maintaining cultures and protecting basic Human Rights.
As much as our life approaches and values may differ, we are united by core beliefs. Among these are the right to life, health, physical integrity, a life free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
It was the international community that committed to these Human Rights when it announced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
While the different set of beliefs and moral values are mirrored in the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights, which unlike other Human Rights Charters places the community and not the individual in its center, it references the UDHR in its preamble.
Also, the thing with culture is, that it’s subject to constant change. Being surrounded by women with intact sexual organs and lower health risks can become part of the culture over time.
To achieve this, a language should be used that resonates with these communities.
Campaigns that aim for a change in the belief system that justifies FGM should opt to promote the importance of women’s health, instead of women’s rights.
Communities that practice FGM should be sensitized to the severe health risks women face.
Instead of mass production of educational material, it needs to be tailored to the specific audience.
Printing posters, for example, that show children and bloody surgical tools might horrify us in the west, but it is normal in these communities. The reproductive abilities of women on the other hand have high-priority there because women need to bear the children, which will keep the cultural heritage alive.
Also, insisting that FGM reduces female sexual pleasure might not be effective, as they either don’t believe it’s important or practice FGM for exactly that reason.
Instead, information material could focus more on demystifying and de-demonizing female sexuality.
Many local NGOs and activists are already very active in that field. Aiming for a collaboration with them might prove to be more successful since they are closer to the subject and culture and their judgments are therefore more accurate.
Instead of changing a centuries-old culture, that we don’t really know enough about, we should aim for listening and using our platforms and resources for giving a voice to the voiceless.
Mirzana is a German volunteer in Praxis Organisation involved in the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation