Saturday, 12 May 2012

It's preposterous to compare forced genital cutting ... to forced genital cutting

There has been a series of articles about female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK national press over recent weeks. Against the background of a death from male circumcision which received no national coverage, a few bold letter writers asked why we continue to discriminate by gender in our treatment of forced genital cutting. This incensed others who, unaware of the spectrum of cutting which affects females, and the spectrum of damage which affects males, feel that male circumcision and female circumcision should not even be mentioned in the same sentence. This is my response to one male letter writer in the Sunday Times, who claimed that those who compare male and female genitalia need to, 'get out more'. It has not been published. 
Dear Sir, 

Following your exposé of FGM in Britain (22 April), Andrew Nott of Warrington (who lives minutes from the site of the latest male circumcision death) declared himself astounded that some correspondents "preposterously" compared female circumcision to the male version, suggesting that these letter writers require an urgent anatomy lesson.

As Michel de Montaigne said, "Nothing is more firmly believed than that we least know".  As the owner of an intact vulva I'd like to politely remind Andrew that it includes both a glans (the external part of the clitoris), and foreskin (medically a prepuce: popularly a hood).  As a campaigner against forced genital mutilation I'd like to remind him that cutting communities acknowledge these similarities in their choice of target.

In Shafi'i Islam for example (practised by 1 in 3 of the world's Muslims) a foreskin is considered a hygiene hazard notwithstanding the gender of its owner. The Dentist who offered to your undercover reporter a 'very very superficial'  female circumcision likely intended the kind of cut popular in Shafi'i communities - known by the World Health Organisation as type Ia. This involves snipping off the tip of her clitoral foreskin with scissors (and is the cut which the Prophet is reported to have endorsed).

The World Health Organisation has asked governments to consider the whole spectrum of female genital wounding as 'mutilation' (including this cut, and also the simple type IV 'nicking' of the clitoral hood). Why? Because in their words, "the guiding principles for considering genital practices as female genital mutilation should be those of human rights"  In other words, she owns the skin she's in. All of it.

If Andrew is to educate us, perhaps he can start by explaining why he thinks a man or boy doesn't own the skin he's in? And at the same time, perhaps he could explain why the deaths of five boys in four years from forced genital cutting don't even merit a mention in this debate?

If you'd like to read more about these issues, the 2008 Interagency Statement on Female Genital Mutilation is a good place to start. It includes a list of the seven main categories and also delves into some of the beliefs which underlie these practices. In doing so it reveals some challenging realities, such as the fact that older women, "tend to see efforts to combat the practice as an attack on their identity and culture."

This pictoral essay by Joseph4GI is also worth a look. 

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