Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Genital grooming of the worst kind

Seriously, I do not care what you do with your pubic hair. Wax it all off, trim it, grow it to your knees, dye it purple, get a vajazzle, braid it, coat your crotch in cream that stinks to high heaven, shave it, festoon it with feathers, whatever makes you happy. Just quit going on about it. This month alone, Salon has featured a wax-related whine, Cameron Diaz made actual headlines for urging women to leave their bushes be, and American Apparel caused a mass gross-out (and most likely a boost in sales) for being "brave" enough to put pubic hair on shop mannequins Good Lord. Not even the vulvas of store dummies are safe from scrutiny.

While this utterly pathetic, my-feminism-is-better-than-your-feminism-because-of-my-knicker-beard contest rages on, here are some facts on female genital mutilation (FGM). That would be the revolting, barbaric and inexcusable practice of cutting off all or part of the genitals of a girl or woman for reasons that represent sexism at its most grotesque.

1. It is estimated by the World Health Organisation that more than 125 million girls and women alive to day have been cut in the 29 countries of Africa and the Middle East where this practice is concentrated. Of these 125 million girls and women, it is believed that the majority of these mutilations take place between infancy and the age of 15. It is estimated that in Africa, more than 3 million girls are at risk annually.

2. As well as the risk of dying during this vile procedure which is usually performed in unsanitary conditions, complications as a result of FGM include severe bleeding, problems with urination and menstruation, cysts, infections, infertility, life-endangering complications during childbirth, and a greater risk of infant mortality.

3. The main FGM procedures include clitoridectomy (the partial or total removal of the clitoris); excision (partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora and, in many cases, the labia majora); infibulation (the narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal, usually with cutting and stitching); any other procedures where the female genitalia is cut, pricked, incised, scraped or cauterised for non-medical reasons.

4. Until the 1950s, FGM occurred in the UK and the US for fictitious medical reasons, such as the "treatment" of lesbianism, hysteria, epilepsy or masturbation. These days, there have been reports of girls and women visiting the UK or the US to undergo FGM in hygienic settings. This does not make it right. Indeed, although it is illegal in the UK and doctors have come across girls and women who have been cut, the number of prosecutions for FGM stands at zero. France has no specific laws against FGM yet has convicted 100 people as a result of 29 trials under existing laws against committing bodily harm against children.

The reasons for FGM are all about control of women, control of sexuality, of fetishising female virginity. Excuses made by FGM apologists, whether they are about hygiene, culture, religion or the protection of girls and women, are all harmful nonsense. Nobody's right to cultural or religious freedom extends to mutilating girls and women against their will in an environment where informed consent is absent. This is not negotiable yet many people are fearful of calling out FGM in case they are accused of racism or religious discrimination. With all due respect, get over yourself. FGM has been and continues to be inflicted on girls and women in Christian, Islamic, animist and other religious communities. 

It predates both Christianity and Islam. The obsession with female virginity and controlling female sexuality is not new but it does have a strong connection to this day with certain cultures, countries and religious groups. As long as people tiptoe around the issue and won't properly engage with countries and communities where FGM happens, nothing much will change. 

In every country where FGM happens, local campaigners are fighting to be heard. There are plenty of brave women who are not afraid to speak our against their own governments, communities and religious leaders to try and stop this ongoing assault on female bodies. We can help by giving these women a voice, by helping them have a platform from which they can shout about what is going on, lobby governments across the world to not only make FGM illegal but to enforce the law, to not be afraid of punishing the mutilators and enablers, to offer safe places for girls and women who have been cut, or are at risk of being cut, to escape abusive families, communities and countries.

But surely I am being a western cultural supremacist, sitting here all smug with my intact genitals, pontificating from a place of privilege?

Yes, there are women who say they have been cut, believe it to be culturally or religiously important and may even claim they have a great sex life as a result. These women claim to sincerely believe they underwent an FGM procedure as an informed, consenting adult, if they believe it was an important thing for them to do, and they do not feel they are in any way damaged, either physically or psychologically. Indeed, there are cases of women undergoing such procedures of their own free will, performed by medical professionals in hygienic places. Many of these women explain that their genitals were merely nicked and make their experience sound about as controversial as plucking out an ingrown bikini line hair.

Nobody is speaking out against genital piercing or "designer vagina" cosmetic surgery, for example, so how is this any different? In the UK, such procedures are only legal if performed on consenting adults. Standards of hygiene must be maintained in places where these procedures are done. Underage girls are not being frogmarched to British piercing studios or cosmetic surgery clinics against their will to undergo painful, life-endangering procedures with unsterilised implements and no anaesthetic, while being held down by members of their family and community.

Here is how it's different: The stories from women who claim they consented to their own cutting are not helping the millions of girls (and the majority of FGM victims are underage girls, let's not be naive) who are mutilated every year in disgusting conditions, against their will, with no informed consent, with the real risk of death and infection, and who are doomed to a life of excruciating pain during urination, menstruation, sex and childbirth. Where is the freedom of choice for these girls and women? Where was their informed consent? How many of these girls and women have the means to undergo circumcision with full consent in sanitary conditions?

By continuing to get cut, even if it's done hygienically, and even if these women say it's their choice, they perpetuate the hideous sexism and offensive mythology that has led to FGM happening in the first place. Cultural change will never happen as long as privileged women claim they are liberated by being cut because it was done in hygienic conditions and not while being held down and assaulted with a rusty razor blade.

The women who sing the praises of being cut with their full consent in a clean medical facility are speaking from a place of privilege.

Monstrous violations are happening to girls and women on a large scale across multiple countries. After the mutilation has taken place, the stories about girls and women being married off to abusive husbands who force their way into the irrevocably damaged bodies of their terrified wives are truly nauseating. If this isn't an example of rape culture, I don't know what is. This is why there are women who are fighting to have their voices heard. Helping these campaigners effect real change is far more useful than banging on about pubic hair.


Useful links if you'd like to do something about FGM

Daughters of Eve

Orchid Project

Edna Adan Hospital


Plan UK

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