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Gynoplasty, the female genital mutilation of the West?

The debate about female genital mutilation[1] (FGM) among people from the West often encounters resistance from those who belong to a practising community. Not because of a contrary position - there is an agreement to overcome FGM - but conflicts arise concerning the way Western actors deal with the practice. For them, including ‘own’ aspects and practices from the West in the discussion seems to be a way to avoid criticism.

At the 1980 UN World Conference on Women in Copenhagen, women from the global South threatened to leave the conference prematurely, not because they supported FGM, but because they disagreed with the angry and emotional way in which the practice had been discussed. This incident illustrates that what matters is how FGM opponents from the global North approach the issue and how they behave towards members of practising communities, which some activists and scholars from FGM practising communities have been critically remarking ever since. 

Engagement against FGM by actors from the West does not generally meet with rejection in countries with practising communities. Actors from practising communities, however, demand a way of discussion that does not follow a colonial ideology or resemble imperialist propaganda. The discussion of the topic should be characterized by sensitivity and be free of racism and prejudices. To this end, FGM must be seen in its entire scope, in the social, cultural and economic context and the particular value system of the practising society.

In order to avoid the accusation of colonialism or imperialism, some FGM opponents from non-practising communities in the West choose to include elements from the society in which they live in the analysis. This does not only concern taking a look at the colonial past or referring to the present, which is marked by a North-South division, but also, against this background, addressing Western practices, such as gynoplasty, which is increasingly carried out in the global North. Gynoplasty involves surgical interventions on the female genitals, which are usually performed for aesthetic reasons.

 

During a semester abroad in The Gambia as part of my bachelor's studies, I attended a lecture by GAMCOTRAP[2], a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to the fight against harmful traditional practices, especially against FGM. Afterwards, the topic did not let me go. At first, I dealt with the practice in a rather activist way, whereby I did not come across the comparison between FGM and gynoplasty. It was when I dealt with this in-depth and academically in my master's thesis that I first came across such comparisons in the work of some Western authors. They do not belong to practising communities and try to avoid cultural relativist criticism of their commitment against FGM through the comparison. While the comparison avoids a dichotomous confrontation between a civilized global North and a barbaric global South, they still fail to reach the overarching goal of overcoming FGM.

In the meantime, I have started to do a PhD on FGM at the University of Antwerp. Since then I have mainly read academic literature, most of it by Western authors. That' s why I often stumble across the comparison. With the start of my PhD, however, the comparison has become a hurdle that I must overcome before I can continue. The confrontation forced itself upon me more and more. Therefore, I would like to explain in the following why I think that the comparison between FGM and gynoplasty is neither easily possible nor goal-oriented.

At first, it seemed to me like an objection that I would not have thought of on my own if others had not drawn my attention to it. Further considerations quickly raised doubts in me as to whether apples were compared with oranges. I had doubts, but they were not yet tangible. On the one hand, the comparison between gynoplasty in the global North and FGM in the global South was not clear to me; on the other hand, I was insecure since such a comparison was not a peculiarity of individual authors. On the contrary, such comparisons were often used. I encountered them in various sources, but they were also cited by people in my social environment. After reading some other works, it was a book by Janne Mende[3] that brought me clarity. 

When FGM is equated with practices such as designer's vagina, breast augmentation or nose surgery, or with cosmetic surgery in general, the result is, in my opinion, a slanted, arbitrary and often questionable comparison that does not even begin to do justice to the claim to contextualization. Comparisons between FGM and gynoplasty are often accompanied by a relativization of the short-term and long-term consequences and a questioning of the significance of research results on the consequences of FGM, as well as the fact that they often ignore possible psychological effects in addition to the physical consequences. I consider this to be very dangerous as it puts obstacles in the way of efforts to overcome the practice and to leave the genitals of girls and women unharmed. Cosmetic surgery is worthy of criticism, but I argue against a comparison with FGM due to the very different contexts in which both practices are embedded.

Connected to a lack of context-sensitivity, such comparisons misjudge aspects of power and dominance that function in the context of FGM. To lead a socially accepted life in communities practising FGM, to gain social recognition, to be able to act within the framework of the respective norms and values, girls and women often have no choice but to undergo the practice. Against this background, it is understandable that those affected agree with FGM. However, it is by no means possible to deduce that this is based on a free wish or an autonomous decision. If free will is assumed, this is misleading as the repressive conditions in which the practice is embedded are ignored.

This stands in contrast to aesthetic gynoplasty as found in the West. Here the decision can rather be classified as free will since Western women do not have to fear comparably far-reaching consequences if they leave their genitals or other body parts intact. There is no doubt that the ideals of beauty in the West can exert great pressure on girls and women. I therefore chose the formulation of a rather free decision. This leaves room for those cases in which the pressure on women to conform to ideals of beauty is overpowering and they perceive an adaptation to them as a compulsion from which they cannot escape. A decision on gynoplasty is then not completely free and self-determined. However, it is doubtful that the substantive survival of those affected depends on it, which is often the case with FGM.

For me, it is now clear that gynoplasty and female genital mutilation are two different topics, which are difficult to compare. I would like to conclude with the words of Irshad Manji, who summed up the problem of the comparison as follows: "There have never been parents who have disinherited their daughter because she did not want her breasts enlarged, but probably because she did not want to be circumcised or married.”[4]

Lea Kleinsorg

 

[1] „Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.“ [online] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation

[2] The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children

[3] Mende, Janne (2011): Begründungsmuster weiblicher Genitalverstümmelung: Zur Vermittlung von Kulturrelativismus und Universalismus. Bielefeld. Transcript Verlag.

[4] Manji, Irshad in Hirsi Ali, Ayaan (2005): Ich klage an. Plädoyer für die Befreiung der muslimischen Frauen. München. Piper. p.93.