Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting is a global problem. UNICEF estimates that over 200 million women and girls are living with the consequences, concentrated across Northern and Central Africa. This data has been used to create a narrative which places responsibility for FGM/C on a specific group: black, Muslim women, who arrange the cutting of their daughters.
Often, this is not necessarily factually incorrect. It is, however, simplistic. This narrative neglects the significance of broader considerations, including access to education, which are necessary for rights to bodily autonomy to exist in real terms. It artificially confines responsibility to individuals who are themselves vulnerable to a lack of enforcement of their human rights.
This episodic account of FGM/C is protected when tradition is preserved as an inherent good. Cultural relativism in this sense allows gender based violence, including FGM/C, to continue. Prohibition is rarely effective, as law enforcement actors struggle to engage with practising communities, allowing for de facto non-intervention.
The oft claimed religious defences of the practice compound problems of relativism. For instance, in Egypt, nearly 50% of women and girls understand FGM/C as a religious requirement.1 However, not only does FGM/C pre-date both Islam and Christianity,2 it has been rejected by the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, a body of considerable authority in Egypt. It is also prohibited under Egyptian law. And yet, such is the strength of the practice here, 77% of cuttings are performed by Doctors in hospitals.3
Both religious and cultural relativism prevent FGM/C from being the concern of 'outsiders.' To overcome this, the practice is better understood as fluid, operating across global society in complex and non-uniform ways. A political view of the practice then becomes appropriate.
Reports of cutting in Dagestan, Russia, help to show how politicisation can conceal FGM/C. While the rural setting of the villages in question must not be overlooked, the discovery of cutting in Russia rebuts the general assumption that it occurs within a particular narrative.
Consequently, cutting has been made a political instrument by external actors. Reactions in Russian media to the exposure of FGM/C in Dagestan, included denunciation of the report as “ “a deeply inappropriate hoax” perpetrated by liberal political forces in order to destabilise Dagestan.”4 Using this subject to reify the conservative/liberal dichotomy is symbolic of a wider disregard for matters which affect women, and slips back to cultural relativism.
This sits in deep irony with holistic and substantive politicisation of FGM/C. Cutting can be understood within a socio-economic and political context, rather than solely as a violation of sexuality and physiology.5 Refreshingly, this view engageswith survivors as rights-bearing persons. Such a view can avoid the pitfalls of a well-intentioned yet reactionary approach, which continues a narrative that reduces women to gendered stereotypes. By understanding FGM/C in this broader rights-based and politically aware language, ownership of the subject is returned to survivors and those at risk.
Meaningful abolition of FGM/C would therefore imbibe the wider, political concerns of the women and girls who suffer the risk or effects of cutting, and build on what is already recognised as a breach of human rights, in the episodic sense. This requireswidening social responsibility to a global level, rejecting the cultural relativism of supporters of FGM/C and those who instrumentalise it to fit their own narrative. A contextually grounded yet holistic approach is a long-term objective, but this does not lessen the urgency of the cause.
1UNICEF Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change (2013) 71
2UNICEF (2013) 69
3UNICEF (2013) Introduction
4Rachel Horner, 'Russia orders inquiry into claims of FGM in Dagestan' (5 November 2016) <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/nov/05/russia-orders-inquiry-into-claims-of-fgm-in-dagestan> ; Daria Litvinova, 'Girls under the knife: Is Russia ready to tackle FGM?' (24 August 2016) <https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/fgm-55084>
5Hope Lewis, 'Between Irua and “Female Genital Mutilation”: Feminist Human Rights Discourse and the Cultural Divide' (1995) 8 Harvard Human Rights Journal 1, 41