If anyone coming to this post from Shakesville is interested, I have a new post up about intersectionality and not diminishing other victims’ identifications. But, in the meantime, please continue reading this older post on FGM first.
*Trigger warning* This is a post with some rough stuff in it.
I went to a presentation of female circumcision, aka female cutting or female genital mutilation (FGM, as I will be using for the rest of the post) this past Thursday. I think I made the right decision to go, even though I had a test in two days that I was not well prepared for yet, and it was not a required lecture. I am one of very few medical students who go to lectures that are not required, but that is a whole ‘nother post.
The presentation was done by a woman who is a graduate student in our public health program who is from an area where FGM is performed. She did a wonderful job. She chose to include video of the procedure, including one instance of a three year old girl being held down by females of her community, one of whom I am assuming was the victim’s mother, to be cut as she screamed in terror. She also showed a montage at the end of her presentation with many shots of faces of young women screaming during the procedure, also held down.
I was struck by a list of the reasons why FGM is performed and by a series of interviews with women in Egypt who are circumcised about their support of the procedure. The list of reasons given is identical to the list of reasons given to support male circumcision. It’s seen as cleaner, healthier, the children will be more accepted by peers and by their future sexual partner, it is tradition, etc. The only difference, and this applies to the more severe forms of FGM that include stitching up what is left of the external genitalia at the end of the procedure, is that the woman cannot have sex or deliver a baby until some part of the procedure is reversed by cutting open the stitches. In the mildest form of FGM, the procedure is almost identical to male circumcision. In the most severe cases of FGM, in addition to all of the reasons above, the FGM is performed to control her sexuality and make her more “calm”. I am not sure if anyone argues that male circumcision will guarantee fidelity or calm the sexual desires of a male. I think it was, at some point, argued to reduce masturbation.
The woman making the presentation argued that FGM was an element of strong patriarchal traditions in these societies. I asked her at the end if it was possible that we have had so little success in combating FGM because we are asking patriarchal societies to value their girls MORE than their boys. We are not asking them to stop male circumcision, and it is common in these cultures and in our society.
As one of the women interviewed in her presentation video said, “We cut the girls and the boys. It’s what we do.” If male circumcision is considered normal and desirable not only in these communities we are trying to change, but in our own society that is claiming some sort of moral superiority about genital cutting, doesn’t it seem contradictory and problematic? She replied that she didn’t see the problem there, but she didn’t know much about male circumcision.
One of my favorite upperclassman was sitting next to me, and he asked if there should be some support of the trend of having doctors perform the procedure in a controlled environment, with anesthesia. Apparently campaigns against FGM are asking that no doctors or hospitals to be involved in FGM, and he thought the opposite, having more trained physicians involved, was preferable.
After the official presentation was over, I talked to him, and he is supportive of routine male circumcision. His instant comment was “No one asked my permission when it was done to me, and I plan on circumcising my son if I have one.” I think it’s pretty clear that support of male circumcision can easily cloud the immorality of FGM. He genitals were cut as a child, as were all of his male relatives. These women just need a good, clean doctor like him to do it, and they will be just as safe as the boys in our country.
I argued with him politely, asking him if he believed in prophylactic appendectomies to prevent appendicitis. When I told him that I had a discussion with a pediatric urologist who was against routine male circumcision, citing the high amount of repairs that her partner has to perform, he acknowledged that his own cousin had been damaged by a circumcision. This is not the first case I have heard of that involved damage due to a circumcision, and I have yet to hear of a male child in my circle of acquaintance having a serious urinary tract infection that could have been prevented by circumcision, or penile cancer, or HIV that could be linked to having an intact penis. (That research is highly controversial, BTW, and is not at all applicable to low risk males, such as males in the United States. Also, studies show male circumcision actually increases male to female transmission.)
As I said, I think I made the right decision to attend, but I was emotionally traumatized by the videos. I had what I consider to be traumatic flashbacks for the rest of the evening. I had a hard time focusing on anything else, kept seeing the videos in my mind, and misheard many things around me as if they were in the context of FGM. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have to have been the victim of FGM, since my privileged experience watching a video about it in that context is absolutely incomparable. I am also even more resolute in my choice to leave both of my sons intact.