Africa

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Female genital mutilation and what we're really talking about beneath the weasel words 'genital cutting'

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, founder, the AHA Foundation

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, founder, the AHA Foundation  (Courtesy AHA Foundation)

The recent news that a grand jury in Michigan has indicted three people, including two doctors, for female genital mutilation is a welcome development. As the first ever prosecutions of this crime in the United States, the case shines much needed light on an underground human rights abuse that has been going on for too long. Female genital mutilation has been deliberately covered up by those practicing it here or sending their daughters overseas during summer break to be mutilated outside of the law.

Yet, ham-fisted attempts to appear culturally sensitive by the likes of the New York Times reporting on this story will push these issues underground once more. The newspaper’s Health and Science Editor wrote that referring to female genital mutilation as ‘genital cutting’ is less ‘culturally loaded’ and will help to bridge a gap between those who practice FGM and those who campaign against it. In her eyes it’s a case of Africa vs. the West.

As an African who was subjected to FGM, now living in the West, allow me to help bridge that gap by explaining what we’re really talking about beneath the weasel words ‘genital cutting’.

There are five types of female genital mutilation performed on girls from as young as five years of age. Four of them are unarguably mutilation, and the other is designed to symbolize mutilation. I will start with the mildest.

1. The ‘nick’: The girl is held down, her legs pushed apart and a needle is used to prick her clitoris. The incision is similar to a finger prick test for diabetes, blood comes out and the girl is considered ‘cleansed’. Often there is a ritual with a little party to celebrate the procedure.

2. ‘Female circumcision’: The second method in terms of severity is often compared to male circumcision. The hood of the clitoris is cut off, in some cases the tip of the clitoris is cut off, known as clitoridectomy. In this form, an otherwise normally functioning body part is sliced off and thrown out. Disfiguring a little girl’s genitals in this way cannot rationally be considered anything but mutilation.

3. Intermediate infibulation: In the third form of FGM, as much of the clitoris as possible is dug out and removed. The inner labia are cut off and the outer labia are sewn together leaving two small holes for urination and menstruation. In places where this is done without ‘medical intervention’ girls have been known to bleed to death. After infibulation is done it is imperceptible what has taken place when the girl stands up with her legs together, but in the obstetrician’s position it is clearly visible that parts of her genitals have been removed and sewn up.

Sadly, we are only just past half way and female genital mutilation gets worse. No doubt setting out these practices in detail is disturbing but it is crucial that we speak openly about what is taking place rather than shroud it in euphemism so as not to cause offence.

4. Total infibulation: In the fourth type of FGM the clitoris and inner labia are cut off and the outer labia are cut or scraped off too, then sewn up. When the girl stands, even with her legs closed, her genitals clearly look different.  

5. Vaginal fusing: In the fifth type of FGM, which is rarely discussed, all of the fourth type is done and then the inner walls of the vagina are scratched to cause bleeding and the sewing is again done. The girl’s feet are tied together in an effort to fuse the two sides of the vagina with scar tissue to close it up. Children can die undergoing this.

It is hard for people outside of communities practicing FGM to understand what is taking place. One example that has stayed with me over the years was a woman in the Netherlands that I translated for. I accompanied her to visit an obstetrician as she was having great difficulty with urination and menstruation. She showed the doctor her genitals after being subjected to the fifth and most severe type of FGM with her genitals completely removed. The stunned doctor asked if she had been burned. He could not believe that what had been done to her was deliberate, he assumed it must have been a horrific accident. But, it was no accident.

It’s for women like her that I started the AHA Foundation as a resource to help women and girls who are truly bridging the gap between worlds and cultures. They are living in the United States under the protection of our laws and Constitution but suffering human rights abuses imported from overseas.

The aim of FGM in all its forms is to control female sexuality. The clitoris is removed to take physical pleasure from sex and reduce the libido. In its more severe forms, involving sewing the genitals up, the aim is to ensure the girl is a virgin on her wedding night. Many women must be surgically re-opened (or simply with a pen knife or razor blade) in order to consummate their marriage.  The consequences of FGM are ongoing psychological and physical harms from infections to fistulas and even death.

Even in its most mild form, the ‘nick’ procedure involves a young girl being held down by her loved ones and a needle poked into one of her most sensitive body parts. The moment this is done the child becomes sexually aware, she can now be a temptation to men, she can destroy her family’s so-called ‘honor’ and must now behave in certain ways around boys to demonstrate her modesty.

The debate around nicking, which had been previously settled, was revived again last year by an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. The authors argued that nicking the vulva or cutting out the hood of the clitoris (FGM forms 1 and 2 above) are less harmful and should be tolerated by liberal societies. These practices, they suggest, are ethically acceptable and not contraventions of girls’ human rights.

Indeed, like the New York Times, these academics argue that referring to modest forms of FGM ‘mutilation’ is culturally insensitive and demonizes ‘important cultural practices’. Yet the meaning of those ‘important cultural practices’ is not examined beneath their ‘ethical lens.’ Notoriously academics and politically correct apologists like them assume any claim of ‘culture’ is by rights a good thing and trumps other considerations.

Seeing as they are so reluctant to critique cultural practices, other than those of ‘powerful, white men,’ I will do it for them. The ‘nick’ symbolizes and communicates to little girls that their natural state is unclean and that pain must be inflicted on their genitals to make them acceptable to their communities.

FGM is the symptom of harmful cultural beliefs that girls and women must be sexually pure, modest and that their bodies exist to breed. Whether it’s justified by being a Muslim, Egyptian, Indian, Jewish, black, a woman or any other category venerated in the identity politics pantheon, these beliefs are not compatible with liberal societies that profess to ensure the human rights of their citizens.

I encourage anyone interested to stop this barbaric practice happening in the United States to contact us – www.ahafoundation.org.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is founder of the AHA Foundation, which exists to protect women and girls from abuses of the sort described in this article. She is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.

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