, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Hilary Burrage – WNN – Women News Network – WNN SOAPBOX

Stop FGM sign in Gambia, Africa

A stop FGM – Female Genital Mutilation sign in Bakau New Town, Gambia shows that attitudes on the ancient practice of FGM are changing. Image: Nichol Brummer/Flickr

(WNN) London UNITED KINGDOM, WESTERN EUROPE: As part of WNN’s highlight on 16Days Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign we want to share a unique and important perspective by British sociologist Hilary Burrage who is working today to stop global violence against girls and women under the harmful practice of FGM – Female Genital Mutilation.

This worldwide form of violence is now beginning to slow down in global regions where it has stubbornly been in place for thousands of years. Education, women and girl’s empowerment, increased awareness and sociological cultural change between the sexes are working together to produce a new awareness of the harmful practice. But much more work is still needed, as Burrage outlines in her commentary.


There is no contemporary shortage of perspectives from which to view female genital mutilation (FGM). At one time the millennium-old tradition of ‘cutting’ was known to few outside practicing communities. That has changed dramatically in recent years, as the western world begins to realize that thousands of women and children in our own communities still experience this terrifying harmful traditional practice.

Few westerners doubt that FGM is cruel and must be stopped, but that is not how it is seen in practicing societies where, unspoken, the practice enhances the status of men and embeds the dependency of women and girls. FGM has occurred in widely different locations for a millennia; it cannot be attributed meaningfully to specific sources or beliefs but it connects with extreme patriarchal societies.

The practice of FGM is an element of sustaining women’s social inferiority much more entrenched than any singular culture or specific religious belief.   Addressing this entrenchment requires considerable insight on the part of those who want it to stop.

Traditional communities ascribe complex absolute meanings to their words and actions; they are unlikely to be moved by contemporary rational scrutiny of customs going back a millennia.  The words we select to counter FGM are critical. They do not have exactly the same meaning regardless of the contexts in which they are uttered.

So what do words such as ‘survivor’, ‘mutilation’, ‘eradication’ and ‘abolition’ mean to different people? And how does the recognition of patriarchy fit in all this?

Circumcision?  Cutting?  Mutilation?

The WHO – World Health Organization insists that all intended medically unnecessary injury to external female genitalia is by definition ‘mutilation’ and should be so termed in formal discussions. WHO’s Interagency Statement  states that this uncompromising term rightly emphasizes the gravity of the act.

Nonetheless, consensus is sometimes fragile.   Various campaigners claim this word fails to show respect for FGM practicing communities often advocating instead the euphemism ‘cutting’.

But language which implies respect for abhorrent actions fails gratuitously to build on the increasing, if cautiously articulated, unease about FGM even in traditional communities.

Contemporary NoFGM messages require respect for individuals, itself an idea contrary to traditional communality, but none for harmful practices.

Nor is the term ‘female circumcision’ helpful.  Its use may explain why in western nations teachers have not taken action about girls at suspected risk.  People mistakenly thought FGM another relatively innocuous ritual, a belief which has doubtless cost much suffering and many lives.

Finding the right words in personal communication between traditional and modern settings, even between the conventions of different nations, is an on-going challenge.

Using the correct formal term ‘mutilation’ in contemporary policy making has however become non-negotiable.

Survivor?  Victim? Just’ another person?

The term ‘victim’ illustrates the imposed, harmful nature of genital mutilation, but not everyone with FGM chooses to be labelled a victim. Nor does everyone want to think of themselves as a ‘survivor’ living with the ‘consequences’ of FGM.

Nor are all ‘victims’ unwilling at the time of mutilation. Stories abound of little girls innocently eager to undergo the process which they believe will confer adult status.  These children may subsequently feel betrayed on at least two counts: not only were their own (grand)mothers responsible; but they may later discover that women elsewhere don’t practice FGM and there is in the wider world a growing revulsion at the act.

Reactions to FGM are surely individual, changing as perceptions develop over a lifetime. ’Sufferer’? ‘Victim’? ‘Survivor’?  Who, other than the person concerned, can say?

Abolish? Eliminate? Eradicate?

All campaigners against FGM want to stop it happening; but how to achieve that?  Are they seeking to abolish FGM?  Or to eliminate it?  Or to eradicate it?

While definitional debates continues, choice of words arguably indicates the approach adopted.

‘Abolition’ suggests crusades, as with, say, pioneers against the slave trade.  It could be the term to describe lobbying decision-makers to persuade them that FGM must stop.

‘Elimination’ implies an austere approach, perhaps applicable to formal action, police enforcement and approaches which may also focus mostly on procurers and perpetrators.

‘Eradication’ might denote a comprehensive program against FGM, as employed by, say, public sector workers. The focus is on both ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’, but also encompasses NoFGM professionals from all disciplines, whether working alongside practicing communities or tackling the wider contexts in which FGM occurs.


One fundamental rationale for FGM in many practicing communities is economic: it makes the girl-child ‘pure’, so she can emerge into adulthood ready for the financial transaction which will result in her early marriage at a good bride price, cleansed of genital organs regarded as sullied.

But concerns about women’s imperfect bodies and aspects of female sexuality continue in modern as well as traditional societies, as we see with the U.S. American political rightists on purity, abortion and family planning, or in ubiquitous contemporary medical surgery like labiaplasty.  Modern language gives ‘genital perfection’ procedures new names.

Nor are FGM practicing communities uniquely cruel.  Western history has many gruesome stories of witches burnt, women ducked, chastity belts and even now the continuing sexual exploitation of children.  There are also confirmed reports of FGM occurring in the U.S.A. and in Britain up to and beyond the 1950s, mostly to ‘correct’ women’s perceived sexual impropriety.

Modern-day discourse mostly avoids the absolutism of traditional societies but, whilst the words change, differences between ideas may sometimes be smaller than we imagine.

Feminism?  Patriarchy?  Racism?

One perception of ‘purity’ and FGM is however unique to modern observers. We see that the pursuit of purity causes girls and women to undergo torture, with subsequent dependency and ill-health, to embed male control and supposedly ensure paternal lineage.  For many feminists FGM is the ultimate in economic patriarchy and oppression.

Yet even here divergent understandings occur.  For some, especially insistent internet trolls, the words ‘feminist’ and ‘patriarchy’ denote a position opposed by these ‘intactivists’ from which male circumcision becomes acceptable.

For some intactivists feminism denotes a dislike or dismissal of men. Critically mis-reading feminist analysis, they may also claim FGM cannot be patriarchal because women do it. Cross-gender partnerships to stop genital mutilations, female or male, are more problematic where such notions hold sway.

Others contest that modern western feminists are ‘racist’, attempting to tell other, usually ‘african’ women how to see the world. They may also say ‘cutting’ is a cultural matter and no business of westerners.

This interpretation of racism is, like assumed support for male circumcision, seriously compromised because most genital mutilation is imposed on minors who cannot consent. Yet it still has leverage.

Similarly, discourse about FGM ‘cutting’ and cultural assumptions continues in the context of patriarchy and intersex surgery and so on. The FGM lexicon offers much scope for contest, debate and development.

But words alone achieve nothing. We need action.  So that’s what an internationally disperse group of us have attempted with our “Feminist Statement on the Naming and Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation” and its partnered e-petition that addresses researchers and activists.

We want to speak clearly about what we observe and what we hope will happen. Your engagement and support is very welcome too.

Hilary Burrage is a British consultant sociologist. She is currently writing a book, “Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: a UK perspective.”


2013 WNN – Women News Network
WNN encourages conversation. All opinions expressed in WNN SOAPBOX belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of WNN – Women News Network. No part of this commentary (op-ed) may be reproduced without prior permissions from WNN &/or the author.