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Female Genital Operations

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Female Genital Operations

The FGO Debate

It is often easier to reject the unknown; to dismiss the ways of thought unlike our own. When most people in a “western society” hear anything about female “circumcision” or genital operations, the common reaction is one of disgust and revulsion for the practice, sympathy for the “victims,” and an urge to correct this “crisis.” However, what many observers may see as oppression of women or cruel and unusual punishment is really a cultural expression that is hard to grasp for many outsiders. The debate over female genital operations is more than a battle for human rights. It is a clashing of cultures; a power struggle being waged on women’s bodies. When approaching these issues, one should be careful to try and look past cultural prejudices and preconceived notions of what our body is and how it should be treated.

Part of the confusion over the debate about female genital operations is the differing forms. There is the basic “sunna cut” that is only a small nick to the clitoris. This method is fairly rare, though often pushed as an alternative. The procedure that is often thought of with female genital operations is excision or clitoridectomy, where the whole clitoris is removed. There is also an intermediate form where the clitoris and minor labia is cut as well. The last form is the one that leads to the most health risks and is probably the hardest to deal with for the women. With infibulations, minor and major labia are cut and sewn closed, leaving a small opening for urination. This means that in order to have intercourse or childbirth the women must be opened again.

Although the different types of procedures done are often a focal point of the debate, the issue of female genital operations is more than just the physical alterations to the body. Depending on the culture, there can be differing reasons for performing female genital operations, and despite a growing, popular view, these reasons are not necessarily reliant on the oppression of women. There are also those who feel that the medical risks involved in performing these operations are reason enough for their eradication. However, these eradication efforts should be stopped and female genital operations should be allowed to continue.

The debate over female genital operations cannot be easily classified. It touches on many different issues such as “cultural relativism, international human rights, racism and Western imperialism, medicalization, sexuality, and patriarchal oppression of women, resulting in an onslaught of discussion and writing on the topic” (Shell-Duncan, 1). The debate over these operations only became a debate when the local practice came under global scrutiny for not fitting into the western idealized thought. This practice, since it does not fit into the western world’s preconceived notions of behavior can only be seen as deviant behavior that needs to be corrected. But a larger question is called to mind: who is to say what behavior is correct? If the women themselves are not asking for anyone to save them, then who has the authority to decide that they do in fact need saving? When thinking about female genital operations as a form of oppression to women, particularly sexual oppression, the main analogy that can be drawn to a country such as the United States is that of breast implants. Although breast implants are not a rite of initiation for American girls, they are considered by many to be critical in order to be viewed as pretty in society and to fit these norms. Many African women need to undergo female genital operations in order to be marriageable or even seen as an adult or member of their culture. Breast implants can also lead to decreased physical sensation, a common argument for the eradication of female genital operations. But the United States is not calling for a ban on breast implants. They are instead focusing on the issues of other cultures with unknown practices and beliefs. At least some degree of understanding should be accompanied when contemplating the state of female genital operations and the current debate.

The feminist movement is frequently tied to this controversy, mostly because the practice is seen as oppressive to women, more specifically through sexual oppression. The feeling of being sexually oppressed and the challenge of overcoming this oppression is largely a western movement. From that perspective it would seem only natural to try and stop anything that seems to prohibit sexual freedom for women. The idea of sexuality and sexual freedom is not a global idea. It is based and imposed through societal standards of what is seen as natural. It can be argued that “human sexuality is not merely a ‘natural’ unproblematic attribute but rather a product of social forces constructed around elements that are seen as problematic by the existent

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