Mutilation by Any Other Name

In an age of PSAs and the Vagina Monologues, many of us consider ourselves informed and educated about institutionalized female violence. “It happens over there,” we tell ourselves, pointing to remote locations on a map, barely envisioning what “it” might entail. But some forms of violence against women are disguised as customs, some of those customs have crossed oceans to arrive here, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recently created a loophole that would keep those customs alive.

Ritual genital cutting (RGC), more commonly known as female genital mutilation (FGM), is a practice whereby either the clitoris or the entire visible outer genitalia are cut away and the hole sewn up, a practice that continues to be performed on young girls in parts of Africa and Asia. While activists and educators are doing their best to subdue this practice overseas, some immigrants carry on the custom within their families in the United States or send their daughters outside the country for the procedure. Federal law prohibiting FGM was enacted in 1996 and an amendment has been introduced to prohibit the removal of a girl from the United States in order to perform it. However, because the painful, dangerous, and life-threatening custom is strongly grounded in tradition, some believe it will be carried out regardless, and by any means necessary. Stigmatizing and banning related procedures will only send these families to more severe alternatives.

In an honest attempt to minimize harm, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement on April 26, 2010, recommending that pediatricians offer a legal, “less evasive” procedure called a “ritual nick,” intended to decrease the number of fatalities and irrevocable damage FGM causes. But with this option they condoned a lesser form of violence that legitimizes the entire notion of altering a woman’s genitalia.

It’s very unlikely that this safer, nontraditional procedure would hold any significance to families who want their daughters’ sex organs removed or mutilated. In the eyes of our culture, the AAP’s recently sanctioned procedure is almost as disturbing and unfamiliar as the original. But to a culture that’s accustomed to the more evasive form, a ritual nick doesn’t compare nor does it serve its intended purpose, namely to assure a future husband of his wife’s virginity. (Some cultures also view the labia as dirty or disgusting and euphemistically refer to its removal as “cutting away the dirt.”)

In a classic case of trying to have it both ways, the AAP policy stated that it opposes:

All types of female genital cutting that pose risks of physical or psychological harm, counsels its members not to perform such procedures, recommends that its members actively seek to dissuade families from carrying out harmful forms of FGC, and urges its members to provide patients and their parents with compassionate education about the harms of FGC while remaining sensitive to the cultural and religious reasons that motivate parents to seek this procedure for their daughters.

But how can anyone argue that holding a young woman down against her will and nicking her genitalia won’t cause physical or psychological pain? Softening the descriptor does not soften the act, nor does it alter the morality. The intention remains the same.

After widespread condemnation, the AAP rescinded its policy statement in late May. “It is important that the world health community understands the AAP is totally opposed to all forms of female genital cutting,” said AAP President Judith S. Palfrey in a press release.

Something that wasn’t addressed in the retraction was their position on terminology. In the originally issued statement the AAP urged pediatricians and the public to use “female genital cutting” as a more neutral, descriptive term for FGM. “‘Mutilation’ is an inflammatory term that tends to foreclose communication and that fails to respect the experience of the many women who have had their genitals altered and who do not perceive themselves as ‘mutilated,’” read the policy statement. “It is paradoxical to recommend ‘culturally sensitive counseling’ while using culturally insensitive language.” But isn’t this the same kind of downplay they sought with the ritual nick? (A “nick,” after all, connotates a small wound one suffers while absent-mindedly shaving or carelessly preparing dinner. A nick is not an intentionally inflicted, medically unnecessary slice of a vulnerable organ.)

Yes, respecting the beliefs of other cultures is important, but protesting FGM is not an assault on those cultures. Refusing to accept any form of an act that not only demeans but endangers young women is an assault on cultural abuse. The AAP took a stance that would allow this abuse to slip in the back door under the pretense of something else. This political correctness is at the expense of young women.

Even biblical texts can’t be blamed for the atrocity; leaders of Christian and Islamic faiths have made it clear that these practices have no religious connection. It is an act of social war on female sexuality. It is a form of enslavement and degradation. It is a small step towards death, if not death of the body, death (or mutilation) of the female spirit. This is no mistake. These aren’t the unintended consequences. Whether the objective is prevention of sexual sensation, an assurance of abstinence until marriage, or simply shame, women are made to suffer.

With the pressure put on the AAP to rescind their sanction of a ritual nick, we thankfully removed what appeared to be our blessing of ritualistic mutilation by any other name.