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Literature Based Dissertation On Fgm Frontgate

This final post addresses the following assumptions:
  1. Progressives are one homogeneous group of people as represented by PMUNA.
  2. Progressive movements have no credibility because they promote sex outside of marriage.
  3. Non-Muslims have values different from 'traditional Islamic values'.
  4. Female imamate divides society, so we shouldn't discuss it.
  5. Harsh male imams prevent women from going to the mosque. Not humiliating women will make them feel welcome in the mosque.

1. Progressives are one homogeneous group of people as represented by PMUNA.

The author refers to progressive Muslims as 'The Progressives' as if they were one group of identical people. The point of a progressive movement that tries to bring in different perspectives is diversity, not homogeneity. There is a remarkably high level of tolerance, open-mindedness and acceptance in such groups. There is no point in working towards giving more voice and space to one marginalised group e.g. women, by excluding another group e.g. LGBTIQ. Providing a safe space for everyone is the objective, not replacing one point of view with another.

In short: 'Progressive' is a way of thinking, not an identity. Two people with progressive values can disagree.

2. Progressive movements have no credibility because they promote sex outside of marriage.

Ms. Nomani also has an "Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom," which asserts, "Women have an Islamic right to exemption from criminalization or punishment for consensual adult sex." What is most troubling about this latter "Bill of Rights" is that it directly goes against the Qur'anic and Prophetic proscriptions on sex outside of marriage. This apparent appeal to sexual license does little to aid the credibility of Ms. Nomani's movement.

This is an example of both an ad hominem argument (aims to reduce the esteem or moral value of the person making a point) and straw man argument (aims to distract the reader from the topic). Pointing out someone's different point of view on sex and then using it to discredit their argument for another topic is an example of a straw man argument. 

And why sex? Because it's the easiest way to discredit someone's worth in society's eyes. Especially in Muslim societies. (Perhaps not so relevant but nevertheless entertaining: a Muslim cyber-harasser tried to intimidate me by saying he had sex videos of me, thinking I would be scared and do what he asked. Too bad I was more interested in seeing the non-existent video!) 

The bill of rights for women in the bedroom that the author is referring to is found here (it's actually quite useful). Briefly, this particular bill that the author refers to does have Quranic backup (4:15-16), including a punishment prescribed for the people who accuse or criminalise such women without proof (24:4). More relevant for the topic at hand would be Asra Nomani's bill of rights for women in the mosque. 

This topic really hit home for me, because as a woman, I too have experienced discrimination in the mosque.

Why didn't the author bring up the fact that Asra Nomani also thinks women should have the right to enter a mosque, to address any member of the congregation, to be greeted respectfully, and to participate fully in congregational activities -- issues of possible discrimination that the author also alludes to having experienced herself.

In short: Counter someone's argument with an intellectual response, not irrelevant sexual information.

3. Non-Muslims have values different from 'traditional Islamic values'.

Granted the Islamic Bill of Rights has some merits. In a very public way, Asra Nomani and Amina Wadud have uniquely managed to draw attention to the marginalization of Muslim women. Ultimately, however, the airing of this particular dirty laundry only serves to reinforce the stereotypical portrayal of the oppressed Muslim female and her Muslim male oppressor

While I'm pleased that the author is able to point to the tendency of liberal feminists to portray Muslim women as all being oppressed, and by their men, problems in a society are still problems. It is not your responsibility to hide 'dirty laundry' in the hopes that Muslim women will not be seen as oppressed; that is the responsibility of liberal feminists and others who are looking at the problem. There is a fine line to tread when making an internal critique of Muslim societies, and then raising the issue at a global level (case in point: FGM).

It is also noteworthy that the most ardent supporters of this event are non-Muslims, many of whom stand in complete opposition to traditional Islamic values.

The recourse to 'traditional' and 'Islamic' values is the same as a recourse to 'family', 'Eastern', or 'Asian' values. Often, this involves women and men playing specific gender roles, often men in the public sphere (working outside the home) and women in the private sphere (housework, childcare). Beyond this, 'traditional' can cover many issues, some of which are common across religions, cultures and societies, and not especially or uniquely Islamic.

It's strange that the author highlights non-Muslims as the 'most ardent supporters'. Who knows how many people were there and how many of them were non-Muslims. But I think the author has missed out the 'most ardent supporters' of female imamate of all: the members of the congregation. As Asma Barlas has put it, the members of the congregation were not forced to pray behind her; they selected her as their imam.

In short: The definition of 'traditional' varies across space and time. Used usually to refer to the status quo. Using 'non-Muslims' as scapegoats for problems within Muslim societies is counterproductive.

4. Female imamate divides society, so we shouldn't discuss it.

Is it wise to make the prayer a bone of contention among Muslims? The Imam should be someone who can unite the congregation, not divide them. The issue of female imamate has the potential to divide rather than unite.
Just because society doesn't agree on one issue, it doesn't mean that society falls apart. When the Prophet called to his people to worship one God, he divided society and there were always people who disagreed and hated him throughout his life. Important issues have to be discussed, and should not be swept under the carpet just because society disagrees on how to deal with it (cases in point: domestic violence, rape, teenage pregnancies).
Ustadh Recep recollected the story of Iblis, defying Allah's command to bow down to Adam. Iblis tried to use the 'aql, or intellect, in matters of worship. But for Ustadh Recep, this debate represents a misuse of 'aql; such issues are beyond the realm of human reason, though not contrary to reason. Thus, we do not model our religion after social change.

Did the author just compare female imams, or people who use their intellect, to Iblis? Let's keep it classy, people. The story of Iblis bowing down to Adam was an issue of recognising his role as a human on earth, as a vicegerent. Iblis was not supposed to bow down to Adam as an act of worship -- that is only reserved for God.

In short: Islam is all about social change and moving the world towards justice. Not discussing important issues only maintains the status quo.

5. Harsh male imams prevent women from going to the mosque. Not humiliating women will make them feel welcome in the mosque.

When the Imam in the masjid harshly tells the women to sit in their own space, tells them to be quiet because their voice is a private part, tells them that he has to protect the men from them because "the worst rows are those nearest to the women," honestly, how do you think these sisters are going to feel? and who will they feel the most welcome with, the local Imam who humiliates them, or the Progressives who greet them (literally) with open arms?

I've saved the best assumption for last, because this is so obvious! The author definitely thinks that rude male imams are a problem. She also thinks that such mainstream teachings and etiquette related to women in the mosque should not be perpetuated. But she doesn't think women should be imams. I can fly with that, but then there is no reason for her to demonise Muslims who think differently from the mainstream.

I believe that it is time that Muslim women reclaim their rights from within Islam. I humbly suggest that our scholars be more aware of the sensitivity of women's issues. The Progressive Muslims raise some important points, and while we may not accept their philosophy, we do ourselves a disservice by dismissing legitimate concerns that affect Muslim women today.

In short: Welcome to the world where women in the mosque are treated with respect!

Female Genital Mutilation

An MA Thesis in Gender, Anthropology and Religion

by Elizabeth Bransfield




The practice of Female Genital Mutilation (henceforth referred to as FGM) is a deep-rooted one, and one that has inspired furious debate, though relatively little action. My purpose in this paper, therefore, is two-fold: firstly, to provide a comprehensive overview of its medical and health implications, its definitions, and the debate ranging around the practice in anthropological, developmental, theoretical and feminist perspectives. Secondly, my interest in this harmful traditional practice centres on its practice within immigrant communities – the propagation of the practice, in effect. While data is scarce, and the field naturally large, I have chosen to concentrate on two specific case studies, of African immigrants to North America. I will later also examine the issue of Cultural Relativism versus Universalism; suffice it to say, however, that my own position can be described as Universalist, and that I see the practice of FGM as the practice of unjustified – and unjust – mutilation aimed at young and defenceless children, namely girls. Yet while that is my own position I felt it necessary to examine the issue from different perspectives, from African feminists, who in many cases reject such “Western ideology” as - carrying hidden assumptions of (Western) superiority and ethnocentrism. I also found it interesting to examine the reactions of second generation immigrants, which are discussed more fully in the two case studies, but which show a remarkable range of opinion – as in the case of Fuambai Ahmadu (my first case study), a second generation African-American who seemed to have embraced the practice of FGM in her teens, seeing it as both an initiation ritual and – one could speculate – a way of rejecting dominant American values. Similarly, the second case study – which focuses on a survey of African immigrants in Canada – shows quite a diversity of opinion, including the heartening notion that several former practitioners of FGM have found in Canada the freedom to negate it.

                        I would argue that, in order to effectively work towards an abolition of the widespread practice of FGM, we must first understand the practice. I therefore included a large section covering the medical implications, and pinpointing the debate about FGM within the academic, anthropological and development circles. I have also set out to question why FGM is still being practiced today, and what’s more practiced not only in rural communities on the African continent but also under secrecy – and, it must be noted, against the law - in Western countries such as Canada and the U.S. As I would argue, there is not one answer, no one set of truths, but rather a spectrum of opinions, motivations and actions, all of which contribute to this global, almost silent phenomenon.




Definitions of FGM


Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), simply, is “the collective name given to several different traditional practices that involve the cutting of female external genitalia” (Rahman & Toubia, 2000:3). In 1997, the WHO, UNICEF and the UNFPA issued a joint policy statement on FGM which gave the following definition:


“Female genital mutilation comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons” (WHO, 1997:1).


Indigenous populations refer to FGM by a variety of localised dialects which, according to feminists Rahman and Toubia, “are often synonymous with purification or cleansing, such as the terms tahara in Egypt, tahur in Sudan and bolokoli in Mali” (Rahman & Toubia, 2000:3). The terminology itself also varies between and within countries; for example, in the Sudan FGM may be referred to as sunna[1] or infibulation – otherwise known as pharaonic.  A common misconception is that FGM is analogous to male circumcision as both practices remove healthy tissue and are carried out on children without their consent. However, there are key differences between them. For example, whereas male circumcision is a requirement of certain religions, FGM is not (WHO, 1998). Moreover, FGM is far more severe than male circumcision since it removes critical parts of the sexual organ. As feminist Zenie-Ziegler confirms, “there is no similarity between male circumcision, a prophylactic measure recommended for boys in almost every society and female circumcision, the goal of which is to diminish, if not suppress sexual desire in women” (Zenie-Ziegler cited in Abu-Sahlieh, 1994:3).  


Types of FGM


The type of mutilation performed depends upon the geographic location and ethnic population as well as the degree or severity of cutting. Recognizing the need for a standardized definition the WHO produced a classification which delineated FGM into four types (WHO, 1995) for which see appendix. The most prevalent  forms are Type I and II, which account for approximately 80 to 85 per cent of all mutilations (Morison, 2001; Toubia, 1995). Type III represents the most severe form of mutilation, constituting approximately 15 to 20 per cent of all FGM practiced (WHO, 1998; WHO, 2001). In this instance, the entire clitoris is removed together with the labia minora and the inner surface of the labia majora. The raw edges of the vulva are then stitched together using either silk, thorns, poultices or catgut sutures leaving a small posterior usually 2 to 3 cm in diameter but sometimes as small as the head of a matchstick, which allows for the flow of menstrual blood and urine. During the healing process, which lasts approximately 2 to 6 weeks, the girl’s legs are bound together from hip to ankle and a foreign object such as a piece of wood or reed is inserted into the opening to prevent closure (WHO, 1998, 2001). See appendix.

A common theory is that FGM is evolving and perhaps becoming even “more widespread or extreme” (Mackie, 2000:254). Toubia discusses a disturbing modification to FGM, one which she claims is “more severe than clitoridectomy and only a little less damaging than infibulation” (Toubia, 1995:227). Known as ‘intermediate circumcision’, she argues that it has “developed in countries where infibulation has been outlawed (such as Sudan) or where the impact of infibulation on women’s health has been criticised” (Ibid:227). Lightfoot-Klein also notes a variation taking place in Sudanese FGM but relates it to the repair procedure which occurs after the birth of a child. In order for women to give birth a temporary incision is made in the infibulation scar, which is re-stitched after birth. However, she argues that “instead of the vaginal opening being restored to the size it was before […] women are now being re-sewn to a pinhole-sized opening” (Lightfoot-Klein, 1989:380). Such repair or reconstruction, she suggests “is a bastardization of the Western vaginal tuck, […] first practiced by educated upper-class women with exposure to the West and which has gradually filtered down” (Ibid:380). The purpose of which is “thought to ensure the wife’s position by providing her husband with a “virginal” vagina once more” (Ibid:380).


Health implications of FGM


FGM is regarded as public health concern because of its potential to cause serious complications (WHO, 1997, 1998, 2001). Short-term complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region, injury to adjacent tissue and organs and infection - not to mention death. Longer term complications can include retention of menstrual blood, chronic infections, cysts, damage to the urethra, sexual dysfunction and difficulties with child birth and HIV/AIDS (WHO, 1998, 2001; Toubia, 1995; BMA, 2001). See appendix. Hosken (1979) and Koso-Thomas (1987) argue that FGM can also inhibit fertility and lead to sterility, but the extent of this still remains unclear. The BMA conclude that “risks are intensified when operators [...] work in un-sterile conditions without anaesthesia” (BMA, 2001:2).   

Risks and complications depend upon the type and severity of the procedure performed the hygiene conditions, the co-operation and physical condition of the child or woman and the precision and eyesight of the operator. Mutilations are predominately performed by un-trained older women, TBAsor village barbers on “earthen floors of huts, under lighting conditions that are inadequate to any surgical procedure” (Lightfoot-Klein, 1991:1). Since antibiotics and anaesthetics are seldom administered children are kept restrained and

immobilised by several women. Cutting is carried out using an assortment of rudimentary and often un-sterile instruments ranging from knives, razors, glass or scissors. To ease the wounds and prevent bleeding a variety of mixed herbs,

earth, or ashes may be applied. It is important to note that even though risks can be substantially reduced when FGM is performed by a qualified health practitioner within a health care facility they are by no means eliminated (WHO, 1998; McLean & Graham, 1983).




Interpreting FGM


FGM, has been practiced for millennia (Shandall, 1967; Rahman & Toubia, 2000), and according to Carr is “nearly universal within the groups where it is found” (Carr cited in Mackie, 2000:254). See appendix. However, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s, when Western feminists expressed their empathy through public statements and studies did discussion concerning cutting practices become most prominent. While exposure was helpful in removing the shroud of silence which surrounded the practice up to that time, the subject itself has become a highly contested terrain within anthropological, feminist and developmental discourse and practice. Debate stems not necessarily on whether FGM should end – as most Africans and non-Africans would probably agree that it should - but rather the manner in which it has been approached and the “strategies and methods (particularly their imperialist underpinnings) used to bring about this desired goal” (Nnaemeke, 2001:172). Unfortunately, the overall mishandling of the issue has, Toubia argues “created a defensive reaction among people involved with the practice who might otherwise be allies in the fight for eradication” (Toubia, 1995:225). This was demonstrated by the first president of Kenya – Jomo Kenyatta during the early part of the century. As leader of the anti-colonial movement he considered British attempts to criminalize FGM as a treat to national solidarity and an attack on cultural identity and social order. The scope of the debate has also cast doubt over whether “outsiders” - individuals who have not undergone the operation and who are not from the societies they study - have a right to “interfere” in the customs of other cultures.


FGM within academic discourse


Because FGM is generally performed without consent and can cause considerable harm to sexual, mental and physical health it is perceived by external observes (mostly Western) as one of the most brutal and flagrant abuses of girls’ and women’s rights (Dorkenoo, 1994; Dorkenoo & Elworthy, 1992; Weil-Curiel, 2001). As Walker and Parmar note, “FGM endangers women and children wherever they live and impacts negatively on people’s lives and health around the world” (Walker & Parmar, 1993:9). All types of FGM are cited as examples of international and gender-based violence comparable to rape, child abuse and domestic violence. As Vissandjee argues, FGM is “part of a continuum of terror-inducing acts against women that range from verbal abuse to mutilation and torture, and that can end in death” (Vissandjee, 2003:122). However, as Pickup notes, definitions of violence are not universally shared, and “the fact that women in different cultural contexts may not recognise forms of violence makes it essential to bear in mind some kind of objective definition” (Pickup, 2001:16). A universal sense of objectivity has proved difficult to establish, particularly within the realm of anthropology.


Cultural Relativism vs Universalism


Current arguments among anthropologists reveal an old tension between the tolerance of Cultural Relativism and an activist intolerance of repressive or violent conditions. Relativism (as espoused by Franz Boas and his students Ruth Benedict; Margaret Mead and Melville Herskovits) is complex since it raises questions of how much it is possible to understand or comprehend “others’” culturally based realities. As Ingold notes:




“Anthropologists stress that there are as many standards of humanity as there are different ways of being human, and that there are no grounds – apart from sheer prejudice – for investing any one set of standards with universal authority” (Ingold, 1994:29).


Relativists, therefore, are of the opinion that all cultural beliefs and values have underlying meanings which need to be interpreted within their original cultural contexts. In other words, this “hands off” and detached observer approach asserts that no outsiders have the ability nor right to impose change upon “others” and that it should be left to those concerned “to argue it out for themselves” (Scheper-Hughes, 1991:26). Contrasting this is the Universalist approach, which defines FGM as an act of international violence. Intervention is considered a necessary prerequisite on the grounds that “its morality transcends national boundaries and cultural beliefs” (Annas, 1996:326). Geertz dismissed this view arguing that “anti-relativism was really just a symptom of the pre-ethnographic nostalgia, an attempt to put the apple of diversity back into the tree of Enlightenment” (Geertz cited in Barnard, 2002:481). Despite the fact that the majority of anthropologists may consider FGM unethical, they have not adopted a position of moral advocacy against it. This middle ground and value-free approach has thus provoked rejection and accusations of failure (Gordon, 1991).

The fear of being labelled either a racist or cultural imperialist has deterred many people from actively challenging this almost-taboo subject. I would argue, however, that FGM is ritualized violence, is a violation of women’s and children’s human rights, and is an attack on natural sexuality and bodily integrity. Like all other forms of gender based abuse and discrimination they are, therefore, unacceptable. The reluctance to “interfere with other cultures”, voice concern or to take a stand is simply colluding with its perpetuation and putting thousands more innocent women and children around the world at risk. As such, I must identify my own position in the debate as a Universalist one.


Feminism and theoretical debates


Since the 1970s, FGM has developed into a legitimate topic of scientific inquiry and popular discussion, cutting across disciplines and audiences, and often sparking bitter debate and international controversy. Even the term itself has been attacked and dismissed for being a crude analogy, insinuating intent to harm (Shell-Duncan & Hernlund 2000; Rahman & Toubia 2000). Such controversy became apparent during the 1985 UN Decade for Women conference in Kenya, where many African women reacted angrily to what they considered were colonial tones of Western feminists. As one Oxfam delegate argued:


“The use of the emotive term ‘mutilation’ in the presence of women survivors, and the revulsion expressed by international activists who considered women who had undergone FGM to be ‘incomplete’ or ‘disabled’, appeared to be another form of abuse” (Pickup, 2001:16).


Recognizing the hostility generated by the term, many scholars and field workers instead prefer to use FC or FGC. However, these have also been criticised for appearing to trivialize its severity. As Baden notes, “female circumcision’, refers to the mildest form of operation which affects a small percentage of the millions of women operated on” (Baden, 1992:15). Nevertheless, FGM “remains an effective policy and advocacy tool” (Rahman & Toubia, 2000:4) having been adopted by a wide range of activists and NGOs  such as the UN, IAC, and the WHO.

Not only has the term provoked debate but so to has the language and the discourse which many consider to be both judgmental and sensationalistic – as something “outside the realm of Western civilization, something “other”, “remote”, “barbaric” (Walker & Parmar, 1993:109). For example, FGM is “a powerful weapon” (Dorkenoo & Elworthy, 1992:35), “strange and disturbing” (Lightfoot-Klein, 1997:131), “a harrowing rite” (Dugger, 1996: A1), a practice which essentially disregards the dignity of women and girls. Understandably, these descriptions have provoked strong resentment from African and Arab women who oppose the view that only Western leadership can introduce a change to this “barbaric” practice. As Nnaemeka notes, “the images (and photographs) of African and Muslim women in books, magazines and films about circumcision are disturbing at best, and downright insulting at worst” (Nnaemeke, 2001:174). Western condemnation tends instead to be perceived as either imperial arrogance or hypocrisy, which does not appear too surprising given the fact that the West “allow a surgeon to whittle away female genitalia if the operation is understood to be cosmetic” (Greer, 1999:94-95). Although I agree with Greer that Western women are in no position to claim a moral high ground since they themselves also engage in so-called-barbaric practices in their pursuit of possibly-unattainable aesthetic ideals, it is important to emphasise that cosmetic procedures are choices made by consenting adults: not uniformed children.


FGM and Feminist interpretations


Feminist scholars and anti-FGM activists (such as Hosken; Koso-Thomas; Rahman and Toubia; Walker, Weil-Curiel to name but a few) interpret FGM as an assault on women’s sexuality as well as an oppressive and cruel act which has a grave and catastrophic impact upon women and girls’ health. They further associate FGM with a patriarchal desire and need to control women, their bodies, and their sexuality in order to maintain female chastity and fidelity. As Koso-Thomas argues, “women, over time have been successfully persuaded to attach special importance to female circumcision, motherhood, and housekeeping, in order to maintain male domination in patriarchal societies” (Koso-Thomas, 1987:97). Koso-Thomas’ revolutionary stance urges (African) women to “free themselves from ignorance, fear and mental servitude [and] join in the education of their sisters” (Ibid:98). Others, such as Pickup, regard FGM as an act of material bargaining that women make with patriarchy in order to derive economic support. For example, “it may be a rational – and even loving – decision for a mother to decide to genitally mutilate her daughter in a culture where she will stand little chance of finding a husband otherwise” (Pickup, 2001:22). FGM is thought to reflect and reinforce the social and moral order – in which women are obliged – or, as Walker and Parmar argue, forced and brainwashed - into being pure and faithful. A problem for feminist analysis has been that women themselves are mostly the ones inflicting FGM; however, the above explanations, by inferring that women simply carry out the desires of men, implies that men are in essence the real, hidden perpetuators. 

“Third World” feminists, in turn, have criticised Western attitudes. Firstly, for homogenizing and reductively situating them. Secondly, for their tendency to dominate both theoretical and practical aspects of the feminist movement, and thirdly, for their condemnation of FGM which, they argue, carries hidden assumptions of superiority and ethnocentrism. As Ahmadu notes, “women are seen as blindly and wholeheartedly accepting “mutilation” because they are victims of male political, economic, and social domination” (Ahmadu, 2000:284). Moreover, they accuse Western feminists of interpreting FGM out of its socio-economic, political and historical context. Whilst most feminists would regard the subordination of women as a matter of international concern, many resent the categorisations being predominately centred around European and American personalities and events (Ahmadu, 2000; Gruenbaum, 2000; Abusharaf, 1995). With this in mind, feminists such as Minh-ha, Thiam, Spivak and Mohanty have worked towards strengthening the notion of the “Third World woman” and her construction within Western feminist discourse. For example, Mohanty argues that:


“Western feminists appropriate and “colonise” the constitutive complexities which characterize the lives of women in these countries’, thus ending up with a crudely reductive ‘notion of gender or sexual difference” (Mohanty cited in Kurian, 2001:66).


Mohanty’s attempt to subvert intellectual paradigms is criticised by Chowdhry who considers her work equally neo-colonial. Citing Goetz, Chowdhry argues instead that:


“Western feminist and Western-trained feminist writing often portray Third World women as victims. These feminists base their analysis and their authority to intervene on their “claims to know” the shared and gendered oppression of women. In so doing, they misrepresent the varied interests of “different women by homogenizing the experiences and conditions of Western women across time and culture” (Goetz cited in Chowdhry, 1995:28).


It could therefore be argued that by interpreting women as different, or “other”, Western feminists effectively alienate precisely the women whom they claim to support. Nnaemeka argues that “feminist activism in the area of female circumcision cannot be separated from the language – verbal, visual - in which the issue is framed and the wider context of Western imperialism” (Nnaemeka cited in Perry & Schenck, 2001:155). African women, she says, have in fact become “doubly victimized: first from within (their culture) and second from without (their saviours)” (Nnaemeka, 2001:174). French attorney and FGM activist Weil-Curiel, dismisses Nnaemeke’s claim that Western feminists use FGM to generate sensationalism. She also criticises Nnaemeke for not mentioning anti-FGM activism among African men and women. According to Weil-Curiel, it is unjust for Western feminists or “the bearers of bad news” to be put on trial and not the perpetuators of the act itself. Instead, she urges African women to “legitimately resist voyeuristic ‘saviours’ who insult them by exhibiting their body parts in books and films” (Weil-Curiel, 2001:196).




International action


The increased focus on FGM as a violation of women’s and children’s rights has, without doubt, been largely influenced by the feminist movement as well as systematic campaigning by women’s organisation’s. However, these has not been the only factors. In fact, in recent years it could be argued that Western governments have almost been forced into taking a stand against the practice in order to protect the increasing numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers within their jurisdiction that have arrived from countries where FGM is still practiced (Dorkenoo & Elworthy, 1992; Hosken, 1989; WHO, 1998). Although Canada, for example, has long granted political asylum to women fleeing FGM, it was not until 1994 that the U.S. took a stand by offering 17 year old Fauziya Kasinga from Togo political asylum. Having run away from home to escape mutilation, Kasinga made her way to the U.S. On arrival she was arrested for illegal entry and imprisoned for a year. Although human rights advocates campaigned for her release, the courts dismissed her case as “not credible.” Only when the media exposed her plight was she freed (Family Education Network, 2002:1). Kasinga’s case not only marked a turning point in U.S. immigration law but “became a lightening rod for growing legislative and media attention, awakening the nation to a dangerous and painful practice that is the social norm for women in many central African countries” (Ibid:1).

Due to the lack in comprehensive and rudimentary studies of immigrant experiences and concerns undertaken by host governments, it is reasonable to

assume that Western governments have chosen to take a haphazard and side-line approach towards FGM. As Rahman and Toubia note, “there is little data about either the number of these immigrants or the prevalence of FC/FGM amongst them.” Furthermore, “apart from judicial cases […] there is no systematic documented evidence of the practice in immigrant settings” (Rahman & Toubia 2000:7). The ongoing process of globalisation promotes an urgent need for raising awareness not just in the U.S. but world-wide about individual cultural practices. Governments and all associated bodies have a responsibility to protect immigrant populations residing in the West: this protection is equally dependent upon a programme of affirmative action which also seeks to educate the native population about FGM.


Women and children’s human rights


Since the UDHR was proclaimed over fifty years ago, governments continue to strive towards the eradication of world poverty, ignorance, hunger, and cruelty. Most governments in countries where FGM is practiced have ratified several UN Conventions and Declarations that make provision for the protection of women and children, including the abolition FGM. For example, in 1979 the international community publicly endorsed CEDAW which addresses equal rights for women in all fields, and “calls on governments to modify or abolish customs and practices that constitute discrimination against women or are based on the idea of female inferiority or stereotyped roles” (Toubia, 1995:233). This was preceded by the World Conference on Human Rights, where 171 governments adopted by consensus a Declaration which stated that the human rights of women are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights (Dorkenoo & Elworthy, 1992). Other international standards applicable to FGM include the UN CRC which requires governments to take appropriate measures to protect children from all forms of exploitation whilst abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to their health Article 39 states that “no child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (United Nations, 1989: Article 39). See appendix.

Although the UN Charter affirms the equal rights of women and men, and states that everyone has the right to enjoy human rights without discrimination on grounds of sex, the overall effectiveness of such treaties is questionable. Women’s civil, political, economic and cultural rights continue to be denied in the name of cultural values which are based on unequal power relations. Furthermore, states continue to repudiate accountability for violations against women and children. As Amnesty International notes:


“The gender-blindness of the international human rights framework has meant in practice that gross violations of women’s rights have often been ignored and structural discrimination against women has not been challenged” (Amnesty, 1998:5).


In order for treaties to be meaningful, Dorkenoo and Elworthy suggest that they “should not merely remain a paper provision, to be given lip service to those entrusted to implement it” (Dorkenoo & Elworthy, 1992:16). Instead they argue that “members of the UN should work at translating its provisions into specific implementation programmes at grassroots level” (Ibid:16). Although many Western governments in practice flout the principals of human rights its overall universality remains a challenge. The U.S., for example, remains reluctant to be bound by human rights treaties that embody these principals. It also represents one of the few countries that has not ratified CEDAW or signed up to the CRC. According to Amnesty International “even when it has ratified international human rights conventions, it has often entered extensive reservations, refusing to be bound by many of the provisions within them” (Amnesty, 1998:5). Governments such as the U.S. which abstain from or deny the indivisibility of human rights jeopardise the health and well being of millions of girls and women around the world who depend on the reform of FGM and other deeply rooted harmful practices. 




FGM viewed from a development perspective


Despite the increasing ease of travel, migration and movement of refugees and immigrants both regionally and globally, FGM is no longer a localized issue but rather a global phenomenon even though its major impact remains in developing countries. Concurrently, North America receives immigrants and refugees from all African countries; however the information pertaining to their exact origin is, according to the WHO largely insufficient:


“The 1990 census, which does not carry detailed information on the country of origin of citizens and residents, indicated that the total African-born population was 363 819 and that 10 357 African-born immigrants were admitted to the country between 1991 and 1994” (WHO, 1998:14).


The fact that governments remain unaware about exact numbers of mutilated girls or those who are potentially at risk shows an unwillingness to face the problem as well as negligence. In response, many NGO’s working within North America as well as Africa have conducted their own studies which have been used to facilitate the design of suitable protocol including the re-education of communities engaged in the practice of FGM. For example, “RAINBO is currently undertaking a study of African immigrants in New York metropolitan area, inter alia collecting population statistics and conducting a needs assessment for health and social services.” The aim of which, the WHO note “is to assist women who have suffered from genital mutilation and to prevent its occurrence among immigrant children” (Ibid:14). From a European perspective FORWARD has also demonstrated effective and co-operative interagency practice, by assisting authorities in developing culturally sensitive policy and education programmes. “The Department of Health is sponsoring FORWARD to map out the profiles of communities implemented to date on FGM in the United Kingdom (Ibid:13-14). Grassroots action which reaches out to communities and alerts social and health services of potential risks is an imperative development strategy, particularly so in countries where anti-FGM laws have not been recognized. As Brisibe notes:

“One reason why the local government and the traditional institution must work together is because even if the policies are made into law in the constitution, the local communities are not aware because the majority of the people don’t even have an idea of what government does or the laws of the country” (Brisibe, 2001:19).


On the U.S. level, legislation and law enforcement is  used as a guide for allocating American aid, in fact, “U.S. representatives to the World Bank and similar financial institutions are required to oppose loans to countries where FGM is practiced and which there is no anti-FGM programs” (Ibid:1). Although I agree with Toubia’s point that “clear policy declarations by governmental and professional bodies are essential to send a strong message of disapproval” it is purely counter productive “if the majority of the society is still convinced that FGM serves a common good” (Toubia, 1995:234). 

Organisations outside government have, since the 1980’s proliferated to become important actors in the development process. Official endorsement of their role is now widespread from donor agencies, international organisations and governments alike. While some NGO’s conduct anti-FGM campaigns, others, either directly, or indirectly work against FGM by supporting local activist groups with funding, training, technical assistance.


Many Western governments deny the indivisibility of human rights, arguing that if they focus initially on economic rights others will follow, but as Amnesty International argue, “economic growth does not necessarily translate into genuine human development. Development is a process embracing the place of individuals in civil society, their security and their capacity to determine and realise their potential” (Amnesty, 1998:15).




In order to understand the prevalence of FGM within the context of immigrant societies I have chosen to concentrate on two case studies, one in Canada, and one in the U.S. There is a problematic assumption that immigrants, by relocating to a new country, must therefore assume the host culture’s values and traditions. However, as Cohen observes, “even within settled liberal democracies, the old assumption that immigrants would identify with their adopted country in terms of political loyalty, culture and language, can no longer be taken for granted” (Cohen, 1997:19). Indeed, I believe that the real tension may arise not from the culture-clash between new immigrants and their host culture, but rather between such immigrants and their children. The term “second generation” applies to the children of contemporary immigrants, who were either born in the host country or received a large part of their socialisation and schooling there. According to statistics, approximately 15 per cent of all children in the U.S. alone originate from immigrant parentage or are immigrant children (Song, 2003). Song’s study points out that while there may be little question about the ethnic identity of the parents, for their children the negotiation is rather more prominent and contentious. Children are also more likely to invest in belonging in the wider society, and be “more deeply involved in transactions across the ethnic boundary” (Song, 2003:105). Rather than being oblivious to such disparities, young children are considered “highly conscious of the significant differences in attitudes between them and their immigrant parents, which they attribute to their own distinctive experiences as second generation” (Ibid:108). They may, indeed, perceive themselves as in-between, or “straddling two quite disparate worlds” (Ibid:108).

Roosens argues that second generation life and cultural assimilation is clearer and easier than that of their parents, and their reference to the ancestral home very much more remote. This implies that “members of the second generation are unambiguously orientated to the country of origin in which they were born and raised” (Roosens, 1989:137). Although this may be true for some it is not necessarily true for all, as Ahmadu [for which see below] has demonstrated. In fact, I would argue that the paths and life choices of second generation populations are rather diverse, unpredictable and potentially more mentally demanding than that of their parents. As Song notes, “while some achieve socio-economic success while retaining strong ethnic attachments and identities, others assimilate to subcultures with limited social capital and socio-ecomonic mobility” (Song, 2003:105). Another possibility is that they may not assimilate immediately into the mainstream culture but may instead adopt a “minority culture of mobility” (Ibid:105). The ethnic identities of second generation individuals are complex, in so far as children must negotiate not only with their immediate but also extended family, siblings, peers and the wider society more generally.

Although there are common motivations for individuals migrating, it is the purpose underlying choices of behaviour which is crucial to shaping their experience. How and where they choose to settle, their behaviour and their values are all shaped by ties to, and knowledge of, the country of origin. The fact that many immigrants and their children do not assimilate or adapt to the values of their host settings may be seen by politicians and the mass media as evidence of the “degenerate” character, a false sense of superiority, or even stupidity. Their social separation has also been perceived as a source of conflict: as Royce argues, “they cannot be counted on to support society, especially when it demands something that runs counter to the interests or values of the group” (Royce, 1982:35). However, as Roosens notes, “social rejection by their hosts, and public commitment to their own cultural and to their country of origin, gives first-generation immigrants little reason to immerse themselves in the language and culture of their host country” (Roosens, 1989:134).

The process of cultural change is, however, inevitable. Immigrants may continue to preserve their own sense of ethnic identity and hold on to key cultural values, but as Roosens notes “this observable culture is significantly modified in the host country” (Roosens, 1989:135). In such climate, therefore, the practice of FGM is both carried over from the host country but at the same time encounters a growing resistance, both from without (social and health services, law agencies) and within (the social acclimatization of second- and third-generation children).


Case Study One: Fuambai Ahmadu and the experience of a second-generation African-American


Ahmadu’s article ‘Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision’ includes a detailed account of her personal experience of initiation among her paternal ethnic group, the Kono, in Sierra Leone. I consider Ahmadu’s article to be particularly significant because it examines why a young, educated, African-American woman born in Washington, D.C of immigrant parents would choose to travel to her ancestral homeland in order to undergo FGM. Ahmadu’s study – compiled over several years – was also selected on the basis that it reflected comparative views and experiences of a wide range of other Kono men and women, including refugees and immigrants around the Washington, D.C. area.

A small a part of Ahmadu’s formative years was spent in Sierra Leone, and it was here that she first became aware of the importance of initiation and FGM. She notes that “it was during these early years in Africa that I first heard whispers about “Bundu society,” the “Bundu Devil,” and the fearfulness of initiation that, I was admonished, every girl must undergo in order to become a woman” (Ahmadu,

2000:289). During her school days in the U.S. she developed a “burning curiosity to know what these “devils,” “medicines,” and “secret societies,” were all about” (Ibid:289). She was, she says, further provoked by family relatives who often taunted and teased her during her time in the U.S. So much so, she notes that “when my grandmother, mother, and aunt all approached me, some fifteen years later, saying that it was “time,” no one could have been more excited as well as afraid” (Ibid:290). As Song argues, “second-generation people born of immigrant

parents in societies such as Britain and the USA [...] may possess an enhanced awareness of ties to their parents’ homeland and of diasporic communities and cultures around the world” (Song, 2003:114). She further notes that they may embrace forms of diasporic cultural practices, based on “imagined communities whose blurred and fluctuating boundaries are sustained by real and/or symbolic ties to some original ‘homeland” (Ibid:114).

Together with her younger cousin and sister, Ahmadu returned to “her own people” in Sierra Leone in order to undergo initiation – FGM. On arrival she notes that “in the presence of the entire town [...] my grandfather’s spirit was assured that we had been brought back “home” from Puu (the white man’s country) to carry on the traditions of our people” (Ibid:290). According to Royce, Ahmadu’s choice to return to her ethnic group was not a typically unusual motivation, and has occurred during all periods of immigration: “Children of immigrants or generations even further removed from the immigration experience,” he argues:

“Sometimes return to the land of their ancestors. Often the return is sparked by a curiosity arising from years of hearing about the “Old Country” and participating in traditions more of less attenuated by translation to a new environment” (Royce, 1983:123).


Ahmadu’s choice emphasised a radical expression of remigration, and contrasted radically with the common assumption that migrant children, under the influence of peers and the Western schooling system, will come to see the lifestyle and values of their parents as old-fashioned and inappropriate. Ahmadu argues that the continuation of FGM among the Kono is because “they relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over and against men in society, and they embrace the legitimacy of female authority and, particularly, the authority of their mothers and their grandmothers” (Ibid:301). Interestingly, Ahmadu refers to her kin as “they” rather than “we”. It might be prudent to suggest the initiation ceremony did not quite make her, after all, a full member of the tribe...

Ahmadu recounts how extreme apprehension and terror set in once she became aware of what was to happen. “I was struck by the full extent of what I had allowed to get myself into,” she says, and “I looked up at my mother as she held me, and I begged her to take me back to the United States  - back to “civilized” society (Ibid:292-293). Although mitigated by distance and systematic disapproval of host countries, Ahamdu argues that immigrant women, even those who may not support the continuation, are obliged to mutilate their daughters because they do not want them to be the “odd ones out”. She notes that “Kono women living in the diaspora explain that they want their daughters to enjoy the same legal rights as other women, and even more, they want them to “fit” into Kono society” (Ibid:301). It could be argued that, perhaps, it is not so much the concern of parents to see their daughters “fit in” but rather an internal interest to assert their own status: “in the case of the Kono and female “circumcision”, ideological dimensions of female rituals ensure the power and pre-eminence of older women over younger women as well as men over society” (Ibid:296). I find it impossible to agree that parents’ have a right to subject their Western-born daughters - who may prefer to live like other young women of their generation - to a practice that would essentially stigmatise them in their host country. Aside from wishing to uphold and conform to Kono tradition, I would argue Ahmadu’s own choice may have been linked with a desire to “prove a point”, as it were, to her ancestral family: as if her initiation was as much about training girls for womanhood as it was about defying her Western-born status. She notes that:


“I would be maligned as an ignorant puu moe[15] or worse, an uncircumcised woman,” the ultimate insult against a woman. At the same time, these women do not necessarily believe that their Western - born or – bred daughters will care to be integrated in or accepted by Kono society” (Ibid:301).


Whilst providing a valuable insight into why FGM remains significant among certain African-American immigrant populations, Ahmadu’s article was not without flaws. For example, she criticizes the tendency of FGM studies to predominately reflect the views of outsiders. She even condemns work by African women scholars: Koso Thomas, Dorkenoo and Toubia, on the basis that they have no personal experience of FGM, and do not come from areas where it is practiced – thus implying that they have no jurisdiction for discussing the subject. Such views I consider rather hypocritical, since she herself, it could be argued, also exemplifies just such an outsider. Even though FGM may have reaffirmed her ethnic roots, Ahmadu still resides in a different time and space. As Roosens argues:


“It is obvious that nobody can return to a “former culture” that they never had. Young adults who have resolutely grown away from the cultural environment of their early youth can simulate their traditional culture, but they are never completely at home again in what they have left” (Roosens, 1989:138).


Ahmadu’s liminal status demonstrates Song’s argument that “rather than adopting only one ethnic or national affiliation, many second generation men and women can be invested in a wide range of ethnic identities” (Song, 2003:104). Kono society, like other traditional African societies, is experiencing dramatic changes. The demand for goods traditionally produced by women has lessened and women are now “becoming more and more dependent on men for their survival” (Ibid:288). Where in the past girls received months of cultural and religious instruction in the “bush” they now enter for just a couple of weeks, and must return to school soon after mutilation. As Koso-Thomas notes, “owing to the country-wide inflation, the cost of maintaining the girls in initiation schools for several months is beyond the pockets of most parents” (Koso-Thomas, 1987:23). Tendencies to lessen ritual are also accompanied by reports of girls being mutilated at earlier ages, a trend which Dorenkoo (1994) suggests undermines the hypothesis that FGM is explained as an initiation rite. Koso-Thomas, on the other hand, argues that this factor has more to do with the fact that “girls are more easily controlled and [...] unaware of what is going to happen” (Ibid:23). The link between age and economic necessity does not enter into Ahmadu’s argument. The fact that toddlers are now being mutilated, she feels, has more to do with “the fear that these children may forever forgo their Kono identities, either because of intensification and aggressive eradication campaigns or because they may wind up as refugees […] as a result of war” (Ahmadu, 2000:302), a view I find rather too simplistic. In addition, Ahmadu argues that the adverse health implications of FGM are overstated and do not “tally with the experiences of most Kono women” (Ibid:308). This is difficult to disprove without conducting fieldwork, perhaps, yet what Ahmadu fails to highlight is how radically different her mutilation was compared to those typically carried out on Africans. Not only was she administered an anaesthetic injection to thwart immediate pain, but she also received oral painkillers and antibiotics afterwards to prevent infection. In addition, her mutilation was overseen by a close friend - a registered nurse, who not only ensured that “medical doctors were on full alert and that there were clinics close by in case of emergencies” but who also “broke the code of silence” in order to inform her of what was happening (Ibid:292). Admadu herself notes thatshe received such attention “because I had been brought up in Puu” (Ibid:292). It is important to note that rural African women and children rarely receive basic health care and have mostly no idea of what is to happen to them. They undergo FGM uniformed and in excruciating pain (Dorkenoo, 1994). I agree with Ahmadu that the perturbing silence among African women intellectuals who have been mutilated is unfortunate. I also agree that “this reticence is understandable, given the venomous tone of the “debate”’ (Ibid:283). However, it is significant that she describes her own mutilation using aggressive and shocking language: “kidnapped”, “yanked up”, “unimaginable agony”, “grabbed,” “hoisted”, and “terror”; her choice of language is suggestive.

Case study Two: FGM and immigration to Canada


Between 1997 and 1999 a nation-wide project was conducted among 162 Canadian immigrants who had originated from one of 23 regions in Africa where FGM is still being practiced. Funded by the National Health and the Research Development Program the study, titled ‘The Cultural Context of Gender Identity: Female Genital Excision and Infibulation’, explores how FGM relates to gender identity and the acculturation process in Canada, and was conducted using open-ended qualitative interviews with women and men. These were intended to convey the lived experiences of immigrant women who had settled in the West and were now faced with the dilemma of whether to perform FGM on their children. The study also questioned why immigrants maintained the practice of FGM when it directly conflicted with the value system of the host setting. The study identified that African immigrants who settled in Canada were confronted with a different perception of women’s status as well as the socio-cultural and economic values that define it. Such exposure is thought to manifest in three ways: immigrants reappraise traditional practices such as FGM, reject Western values, or become uncertain as to whether to continue. Rather than conforming one overall trend, the study revealed divergent positions which were related to factors such as the influence of the extended family and Canadian law. What appeared striking is that the majority of immigrants, regardless of whether they chose to reject FGM and accept member status as neo-Canadians or not, acknowledged that FGM could be carried out on their daughters if they returned. As one woman explained:


“Everything your mother desires, especially the mother of your husband, she plays an important role in the family. I can send my daughter home today and they’ll excise her. I don’t even have the right to send a letter to my in-laws saying them not to excise her […] I could be divorced for it” (Vissandjee, 2003:120).


In African cultures, where the role of woman as mother is granted the utmost importance, FGM is intended to control women both sexually and socially, preserving their virginity until marriage and fidelity thereafter. As one woman said, “in a way it is a source of pride for the girls to be excised before marriage... that the girl be a virgin and well... really have proof of the virginity of the girls on the wedding night” (Ibid:118). Feminists such as Abusharaf perceive the rationale behind FGM as an intention “to suppress a young girl’s sexual drive by removing her mostly sexually sensitive parts, believing that this will ensure her chastity and thus protect the honour and integrity of the family” (Abusharaf, 1995:53). Curtailing premarital sex and preserving virginity is particularly important in traditional societies such as those found in Egypt, Sudan and Somalia. In other contexts, such as Kenya, Uganda and Sierra Leone, where a woman’s virginity is not so important, FGM is otherwise practiced to suppress a woman’s sexual demands on her partner, thus enabling him to have multiple partners. The belief that un-mutilated women will become sexually promiscuous and voracious, or that they are too morally weak to be entrusted with the family or clan’s honour is not only outdated but also insulting. Furthermore, the notion that FGM somehow dampens a woman’s libido and guarantees her virginity and fidelity is not only speculative, but as Passmore Sanderson argues, an ignorant assumption since “neither clitoridectomy nor infibulation can obliterate desire, and even the path of sexual intercourse may not be a real deterrent” (Passmore Sanderson, 1981:52). It could be argued that FGM is performed purely out of a male unconscious fear of female sexuality – an act which makes women and children vehicles for male pleasure. 

Anthropological explanations for FGM, rather than focusing attention on its sexual aspects and implications, have tended to emphasise symbolic and social meanings. For example, in the ‘The Rites of Passage’ Van Gennep studied religious beliefs and ceremonies from a wide range of cultures, paying particular attention to life ceremonies that surround “life crisis” – events such as initiation, death and marriage. He argues that when practiced as part of a rite of passage, FGM separates initiates from the asexual world of childhood and incorporates them into the sexual and sex-segregated world of adulthood. In this view, FGM prepares young women for their preordained social role within society. He argues that “the process is to modify the personality of the individual in a manner visible to all” (Van Gennep, 1960:71). Similarly,  Durkheim’s book ‘The Elementary Forms of Religious Life’ (1995) also delineates the role of "primitive" religion: to prepare individuals for social life, transmit values, and reinforce solidarity. However, unlike Van Gennep, Durkheim argues that ritual activity, such as FGM (although not directly mentioned) is a practice that serves the collective, rather than the individual, and ensures its existence by engaging individuals in efforts to shape and renew the community. Critics such as the radical feminist Daly have attacked such writers, accusing them of producing "patriarchal scholarship” (Daly, 1978:171). Other interpretations suggest that FGM creates distinctions between immature and mature individuals, ensures pregnancy and also prevents death among children (Ibid:113). Although these interpretations may be applicable, the facts speak clearly for themselves: FGM does cause death by haemorrhage, and has proven to have devastating long-, and short-term complications upon women’s physical and emotional health (WHO, 1998; Dorkenoo & Elworthy, 1992). The abhorrence and tragedy of FGM rests with the fact that it is essentially a child’s safety being unnecessarily compromised without their capacity to consent. Furthermore, why should women have to strictly and unquestionably comply with the dictates of their communities out of fear of being socially banished, economically destitute or even, perhaps, killed? Submission should not be the only means of survival for women who have no other choice.

Commonly cited reasons for practising FGM given by the Canadian immigrants was its power to confer womanhood and adult status: “as long as she hasn’t been through it [excision],” one of the women said, “she hasn’t become a woman” (Vissandjee, 2003:118). Another reason cited was to avoid being ostracized within the community. Given the fact that FGM is common practice in many regions of Africa, women who are not mutilated suffer several forms of social disapproval. Thus, by submitting, women are able to restore their dignity and receive respect: “as long as a mother hadn’t excised her daughter” one of the women related, “you were not considered to even have a daughter” (Ibid:118). Also mentioned in the interviewees’ discourse is the development for sexual prowess. This perception is based on the view that by making it difficult for women to achieve orgasm, FGM prolongs intercourse and enhances pleasure for both partners. Again, however, this is difficult to accept when studies (Lightfoot-Klein, 1989; WHO, 1998) show that men also suffer extreme anxiety from having to adhere to rigidly assigned gender roles. Men’s failure to penetrate a wife together with their fear that by attempting to do so may result in her haemorrhaging and possibly dying often causes erectile dysfunction and impotence in men. In societies where manhood is highly regarded, sexual failure may be so devastating that a man may commit suicide.

In conclusion, the study showed that despite education programs, awareness-raising and its illegality, FGM remains an integral part of female identity and the immigrant cultures social values. In fact, the overwhelming majority of immigrants all felt compelled to preserve their own sense of ethnic identity and continued to hold onto key cultural practices equal to that of the country of origin. “Most of the families who have girls and who have the means and the money and the accessibility or the contact usually does that” one woman reported, “send their girls back to Africa […] and the girls are circumcised, and then they are brought back” (Vissandjee, 2003:120). Barth points out that “ethnic self-affirmation or the ignoring or minimalization of ethnic identity is always related in one way or another way to the defence of social and economic interests. Many people,” he argues “change their ethnic identity only if they can profit by doing so” (Barth cited in Roosens, 1989:13). The persistence of FGM practice stemmed from collective and social pressures exerted from within immigrant communities and from the societies in which they originated. For others, it could be argued that their identity was constructed on future and economic plans. Vissandjee noted that “Somali immigrant women [...] in Ottawa who plan to return to their country of origin, once the political situation permits, generally maintain their values regarding excision and infibulation” (Vissandjee, 2003:121).

Although conformity to social norms appeared to be a major cause for FGM, immigrants noted that it had also weakened as a result of the distance factor. One mother said: “here in Canada, it is the parents alone that decide!” another agreed: “since you are outside [the country of origin], you decide” (Ibid:121). Indeed, a significant factor in the decline of FGM practice is one of positive integration into the host society, often determined by the relative age of the child involved. As Vissandjee notes, “immigrant children in their preteen years tend to assimilate into the new society more easily” (Ibid:122), just as, in many cases, it is the parents themselves who encourage such cultural integration. “When I was in Africa,” says one woman interviewed, “I didn’t view [infibulation] as a bad thing and perhaps I would have done it to my daughters. [...] Now, in Canada, no... I will not do it to my daughters. Here it’s not like Africa. My daughter was born here [...] because she was born here, she is like other Canadians” (Ibid:121). It worth noting that this is not limited to the experience of immigrants to the West, but also:


“For many Africans whose societies are undergoing transformation [and] many societies that practiced excision in the past are now questioning, and for many rejecting these traditions as literacy and education programs make their way in these societies” (Ibid:121).


I would argue that the effects of such cross-cultural pollination - in effect, of beneficial globalisation – are on the whole positive, offering valuable first-hand education not only in the host country but all the way back through the familial chains.




That the practice of FGM is damaging, both physically and psychologically, is a fact that cannot be ignored, and one which I hope to have shown conclusively in the beginning of this paper. I also hoped to have shown that FGM is no longer  confined to the 23 African countries where it has been prevalent for centuries but commonly practiced among certain African migrants in Western settings where legislation prohibits it. Arguments abound as to its precise roots: male domination in a patriarchal society plays an important part, yet so does the propagation of the practice by women themselves, and the fact that the practice has been transplanted abroad with a modicum of success. Claims of the practice’s importance as a cultural signifier neglect to consider the core significance of FGM – mutilation. I do not believe, Cultural Relativists aside, that any mutilation – and mutilation of the genitals tenfold – can be justified on any rational grounds.

Nevertheless, in order to work towards the prevention of FGM an understanding of the cultural forces behind it is essential, and I hope that, by examining some of the debate within “Third World” feminist circles as well as more in-depth in the two case studies, I have shown some of the many – and often conflicting – reasons for the prevalence of FGM. Indeed, it seems that as yet FGM is not top of the agenda for most Western governments or, indeed, NGOs. Data is sketchy, secrecy is still the rule, and FGM is still being practiced: in the U.S., in Canada, in Europe itself.

Yet I am optimistic: as the second case study shows, many second generation immigrant children no longer undergo the ordeal of mutilation, as the pressure of the old society ease in their new environments. Nor do African countries sit still: if once there were accusations of Western ideology and colonialist forces behind the opposition to FGM (causing much resentment) now it is Africans themselves, from grassroots level and up to government itself, which are fighting to eradicate the process – by means of education, as well as law.

At the end, then, education, not force, is the key. Information about FGM must become more widely available; training programmes must be initiated at local and regional levels, and special attention given to those children deemed most at risk; NGOs as well as governments, universities and local health authorities must become involved building and strengthening partnerships as well as integrating programmes. It is estimated that two million girls a year experience one form or another of FGM (WHO, 1998). Those numbers must be eliminated; those children must be protected. It was my original intention to make this paper available online, for just such a purpose: to educate, to offer information, first and foremost to make FGM a topic of debate outside of the narrow circles of academia.



For further reading see (Hernlund, 2000: 235-253).


All Rights are (c) copyright Elizabeth Bransfield 2003, 2004.