Let’s not talk about FGM — it’s embarrassing

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Let’s not talk about FGM — it’s embarrassing

What is FGM? It is “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting” and includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women. [ Day 24 of “One Day, One Blog” — a challenge I set for myself for the month of January 2019.]

I was in my late teens. I loved the “readers digest”. I devoured it from cover to cover.

One particular issue had a beautiful woman on its cover. Her skin was smooth and the colour of melted chocolate. Her name was Waris ( it means “Desert Flower”).

Readers Digest used to carry summary of books at the end — this was the largest feature in each edition and I always looked forward to reading them. This time the book summary was about a book written by Waris.. … a book she had written female genital mutilation.

With a mixture of morbid curiosity and fear I started reading. In the first few pages she described her experience of being “guided” to adulthood by other women in her clan.

I visualized a horrible desert where civilization has not reached. Men and women who belonged to barbaric times.

Read a few lines from the book.

“I peered between my legs and saw the gypsy. The old woman looked at me sternly, a dead look in her eyes, then foraged through an old carpet-bag. She reached inside with her long fingers and fished out a broken razor blade. I saw dried blood on the jagged edge. She spit on it and wiped it on her dress. While she was scrubbing, my world went dark as Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes.

The next thing I felt was my flesh being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The feeling was indescribable. I didn’t move, telling myself the more I did, the longer the torture would take. Unfortunately, my legs began to quiver and shake uncontrollably of their own accord, and I prayed, Please, God, let it be over quickly. Soon it was, because I passed out.

When I woke up, my blindfold was off and I saw the gypsy woman had piled a stack of thorns from an acacia tree next to her. She used these to puncture holes in my skin, then poked a strong white thread through the holes to sew me up. My legs were completely numb, but the pain between them was so intense that I wished I would die.”

I was a teenager growing up in a safe place called Kerala. My mind could not handle what I was reading. I threw the book away.

I convinced myself that it happened very very far away. And if I pretended it’s a story I read, it will go away. And it did. I forced myself to forget about.

Years later, the phrase FGM would flash before my eyes in a newspaper or a magazine. The memories of that story I had hidden away would poke it’s head out and I quickly turned the pages away.

It happened far away. If I didn’t look at that article it will not be real. Not my reality, anyway.

And then I read an article sometime in the end of 2018 — It spoke about activists trying to eradicate FGM in India. What? ……What? But why would Indians participate in a barbaric practice carried our by tribes in Sub-Saharan deserts, I asked myself.

The shock my system was receiving did not stop there. Have I told you that I am a proud malayalee? Of course, I have. I have bit of a chip on my shoulder when people refer to the “Kerala Model” of life. Imagine my bewilderment and shock when I heard that the practice is carried out in Kerala also!

It was this realization that made me take an interest in this issue and to read upon it more.

What is “Female Genital Mutilation”

Definition of female genital mutilation: The term “female genital mutilation” refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

There are different types of FGM as classified by United Nations.(Source: WHO)

Type I: partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce (clitoridectomy).

Subgroups: type I(A), removal of the clitoral hood or prepuce only; type I(B), removal of the clitoris with the prepuce.

Type II: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (excision).

Subgroups: type II(A), removal of the labia minora only; type II(B), partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora; type II( C), partial or total removal of the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora.

Type III: narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris (infibulation).

Subgroups: type III(A)- removal and apposition of the labia minora; type III(B)- removal and apposition of the labia majora. Reinfibulation is covered under this definition. This is a procedure to recreate an infibulation, for example after childbirth when defibulation is necessary.

Type IV: unclassified — all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes, for example, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.

Why is it carried out?

FGM is a social norm for certain communities in the world, It is ritual followed by certain Muslim communities and certain groups of Christians, Ethiopian Jews and followers of certain traditional African religions.

According to United Nations Population Fund, “FGM is carried out as a way to control women’s sexuality, which is sometimes said to be insatiable if parts of the genitalia, especially the clitoris, are not removed. It is thought to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterward, and to increase male sexual pleasure.

In India, the Dawoodi Bohra community practices FGM. When a Bohra woman posted an online petition to ban the same in India (November 2011) a spokesman for the community ruled out any change saying

“Bohra women should understand that our religion advocates the procedure and they should follow it without any argument” (Source: Wikipedia)

Who performs FGM?

FGM is usually carried out my members of communities, (male) barbers, members of secret societies, relatives, etc.

While there is a call for medicalization of FGM, it is a violation of human rights of women and girls and therefore not condoned by UN.

What does religion say about FGM?

To the best of my knowledge no religion promotes or condones FGM. It is more of a cultural practice that has been carried out in communities from centuries ago — the largest practitioners are in African countries, but as I discovered to my utter shock it is practised in India, other parts of Asia , Georgia, Russian Federation, parts of South America and Australia, Canada, New Zealand and parts of US and UK.

Like with most of the unfair practices against women, FGM is a manifestation of gender inequality.

Read the words of a victim of FGM ( Source WHO)

“My two sisters, myself and our mother went to visit our family back home. I assumed we were going for a holiday. A bit later they told us that we were going to be infibulated. The day before our operation was due to take place, another girl was infibulated and she died because of the operation. We were so scared and didn’t want to suffer the same fate. But our parents told us it was an obligation, so we went. We fought back; we really thought we were going to die because of the pain. You have one woman holding your mouth so you won’t scream, two holding your chest and the other two holding your legs. After we were infibulated, we had rope tied across our legs so it was like we had to learn to walk again. We had to try to go to the toilet. If you couldn’t pass water in the next 10 days something was wrong. We were lucky, I suppose. We gradually recovered and didn’t die like the other girl. But the memory and the pain never really go away.”

–Zainab, who underwent the “procedure” at the age of 8

India and FGM

In 2017 a “Public Interest Litigation” was filed to ban FGM in India by Advocate Sunita Tiwari.

While organization like Sahiyo ( meaning friend in Gujarati) and “We Speak Out” are working towards ending the practice of FGM, the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development reported in December 2017 that “there is no official data or study which supports the existence of FGM in India”.

On September 24, 2018, a bench of Chief Justice of India has referred the FGM PIL to a constitution Bench.

How can we help stop this?

Creating awareness is the first step. And to create awareness, you need to first start talking about it — not desperately try to pretend that it’s not real like I did.

“Culture” cannot be used as an excuse to torture people. FGM is a violation of women’s right to life, physical integrity and health.

US, UK and 28 other African nations have bannd FGM. Let us hope India joins them soon.

If you are interested to know more, these are some of the sources that I found online:

  1. https://www.desertflowerfoundation.org/en/what-is-fgm.html
  2. https://www.unfpa.org/resources/female-genital-mutilation-fgm-frequently-asked-questions
  3. https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/who_rhr_10-9_en.pdf
  4. https://pingpong.ki.se/public/pp/public_courses/course06225/published/1529438784011/resourceId/24178327/content/UploadedResources/Reasons%20behind%20female%20genital%20cutting%20-%20a%20literature%20review.pdf

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