The Complexity of Female Circumcision: Your Thoughts

Many readers were jarred by an Atlantic interview with an anthropologist who tackled a controversial question: What if some women choose to get cutand even celebrate it?

Amran Mahamood, who has made a living for 15 years by circumcising young girls, looks into a piece of a mirror in Hargeysa, Somalia. (Nichole Sobecki / Getty)

One of the most provocative pieces on The Atlantic recently came from Olga Khazan, who interviewed anthropologist Bettina Shell-Duncan on the persistent problem of female circumcision in many parts of Africa and the Middle East, despite decades of campaigns led by the United Nations and others. Thousands of you commented via Disqus, Facebook, Twitter, email, and yelling through your screen—"FGM apologist!"—but I tried to compile the most productive points, seen below.

Parsing a reader debate on the best way to end female circumcision—no one is arguing for the practice—is difficult because people are often talking past each other. That difficultly is due to the vast diversity of the 125 million individuals who have gone under the knife; each case is different. Is she an adult, a teenager, or clearly a child? Does she live in a country where the ritual is widespread or a Western nation where it defies all norms? Does she undergo "nicking," excision, infibulation—in which the labia are stitched together—or something in between? Is she forcibly held down, or does she join willingly, even joyfully in some cases?

One such case was described in Olga's interview with Shell-Duncan, who witnessed the ritual cutting of a Rendille woman at her wedding in northern Kenya: "The bride came out [afterwards] and joined the dancing." Olga, though horrified by the practice, emerged from the interview with a more nuanced understanding of how it's performed in various places:

In fact, elderly women [as opposed to men] often do the most to perpetuate the custom. I thought African girls were held down and butchered against their will, but some of them voluntarily and joyfully partake in the ritual. I thought communities would surely abandon the practice once they learned of its negative health consequences. And yet, in Shell-Duncan's experience, most people who practice FGC recognize its costs—they just think the benefits outweigh them.

Here's Shell-Duncan in her own words, prodding people to consider a woman's choice when it comes to circumcision:

The sort of feminist argument about this is that it’s about the control of women but also of their sexuality and sexual pleasure. But when you talk to people on the ground, you also hear people talking about the idea that it’s women’s business. As in, it’s for women to decide this. If we look at the data across Africa, the support for the practice is stronger among women than among men. So, the patriarchy argument is just not a simple one.

Many upset commenters, including Rosemary Fryth, found the interview rife with "cultural relativism":

We are told that in a multicultural country all cultures have equal value—and thus, all cultural practices as well. Well, it is clear that not all cultures are equal, and pretending that they are allows this sort of inhumane cultural practice to thrive.

Guishe Garra agrees:

The article almost acknowledges female genital mutilation as an OK practice given "their culture." This is a great example of a "liberal" publication flirting with extremely illiberal values in the name of misunderstood "diversity and minority's cultures." If we can't emphatically argue that humanistic values and liberal values are clearly better, we are doomed.

Though to be clear, Shell-Duncan is working with the Population Council to reduce female circumcision "by at least 30 percent across 10 countries over five years"—hardly the goal of someone who "almost acknowledges [FGM] as an OK practice." Arwen McCaffrey puts it well:

The researcher is clearly not in support of the practice. The point of the article isn't to lessen the horror of FGM but rather to contextualize it. Societal pressure to belong is incredibly powerful. This is true in Western cultures as well. Shell-Duncan is remarking how she learned about the many sociocultural factors influencing the practice and that there is no one easy way to end it.

So the core debate should be: What's the most pragmatic, effective way to end the practice? That's difficult to say, since legal prohibitions and health messaging have yielded mixed results so far. One controversial idea from Shell-Duncan is to call it "cutting" rather than "mutilation"—the term officially used by the World Health Organization. But "mutilation," she says, "sounds derogatory and can complicate conversations with those who practice FGC [female genital cutting]." Hilary Burrage isn't buying it:

The wish of leading African women themselves is clearly to refer to the practice as MUTILATION—formally, at least, per the 2005 Bamako Declaration. The United Nations has also recently agreed to refer to this harmful traditional practice only as FG*M*. Please let's hear NO MORE about "FGC." Children's lives and future health are more important than comforting —whether to practitioners or observers —euphemisms. Female genital "cutting" also plays very well to Westerners if they want to evade the cruel truth of how defenceless (undefended) children are being tortured because of "respect" for "tradition."

A Pokot girl cries after being circumcised in a village about 80 kilometers from the town of Marigat, Kenya on October 16, 2014. (Siegfried Modola / Reuters)

Maria Alisa, on the other hand, sees the logic of calling it "cutting":

The point of the name change is that if you go in as an outsider and tell people how horrible they are and they have to change a cultural practice, do you think that will work? No. They'll cling to it twice as hard. In our discussions with those cultures over the practice, we must do what works, not what makes us feel smug and self satisfied.

Ilona Geary elaborates on that view:

In the West, we have the luxury of making decisions based on our own beliefs without our children or ourselves being ostracized or disenfranchised or having their future threatened. We enjoy a certain amount of autonomy that doesn't seem to be present in the people groups discussed here. But when you live in a collective, the traditions that signify a belonging and duty to the group become paramount. I appreciated the article's explanation of the social pressure, especially in a nomadic/small village setting, that drives these mothers and young women to make this decision. In their estimation, it is an important way to secure solidarity and a prosperous future for their child within the circumstances in which they live.

I think the practice is definitely dangerous and doesn't have the actual benefits that the people group believe they do, but the only way to change hearts and minds is to continue a respectful dialogue and create OTHER opportunities within these communities. One can't march in with disgust, disdain, and legislation and think this will instantly vanish. Constant communication that provides a connection to a larger world view and more options will eventually turn the tide. Sooner rather than later I hope.

Perhaps "mutilation" and "cutting" are equally useful terms; it just depends on the audience. For anti-FGM activists who want to increase awareness and fundraising in the West, "mutilation" rhetoric is more effective. For anti-FGC anthropologists and health officials who confront the cultural divide on the ground, "cutting" is more effective. Here's how this reader frames the tension at play:

The feminist discourse runs up against the post-colonial one. At which point is it okay to dictate terms to native cultures?

Thop looks to history:


It is without doubt that in the cultures practicing human sacrifice, a significant number of young sacrificial victims (or should I be PC and say "celebrants") participated willingly, even joyfully. In colonial India, the Brits effectively ended—though not totally eradicated—the ancient practice of Sati, the burning alive of the widow on the dead husband's funeral pyre. They started with education and mild restrictions, but with little result. That was dropped for a more heavy-handed ban. But the Brits were all about respecting national customs:

General Sir Charles James Napier, the Commander-in-Chief in India from 1859 to 1861 is often noted for a story involving Hindu priests complaining to him about the prohibition of sati by British authorities. "Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs."

Another dividing line in the reader debate is the age of the females getting cut. How Liz Deutermann sees it:

I think if a woman wants to be circumcised it should be her choice. What's horrible is when a girl is forced into it.

And girls are clearly the ones suffering the most:

Most often, FGC happens before a girl reaches puberty. Sometimes, however, it is done just before marriage or during a woman’s first pregnancy. In Egypt, about 90 percent of girls are cut between 5 and 14 years old. However, in Yemen, more than 75 percent of girls are cut before they are 2 weeks old. The average age at which a girl undergoes FGC is decreasing in some countries (Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Kenya, and Mali). Researchers think it’s possible that the average age of FGC is getting lower so that it can be more easily hidden from authorities in countries where there may be laws against it.

Which would be a dark irony indeed. But what about adults who undergo FGC? Should it be "their body, their choice"? Sarah White thinks that's a fallacy:

It is not a choice if it is a cultural expectation and one faces ostracism (which means much more in tribal cultures) if one dares to deviate. This is not consent; it is acquiescence. Read Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy.

Walker also wrote a nonfiction book on FGM, Warrior Marks. Here's a gripping scene from her documentary of the same name:

Even when the participant is an adult, this reader suggests it's still brainwashing:

A lot of people are pointing out that this 16-year-old Rendille girl [witnessed by Shell-Duncan] apparently "chose" to get the procedure done, as if such a thing would have ever occurred to her without getting it drilled into her head since birth that this makes her worthy in the eyes of her community.

Shell-Duncan noted that the Rendille teen "was young by their standards. Mostly they’re 18, 19, 20, around that"—which raises the difficult question of when exactly a minor becomes an adult. When I emailed Hilary Burrage, the aforementioned activist, she had a nuanced take on the consent question:

Regarding the "adults can choose" issue, yes, it is more complex. Some might say there’s a grey area between FGM and female genital "cosmetic" surgery (FGCS), but in reality (regardless of my views on FGCS), I don’t think there is a grey area.  FGCS does not remove physiological functions—everything from normal secretions and dampness to obstruction in childbirth—nor does it remove sexual feelings and sensations. FGM often does interfere with function to one degree or another.

We have to be careful that those who claim they want FGM as adults don’t also get it done on minors. One example is this interview with an woman who grew up in the US but returned to Sierra Leone to undergo FGM—but submitted her eight-year-old sister to one as well.

Burrage was upset over Olga's piece:

It is a matter of serious regret (and hurt to survivors) that Melinda Gates commended the Shell-Duncan interview on Twitter:

The Gates Foundation has undertaken excellent work (e.g. maternal malaria), so the praise for Shell-Duncan's analysis contrasts very poorly with this positive contribution to women’s health. Ms Gates should be strongly encouraged to reconsider her position in the light of the evidence cited in my email and elsewhere. You will I’m sure be aware that the UK Royal Colleges (which also produced our national guidelines on issues around FGM) have produced a strong statement explaining why they found the article unacceptable; and I imagine you may have seen my own post written shortly before then.

I am sure The Atlantic (and, perhaps separately, Ms Gates) will wish as a matter of urgency to make it crystal clear that any position on FGM—a totally illegal practice unanimously condemned by the UN—which falls short of outright denunciation is, in one word, unacceptable.

Olga's response:

The problem here is that the communities where FGC/M occurs are all very different. There are many in which girls are coerced and even tortured. There are some, as Shell-Duncan describes, where the practice is seemingly celebrated. I've always been interested in why so many female elders support this practice. How do you go about ending FGM in those societies? Shell-Duncan's description of the girl who was proud to have the procedure done on her was certainly fascinating, but it was by no means descriptive of all women who undergo FGM. However, it does reflect a need for a different type of approach to ending FGM in these areas, and that's what Shell-Duncan provided.

Also, I reject the notion that there are "acceptable" and "unacceptable" ideas, as Burrage describes, when it comes to attempting to end a problem as entrenched as FGM. Shell-Duncan was offering one potential solution for a certain type of community; surely there are other solutions that are more applicable to other situations. We all have the same goal in the end.

A Pokot girl bleeds onto a rock after being circumcised in a tribal ritual in a village about 80 kilometers from the town of Marigat, Kenya on October 16, 2014. (Siegfried Modola / Reuters)

Our final reader is Soraya Miré, a Somali woman who penned a memoir about her own experience with FGM, The Girl With Three Legs. Here's Soraya's response from the comments section:

The article failed to understand why our mothers and grandmothers put our bodies through the mutilating ritual and watch us become nothing more than the pleasurable commodity of men. What happened to these women? What about their deep wound, private pain? Didn’t they become wives and mothers, knowing the unthinkable pain? Why then continue the circle of pain?

I didn't own a clean razor but felt the prick of the sharp needle as rough hands plucked at my lips like a giraffe feasting on thorny branches. The doctor who was performing my mutilation turned to my mother and said,"Would you like to look at it?" She did and said, "Perfect. Just perfect!" That high praise was meant for my future husband who would find me desirable.

I said this many times, that ending the abuse of girls and women is seen as a threat to manhood and a man’s psyche. The article failed to understand the one holding the social and cultural identity mirror. What is the purpose of holding this mirror? And when a young girl looks into that mirror finds a message that reads, “You were born into a female body which automatically labeled you a defected human being in need of reconstruction.”

I would love to speak to Bettina Shell-Duncan and offer her education about the cultural mindset of society that views women like chicken without heads. Those of us who survived the horror of Female Genital Mutilation are left with an option to either go along with the cultural torture and abuse or detach ourselves from our roots, our culture and even our family. Reading this article brought back the nightmares about needles biting into my skin and envisioning myself landing on the field of thorns, cut glass, and bloody scissors.

Another Somali-born woman who suffered from FGM, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, touched on the issue in yesterday's Atlantic piece on honor killings in the U.S.:

In the United States, more than half a million women are estimated either to have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) or to be at risk of it. This number marks a sharp rise in the prevalence of FGM in the U.S. compared to just over just a decade ago. The reason for the increase, according to the Population Reference Bureau, is the rise in the number of immigrants from countries where FGM is common. Those trends show no [sign] of abating.

That trend was the subject of an Atlantic Monthly cover story back in October 1995, "Female Circumcision Comes to America," just at Congress was finally passing a law against FGM. Linda Burstyn's essay opens with an Ethiopian immigrant mother, Genat, frightened that her own mother will circumcise Genat's newborn girl:

"Mother says she will do it anyway, herself—when I'm out of the house—if I don't agree to get it done soon," Genat confides to the woman she hopes will help her. "She says she will take a razor blade and do it." [FGM activist Mimi] Ramsey nods. She has heard this story many times before, and responds by reciting a long list of reasons why the older woman must be stopped, trying to give Genat the courage to buck tradition and disobey her mother. "You cannot let her do this to your child. Please. It is wrong. You know how painful it is. How damaging. Your daughter may hate you for life for what you allow to happen to her."

Genat shakes her head. She doesn't want her baby girl, just born in this country, to be circumcised, as is customary in her native land, but her mother is adamant. "She believes in it so strongly," Genat says. "She said if I don't do these things, the girl will grow up horny. She'll be like American girls."

Readers at the time reacted to Burstyn's piece here.  Thanks to all the readers this month who commented on the Shell-Duncan interview. We're thinking of posting a similar follow-up on the male circumcision vs FGM debate that also raged in the comments section. If you'd like to offer your take on the subject, email and you'll have a much better chance of seeing it posted.