Female Genital Mutilation vs. Female Breast Mutilation

Ritual ‘nicking’ of female genitals should be legal, according to a new policy from the American Academy of Pediatrics.  In a recent statement issued by its Committee on Bioethics, the AAP suggested that federal and state laws in the U.S. that currently prevent pediatricians from performing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) should be revised to allow “a ritual nick”.  Such a procedure, which draws only a drop of blood, would “appease” the cultural dictates of parents from minority cultural groups while preventing the actual “cutting” of female genitalia, the Committee argues.

The announcement by the AAP has produced debate among both conservative critics who are opposed to cultural accommodation for minority groups in any form and feminist critics who see “appeasement” as a means of ratifying the underlying premise that female genitalia must be altered to please men.

The policy statement itself is stringent in outlining the fact that the AAP is unequivocally opposed to all forms of genital mutilation. The option of a “ritual nick” has been suggested by physicians working in minority communities to retain the ceremonial aspects of the practice while eliminating the devastating psychological and health consequences of actual mutilation.

The AAP’s statement produces a vexing conundrum for feminists: outright opposition to such cultural appeasement rightly underscores the point that the retention of practices that alter female bodies, even when merely ritualistic, is patently unacceptable. At the same time, such a position also places feminists in the same camp as conservative critics whose outcry against the AAP’s statement may be equally, if not entirely, motivated by an aversion to cultural accommodation as by opposition to FGM itself. To escape such a co-option of the feminist position, it is crucial to critique not just those aspects of foreign cultures that prescribe the surgical alteration of female bodies but also those aspects of  American culture that impose similar dictates on women.

One immediate way to do this would be for feminists to draw an analogy between FGM, a practice that involves the partial or complete cutting of the clitoris, and breast augmentation surgery, which involves cutting through female breast tissue to place saline bags under the skin. If Egyptian and Somali cultures impose a burden on women to undergo FGM to be considered desirable by the opposite sex upon marriage, American culture seemingly imposes a similar burden that requires women to have large breasts in order to be considered sexually attractive. If FGM reduces sexual sensation, imposes heavy psychological costs and increases risk of infection, breast implant surgery similarly reduces or eliminates sensation in the breast and nipple area, causes interference with nursing, involves a risk of rupture and leaching and impedes breast cancer detection during mammography.

Indeed, being against “ritual nicking” proposed by the AAP on grounds that it is the parents of minor girls that would impose the practice is a different basis of opposition. It could be addressed simply by altering the age of consent for all circumcision procedures. However, if the core issue is opposing all patriarchal cultural mores that sell women the idea that they must alter their physical bodies to achieve cultural standards of beauty, then questioning Western cultural paradigms that impose similar burdens is essential. FGM is thus wrong, even in its ritualistic formulations, but then so is FBM, Female Breast Mutilation, which imposes similar burdens and yet is considered acceptable, perhaps purely because the demand for it is fueled by American mainstream culture.

Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/andreweason/ / CC BY-SA 2.0


Rafia Zakaria is the first Pakistani American woman to serve as a Director for Amnesty International USA. She is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University. She is currently working on her dissertation entitled "Negotiating Identity: Sharia, multiculturalism and Muslim women." Rafia writes a weekly column for the DAWN newspaper which is the largest and oldest English newspaper in Pakistan. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Arts and Letters Daily, the Nation and the American Prospect. She is the only Pakistani American woman recognized by a joint resolution of the Indiana House and Senate for her work on women's rights.