The Chimera of Choice

The Minnesota House just passed a bill by a vote of 124 to 4 criminalizing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) with as much as 20 years in prison for parents known to have practiced it. Parents could possibly also lose custody of their children permanently, and immigrant parents could face deportation for having committed a felony. Shortly after this, the Michigan Senate voted to make FGM punishable by up to 15 years in prison both for doctors and parents who transport a child for such procedures.

These measures follow on the heels of what marks the first case of its kind nationwide, where three people in Detroit, two of whom are doctors, have been indicted on charges of FGM. Following this decision, other families in the Detroit area, who also belong to the same Dawoodi Bohra religious sect, have come under the microscope—with ​​parents facing possible removal of their children from their homes. Since these events, states are rushing to pass their own bills criminalizing FGM. ​​

While the utterance of the word “mutilation,” in any sense, conjures up awful images of human suffering, the idea of this practice horrifies even more. As a sociologist who studies attitudes and narratives around women and their bodies, I can’t defend any practice that violates the bodily integrity of women and girls, or any human being for that matter. And “culture” should hardly be used as an excuse to defend violent practices.

But I must ask: How do we determine where to draw the lines of acceptable and unacceptable bodily interventions? Is there something unique about FGM that qualifies it as a federal crime punishable by several years in prison and loss of parental rights? Or are there parallels to other practices that we have overlooked?

FGM is defined by the World Health Organization as a violation of human rights. There are four types as defined by the WHO: Type 1, a clitoridectomy, is the partial or total removal of clitoris or prepuce; Type 2, called excision, is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora; Type 3, known as infibulation, is the narrowing of the vaginal opening and Type 4—which includes “all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.”

The word most commonly associated with the practice of FGM is barbaric. Most western countries ban the practice, even among immigrants who come from areas in which FGM is commonplace, because it is considered irreconcilable with the values of the western world. Yet how do we explain female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) as one of the fastest growing type of aesthetic surgeries in the United States, and many other western countries? It’s a procedure that is being requested and performed on minors more and more commonly, and has been requested by girls as young as 10 years old who feel that their genitals are “ugly.” The coveted look of a “designer vagina,” as they are commonly called, is that of a prepubescent girl–neatly tucked, small, and pink.

Especially troubling is the eerily uncomfortable overlap descriptions of procedures that fall under FGCS—and what the WHO defines as FGM.

Case in point: A labiaplasty involves a reduction of and removing portions of the labia minora. That is excision. That is precisely what the World Health Organization defines as Type 2 FGM. And yet, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, labiaplasty surgery was performed 12,000 times in the U.S. in 2016–an increase of 39 percent from 2015.

But labiaplasty is not the only kind of female genital cosmetic surgery. A clitoral hood reduction—which is defined similarly to a clitoridectomy, or Type 1 FGM—is another option. And if we’re unhappy with the color or plumpness of our genitalia, we can go to surgeons to change the pigmentation of our female genitalia, to get fat sucked out of them (liposculpturing of the labia) or get fat deposited into them (augmentation of the labia). In addition, we can also have G-spot enhancements and vaginoplasty, or “vaginal rejuvenation.”

Even if the definitions of these procedures weren’t similar to the Types 1 and 2 of FGM, they would still qualify as Type 4 FGM—which includes any “piercing, pricking, incising” for non-medical reasons. By that standard, in fact, genital piercings offered at various tattoo and piercing parlors around the country would, also be considered FGM.

So why are the practices of FGM and FGCS perceived so differently? A large part of the difference in perceptions has to do with whether we see a practice as “cultural” or not. FGM is specifically seen as a “cultural” practice, meaning that cultural values and traditions are the determining factor in why individuals engage in it, with very little room for individual agency. According to the WHO, the “strong motivations” for practicing FGM are “social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing, as well as the need to be accepted socially and the fear of being rejected by the community.”

But once again, these reasons appear to not be that different from the reasons why girls and women get genital cosmetic surgery. Social pressure to conform to a narrow ideal of (genital) beauty, the rise of Brazilian beauty waxes and easy availability of pornography are often seen as the contributing factors for the increase in the demand of genital cosmetic surgery. What are these reasons, if not cultural?

Another reason for the perceived difference between FGM and FGCS is consent. FGM is usually, though not always, performed on infants or young girls. Infants and children obviously cannot consent to these procedures. But cosmetic surgery is now commonly performed on children and teenagers and even FGCS has been performed on minors. Is there such a huge difference between a 7-year-old, a 10-year old or a 13-year-old in terms of their ability to consent?

And yet, despite these similarities, while we see Others as oppressed by culture and their practices as steeped in and bounded by culture, we see western societies—the white, non-immigrant segments, anyway—as culture-less. We see our choices as reflections of individual agency and rationality. We transcend culture—and thus we feel our practices need no federal oversight.

I’m not arguing that FGM should be acceptable to us. Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch speaking on the Detroit case said: “Female genital mutilation constitutes a particularly brutal form of violence against women and girls… The practice has no place in modern society and those who perform FGM on minors will be held accountable under federal law.”

Indeed, violence against women should be punishable by law.

However, there is a lack of consistency with which we approach the issue of women’s health. Painting FGM as a “particularly brutal form of violence” and punishing parents as unfit and/or criminal for having practiced it demonizes these parents—all while overlooking the actions of parents who, say, take their young teenage daughter for female genital cosmetic surgery to an upscale clinic in California. The portrayal of FGM as something outside of our imagination and outside of “modern society” leaves us with a false sense of security and assures us that we ourselves are not victims of such oppressive cultural beliefs. And yet, we have prepubescent girls who now believe that their genitals are unacceptable because they are not attractive enough.

Who’s going to fight for them?

Afshan Jafar is an associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project. She is the author of Women’s NGOs in Pakistan and the co-editor for Bodies without Borders and Global Beauty, Local Bodies.


Afshan Jafar is an associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College, the author of "Women’s NGOs in Pakistan" and the co-editor for "Bodies without Borders" and "Global Beauty, Local Bodies."