No Monsters Here: Why I’m Not Angry About FGM

Tomorrow (Feb 6) is the UN’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Here’s a fact sheet from the World Health Organization about the practice.

As I tried to think of what to write—and what hasn’t already been written?—I remembered my time as a volunteer advocate at a rape crisis center in college. I answered a hotline and accompanied survivors during medical and police exams. I also went to a volunteer meeting every month where we talked about the month’s contacts.

Things often got emotional at these meetings. Many volunteers expressed rage and disgust towards the perpetrators.

They called them “monsters.”

This is the part where I became uncomfortable.

My thinking was like this: If we call them “monsters,” if we make them “others,” we are effectively separating them from our culture. We develop a mindset where it becomes very difficult or even impossible to see the aspects of our culture that create and encourage sexual violence. And things will never change.

I feel the same way about FGM.

I wrote this post about a week ago. As it sat in the queue, I wondered if I should publish or not.

Some might think that it’s not very zero-tolerancy, I thought. I think I’m supposed to be angrier.

But those angry articles about FGM bother me. They always have a tone of “othering” the cultures that practice FGM. They paint a picture of a misogynistic barbaric people, a tribe of monsters.

That mindset won’t work.

Emotional charges dampen the ability to work with the abstract and nuanced ways that culture functions. And I refuse to “other” because it doesn’t fit with my values and because it doesn’t work.

When we “other,” even in this case, we turn our back on the people affected by this practice and those who are at the forefront of the fight. We make them choose between fighting FGM and their identities, their families, their communities.

For example, read what these four Massai women have to say. They want to end FGM because they are proud to be Massai. They write about family members who support the practice with compassion and understanding.

There’s also this woman from the UK who was interviewed by the BBC. She underwent FGM because she saw it as a way to be empowered within her culture. Shouldn’t campaigns against FGM consider all women’s perspectives to be successful?

This article about FGM in Kenya explains the ways that FGM is deeply embedded in the culture. The author writes about how it fits into family and community life and the real consequences for women who do not undergo the procedure. Change efforts should be careful not to give women an impossible choice: FGM or outcast.

To be clear: I think FGM should stop. Absolutely.

But I also think this:

1) We have to understand and appreciate the complex and embedded nature of FGM as a cultural practice. You cannot just pluck one practice out of a culture.

2) The people who should be at the forefront of accomplishing this cultural shift should be people from that culture. Our job, as international social workers, is to provide support not judgment.

Want a couple more links?

Here’s an article by a woman from the Dawoodi Bohra community in India. She created an online forum for women who had undergone FGM and those who were against it. Forum members give each other support and work together to encourage the Indian government to ban the practice.

And this is a trailer for the movie Warriors. It’s a documentary about a group of young Massai men who form a cricket team to raise awareness about FGM as a human rights issue and argue for its end. I haven’t seen the movie, but I want to!


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