Telling a grown woman who has chosen to have her genitals pierced that she has been mutilated is a step backwards, not only for women’s rights, but also for the fight to end FGM.
With up to 150 million women and girls affected by female genital mutilation (FGM), chances are that right now, somewhere in the world a little girl is being held down while her genitals are cut. In extreme cases, the procedure includes the removal of the clitoris and outer labia and the sewing up of the vagina.
To say it is horrifying is a massive understatement. And yet, it is an issue that is shrouded in cultural sensitivity. While it is illegal in many of the countries that practice it, the clandestine nature of the custom means that perpetrators are rarely prosecuted.
The fight to end FGM took an unexpected turn recently when the UK’s national health service (NHS) announced that genital piercing would now be classed as FGM.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) support this classification and list piercing under ‘type 4 FGM’. On the WHO website it states: “All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.”
An NHS spokesperson told the UK’s Telegraph that the intention of the new classification was to record incidences of piecing being carried out by force. “In some communities girls are forced to have them… We are taking every precaution to record genital piercings that have been done within an abusive context,” the spokesperson explained.
However, despite this intention, the classification means that adult women who choose to have their clitoris pierced will also be classified as victims of FGM.
It is dangerous ground. Telling a grown woman who has chosen to have her genitals pierced that she has been mutilated feels like a massive step backwards, not only for women’s rights, but also for the fight to end FGM.
There is a stark contrast between consensual piercing which is often done to enhance sexual pleasure or confidence and FGM, which plays a huge role in controlling and suppressing female sexuality. Blurring the line between the two is insulting to all women, particularly those that were forced to undergo FGM.
Fatima Ali (I’ve changed her name as she wishes to remain anonymous) agrees. She underwent FGM at the age of seven in East Africa. Now living in Sydney, Ali tells me that she is “furious” that women choosing to undergo piercing could be seen as victims of FGM.
“FGM is done to innocent girls who have no understanding of why it is being done to them. Adult women who are choosing to go for a piercing are well aware of the health risks – you can not compare the two things,” she said.
In addition to insulting the real victims of FGM, calling clitoris piercing ‘mutilation’ could actually be damaging to the fight to end FGM. I spoke to Paula Ferrari and Khadija Gbla, who are the directors of No FGM Australia. They agreed that this classification could deflect from the main issues of their campaign.
“I feel that it is a red herring that will distract from the real problem. Little girls are being held down and mutilated. You can’t include women who are piecing their genitals voluntarily, they are two very different issues,” said Ferrari.
In addition to the distraction, Gbla says that this new classification could be seen as a way of placating the communities that routinely practice FGM.
A common argument against ending FGM is that Western women are increasingly choosing to alter the appearance of their genitals either through piercing or cosmetic procedures such as labiaplasty. So including these practices as FGM could be seen as appeasing the complaint.
But Gbla notes emphatically that this is not helpful for the fight to end FGM. “Making an informed choice about your body is not the same as a four year old being held down and mutilated. Abuse is abuse,”
“We keep coming up with more excuses to not deal with the harsh reality – little girls all over the world are having their genitals mutilated,” she says.
Gbla, who underwent FGM at the age of 9 or ten in her native country, Nigeria, makes the point bluntly when she says:
“As we are speaking, there probably is a girl somewhere who is bleeding to death. There is a child who is crying for someone to help her. And we’ve been talking about women making informed choices to play with their bodies – it is not the same.”
Catherine Rodie is a freelance writer.