‘Female Genital Mutilation’ is Mutilating the Cause

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Within the past few weeks a Detroit federal judge ruled a federal female genital mutilation law unconstitutional. This specific law was twenty-two years old, but it had never been used until the doctors in this case were charged in April 2017.

The turnover of the law was met with much outrage from a wide number of communities, including women’s rights groups and social advocates. However, most of the public outrage focuses more on the practice itself instead of the actual reason for the decision, which was more about how it should be the right of states to manage local crime instead of a sweeping federal law doing so.

This recent incident has brought up more widespread discussion about female genital mutilation, as it is the first federal case in the United States to involve the practice. While this specific case involved a Muslim sect within an Indian community, discussion about the practice has brought up information about where it is most prevalent: countries in Africa. The widespread discussion about this practice reveals an inherent misunderstanding due to the lack of context about the culture it comes from and the growth of the term ‘female genital mutilation’ as a politicized term.

Female genital cutting (FGC) has a complex history within the various ethnic and tribal cultures in Africa. The concept is extremely tied up in the tribal structure of these communities, and it offers important avenues of advancement for women.


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The specific act of female circumcision is referred to as irua, and it is the central part of a wider initiation. African girls are excited about this process because it signals their entrance into womanhood and the community. Before irua, the initiates participate in traditional dances and songs, feast and learn about their community. The initiation procedure is important not only because it signals the girls’ entrance into the tribal society, but it also allows them a degree of political power with admittance into important councils that affect the community. This process of entrance is not only tied to the initiated women themselves, but their mothers gain seniority at the same time. The cyclic nature of the passing down of FGC is one reason it is so important to the women and taught in their history.

The practice of FGC is rooted in the initiation that is incredibly important and integrated in the structure of the tribal community. The Western public must consider the complex cultural background of the practice in order to understand female genital cutting fully, but most do not attempt to do so.

African people have other motivations besides the historical importance of initiation rites to continue the practice of FGC. Female circumcision represents a wider respect of traditional values in various communities. In Sierra Leone, the civil war that ended in 2002 was a great disruption to initiation practices. As unsettling as this war was, its end signaled a return to normalcy that many equated with the return of initiation rites.

Africans also have economic motivations to keep on the process of FGC. For each initiation, an amount of currency goes to the village chief and the women performing the circumcisions. These strong incentives mean that the governments themselves would need to make a stronger stance against female circumcision, or the communities would have to decide on their own that abandoning this income is better than continuing female genital cutting.

The opinions of people of various tribal and ethnic groups within Africa are also starting to change their minds against the possible merits of FGC on their own. Some African women criticize how the initiation rites have begun to reduce in length and that female circumcision, which once was the symbol of womanhood, has started to become more about the symbol of the cut itself. When looking at the numbers, changes in opinion seem to be linked with age, education level, and location. Younger women, more educated women, and urban women all tend to be less likely to circumcise their daughters, and they show that communities are slowly moving away from practicing female genital cutting.

Completely abandoning the practice is difficult due to its roots in initiation rites, but activists are instead pushing for the use of alternative rites. These methods continue to teach the girls about their community, culture and history. They replace the cutting, but they still recognize the girl as a woman for the first time.

Alternative rites have especially begun to gain popularity in the Maasai culture in Kenya because they were developed with the community. This is important because the group was more willing to accept the change because they were instrumental in its development, and they were there to give meaning to the replacements.


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When change occurs with the community in mind, it sees its best success and alternative rites are seeing real promise. A generational change is important, but the development of an alternative within the community itself is necessary for the most difference because it understands the important historical and cultural context of the practice.

The West’s history of intervention into Africa is wrought with harmful misunderstandings of tribal cultures and historical practices that impacts the help they try to offer, and female genital cutting is no exclusion. British missionaries objected to the practice starting around 1906, but they condemned not only the practice but the people who continued it. They described irua as savage and barbaric. The missionaries began to paint Kenya as a suffering community with problems due to the entrenched nature of female circumcision. The leaders of the British response to female circumcision in Africa are best described by the terms ‘imperial feminists’ and ‘imperial humanitarians’ because they framed their objection to FGC in a way that allowed their interjection into an African cultural practice. The women professed a desire to help people while also ridiculing them for traditional practices and behavior.

In the imperial age and into the modern era, the West has framed FGC as a health problem that allowed for outside intervention. Later objections by second-wave feminists were based on criticizing what they saw as a patriarchal-continued practice while excluding any contextual information, such as that the practice is actually upheld by women. Western intervention into the practice started with ‘imperial feminists’ whose objections reflected racism and cultural arrogance and has continued into the modern era where protests often do more to perpetuate anti-African stereotypes. Many Westerners are quick to condemn female genital cutting based on their perception of ‘mutilation’ and the context of the practice is absent from the discussion.

The way that many people in the West understand female genital cutting is based on assumptions about a politicized term rather than a deeper understanding. The term ‘female genital mutilation’ came into existence in the 1970’s, and it was created by the publication Women’s International Network News. It was invented because the oft-used ‘female circumcision’ supposedly downplayed the seriousness of the practice and concealed its primary purpose of controlling female sexuality.

The word choice is poignant because it calls to mind violent imagery of disfiguration and injury that by nature causes horror and resentment. The word ‘mutilation’ has also been tied so greatly to female genital cutting that a search of that word alone brings up multiple pages and articles describing the practice. This word choice also decidedly politicizes the practice without including acknowledgement of its significant history.

None of this is to defend female genital cutting or say that it cannot be harmful to the women that endure it. In fact, the process does have serious health implications. It can be as serious as to cause death and it also increases the risk of other serious health issues. Scarring is serious and painful.

This argument is not to criticize feminism itself either, but to point out a history of various sects of feminism that ignore or even scorn the issues of women of color or the experiences they go through. However, the way the West proclaims to understand female circumcision demeans the Africans it tries to protect.

To best approach FGC, solutions must address the cultural and social motivations of the practice. It is up to the tribal and ethnic communities to make a change, and this difference is aided best with those who have an actual understanding of the practice. Ultimately, African women must be and will be the people making decisions about their own bodies.

So, where does that leave laws in the United States about female genital cutting? More than half of states have specific laws that bar female genital mutilation, and support for these laws are mostly bipartisan. However, things get tricky when the United States tries to decide whether foreign cultural practices are legal. The tribal structure with which FGC is so combined does not exist in the United States on a large scale, and there is also a lack of understanding. A context of the history and cultural importance of FGC is a necessary addition to any discussion of the practice.

The West’s history and current status of objection is laced with imperialism and thoughts of Western superiority, but this can be solved by understanding our long history of oppressive actions and the significance of female genital cutting to African and immigrant communities. This is not an issue that can be solved by law alone, but by educated discussion and work with communities.