Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a widespread phenomenon. In the popular imagination, it’s often associated with Islam, or Africa, even though they both Islam and Africa are varied and diverse. While it is true that FGM is practiced in 29 out of 54 African countries, it also takes place in Asia, the Middle East, and even in developed countries such as the US and the UK. While it’s sometimes justified using religion, no religion officially sanctions the practice.
In reality, FGM is a tradition that is born out of and justified by the basis of culture. The reasons for continuing the harmful vary- it makes women more beautiful, it makes a woman a more desirable partner, or it assuages women’s natural wild, animalistic urges. In one Senegalese village, an imam said that without FGM, “Women would be jumping on top of all the men.”
Unlike male circumcision, which actually has some benefits (although there are plenty of people who oppose this practice as well); there is absolutely no physical, medical, or moral advantage to female circumcision. In fact, risks include severe physical pain, infection, decreased sexual pleasure, urine retention, fistulas, infertility, and even death. It keeps happening solely because of social expectations, and even though it’s normally carried out by women, it is supported by an undercurrent of patriarchal values that place much less value on a woman’s life than on a man’s.
Tostan, a Senegal-born human rights NGO, takes a holistic approach to ending FGM: Instead of just telling women to stop doing it, it focuses on educating whole communities about the importance of respecting the rights of all people. And it works: Malicoumba Bambara, a village near Thies (the country’s third biggest city), officially ended the practice in 1997.
Social norms approaches are another way of educating communities to eradicate harmful practices. In a nutshell, people make assumptions about what other people are doing, and then model their behavior based on this perception. Social norms approaches change people’s ideas about what everyone else is doing. When enough individuals change their ideas, it leads to a group-wide change.
Too often, people justify sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other discriminatory practices with “It’s our culture.” There is a flaw in this theory, though: Culture is something that is created by people. You’re not giving yourself enough credit if you think that you have to do something solely because it’s your culture. People make culture. FGM is a cultural practice, but it’s not infallible. Like I’ve said before, when culture harms people, then it’s the responsibility of everyone to change it.