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In this essay I will discuss David’s argument on the distinction between Female Genital Mutilation and Female Genital Operation. I will be considering the politics of naming as well as the importance of cultural relativism. Further I will discuss Foucault’s argument on biopower to explain Female Genital Operation’s relation to biopolitics. At the end of this essay the reader will be able to have a clear understanding of what is meant with Female Genital Mutilation as well as Female Genital Operation. How both these topics are linked to politics of naming as well as how both these topics should be seen in a culturally relativistic view. Furthermore the reader will be able to comprehend Foucault’s argument about biopower and biopolitics and how both these are integrated in FGM’s and FGO’s.
Female Genital Mutilation consist of all procedures involving the partial or full removal of the female external genitalia or any other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Female Genital Mutilation can be organised into 4 types. The first type of procedure, Type 1, also known as Clitoridectomy, consists of the partial or total removal of the clitoris together with its prepuce. The second type, type2, also known as the excision, is the partial or total removal of the clitoris together with the Labia Minora. Some also include the removal of the Labia Majora. The third type is the most severe type. Type 3, also known as infibulation or pharaonic type, consists of narrowing the vaginal opening by cutting and placing the Labia Minora and Labia Majora together. This appositioning of the two labias are then stitched together. Type 5 consists of any type of procedure to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes. This includes pricking, incising, scraping etc.
FGM’s procedure can have many implications, immediate and long term. Many women experience bleeding, severe pain, shock, difficulty passing urine and menstrual blood, infections etc. in the days following the operation. Some women, when treated with non-sterilised equipment, can even obtain septicaemia and lose their life. Other serious injuries and illness can include death through severe bleeding because of haemorrhagic shock, pain and trauma of the procedure can result in neurogenic shock. The pain and consequences of FGM don’t stop once the operation is finished, women experience long term complications throughout her life. Complications such as physical pain and discomfort, pain while having intercourse as well as pain whilst urinating. Psychologically these women also suffer as a result of the inhumane and violent ways in which these procedures are performed. Women and girls are pinned down and the procedure is performed involuntarily.
Many sources one can study portray Vaginoplasty and Labiaplasty as an erotic asset one needs to enhance sexual performance. The English Oxford Living Dictionary defines Labiaplasty as “Plastic surgery performed to alter the appearance of the labia, typically the labia minora, or to construct labia.” Female Genital Operations can be seen in the name of cosmetics and medicine and beauty. Plastic surgeons and gynaecologists are promoting these “designer” surgeries claiming that women will have the same benefits as with any other cosmetic surgery, such as beauty, self-esteem and confidence. Thus undergoing such an operation can gain a woman a lot of social status. Undergoing this consensual act can be motivated by S.W Davis’ argument on “Loose lips sink ships”. In his argument he states that the way we talk about something may be the exact reason for its own destruction. Thus the way we talk about women genitalia and the forms people see in ways of Pornography and sexual magazines results in women being painted a picture of what a “perfect” vagina looks like. Women forget to take into consideration that all women genitalia are different, but rather wish to undergo surgeries as to obtain the “perfect” body. There is thus politics involved in the naming of certain procedures. Looking at it in the context of Female Genital Mutilation words such as victim, abuse,violation,crime,torture,barbaric practice and many more are used to describe it. Olayinka Koso-Thomas stated that: “Early societies in Africa established strong controls over the sexual behaviour of their women and devised the brutal means of circumcision to curb female sexual desire and response. “ Thus supporting the world’s view of this procedure being mutilating. Where in the context of Female Genital Operation words such as beauty, self-confidence, perfect, class etc. are used. This process gives society the illusion that FGM’s are unacceptable and a violation towards women and that FGO’s are acceptable and can enhance a women’s social status.
Female Genital Mutilations are generally done in cultural terms. This procedure can be seen as a rite of passage for young girls which enable them to gain a political voice, economically a women can get a husband and start contributing towards the community, they are seen as women which can now start families etc. Mostly these procedures are enforced by the women’s families and done without consent. This practise is done on girls as young as new-borns but most common under girls between the ages of 5-9 years. (Margot Parker, 2018) Society frowns upon procedures of Female Genital Mutilations but fails to take into account the cultural context in which these procedures are done. Some may argue that the women need to be educated in terms of what the procedure entails and the implications it may have. But even when women are aware of all the implications, it will be an immense sacrifice to not give consent to it. Culturally, not undergoing this procedure will take away a women’s rights, restricting her politically, socially and economically. Thus forcing her to not form part of her culture. Which raises the question that even when these women are well aware of the implications and consequences, can they really say no to undergoing this rite of passage?
Anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu coming from an ethnic group, Kono from Sierra Leone, stated that “Kono girls and women feel empowered by the initiation ceremony”. Medical Anthropologist, Carla Obermeyer, viewed various literatures about these operations and started realising that minimal of these literatures are scientifically based and contain actual evidence about the effects of Female Circumcision. She stated that “female genital alterations are not incompatible with sexual enjoyment, and that the claim that untold numbers of girls and women have been killed as a result of this “traditional practice” is not well supported by the evidence”. For many members of societies who practices female genital surgeries, the result, in their eyes, is not seen as mutilating. For these groups, the result of these operations is considered an improvement of the female genital appearance. In their culture calling a woman uncircumcised can be a terrible insult and uncircumcised female genitalia are seen as less attractive.
Richard A Shweder conducted research in rural areas of Egypt and interviewed the members of the community, when the community members learned that the female researcher has not been circumcised they responded with disgust. They pondered on how she could have gotten married and questioned how her mother could have failed to attend to such an important part of her preparation into womanhood. In Kenya, where Shweder taught, adolescent girls who are close to undergoing the practice actually looked forward to it. To them even though it could be painful, it is seen as a test of courage. Thus with valid scientific information and adequate cultural understanding it is possible to see the reasonable point of such practices to those for whom it is meaningful.
The concept of biopower came into view in the 18th century with Michel Foucault stating that “all modern societies are bio political”. Foucault described biopower as a form of power which “regulates, administers and controls” biological features of a population. Biopower minimises individuals to their biological features, their features then becoming the article of control and regulation. Thus Female Genital Mutilations can be seen as a tool to regulate and control the population, it being the control of birth rates, the control of biological features of a population or merely just having control over certain communities and how they must be presented to be able to fit into that particular community or society. Bio power is favoured above other forms of power for it is used to regulate society at both individual as well as population level. At the individual body level, these operations done transforms the female body into an erotic utility, where the worth of the female body lies in how much sexual pleasure it can provide during penetration. Supporting the patriarchal motivation behind Female Genital Operations. These alterations done thus build patriarchal power relations as they are done only to satisfy the patriarchal ego. Cliterodectomy in itself serves the patriarchal demand for “anatomically correct female genitalia”.
Dr Sheryl Ross shared a story of one of her female patients, a 21 year old named Lauren, wanting to change her vagina due to her boyfriend’s comments. “Her older boyfriend of four months, Jake, apparently made comments about her plus-size vaginal lips, telling her, ‘You don’t have a sexy cooch’ — this after Lauren had her clit pierced at Jake’s request” Dr. Ross shared. But who is to say what the “perfect female genitalia” looks like. On numerous websites one can view doctor’s descriptions on what a “normal” vagina looks like and what one can do to obtain this perfect looking female genitalia. Articles of men sharing their idea of the “perfect” vagina needing to be clean cut and “not too floppy” give women the impression that not all vaginas are desirable and that one needs to undergo tons of self-help procedures and even operations just to fit into society’s idea of “perfect”. These power relations that doctors or even men hold describes biopolitics at its root. The idea that one person or organisation has the power to create or enforce an idea of what is “normal” and “perfect” and that the whole society will be judged accordingly.
Biopolitics can thus be useful as an analytical tool to re-evaluate relations between life and politics. When applied to concepts such as Female Genital Operations it reveals the false virtue of those who wield power through such acts as well as disclose Female Circumcision to be a monitoring mechanism that modifies, disciplines, and regulates biological features of the female population in the interest of controlling them and in return guard the interest of patriarchal societies.
In this essay I have concluded that Female Genital Mutilations and Female Genital Operations can be distinguished in that Female Genital Mutilations are seen as vulgar acts, crimes against women and barbaric practices, but Female Genital Operations are high in demand for they portray the idea that by undergoing such operation, one would gain the “perfect” body/vagina. Thus I also came to the conclusion that by giving certain practices certain names, it becomes a political issue in that the way we talk about it, shapes societies view on it. In this essay I explained the importance of Cultural Relativism when looking at practices such as Female Genital Mutilations for each culture may carry a different view on it. For some cultures Female Circumcision is a rite of passage enabling these women to pass from adolescent into womanhood and all perks involved in this transition. Thus having social, political, cultural and economic meaning to these communities. Furthermore I related my argument to Foucault’s argument on biopower and how a political entity controls and regulates the lives of the populace. I explained how Female Genital Operations can be a matter of Biopolitics in sources claiming what a “perfect” vagina looks like and how patriarchal power relations plays a central role in women undergoing these surgeries.
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