The Social Construction of Female Circumcision: Gender, Equality, and Culture

The Social Construction of Female Circumcision: Gender, Equality, and Culture

The misguided inclusion of female circumcision in the global campaign against FGM has prevented a balanced discussion of a legitimate practice and jeopardises the very rights and freedoms the campaign seeks to protect.

The Social Construction of Female Circumcision: Gender, Equality, and Culture

Indiscriminate opposition to any form of female genital alteration has left the the WHO and other institutions unable to differentiate female circumcision from FGM. The WHO and other institutions fail to understand and recognize female circumcision as a unique, limited, and specifically religious practice. Instead, institutions like the WHO may inadvertently impose a universalist notion of human rights that demonizes rather than seeking to contextualize and understand practices deemed foreign and culturally suspect.  The application of these supposed universal constructs, specifically in regards to bodily integrity, become imperialist productions aimed to tame the ostensibly savage other. (WHO’s primary role is to direct international health within the United Nations’ system and to lead partners in global health responses.)

Policies that attempt to suppress all forms of FGA that alter female external genitalia are culturally supremacist. Members of a majority culture are more likely to consider their own practices voluntary, reasonable and even desirable, while perceiving minority practices (such as FGA by female African Muslims) as unreasonable, coercive and unacceptable.Arora KS, Jacobs AJ. Female genital alteration: a compromise solution. Journal of Medical Ethics (2016).

The policy in regards to FGM is then aped by other institutions and societies, oftentimes uncritically, and applied on all populations indiscriminately.  The absolutist rhetoric employed when speaking about issues of female genital alteration, whether purposefully or not, establishes a cultural hierarchy that justifies cultural supremacy and domination of groups that have legitimate, evidenced difference and disagreement with the established, and frankly well-funded, anti-female genital alteration narrative.

Furthermore, the WHO’s finding that all forms of female genital alteration is mutilation strips women of their agency to fulfill a private, individual, religious prescription. It reinforces the stereotype that Muslim women are not in control of their bodies. Women’s bodies, once more, become a battleground for political forces.

This unfair discourse is reaffirmed and perpetuated in the portrayal of all circumcised women as victims of FGM. This form of reactionary sensationalism makes any reasoned discourse about female circumcision impossible.

“Demographic and health survey data reveal that when compared with men, an equal or higher proportion of women favor the continuation of female genital surgeries. A more thoughtful analysis is needed: those who want to ensure that women have a say in the conduct of their lives should support women in their quest for choices about their own bodies and traditions” – Seven Things to Know about Female Genital Surgeries in Africa, Hastings Center Report

The global campaign [of the anti-FGM movement] has been aimed exclusively at the female half of the practice, with the aim of creating and enforcing universal international norms according to which any socially endorsed surgical alteration of the genitals of a female child or adolescent is defined as either (a) an intolerably harmful and cultural practice or (b) an obvious and impermissible violation of basic human rights, or both…neither claim (“a” or “b”) is rationally defensible and that the global campaign against what has been gratuitously and invidiously labeled “female genital mutilation” remains a flawed game…The campaign thus deserves to be carefully scrutinized and critiqued, rather than automatically embraced and given a free ride through the international court of critical reason.

There is a strong need for reformulating prevailing definitions of female genital mutilation that unfairly prohibit the religious practice of female circumcision. The WHO has influenced many governments (including that of the United States) to criminalize female circumcision applying a biased discourse of human rights, inconsiderate of religious and cultural practice, threatening the very thing such institutions aim to preserve: basic human rights and freedoms.

For Further Reading:

NOTE: The content of the below articles do not necessarily represent the position of this website.  Any opinions expressed in the linked or hosted articles are the author’s own.


Seven things to know about female genital surgeries in Africa, The Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa

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A policy statement that discourages making public statements about cultural practices without adequate research into the facts and beliefs of communities in Africa. The authors state, “Our main aim is to express our concern about the media coverage of female genital surgeries in Africa, to call for greater accuracy in cultural representations of little-known others, and to strive for evenhandedness and high standards of reason and evidence in any future public policy debates. In effect, the statement is an invitation to actually have that debate, with all sides of the story fairly represented.”


Wade, Lisa. “A Balanced Look At Female Genital “Mutilation””. N.p., 2012. Web. 3 June 2017.

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Lisa Wade provides a summary of the Hastings Center report, “Seven Things to Know about Female Genital Surgeries in Africa.”   Wade finds that practitioners of female genital alterations are misunderstood due to ethnocentrism and misinformation and argues for a more objective and culturally sensitive understanding.


Richard A. Shweder (2013) The goose and the gander: the genital wars, Global Discourse, 3:2, 348-366. 

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Richard Shweder is the Harold Higgins Swift Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago.  In his article, Professor Shweder considers the issue of female genital alteration through the lens of three different perspectives: communities that proscribe both male and female genital alteration, communities that practice both male and female genital alteration, and lastly the United States, where male genital alteration is normalized and permitted while female genital alteration is considered abhorrent and illegal.  Schweder considers the arguments put forth by these societies finding that efforts to eradicate all forms of female genital alteration are “highly polemical, uncontested, and insufficiently evidence-based” and pose a threat to the largely accepted cultural/religious practice of male circumcision.  Schweder also comments on the Hastings Center Report “Seven Things to Know about Female Genital Surgeries in Africa” and its limited effect on balancing the one-sided discourse surrounding such practices.


Illiberal Liberalism: How to Explain the Clash of Western Feminism and Female Genital Circumcision

This article aims to show how Western liberal thinking has in large part shaped the negative discourse regarding the practice of female genital cutting, or FGC, without giving adequate space to the facts and opinions owned by the actual cultures that practice it. While Western feminism is certainly justified in exercising its beliefs within its own domain, the application of Western thought to non-Western cultures skews not only the practice and meaning behind it, but also the entire basis for what is considered morally “right.” By investigating some of the major points of contention surrounding the FGC debate, this paper brings to light the importance of embracing third-wave or intersectional feminism as the most appropriate avenue to discuss issues regarding diverse cultural groups.

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