Female Genital Alteration: The United States and Abroad

A Maasai woman with whom I spoke in Tanzania

by Lisa Wilmore

When most of us think of female genital mutilation, we think of ritualistic practices like female circumcision. Throughout north and east Africa various ethnic groups practice female circumcision; it involves the partial or full removal of the clitoris and labia as well as stitching the area closed except for a small hole.

From the biomedical perspective, female circumcision is seen as a persisting evil that is primitive, uncivilized, and patriarchal. Western genital cutting, as it is an elective surgery, is viewed as modern, efficacious, and healing. In this way, a double morality has been created for the way we think about and understand female genital alteration. While my gut feeling tells me that both forms of female genital alteration are reflections of gender based violence, there is an ironic parallel between the two in that both reflect cultural qualifications for womanhood.

About two years ago I was studying in Tanzania and had the opportunity to conduct a project wherein I spoke to Maasai women of Engare Sero about their persisting ideologies surrounding female circumcision.

Traditionally, Maasai women transition from ndito to yeyo, or girls to women, through circumcision; it is a right of passage. The procedure is typically performed without anesthetics and can potentially result in pain during urination and childbirth, hemorrhaging, and loss of pleasure during sex. During my time with the Maasai women of Engare Sero, their sentiments could not be more clear—if you were not circumcised in Maasai culture, you would be perpetually conceived of as a girl.

Working within the social framework of Maasai age-sets, the concept of a “woman” is intimately tied to this procedure. Thus, in the minds of many Maasai woman and men, for a girl to pass through puberty without being circumcised she is conceptually excluded from womanhood.

Women in the United States have long worked to modify their bodies. We are burdened with the expectation that we should, and want to, continually improve our appearances. We are expected to be highly critical of our bodies and fix our “flaws” if there is an available treatment. Women in the US are often citing aesthetics as reason for being unsatisfied with their vulvas—saying that their genitals are not “normal.” This medicalization of the vulva is bringing women to identify a particular genital appearance as more womanly.

But because we see more genitals through media sources than up close and in person, our understanding of a “normal” vulva is grossly skewed.

In Australia for example, censorship laws dictate that frontal nudity in soft-core porn magazines may only show inconspicuous genital detail. So even if a model was not born with a Barbie vulva (and yes, there is a cosmetic procedure commonly referred to as “The Barbie Look”) or has not had surgery, editors must present the model’s vulva as a neat, petite package with computer editing tools.

Similarly, sex ed textbooks here in the US portray one type of vulva; one that is “discreet.” There are numerous factors influencing popular perception of a standard vulva—changing our conception of what it means to be feminine or even a woman.

Even the way we talk about these topics is clouded by different cultural perceptions. The World Health Organization defines female genital mutilation as all procedures that involve “partial or total removal of female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”

Using this definition, common practices in the United States such as clitoral hood removal and labiaplasty (partial or complete removal of the labia minora) are just as much “mutilation” as anything done in Africa. This is why many of us who study these practices prefer to use the umbrella term of “Female Genital Alteration” (FGA) to discuss all types of genital procedures for women.

The topic of FGA is still sensitive and nebulous at best. To move in a resolving direction, it is critical for anyone curious about global FGA to stop judging women here in the US for genital cosmetic surgery. We also need to stop viewing female circumcision as the moral antithesis of Western society. Although I am an anthropologist, I do not preach cultural relativism or complacency. But the “white savior complex” that many feminists, activists, and scholars have adopted in reference to female circumcision does concern me. It concerns me because it is impossible for me to actively empathize with women who live in such societies where circumcision is expected. I don’t know what it is like to have my womanhood, adulthood, and prestige in my community earned by a procedure.

On the other hand, I do understand what it feels like to live in a society where true womanhood (some may refer to the “Cult of Domesticity”) has been narrowly defined along with what constitutes a true woman’s body. Although Maasai women, and others who undergo ritualistic cutting, are the subjects of transnational controversy, they are seldom looked to as experts of their own local knowledge. Because FGA honeycombs themes of sexuality, identity, and culture change, it is important that no matter how upsetting the topic may seem, that we give peripheralized voices a chance to be heard in the global dialogue surrounding FGA.

Lisa Wilmore is an intern with MissRepresentation.org and a graduate of Miami University. Connect with her on Facebook.