The assumption that culture is a monolith, fixed and closed, unchangeable and immutable, is what we call a principle of exclusion. Culture inherently is a dynamic, flexible and transformative process which rather than excludes, it includes even if, at some point it can resist to some changes. When it comes to Female Genital Mutilation, culture, along with religion, takes the leading spot. Within entire communities, from elders to the youth, from spiritual leaders to chiefs, they commonly agree that FGM is part of their culture and so almost impossible to change.
In my long work trying to understand the diffusion of FGM and the differences of its impact around the world, I met many women, men, girls and boys who had different opinions on FGM. But when asked “why do you practice it?”, though the bad health consequences it leads to are more an more recognized, the common answer is: “it’s our culture, we cannot deny it”.
We should have a look at WHO (World Health Organization) statistics to understand the dysfunctional proportion of this practice worldwide to realize how much the notion of culture is so mistakenly interpreted.
We do not need a treaty or a convention to acknowledge the irreversible health problems, which FGM leads to. Just as a mean of general understating, the main risks go from genital infections, to fistula, from heavy hemorrhages to complications during childbirth, from painful intercourse and menstruation to infertility, from septicemia to death. Without including the tremendous psychological effects of it: depression, sense of loss, lack of desire, anxiety, to mention some. The WHO estimates 140 millions of women victims of FGM in the world and 3 million girls at risk every year only in the African continent. FGM is one of those issues often misunderstood and full of stereotyped concept trying to define them. People, who are not familiar with FGM for one reason or another, assume that is just an African issue or that it is a religious demand from Islam. If we take a map of the world and use red color to mark the countries where FGM is practices, we would definitely see the red color spread all over the five continents. How? Simple, FGM is traditionally performed within communities in Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia, some countries of Latin America, and in certain aboriginal Australian regions, (in the XIX century it was used in the US and Europe to cure hysteria, masturbation and lesbianism). In addition to that, there’s immigration, which has moved flocks of people from place to place who, in the diaspora, brought their culture with them, FGM included.
In culture, people represent and identify themselves. In culture, people feel “safe”. Practicing communities say it is tacitly known that girls must undergo FGM when they reach the right age, as a way out from childhood to womanhood because culture demands it. But what happens when culture generates violence. Yes, violence is cultural. Violence does not exist in nature, so it is a cultural construct and as FGM is a form of abuse as it violates the basic rights and integrity of girls and women, it is a form of violence. We need to acknowledge that there’s no other way to eradicate violence (any form of violence) if not through culture itself. It is a big deal, indeed, because it requires a lot of guts to discuss one’s people principles and at the same time open to different perspectives on issues, which past generations gave for granted.
Cultures change, they have always changed, if not in the short time in the long time of course. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, people make culture not the other way around, there’s enough room for a reflection on how changing a culture lays in the human being’s will and wish. What makes it so hard then, for millions of people across the African continent, and the rest of the world, to recognize the flexibility of culture, and the role of humankind in stretching ideas and imagination?
There are three main sources, which are responsible for change and resistance at the same time: forces at work within a society, contact between societies, changes in the natural environment. It is a matter of how people can deal with loss and invention, part of the changing pattern, against resisting instances like habits, integration and in group – out group dynamics.
When communities object that FGM is unchangeable, they should try and look back at their history and see how many things have been modified since they were moving from land to land looking for pastures for their herds. Somali writer Nuruddin Farah says it right: Today in Somalia ( which is also one of the countries in Africa with the highest rate of FGM) – people use I-phones and I-pads, is that not a sign of cultural change? So why they can’t change also their perception of FGM? Wasn’t the great Mariama Bâ the one who said in her famous novel “A so long letter”: we should eradicate the bad of each culture and preserve only the good.
In a digital world where information and knowledge is accessible on a mass scale, where the “other” become more easily the mirror for ourselves, it is more difficult to think at culture as a static unchangeable thing. If culture shows the symptoms of not changing, in a case where FGM is still justified as “cultural”, it is perhaps because is used by politics to control over women’s lives, suppressing gender equality, continuing to support the patriarchal system. Eradicating FGM is a call to revise culture, to change politics through culture (and not the other way around). It is about promoting a holistic vision through which occupy a new space and have impact, where tradition and innovation can stand side by side.
Things get tougher when it comes to religion. In Middle East, Asia and in some African countries FGM is referred as mandatory of Islam, which is something I always knew being untrue for personal and professional reasons.
During my researches and meeting people from different countries, different social classes and different cultures, I realized how FGM in many African countries, for example, is still highly practiced among low class people, who do not have access to education, information and modernity.
While in Southeastern countries the practice is prevalent in urban areas and among middle class people who have regularly access to higher education and progress.
It seems that the idea of “religion” as a justification for FGM is homogeneous and goes far beyond social class, while the “pure cultural” justification has more impact where people do not have enough chances to confront themselves with what information and education carries. But what if we start considering religion as a cultural product too? Also in this case the change will necessarily need to come from a cultural change by admitting first of all that there’s not something called “female genital mutilation” in the Quran nor in any other holy book and that eventually culture made it up through free interpretation.
Published on Indian Muslim Observer