By Emilie Jarrett (FORWARD intern)
My reaction was admittedly one of horror as I sat and watched an intelligent woman raised in the West discuss on Australian television show, Insights, how she had chosen to undergo the excruciatingly painful procedure at the age of 21. I was shocked that any woman could willingly choose to self-harm.
Fuambai Ahmadu chose to have type I (the cutting of the clitoris) carried out in Sierra Leone when she was 21-years-old. She claims it had no adverse effects on her health or sexuality. From her point of view FGM seems to be an integral part of her culture and becoming a woman.
She emphasised that it is a rite of passage that she felt should be celebrated. But despite her convinction and strongly held beliefs I still struggle to see why such an initiation into womanhood within a specific community has to include FGM. Surely there are alternative rites of passage that are not as damaging that can be, and have been, invented in an attempt to end the practice?
The comparison to other forms of vaginal cosmetic surgery was also discussed during the programme. Members of the audience brought up the main difference: FGM is usually performed on children without their consent (and can therefore be seen as child abuse), whereas adult women who have chose to have vaginal cosmetic surgery usually want to do so for aesthetic reasons.
Yet, the focus on the issue of consent may be somewhat of a distraction, as it often is when it comes to women’s rights. In both the case of FGM and that of vaginal cosmetic surgeries, one could argue that women’s choices are not entirely their own or made freely, as they are under social pressure to live up to certain societal expectations.
Rachel Roberts argues here that ‘both procedures derive from the demand that women’s bodies conform to a cultural norm’. Thinking about FGM and vaginal cosmetic surgery – perhaps even all cosmetic surgery for that matter – in this way might help us to ensure that we are not consciously or unconsciously succumbing to cultural relativism. As Roberts clearly acknowledges, these procedures are different, but her article calls on us all to be as questioning and critical of harmful cultural practices in the West as of those in the developing world.
Clearly, Fuambai chose to undergo FGM because she wanted to be a part of her community in Sierra Leone and believed that without the procedure she would not be. As a multi-cultural individual who grew up in a country of which neither of my parents were a national, I sympathise with and understand the desire to reconnect with your roots, to feel a part of your parents’ culture.
That this may lead to extreme measures, such as self-harm, whether or not under overt pressure, is saddening. Tackling the beliefs and expectations that are at the core of all harmful practices, whether in the West or the developing world, would ensure that no such drastic lengths have to be taken to affirm one’s cultural identity or to simply fit in.