Locating female genital cutting through films and documentaries

By Debangana Chatterjee

Though films and documentaries related to female genital cutting (FGC) promise to uphold the realities surrounding the subject, there are undeniable strings of subjective interpretations attached to them. Thus, rather than becoming ‘real’, these films and documentaries transpire as the reel portrayal of realities. Desert Flower, a 2009 German production is the most pertinent feature film on the subject based on Waris Dirie’s 1998 autobiographical account of the same name. In the realm of popular culture, the film relegates the practice of FGC being coterminous to infibulation, whereas infibulation is one of the most extreme variations of the four types of FGC, as has been classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Rather than providing the holistic imagery of the practice, this film portrays a partial picture of it.

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Desert Flower

The documentaries on FGC are majorly driven for either anti-FGM awareness campaigns conducted by various international organizations, or for journalistic ventures of finding and documenting facts by renowned media houses from across the globe. Some of these major documentaries include Warrior Marks (1994), The Cut (2009), The Cutting Tradition (2009), ‘I Will Never Be Cut’: Kenyan Girls Fight Back against Genital Mutilation (2011), A Pinch of Skin (2012), The Cruel Cut – Female Genital Mutilation (2013), True Story – Female Genital Mutilation in Afar, Ethiopia (2013), Reversing Female Circumcision: The Cut that Heals (2015), The Cut: Exploring FGM (2017), Jaha’s Promise (2017), Cutting the Cut (2018). Another talked about documentary of 2018, Female Pleasure, though does not solely deal with FGC, features the renowned activist against FGC Leyla Hussain to shed light on the practice as a mode of controlling female sexuality. With the exception of A Pinch of Skin and Cutting the Cut that focuses on the particularities of the practice in India and Kenya, respectively, from an internal vantage point, others make cultural commentaries on the practice from the perspective of anti-FGM advocates.

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A Pinch of Skin

Cutting the Cut was produced in 2018 under the aegis of The Health Channel in Kenya. Winnie Lubembe, a Kenyan herself, is the narrator, producer, and writer. With a special focus on the Maasai community of Kenya, the documentary presents both against and for narratives of the practice. On the one hand, it discusses the hazardous aspect of the practice. On the other, views supporting legalization of the practice are also presented, as it arguably promotes medicalization as well as cultural preservation. The non-alienation of the community and the need for complementing legal banning with adequate awareness programmes and cultural redressal are the two main takeaways of the documentary. It also highlights the political nuances operating through the legal state apparatus.

A Pinch of Skin, on the other hand, is a 2012 Indian production directed by Priya Goswami. This can be designated as one of the maiden attempts to shed light upon the practice among the Bohra women in India. The maker, despite not belonging to the cultural community, makes honest attempts to put herself into the shoes of the believers, and thus, brings out voices both pro and against the practice. In fact, the naming of the documentary is indicative given that it does not merely portray the practice as ‘gruesome’ and ‘barbaric’. Rather it highlights the practice of nicking the tip of the prepuce of the clitoris, prevalent among the Bohras.

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A Pinch of Skin

Barring these two, representations through visuals of the cultural ‘other’ from an external vantage point appear to lack intricacies and layers. For example, The Cut: Exploring FGM, The Cruel Cut- Female Genital Mutilation, and The Cutting Tradition are produced respectively by Al-Jazeera, Channel4 and SafeHands for Mothers in collaboration with the International Federation of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (FIGO), respectively. The Cut, directed by  American-journalist Linda May Kallestein, has also been funded by multiple Norwegian agencies. Most of these representations are located beyond the cultural purview and thus, lack empathy in their cultural portrayal. Though The Cruel Cut- Female Genital Mutilation and Jaha’s Promise feature Somali activist Leyla Hussein and Gambian activist Jaha Dukureh respectively, it is to be reminded that the onus ultimately lies at the hands of the creative teams of these documentaries. Even Jaha’s Promise uses one of the clips from Barack Obama’s speeches where he is referring to the practice as ‘barbaric’ which as a term is discredited for its blatant cultural insensitivity. It is problematic to assume that the mothers always put their daughters through the practice intentionally being fully aware of its consequences. Fatma Naib, the presenter of The Cut: Exploring FGM, an Eritrean immigrant to Sweden, showcases details of the state of the practice in Somalia and Kenya with substantial subtlety so far as it highlights campaigners against the practice from within these cultures. As a whole, it is not merely about the geographic positioning of the creative teams but about the outlook that they share while describing cultural specificities.

Nuances and variations of the practice are not adequately showcased in many of these films. For example, out of all the countries with reported cases of FGC, African countries especially, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Egypt are highlighted out of proportion. It is largely because of the rampant prevalence of the practice mainly in these countries. It is to note that only 10 percent of reported cases worldwide are the most severe and may fall into the category of infibulation- even in Africa. Notwithstanding the need to highlight the regions with a higher percentage of the practice, these documentaries seem to make convenient choices so far as the cases are concerned. This comes hand in hand with exoticization of pain. For instance, the documentary True Story – Female Genital Mutilation in Afar, Ethiopia, starts with the representative audio of excruciating scream of a newly-wed girl who dies out of profuse bleeding due to forced penetration of her infibulated vagina. This scream is followed by figurative graphics of a splash of blood accompanied by a heart-wrenching narration of the incident. The Cutting Tradition with its explicit emphasis on four African countries including Egypt, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso, uses substantial, real visuals of the practice. The cultural orientation of these representations is reflective of a cultural aversion toward the unintelligible culture. The visual knowledge of the matter, thus, gets constructed from a position of power going in tandem with the existing Western liberal discourse.

Though there are well-intentioned attempts to bring out hard-hitting facts regarding such sensitive subjects, in many cases such intentions get mired with preconceived prejudices. Notwithstanding the possibilities of becoming judgemental even after belonging to the same culture, it is important to understand the outlook of the makers. Needless to say, the making of films and documentaries are driven by factors of storytelling or awareness-raising and are thus, difficult to be objectively oriented. Attempts to bring out different sides of various cultures, giving voices to women of these communities who break the shackles of conformity may pave the way for a ‘real’ and relatively balanced depiction of realities in regard to FGC.


Why female genital cutting still continues: Exploring the reasons behind its sustenance

By Debangana Chatterjee

The reasons why female genital cutting (FGC) continues are multifarious and overlapping. Complex and interconnected sets of reasons for FGC are woven into the faiths of the communities. Thus, faith becomes the genesis of these reasons, making FGC considered to be beneficial by the communities. These reasons can be broadly grouped as traditional, socio-cultural, sexual and hygienic, but are also closely connected with each other:

• Traditional: According to Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia, authors of Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide, for a number of communities FGC is considered a rite of passage to womanhood and is driven by traditional beliefs. This womanhood is often believed to add to the marriageability of the circumcised women. The practice is carried forward by the women belonging to these communities for generations. Though there is no direct mention of the practice in the Quran, hadiths became a traditional source of its justification. At this juncture of faith, tradition paves the way for the socio-cultural reasons behind the practice.

Dogon people of Mali / Photo by Jenny Cordle

• Socio-Cultural: Among practicing communities, the practice in many ways becomes a hallmark of communal identification, as it garners acceptability and induces social conformity within communities. Some communities are also believed to have adopted FGC due to contiguous cultural influences. Considerable communal pressure for performing FGC involves the threat of social ostracism. Local structures of authoritative forces ensure the continuation of the practice by implementing these measures on the basis of their social norms. As the practice remains one of the sole sources of income for traditional cutters, economic reasons as a corollary to the socio-cultural ones also drive the practice.

• Sexual: FGC is believed to control women’s sexual behaviour. There are claims of it restricting women’s sexual urges. Extreme procedures, such as infibulation, are used as mechanisms to keep women’s premarital virginity and marital fidelity in check. Due to the extreme pain that intercourse typically causes in infibulated women, women do not get sexual pleasure. FGC is frequently claimed to be used as an impediment toward the “promiscuous” nature of women.

• Hygienic: Many believe the removal of a part of female genitalia amounts to cleanliness. In this regard, cleanliness in the hygienic sense results in physical purity, which is ultimately believed to pave the way for spiritual purity. This understanding of purity becomes closely entangled with the cultural beliefs of femininity and modesty.

Despite creating this broad rubric of prominent reasons, the reasons noticeably overlap and are distinct in manifestation when it comes to the customs of specific communities. In certain cases, there are multiple driving factors, whereas in other cases the manifestations of these reasons are even more particularistic. For example, as Laurenti Magesa, the author of African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life, explains among the Kikiyu people of Kenya, FGC is celebrated as a mark of womanhood. Among the Bambuti and Thonga community, during the procedure girls are shown no mercy and are treated with ruthlessness as a sign of their gallantry and bravery. Among certain groups in Tanzania and Somaliland, infibulation is believed to form a “chastity belt” around the skin of female genitalia.

Magesa underlines a few reasons for FGC specific to diverse African communities. Primarily, it is conceived as a mark of valour and of enduring physical pain within the community. This pain is thought to teach girls about sacrifice for the community as well as a sense of belonging. Finally, many believe that the practice strengthens the community bond among generations and knits the community together. Among many communities, girls are prepared for the practice through an initiation ceremony. But among the Zaramo people of Tanzania, the girl is secluded for a substantial period after circumcision. During this particular period, girls are trained and informed about obedience in general, conformity to social norms, fertility, and childbirth. According to Kouba and Muasher, the Dogon and Bambara people of Mali believe that a child, born with both male and female souls, is also possessed by wanzo. Wanzo is believed to be evil residing in both the male and female genitalia and thus, cutting as a process helps in getting rid of wanzo.

In India, Bohra Muslims are evidentially the most significant community practicing FGC, which is termed as khafz. As per the believers of the community, Da’i al-Mutlaq, also known as Da’i, hold an authoritative, infallible status in the community. Da’i or Syedna (as referred to by the Dawoodi Bohras) is considered to be the sovereign leader, spiritual guardian and temporal guide of the community. As Da’i considers Daim-ul-Islam as the binding religious text for the Bohras, diktats of the text are taken as truth by the community members. It is a text written by Al-Qadi al-Nu’man who served from the 11th to the 14th Imam of the Shia lineage. In this text, the Prophet is believed to advise for a simple cut of women’s clitoral skin as this assigns purity on women and may make them more “beloved by their husbands”. The community mostly puts forward religious reasons based on their faiths in support of the practice. There are multiple narratives justifying the practice among the Bohra community members. A substantial number of community members believe that the practice tames women’s sexual urges and preserves modesty. Many claim that the nicking of the prepuce helps increase women’s sexual pleasure by exposing the tip of the clitoral hood. In this regard, it is often put forward in the same breath as the genital altercation procedures of clitoral un-hooding. Similar narratives espouse that the practice induces purity among women. For them, if it is well within the rights of Muslim men to be spiritually pure by performing circumcision, it is unjustifiable to prevent women from attaining equivalent purity. In fact, in certain cases, there are convictions by the pro-FGC Bohras toward the futuristic scientific revelations about khafz’s perceived benefits.

When faith becomes a part of people’s everyday life, life needs to get enlightened from its core not by denying faith but by striving for incorporating elements of rationality to it. Although these reasons for the continuation of the practice may not seem justifiable to some in the present context, the incomprehensibility of these reasons may not be countered with outright rejections. In fact, forcefully drawing the private matters of women into a public spectrum may be a source of those women feeling alienated. Rather, holistic approaches and educational campaigns may be useful tools to win the trust of the communities. The chasm between the opposing sides (those who believe FGC to be harmful and those who claim it is a religious right) can only be bridged by generating mutual respectability and building conversational engagement.


More about Debangana:

Debangana is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and  Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her research, she is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of FGM/C and Hijab into the frame of international politics. If you would like to connect with Debangana, you can reach her at debangana.1992@gmail.com. 

Female Genital Cutting (FGC): Is it an Islamic Practice? (Part 2)

By Debangana Chatterjee

Though often being referred to as an Islamic practice, Female Genital Cutting (FGC) precedes both Islam and Christianity. It is believed to have originated in the Pharaonic era of Egypt. Elizabeth Boyle, author of Female Genital Cutting: Cultural Conflict in the Global Community, mentions in the book that before the advent of Islam, Egyptians, who valued FGC (particularly infibulation), introduced a strong slave system and expanded it towards the adjacent geographic region. At the onset of Islam in the Egyptian controlled region, Islam asserted a stringent prohibition towards enslaving other Muslims. Hence, non-Muslim were continued to be used as slaves, and since FGC was done to these non-Muslim women slaves to increase their worth and value as slaves, FGC was by extension spread to other parts of Africa by the slave traders. This remains one of the driving factors behind the spread of FGC in Africa simultaneous to the rise of Islam.

Despite FGC predating Islam, the myth of it being an Islamic practice persists due to the impressions of virginity and purity remaining closely associated with the religion’s values. There are ample reasons to challenge the unnecessary association of the practice with the Islamic culture. First, FGC was common among the Egyptian Coptic Christians and a number of Tanzanian Christian communities. In fact, FGC was also reportedly performed on Western women in the 1950s as a cure to nymphomania and depression according to L. Amede Obiora.

Secondly, the practice is rife only among a limited number of Islamic practitioners of the world. Islam is the world’s second largest religion with approximately 1.6 billion followers of the religion consisting of 23.2 percent of the world population. On the other hand, there are around 200 million reported cases of FGC worldwide which includes non-Islamic people as well. Even if one takes these numbers as absolute, merely 12 percent (approx) of the entire Islamic population is affected by the practice. Thus, FGC does not necessarily qualify as an Islamic practice, considering most of the followers of the religion either nullify FGC or even remain oblivious to it. Third: the Holy Quran altogether stands in opposition to inflicting harm; going by that logic Islam cannot be supportive of FGC inflicting mental/physical harm of any sort onto women/girls. Despite the Prophet being explicit about sunna (tradition) on male genitals, FGC’s existence within Islam remains debatable.

In many countries, Islamic traditions often remain debatable, including discussions on FGC. In the documentary The Cutting Tradition, an imam from the Harar region of Ethiopia is heard explaining how it already existed among various communities and the Prophet merely advised a sunna way of cutting where only the nicking of the clitoral prepuce is permitted. In the same documentary the Grand Mofti of Egypt, Fadilet Al-Mofti Ali Gomma repudiates any religious basis for FGM/C, though in 1994 a religious decree was issued in the country in favour of the practice stating it as an honourable deed for women. In fact, the decree, issued by one of Egypt’s prominent clerics Sheikh Gad el-Haqq, admittedly mentioned that FGC is not obligatory in Islam but should be followed due to the traditional rituals attached to it.

Even in the Afar region of Ethiopia, religious leaders are seen invoking Islamic scripture and text to counter continuation of FGC among practicing community members.

The practice came to South-East Asia in the 13th century, due to the advent of Islam in the region after the change in regime. The Shafi school of Sunni Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia considers FGC an Islamic practice, yet they are culturally influenced by the region where Yemen and Oman are situated, countries that have considerable FGC prevalence.

At a time in the world when right-wing politics riles up with growing Islamophobia, it is important not to straightjacket Islam in order to avoid its unnecessary vilification and mindless demonization. Islam, as it grew, got entangled with cultural traditions in such a manner that it often looks inseparable. But a close and nuanced study of the matter opens it up for further scrutiny and leaves room for potential dialogic engagement with the communities practicing female genital cutting so that in time these communities will come to abandon it.

 Read Part 1 – What Islam says about Female Genital Cutting and how far are these texts invincible?

More about Debangana

Debangana is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and  Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her research, she is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of FGM/C and Hijab into the frame of international politics. If you would like to connect with Debangana, you can reach her at debangana.1992@gmail.com.

What Islam says about Female Genital Cutting and how far are these texts invincible? (Part 1)

By Debangana Chatterjee

A journey through religious texts helps us to validate or disprove the claims that there are religious justifications for traditional cultural practices. A similar logic applies to the claims that Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is an Islamic practice.

The Holy Quran and the hadiths, evolving from the deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, form the basis of Sharia or the Islamic law. Whereas the Quranic scriptures are unquestionable, hadiths require authentication as they are the dynamic source of evolving Islamic practices. Hadiths are the Prophet’s verbal instructions which were documented by various narrators after the Prophet’s death. The actual narration of the text is called the matn and the insad contains the trail of narrators to support the authentic transmission of Prophet’s instructions over generations. Hadiths can be classified as either mutawatir or ahad. Mutawatir hadiths are substantiated and backed up by multiple reporters documenting his guidelines and thus, is adequately acknowledged within the Islamic circle. Praying namaz, donating, fasting and going for Hajj are few of the mutawatir hadiths which are considered fully authentic. On the contrary, although a few ahad hadiths are thought to permit a limited form of female genital cutting, they are deficient of authenticity borne through insad.

According to a Baihaqi hadith, circumcision ennobles women. But many suggest it to be advisory rather than obligatory. One of the Bukhari Sharif hadiths considers circumcision as one of the acts of fitra (human acts inspired by God) like the removal of pubic hair, trimming the moustache, removing armpit hair and shortening nails. In Islam there has been much controversy whether fitra is binding. One Jami at-Trimidhi hadith suggests that there must be an essential bath after sexual intercourse between the two circumcised genitals of opposite gender. Though the supporters here take circumcision as a prerequisite to sexual intercourse and hence to marriage, the commandment of the hadith lies at the fact of taking a shower after sexual intercourse where circumcision may be spoken of as a natural presupposition. Written in Arabic, this hadith may have been toldto a community that was culturally inclined towards FGC at the time it was said. Hadiths by Abu Dawud, Al-Tabrani and Al-Khatib al-Baghdad seem to suggest conducting a plain cut of the clitoral prepuce, as according to them it beautifies a woman’s face and makes her even more desirable to her husband. Primarily even if the hadith  indicates FGC, it eliminates the severe forms of it such as infibulation and only promotes the least severe form.

Other interpretations of this hadith suggest that rather than taking it as the Prophet’s order, one may read this hadith as suggesting it is merely a desirable option. In contradiction, a hadith reported by Abu Sa’id al-Khudri and documented by Ibn Majah and Al-Daraqutni with an authenticated line of insad seems to unequivocally reject any practice amounting to harm.

In Shia Islam, taharat (purity) concerning the notions of hygiene, cleanliness and purity is sometimes put forward to justify FGC. It is believed that due to the clitoral unhooding the excess building up of smegma is addressed. Yet, effective measures of washing and cleanliness are more than adequate to address this issue.Removal of healthy tissues for it does not seem to be credible enough.

In India, Dawoodi Bohras, the largest Bohra sect belonging to the Tayyibi Ism’aili branch of Shia Islam, who practice khatna, consider the Da’i al-Mutlaq, also known as Da’i, to hold an authoritative, infallible status in the community. As the Da’i considers Daim-ul-Islam as the binding religious text for the Bohras, diktats of the text are taken as truth by devout community members. In this text, the Prophet is believed to advise for a simple cut of a woman’s clitoral skin as this, according to certain translations of the text, assigns chastity to a woman and makes her more ‘beloved by their husbands’. Though supporters of FGC cite this as the reason for the continuation of khatna, scholars have shown that da’is have never been as invincible historically, as has occurred in the recent past. In fact, changes in the provision that khatna is required, would add dynamism to the religion.

Islam as a whole neither complies with the practice nor endorses FGC. Despite repeated invocation of religious references as a justification for FGC, considering the myriad number of Islamic texts, the grounds for such justification hold little or almost no merit.

 Read Part 2 – Female Genital Cutting (FGC): Is it an Islamic Practice?

More about Debangana

Debangana is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and  Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her research, she is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of FGM/C and Hijab into the frame of international politics. If you would like to connect with Debangana, you can reach her at debangana.1992@gmail.com.

Tracing the Origins of Female Genital Cutting: How It All started

By Debangana Chatterjee

Though the exact reason for the origin of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is unknown due to the dearth of conclusive evidences, multiple theories revolve around how the practice began. FGC precedes both the start of Islam and Christianity and is practised predominantly because of cultural traditions. FGC is not limited to a single community, religion or ethnicity. Rosemarie Skaine mentions that there are archival documentations indicating a Greek papyrus to have recorded women to get circumcised while receiving dowries around approximately 163 BC. In fact, there are several Greek scholars mentioning its prevalence before the advent of Christianity.

Broadly, the practice is believed to have originated in Egypt where circumcised and infibulated mummies were found according to Frank P. Hosken. Gradually, it spread around the contiguous areas of the Red Sea coast among the tribes through the Arabian traders. In Hanny Lightfoot-Klein’s opinion, though the practice is believed to first have spread in the form of infibulation, clitoridectomy increasingly became the more acceptable form of FGC. During the Pharaonic era, the Egyptians believed in gods having bisexual features. Elizabeth Boyle recounts that these features were believed to reflect upon the mortals, with women’s clitoris representing the masculine soul and men’s prepuce that of the feminine soul. Thus, circumcision was considered to be a marker of womanhood and a way to detach from her masculine soul. As it became a socio-cultural norm, FGC became the utmost criteria for women’s marriage, inheritance of property and social acceptance in ancient Egypt.

Lightfoot-Klein also suggests that population control was also one of the driving forces behind the practice as by controlling a woman’s sexuality, it kept the woman’s desires in check and made her sexually modest. Due to the narrowing of the vaginal orifice through infibulation, women would experience excruciating pain during sexual intercourse and thus, it becomes an effective measure to hinder premarital sex among women and ensure their fidelity. In fact, in places like Darfur, sudden desertification of arable lands made infibulation one of the population control measures.

Boyle suggests the Egyptian practice of FGC and slavery can be correlated for providing an explanation of its origin. Before the advent of Islam, Egyptian rulers expanded their kingdom towards the southern region in search for slaves. As a result, Sudanic slaves were taken to Egypt and the areas nearby. Incidentally, slavery became commonplace with its aim to deliver servants and concubines to the Arabic world. As a result, women with stitched vaginas were in high demand due to the lessening possibilities that they would become impregnated.

But after the arrival of Islam in the region, a strict prohibition towards enslaving other Muslims allowed the practice to get extended to other parts of Africa when the slave traders introduced infibulation among the non-Muslims to raise women’s value as slaves. This not only explains the introduction of FGC among North-African communities, but also explicates the coincidence of its spread in Africa simultaneous to the rise of Islam. In some cases, the practice has also sought its validation through Islamic scriptures. Doraine Lambelet Coleman says that one of the hadiths in Islam is thought to permit a limited form of cutting, though the hadith is also contested for being deficient of its genealogical authenticity. Despite the Prophet being explicit about sunna (tradition) on male genitals, FGC’s existence within Islam remains debatable. The practice was believed to be introduced in the South East Asian countries at around approximately 13th century, supposedly due to the reasons of Islamic conversion process after the change in regime. The predominant Shafi school of Sunni Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia justifies FGC as an Islamic practice and is culturally influenced by the Eastern part of the Arabian peninsula, the region where presently Yemen and Oman are situated. The justification for the practice in these countries come as they prescribe ‘nicking’ of the outer clitoral skin without really injuring the female genitals. In fact, this explains the burgeoning medicalisation of the practice in these two countries. In Singapore, the practice prevails due to the regional influence of Shafi Islam on the one hand and a few practicing ethnic Malay population on the other. The practice is rife among the Kuria, Kikiyu, Masai and Pokot people in Kenya, Zaramos in Tanzania, Dogon and Bambara people in Mali to name a few. Scholars have also indicated the income-generating facet of the practice in the face of unavailability of alternative livelihoods for the individual circumcisers.

Though immigration due to slave exportation and other reasons is considered to be one of the predominant forces behind the spread of FGC in the West, L. Amede Obiora claims it was also reportedly performed on western women, especially in the United States, even in the 1950s as a cure to ‘unnatural female sexual behaviour’ that ranges from homosexuality, female masturbation to depression. References to ‘genital altercations’ in the Western countries are also not unfamiliar. In fact, Obiora also mentions that there are accounts of an English gynaecologist Isaac Baker Brown expressing his clear endorsement of such altercations in the early 1800s.

To talk about India, the practice is prevalent among the Bohra community who came to the Western part of India from the North-African region as a trading community. The defenders of the practice in the community justify this as a stand-alone practice of khatna which unlike other grave forms of it, only comes to denote removal of a pinch of clitoral skin bereft of its harmful effects. In this regard, often local circumcisers are being replaced by the medical professionals to highlight the hygienic conditions of its performance and gain greater legitimacy in its favour.

On a whole, the practice has transformed and evolved dynamically since its origin. FGC through the course of its evolution came up with multiple facets and spread across cultures and geographic regions with various manifestations, meanings and narratives being attached to it. Tracing its origins, thus, not only helps in understanding its nuances but also minimises the tendency towards its homogenisation.

More about Debangana: 


Debangana is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and  Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her research, she is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of FGM/C and Hijab into the frame of international politics. If you would like to connect with Debangana, you can reach her at debangana.1992@gmail.com.

‘Call it by the Name’: A researcher’s dilemma on the FGM-FGC terminology debate

by Debangana Chatterjee

Two years back when I ventured into trying to understand a culturally specific embodied practice pertaining to procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia ‘for non-medical reasons’ as a researcher, the biggest challenge for me was to ‘call it by the name’.

Disagreements regarding the usage of the term ‘mutilation’ in Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), bearing a negative connotation, have surged. International organisations and agencies commonly term it FGM. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) justifies usage of the term on the basis of its previous reference in 1997 and 2008 by the interagency statements. WHO also acknowledges ‘the importance of using non-judgemental terminology with practising communities’ and some of United Nations agencies prefer adding the word ‘cutting’. Ultimately, both terms underline the violation of women and girls’ rights.

‘Mutilation’ refers to impairing a vital body part by cutting it off with an explicit intent to harm. In this context, a few other terms used to connote FGM require closer attention. Female circumcision and excision are often used identically with FGM, although these do not fully carry the information regarding the practice. Out of the four types of procedures entailing FGM as specified by WHO, female circumcision appears akin to type I and even occasionally type II FGM and appears not as physically severe as the Type III category. Yet, existing research suggests that treating female circumcision as replacements for FGM fails to take the practice into account in its entirety. Using ‘female genital surgeries’ is contested as well, as it appears to validate medicalisation of FGM or in other words implies that FGM is a medical surgery like other standard surgeries.

The term FGM received significant prominence in the 1990s. Fran Hosken coined the term in 1993 to draw international attention to the ill-effects associated with the practice as well as to distinguish it from the widely prevailing male circumcision practices. For Ellen Gruenbaum the term ‘…implies intentional harm and is tantamount to an accusation of evil intent’ and thus, entails greater chances of hurting sentiments. There are scholars like Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson who prefer Female Genital Cutting (FGC) instead of FGM. They consider ‘circumcision’ insufficient as it makes a ‘false analogy’ to male circumcision. At the same time, they disagree with the term FGM as it subsumes that all types of the procedure are an act of ‘mutilation’. Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia also choose the understanding of FGC and circumcision as to not force women to dwell on their body as mutilated. These scholars understand the sense of trauma that ‘mutilation’ might connote for some women.

In fact, the constant reference of FGM in the existing international human rights (IHR) discourse mostly remains unaware of other forms of bodily mutilation of women. ‘Mutilation’, in this sense, can mean both bodily modifications attempted through cosmetic surgeries and public sexual violence which remains under the sovereign jurisdiction of the states concerned. Needless to say, mutilation of raped bodies is one of the most common occurrences of sexual violence. When FGM as a cultural practice is emphasised over other forms of ‘mutilation’, it indicates the cultural biases of IHR discourse. It is not to dilute the abhorrence that this practice deserves, but to show how little a space it leaves for consciousness building and community learning. For both the activists and researchers alike, extreme caution is required  to not alienate people and to sustain the dialogic engagement with them.

Also, with ‘mutilation’, a popular imagery of infibulation (narrowing of the vaginal orifice)  is attached. It comes more with its representation in popular culture as is the case with the film Desert Flower. Notwithstanding the reality of the incidence shown in the movie, in most of the cases, the type I and II procedures are conducted instead of type III (infibulation). Clubbing all the procedures under the single rubric either exaggerates type I and II FGM or dilutes the gravity of Type III and some forms of Type IV (Type IV includes miscellaneous procedures like piercing, pricking, incising or stretching of the clitoris, burning or scraping of vaginal tissues. Whereas some of the type IV procedures are of greater concern, others may not necessarily appear as severe).

In the light of these debates over terminologies, how does a researcher resolve her dilemma?

My study aims to locate the practices of FGM/C exclusive to the Bohra Muslim community in India in the frame of international politics. Especially keeping in mind my position as a scholar who is outside the purview of the culture, I stand on the edge of being either called a cultural relativist/apologist (a person who believes that people’s cultural traditions can only be judged by the standards of their own culture and thus, cultural practices are to be judged relative to the understanding of its practitioners) or prejudiced against cultural particularities. My study aims to juxtapose international discourses surrounding the practice vis-a-vis its occurrences in India. Hence, while writing my thesis, I shall be using FGM interchangeably with FGM/C to reflect the larger WHO definition and its usage in the international circle. As no term seems perfect in defining the practice, academically FGM/C looks commonly acceptable reflecting the international outlook towards it. Needless to say, the term FGM/C also has received substantial backlash from the communities and Bohras are no exception to it. An objective and unbiased study of the practice seeks the right approach more than an elusive perfection in terminology. Thus, during my interactions with members of the community, while analysing the local Indian discourse, khatna as a term will be given preference respecting the cultural uniqueness that the term bears.


Debangana is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and  Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her research, she is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of FGM/C and Hijab into the frame of international politics. If you would like to connect with Debangana, you can reach her at debangana.1992@gmail.com.