Whatever you think about the practice of female genital cutting or mutilation (FGM), let’s get just one thing straight. FGM is not about patriarchy. Rather, it is said, there are a million cultural traditions and customs around FGM, far too many to make sense of. Indeed, far too many for us to make any kind of generalisation, no matter how cautious.
Just as there are a million reasons why many women, including nuns, chose to wear one or other form of the ancient veil, there are a million reasons why women ‘cut themselves about,’ as Germaine Greer put it. FGM, in particular the Pharaonic version, is among the most brutal and life-threatening examples of these practices. Not, of course, that it has anything to do with one or other version of some millennia-old tradition of gender hierarchy. And hence it is a complete mystery that one word – 'marriageable' – is everywhere you look; in contemporary rural Egypt, for example, the girl who remains uncut risks becoming an outcast.
Greer is right on one count. Women are always cutting themselves about (including, obviously, paying others to do it for them). Also, as an aside, my use of Greer’s term ‘cutting themselves about’ does not cover the phenomenon of intentional, serious self-inflicted harm (regardless of whether a parallel might be argued). Women are increasingly requesting face lifts, nose jobs, breast lifts and tummy tucks (or ‘ringbarking,’ as author Meredith Jones calls it), liposuction, buttock lifts, eyelid surgery and ‘designer vaginas,’ as labiaplasty has come to be collectively, even affectionately, known. Cosmetic surgery is booming. Not only that, but any GP can learn to do it (not that the practice is unregulated but rather one does not need to have trained as a surgeon).
Apart from periods of practically mandatory circumcision of male babies, the ‘overdeveloped world,’ as Jones calls it, tends to regard itself as relatively restrained when it comes to modifying the bodies of its children. But, says Jones, take the often-years’-long ordeal of children who have little choice about wearing dental braces (in ninety percent of cases applied for purely aesthetic reasons).
According to Jones, within the overdeveloped world, a common form of labiaplasty involves trimming the inner lips (labia minora) of the vulva. One might wonder why, particularly as facial lips are typically puffed up, not trimmed off. Half of those recipients of labiaplasty interviewed by Jones said that the operation made for a ‘prettier’ vulva. But how would anyone know, given all that hair in the way? No more. You will not find a hairy vulva anywhere in contemporary pornography, says Jones (apart from that directed at hair fetishists). And, according to a recent Cosmo survey of men, 84 percent prefer their women’s vulvas hairless. Not only are increasing numbers of women cutting themselves about, they’re also shaving themselves silly. Not because men make them, though; a distinction that seems to make all the difference for Greer.
In the view (obviously misguided, as will become clear) of cultural anthropologist Carol Delaney the purpose of FGM (like most, if not all, forms of the veil) is to ensure female chastity. Only via women’s chastity is the divine patriline protected. Just as the man fences a field, he must enclose and cover the female soil in order to ensure the seed-child is his own. And even non-believers among Westerners, says Delaney, have been profoundly shaped by the foundational values and beliefs of their Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture. The same goes for those in the Aristotelian-Pharaonic traditions. Embedded deeply in these civilisations is a premise that men give life; women merely give birth.
The fact that, more often than not, it is tribal women who carry out the cutting is used by many commentators to argue that the tradition itself cannot be patriarchal. Presumably, these observers would disagree that countless generations of patriarchal enculturation can result in an entire community accepting a tradition as essential for the tribe’s survival, and that those members who disobey tribal law put their very status as ‘belonging’ and even their lives at risk.
Given the allegedly impossible task of understanding where FGM comes from and why it persists, let’s agree on one thing. Whatever the millions of reasons that women cut themselves about — to shift fat around their bodies, redesign their facial features, craft a prettier vulva and so forth — the point is that women are doing these things to themselves. While Greer’s position on FGM in non-Western cultures is ambiguous, even contradictory, on this point she is crystal clear: the fact that men are not doing these things to women can mean only that women are freely choosing to do it to themselves. Really, Germaine? Either-or, nothing more?
At any given historical period and, particularly for the overdeveloped world and its imitators, Greer agrees with Jones that in spite of a million variables, snip by snip, the cutting always moves toward the Barbie figure. No woman cuts herself in order to broaden her nose, thicken her thighs or make her nipples point down instead of out. Whereas there’s only one stereotypical desirable ‘look,’ there are a million different reasons to pursue it. Perhaps.
Still, the important point about all this cutting is that none of it has anything to do with that unmentionable archaic institution of father right. So, again, in case my gist has been missed, let’s be quite clear: women shaving and cutting themselves in order to look more like Barbie (whatever her skin colour) has nothing to do with the fact that increasing numbers of men are reporting a sexual preference for boy-like, clean-shaven bodies and little-girl behaviour in their women. And, if men are not making women cut themselves, obviously there is only one plausible alternative hypothesis: women are making free and informed choices to suffer for a greater good, whatever that might be. Rest assured however, that they are doing it for themselves and not in order to make themselves acceptable to a man with whom they might like to make babies, if not communicate. I mean, sure as eggs, the two things can’t both be true.
And there is no such thing as false consciousness.
* Andee Jones is a writer, psychologist and retired academic. Jones's latest book is 'The Gender Vendors: Sex and Lies from Abraham to Freud' published by Lexington Books.
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