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Why We Should Say ‘Female Genital Cutting’ and Not ‘Mutilation’8 min read

Having worked on campaigns like the Olympics and the Paralympics, London-born Jay Kamara Frederick believes the key to her award winning marketing is that she always tries to understand her audience’s mind-set. But that’s something, she says, that Austrian-born feminist Fran Hosken failed to do in her 1976 manifesto ‘The Hosken Report: Genital/Sexual Mutilation.’ Despite her wide smile, Jay Kamara has fierce opinions about something which has touched her life personally. “I’m phenomenal” she says and laughs, “not mutilated.”

She is the very epitome of phenomenal and she’s also a very successful ambassador for the U.K based Orchid Project, which works to end what they call Female Genital Cutting. The distinction between ‘mutilation’ and ‘cutting’ is important. When it was initially coined, many in the medical profession saw the potentially divisive implications of the term ‘mutilation’ and Fran Hosken’s sensationalist lingo only took hold because the feminist movement in the 70s “was very in-your-face.” Jay Kamara is one of the many intersectional feminists who are angry that their experience continues to be defined by a Western feminist narrative. “I asked them ‘Why do you call the women you say you’re trying to help ‘mutilated’? Very few organisations who raise awareness to end the practice can give me a legitimate reason as to why apart from ‘that’s what we’ve always called it.’”

Although Jay Kamara is British, her parents are from Sierra Leone, one of the countries according to UNICEF where cutting—at 90% prevalence—is most desired, and most performed.  When Jay Kamara was a teenager her mother took her abroad to be cut on the advice of her own mother, and for what she believed, at the time, was her daughter’s own good. As immigrants–as long as Jay Kamara’s parents contributed to society–no one bothered to look at the clash of cultural practice further than how the family contributed to the U.K. economy. They immigrated in the early seventies and received no integration support at all because they were already fluent in English and went straight into the job market.

Forty years later, the situation hasn’t changed. Absent or insufficient integration policies in Europe should be of great concern with rising numbers of immigration, yet the April 2017 Journal of Social Policy indicates that the U.K. governmental policy emphasis is placed on functional aspects like language skills and access to employment–rather than ‘understanding the interactions between multiple functional or social dimensions.’ What happens when one culture’s social norm is another culture’s outlawed norm? Without education, those cultures clash and experiences like Jay Kamara’s are the result.

Still, the procedure itself is one of the last relatively undisputed cornerstones of all feminist philosophies which work towards ending violence against women. Speak of slicing labia without proper anaesthesia, consent or medical purpose, and most women unite with a collective shudder. As long as it stops, why should it matter what we call it? The reason is because language shapes the way we think and act.

Jay Kamara doesn’t dispute that cutting is an extreme violation of human rights – but thanks to her heritage she also recognises its intent to empower. What is important therefore, is the wording used to describe a practice she believes is predominantly done out of love; instigated by mothers, grandmothers and aunts towards their daughters but which is classified as sexual abuse by U.K. organisations who view themselves as judge, jury and rescuers of ‘mutilated’ Black women.  The human rights which have been violated are Jay Kamara’s rights, and she wants the right to create her own narrative.

In Sierra Leone they call it Bondo. It’s an initiation into womanhood and power within the community where women are celebrated and become ‘privileged’ by passing through the rite. “Women can even get government jobs because they have been initiated,” says Jay Kamara. “Cutting is also practiced globally including in India and America, it’s only not an ‘African’ problem as has been portrayed. Each country calls it something different and they do it for many reasons including – advancement into womanhood, preparation for marriage and respect for the family. It’s a huge community affair, the women’s community, and it’s like you’re coming out. This is what people need to understand as well. It’s not a nice custom, but it’s a custom that serves many communities and kept many communities together for thousands of years. They should stop sensationalising the horror.”

According to a 2017 article in the Washington Examiner, the New York Times Health editor, Celia Dugger who also uses the term ‘cutting’, explained: “there’s a gulf between the Western (and some African) advocates who campaign against the practice and the people who follow the rite, and I felt the language widened the chasm.”

Mutilation is not a word commonly associated with love. But given that the choice in many African communities is to be cut or choose a future where your child is ostracised, unlovable and ‘unmarriable’—the question must be about how love manifests for children, when it comes to ensuring their survival. To secure their daughters’ future love prospects and acceptance within the community, cutting is—as terrible as it seems to Western ears—the loving choice. And whilst the system has been intentionally cultivated to keep women sexually docile, it is the system that must be changed through education at a grassroots level, as well as by enforceable laws, rather than asking those who have been most disempowered inside it to sacrifice their own survival for ‘the cause.’ As with any movement whose goal is to empower, the key to emancipation is to give voice to those who have experienced the procedure themselves.

Jay Kamara finds the term mutilation to be pigeon-holing and derogatory—“They’re disempowering millions of girls and they think they want to help, by putting them in this really ugly, disgusting box.” Furthermore, it’s easier, she thinks, to put Black women in such a box and such a divisive term might not have been so readily accepted if the procedure had been forced upon blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls. In a similar sentiment, Celia Dugger also believes the term mutilation could ‘further divide those who support and those who oppose the practice.’

Although mutilation meaning to ‘cut off, damage or deprive’ is an accurate word for the harm inflicted on women, the problem is rather that mutilation is a term which also incites disgust. And in these times we are duty-bound to be responsible for words which have foreseeable repercussions.

The phenomenon is well documented. Disgust is a biologically programmed reaction and is considered one of the six universal emotions along with fear, anger, happiness, surprise and sadness. According to authors Mancusi, McKay and Olatunji in their essay on Disgust and OCD, disgust is unique among these emotions in that it is transferable through a process called ‘sympathetic magic’—a human bias which means we unconsciously fear transference through a chain of contamination. Mutilation is one of several documented ‘animal reminder disgust elicitors’ and the ‘mutilated’, their families and their communities therefore by transference, risk being classed as equally disgusting. Such unconscious attitudes are corroborated by the Official Journal of the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society. Research suggests ‘people who are more sensitive to disgust tend to find their own in-group more attractive and tend to have more negative attitudes toward other groups.’

On top of what appears to be a biological predisposition, is another more conditioned layer of disgust. Sexual disgust, “which motivates the avoidance of dangerous sexual partners and behaviours”; and moral disgust, which motivates people to avoid breaking social norms. Since ‘female genital mutilation’ is classified as sexual abuse, it’s a term and a topic which transgresses Western moral and sexual boundaries. It also opens another can of worms, especially where immigration—the hot topic in our current political climate—is concerned.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) works extensively to define cultural norms which support violence, as well as evaluating successful interventions. But most educational work does not focus on immigrants and is done outside the U.K. Within the U.K. tough legal measures were introduced by the government in February 2017 which include a duty for parents to protect their daughters from cutting, or face prosecution if they fail to do so. These measures are designed to prevent ‘vacation cutting’, that is when girls like Jay Kamara are taken out of the country during the summer holidays to be cut.

Whilst efforts to protect those at risk from cutting are commendable, the way this practice is communicated in the U.K. remains a problem. Hibo Wardere from Somalia who also works alongside The Orchid Project, said in an interview with the BBC in May that there “was a part missing from our conversation in the U.K…” and the way it was done by charities abroad within the communities was more “holistic” in that it included education for men to support their women and the children. This approach, versus the vilification, judgement and disgust which isolates immigrant communities in the U.K indicates that it is compassion for all the protagonists in the equation is missing. Love is missing. “My mum and dad loved me immensely,” says Jay Kamara and for the first time during our interview she looks serious. “They showed me nothing but love, but it’s such a conflict because a parent’s love is not supposed to hurt.”

Published first on The Body is Not An Apology

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