A lesser known violence: female genital cutting

Nicholas Kristof, a senior journalist and New York Times columnist writes this week about what he calls ‘a rite of torture for young girls’ – female genital mutilation or cutting. To understand what exactly this involves, read Kristof’s description here.

Widely practised across Africa and some countries in Asia, this form of gender violence has been particularly insidious and difficult to dislodge, in large part because it is a deep rooted cultural, social and/or religious practice. Not surprisingly, efforts by ‘western organisations’ to abolish this practce have been dismissed as ‘cultural imperialism’ as Kristof points out.

I first read about female genital mutiliation when I randomly picked up a book called ‘Do they hear you when you cry?’ by Fauziya Kassindja, an African woman who had fled her home to escape this form of violence. At that point, I was 20. Her descriptions terrified me and I distinctly recall coming close to tears. I also decided to make the book my ‘project’ for my Feminist reading class.  I still remember standing in front of my classmates – all girls – and trying to explain to them what female genital mutilation actually involved. It wasn’t easy. I was squirming, most of my friends were. But I persisted and even managed to read out some particularly difficult passages in the book.

Looking back, I now realise how hard it was for a group of 20 year old girls to discussed their bodies, their female genital organs. The words were unfamiliar – we had maybe read them but rarely uttered them aloud. Just saying ‘clitoris’ or ‘labia’ was difficult.

I’ve digressed but the point I’m trying to make – in a somewhat round about manner – is that we need to find ways to talk about our bodies openly. Kristof argues that one reason it has been so hard to prevent female genital cutting is that it involves private parts, which no one wants to talk about. I agree. And it makes me appreciate all the more how difficult it must have been for Fauziya Kassindja to talk about her experience, to strangers, both men and women, from another country altogether.

You can read more about Kassindja’s book here and about female genital mutilation here

PS –  Female genital mutilation is not widely practiced in India – probably the only form of gender violence that isn’t.

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