In patriarchal heaven, a special award for total disregard and hatred of females is reserved for people who blather on about how genitals don’t matter and male circumcision is just as bad as female genital mutilation. You are more likely to encounter such drivel from those who are furthest removed from communities which enforce atrocious cultural practices like FGM. But while the temptation is to blank out their appropriative erasure of women’s struggles, there will be no silence in the face of this covert wave of misogynistic violence.
Perhaps in an ideal world, genitals would have as much importance as arms, or ears; vital but not weaponized as they are in sexist, male-centred, capitalist society. But wishing something were different doesn’t make it so. Here and now, genitals matter. And it is essential that those at the receiving end of oppression on the basis of the type they were born with understand exactly why and how this oppression is actualized. For us, this is a starting point toward liberation.
Undeniably, consent is a major issue in both female and male genital cutting. Consent is compromised, often nonexistent, not only in the circumcision of male and female babies/children, but in cultures which provide no other option for their members except to endure it. And while tribal and religious women/men may proclaim agency and pride in having undergone the ritual, the fact that doing otherwise would have led to grave repercussions undermines the context of choice.
The absence of consent is one of the main arguments against male circumcision. But critique and comparisons between genital cutting of males vis-a-vis that of females must go further, beginning with acknowledging the fact that FGM and male circumcision, both of which center the penis (i.e ‘manhood’), are just two of several gender rituals which pay homage to and reify the belief in the superiority of maleness – even as their enforcement hurts boys/men too. This universal culture of phallocentric worship, and in turn, male domination and female oppression, is at the root of most, if not all, practices of genital cutting.
Consider Uganda where male circumcision is popularly practiced by the BaMasaba (or Bagisu) tribe. The upbeat imbalu festivities, held in the month of August in every even-numbered year, are recognized in our mainstream culture. During each season, teenage boys are initiated into manhood by the cutting off of the foreskin. This marks one as a man; giving boys unfettered access to the spoils of male privilege.
Of such importance is imbalu that adult males who aren’t circumcised are referred to derogatorily as boys. Wives are urged to report uncircumcised husbands. Males who escape from their villages/families in fear or defiance are hunted down and forced to undergo cutting. It is said that if a Mugisu man dies uncircumcised, his corpse ‘faces the knife’ before burial.
Male circumcision is also practiced within Uganda’s muslim community, in the belief that circumcised men are ‘cleaner’ than their uncircumcised counterparts. But the practice goes beyond Bagisu and Muslims. With the dawn of the new millenium, we have seen an increase in cases of child sacrifice, attributed to witch-doctors demanding offerings of human heads, blood, and genitals from wealth-seeking and/or wealth-protecting clients. The ideal ritual is said to be infants (preferably male, as indicated by a 2008 Uganda Police Annual Crime and Traffic/Road Safety report showing that of 25 cases of ritual murder of children, 6 victims were female and 19 of them male), specifically without any cuts on their bodies. Blemishes have been given as a reason as to why some children, supposedly kidnapped for sacrifice, have been dumped off by the perpetrators. Thus, as protection, many Ugandans now rush to circumcise their sons weeks after birth.
Some Ugandan men also opt for circumcision on the basis of the W.H.O finding that circumcised men have less chance of contracting HIV. In a country where despite massive efforts to drive awareness, infection rates are still high, this is not surprising.
Still within these borders, we have the Pokot, Sabiny, Kadama and Tepeth in and around the district of Kapchorwa – the only known indigenous Ugandan tribes which practice FGM. The procedure varies across cultures; here, it mainly constitutes clitoridectomy, that is, cutting off the clitoris. In some cases with partial cutting of the inner labia. While in others, infibulation whereby both labia are cut off and the resulting wound is sewn up, leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual blood. Upon marriage, this hole is raptured open by a penis, usually with the help of a knife. More cutting is often required to widen the opening during childbirth.
In excising the clitoris, female capacity for sexual pleasure, and thereby likelihood of sexual misconduct are curbed. This ‘purification’ ensures that men have control over the sexuality of ‘their’ girls/women, some of them pre-teen by the time of cutting. Whatever their age, girls with mutilated genitals are considered ripe for marriage, and are regarded highly in the community unlike their ‘incomplete’ counterparts.
Genital cutting poses a high risk of transmitting infections, including HIV, due to the sharing of instruments. But while this issue has been openly addressed by tribal and medical practitioners of male circumcision, this isn’t the case for FGM. Moreover, in Uganda at least, female genital mutilation is carried out underground, and not by medical professionals in specialized establishments. Therefore, naive equivalence simply works to sanitize the realities of an absolute tragedy, and accrue to it the surgical advantages in male circumcision.
But this is a fraction of what girls/women who undergo FGM face: excruciating pain from the moment of cutting (without anaesthesia, unlike in the modern practice of male circumcision), and a lifetime of painful urination, on/off urinary tract infections, inflammation of the bladder due to urine retention, painful menstruation due to blood retention in the uterus, severe pain during sexual intercourse, prolonged labour due to loss of elasticity of the vaginal canal, fistula due to rapturing of the vagina and/or uterus during childbirth, and even death. Incomparable to the healing process of circumcised males which generally takes couple of weeks, using local herbs and/or western medicine to numb the pain, hasten the process, and ward off infections.
This is why women world over continue fighting to end this inhumane, barbaric practice. We also recognize that the ultimate beneficiary of all genital cutting, particularly that which is culturally-mandated, is the class of men.
When male children are promoted into manhood through circumcision, continuing male subjugation of girls/women in the footsteps of their forefathers, it is men who benefit and women who pay the price.
When male children are valued over female children, so much so that they are prime offering for sacrifice – as done by biblical patriarchs – it is boys who pay the price and men who benefit from it.
As they do when circumcised to reduce their chance of being infected with HIV, even as male violence places women at higher risk of infection, with females aged 15-24 (who, according to UNAIDS, account for 75% of infections in sub-Saharan Africa) three times more likely to be infected than boys/men of the same age.
Importantly, men enjoy benefits (real or imagined), whereas women lose whichever way you look at it, in the practice of female genital cutting. And yet even in this day, the subordination, dehumanization, and destruction of femaleness itself in FGM culture is continually defanged in relativism and equality rhetoric.
Enough with those spewing ‘genitals don’t matter’ and ‘just as bad as…’ foolishness while the genitals of our sisters across the globe are cut and diced to the whims and for the ego of men.
The oppression of female persons, girls and women, will not be queered out of existence by the language policing (clitoral amputation?!?) and derailing tactics of conservative idealists and men’s rights activists cloaked in liberalism. We must remain vigilant.