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Mona Eltahawy Headshot

Smashing the Silence Around FGM

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Imagine if 3 million boys had their penises cut off every year.

Imagine that despite accounts of the unfathomable pain boys endure to ensure chastity and passage into manhood, religious leaders for decades taught their communities that God had decreed such mutilation.

A world tongue-tied by cultural relativism says nothing.

Sounds absurd, doesn't it?

It's a painful reality for at least 3 million girls who each year have parts or all of their clitorises cut off in a procedure known as female genital mutilation (FGM). The clitoris has double the nerve endings of a penis so my analogy to chopping off little boys' organs isn't too far off.

This past weekend marked International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM, so allow me to shake you out of oblivion by reminding you that 6,000 girls a day are subjected to one of four types of FGM.

The most "minor" -- known as clitoridectomy -- is the partial or total removal of the clitoris. The most severe -- known as infibulation -- is the removal of parts of the external genitalia followed by stitching together of what remains. The girl subjected to this then has her legs bound for about two weeks to create a seal over her genitals.

Have I been graphic enough?

FGM is not an abstract issue I've collected under the umbrella of my feminism. Along with an aunt who is four years older than me, I belong to the first generation of women in my extended family not to have been subjected to it.

I began to share that sad family history because I could no longer stand to hear misguided cultural relativists gloss over the horrors of FGM, putting it in the same category as labioplasty, a form of cosmetic plastic surgery for the genitals that has become popular in the U.S. and Europe.

It is unconscionable to compare a woman's choice to subject herself to surgery to the enforced cutting of girls from infancy to about the age of 15 in at least 28 countries. Prevalent mostly in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, FGM is no longer a traditional practice that harms girls just "over there". As a result of immigration and refugee movements, FGM is now being practiced in the U.S. Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

According to the Foundation for Women's Health, Research and Development as many as 6,500 girls are at risk of FGM within the UK every year, where some 66,000 women have been cut, most before leaving their country of origin.

Some of those at-risk girls are cut in their parent's country of origin during vacations. Women's rights groups warn that some communities fly "cutters" to the UK to carry out the mutilation at "parties" involving up to 20 girls to save money.

Parents in those communities -- like my grandparents -- don't hate their daughters. They are socialized to believe the cutting guarantees their girls acceptance and protection by their communities. I've never forgotten the 17-year old uncut bride I wrote about in Cairo years ago who on her wedding night was sent home to her mother with a message from the groom: if you want your daughter to be married, you know what you need to do. A traditional midwife was called in and the bride was cut.

I'm tired of hearing "but it's the mothers who do it to their daughters" with no thought as to why and if men were innocent benefactors of a mother's cruelty. At its heart, FGM is the starkest embodiment of the disempowerment of girls and women.

As recent as the 1950s, partial or total removal of the clitoris was prescribed in western Europe and the U.S. in response to hysteria, epilepsy, mental disorders, masturbation, nymphomania, melancholia and lesbianism.

My opening analogy of penis chopping was absurd not just because if boys were being mutilated the world would not be so silent but because, really, who would want to control male sexuality? We invent little blue pills to boost it.

What to do?

Legislation is a start but it's useless unless combined with unblinking education about the harm of FGM -- lasting psychological trauma, extreme pain, chronic infections, bleeding, abscesses, tumors, urinary tract infections, infertility and decreased sexual desire -- and more forceful denunciations from religious leaders.

The UK outlawed FGM in 1985, and in 2003, it became illegal to take a girl overseas for cutting. Yet in a country where up to 500 girls a day are at risk, the police have failed to secure a single conviction.

My country of birth, Egypt finally passed a total ban on FGM in 2008. Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and independent parliamentarians objected, arguing that the practice was part of Islamic law because it protected a woman's chastity.

That was despite an edict in 2007 from Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa saying FGM was religiously prohibited. The grand sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar, bastion of Sunni Muslim learning, and Egypt's Coptic Christian pope have said neither the Koran nor the Bible demand or even mention cutting.

But why the long silence in a country where 96 percent of women -- Muslim and Christian -- have been cut? It explains why among Egyptian girls aged 10-19 prevalence is still as high as 84 percent.

Confused? Put yourself in the shoes of mothers trying to ensure their daughters don't become outcasts. Put yourself in the shoes of my aunt who almost bled to death at the age of seven, no doubt wondering why the person who was supposed to love and protect her the most had subjected her to that most awful of pain.