Imagine a little girl being held down by her arms and legs. Awake and very much conscious, she is confused and scared by the strange situation she has found herself in. The girl squirms and cries and by the end of this "procedure," she will have joined the 125 million women and girls globally who are subjected to Female Genital Mutilation.
The 11th International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation marks progress since 2012 when The U.N. passed a resolution condemning female genital mutilation as harmful to women and girls. The outcry against FGM has risen and the global instances have declined. Still, by 2030, about 86 million young girls worldwide are projected to undergo some form of the procedure -- a practice that causes health problems and is a violation of women's and girls' rights.
Yet as the backlash spreads throughout the international community, so does another argument in defense of this crime, which is geographically concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and also present among immigrant populations in Western countries, according to UNICEF.
Defenders of FGM call it a "cultural practice" and insist it must be allowed to continue as such.
No matter what you call it, this crime has no place in any corner of our world. And what people call it is not just merely an exercise in rhetoric.
The appropriation of the term "cultural practice" is "misleading because it implicitly compares the practice with male circumcision, regardless of the fact that FGM is a considerably more invasive procedure and is not conducted for medical purposes," Human Rights Watch states.
By toning down the language and so drawing a false parallel, proponents hope to appeal to a post-colonial sense of "cultural understanding."
FGM is, after all, nothing if not a cultural practice. Despite previous misinformation to the contrary, FGM isn't affiliated with any one religion in particular. It is practiced within communities that identify with Islam and Christianity, according to UN Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen.
Defenders of FGM also refer to it by a much more innocuous term: female circumcision.
While most male circumcision does involve the removal of the foreskin, it has a legitimate medical purpose and it doesn't come equipped with a laundry list of devastating physical and emotional consequences.
In stark contrast, FGM absolutely does. The World Health Organization (WHO) states the long-term effects as: recurrent bladder and urinary infections, cysts, infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths. This is to say nothing of the immediate consequences like the intense pain and trauma associated with the procedure or the excessive bleeding that has lead to death or the use of unclean knives, which can lead to an increased risk of HIV transmission. There can also be a host of psychological and emotional repercussions.
Ironically, WHO and other organizations that aim to eradicate FGM, don't mention the one side effect that is also the impetus for practicing FGM in the first place:
Terminating women's capacity for sexual pleasure.
In a world that is still shy to discuss female pleasure, in general, let alone female pleasure that doesn't come from vaginal penetration, it isn't exactly surprising that this important element is largely left out of the conversation.
Yet not addressing the goals and consequences of FGM directly undermines efforts to protect women from it.
FGM is used in an attempt to prevent female sexual desire so that would-be-brides will remain virgins for their to-be husbands and wives will have no reason to be unfaithful, UNICEF reported. This is a practice rooted in efforts to commoditize and control the female body, it is an act so dangerous and heinous that it cannot begin to qualify for conversations around 'cultural sensitivity.'
Co-existing in a world of cultural and religious diversity is a complicated endeavor. Too often the western world in particular has projected personal notions of right and wrong onto moral frameworks that cannot accommodate our worldview. In many cases, these projections have historically led to devastating consequences.
But having zero tolerance for FGM is not one of those cases.
"The function of culture and tradition is to provide a framework for human well-being; cultural arguments can never be used to condone violence against persons, male or female," The United Nations Population Fund states.
Well-being includes the right to health and safety -- and, yes, that also extends to pleasure.