We are accustomed in the West to the idea that a society — a culture, a civilisation — can be judged by the way it treats its women. Decades of feminism have taught us to react vigorously to the remaining vestiges of patriarchal power. Long before that, we had a tradition of respect for women which expressed itself in the code of chivalry — as well as in the paternalistic excesses of later centuries — and which survives today in an uneasy relationship with feminism. One does not have to be particularly chivalrous or feminist, however, to find the practice of female circumcision, described in a New York Times article last week, an abomination. It is enough that little girls are subjected to a totally unnecessary, invasive and painful procedure that may affect their health and happiness for a quite ordinary sort of person to feel outraged. 

At once, some qualifications are necessary. There are different forms of “circumcision” (which the World Health Organisation prefers to call “mutilation” and others call merely “cutting”) ranging from symbolic gestures such as rubbing turmeric on the genitals, through excision of part or all of the clitoris, to the extreme form of removing all external genitalia and stitching up the vaginal opening. The last type, also known as Pharaonic circumcision or infibulation, is estimated to account for “only” 15 per of possibly 140 million women and girls worldwide — cold comfort considering the gut-wrenching details. According to WHO the most common form (about 80 per cent of cases) involves the excision of the clitoris and labia minor. 

Abortion and genital cutting add up to the same thing: women are not well designed, their
bodies are not well adapted to the desires of men and the priorities of
a male-dominated world.

The pain involved in that must be considerable, even if the girl is sedated during the operation itself. Worse than that, though, must be the terrible sense of betrayal that her mother is handing her over to a frightening and inexplicable procedure. What can a mother tell her four-year-old child, or even an older girl? That it will, according to an Islamic leader quoted in the Times story, “stabilise her libido … make a woman look more beautiful in the eyes of her husband … [and] balance her psychology”?

All sorts of reasons and excuses can be advanced for this custom — which, by the way, appears to predate Islam (and Christianity) and is repudiated by much of the Islamic world — but it boils down, ultimately, to a mistrust of woman as she comes from the hand of God. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, endorsed by the Christian Gospel, man and woman are both created “in the image of God” and this is the source of their equal dignity as human beings and their equal human rights. This truth, admittedly, has received variable recognition in the history of Western civilisation, but today’s secular version of the doctrine of equality is by no means the last word on the subject.

If we agree today that a woman has the right to bodily integrity, it is not because of some idea of her transcendent dignity, but only on the basis that she “owns” her body. It is her property and no-one has the right to invade it or remove any of it without her consent. In a more general way she has a right to privacy, to conduct her life with minimal interference from other individuals or society. Self-possession, so defined, has led the greater part of the West in the last 40 years to legalise abortion, even up to the moment of birth. Officially, the justification is the woman’s health, but for all practical and political purposes it is a matter of mere choice.

Of course, the main argument against abortion is and always will be that it takes the life of new human individual, but if pro-choice advocates are to persist in bracketing the status of the fetus and treating the issue only as one of women’s rights, they should at least acknowledge that abortion, too, is an invasive procedure (chemical abortions invade the body in their own way) and that it, too, can take from a woman what she does not want to give: her health, her peace of mind and, even in the “safe” conditions of first world hospitals, her life. WHO does not list cancer as one of the consequences of female genital mutilation, but, despite denials, there is convincing evidence that breast cancer is linked with abortion. So are very premature births, infertility and depression, amongst other pathologies. It is ironic, to say the least, that WHO crusades against FGM at the same time as it champions the scraping of wombs — so often accepted not as a free choice but to please men or to comply with the wishes of parents or the advice of the sympathetic lady at the family planning clinic.

Furthermore, doesn’t abortion show just as much mistrust of women’s sexuality as genital manipulation? They add up to the same thing: women are not well designed, their bodies are not well adapted to the desires of men and the priorities of a male-dominated world. Really, there is little to choose, in attitude, between the knife and needle of the African genital cutter and the vacuum aspirator of the Western reproductive health worker or her contraceptive pills.

As our sense of female dignity is displaced by proprietary and pragmatic attitudes to the body, people in advanced societies find other good reasons for “cutting” and remodelling. This time last year the media was buzzing with reports about nine-year-old Ashley X, a disabled American girl who had her breast buds and womb removed — and was put on high-dose hormone therapy — at the request of her parents. They feared the complications of her maturing and wanted to keep her a little girl. More recently a British couple wanted their 12-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy to have her womb removed to save them all from the inconvenience of her menstruating. Doctors agreed then changed their minds after public controversy. The rationales for surgical intervention can sound compelling to our ears, but then so must the reasons for genital cutting to those attuned to a different story about the body.

Our story — that the body it is a piece of property subject only to choice — has assisted the widespread acceptance of cutting for trivial reasons. From being an isolated practice connected with female earrings, skin piercing has become a fad that has invaded the whole body. Cosmetic surgery, including breast augmentation, liposuction and tummy tucks, is performed on tens of thousands of perfectly healthy adolescents every year. Disturbed young people, in a culture where no-one’s body is ever perfect enough, take to cutting and otherwise mutilating themselves.  

The deliberate disfigurement and maiming of the female genitalia is horrible, inhumane and highly offensive to women’s dignity, but at least it is on the decline as countries respond to international pressure to outlaw it and make their bans effective. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about our own dreary attempts to reinvent the female body.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.