Culture shouldn’t be stagnant, human rights take precedent over tradition
Another International Women’s Day has come and gone, reminding us of the tremendous strides that women around the world have made for their rights and freedoms. Those strides haven’t accounted for all basic freedoms—female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural practice that’s been around for thousands of years, and still violates the rights of a significant percentage of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern women.
As someone of Somali background, FGM’s presence in Somalia has disturbed and angered me. Being born and raised in Ottawa, I grew up oblivious to this practice—though that might not have been the case had I been born in Somalia.
FGM involves cutting and/or removing a female’s lower external genitals from a young age. These procedures can range from removing the clitoris, to removing the clitoris, inner and outer lips. Despite its longevity in various cultures, FGM is child abuse and serves no medical purpose.
The percentage of women and girls who have undergone FGM between the ages of 15 to 49 ranged from one per cent in Cameroon to 98 per cent in Somalia. At its core, FGM seeks to promote purity. It’s about preserving a girl’s virtue and making sure that she remains untouched until marriage. This turns women into objects, guarded closely until given away to future husbands.
With FGM comes the implication that sexually active women, women who have been raped, or uncut women are impure or “used goods”. This implication hinders the progression of women’s sexuality in Somalia, and other countries that practice it.
Aside from the emotional and psychological effects, FGM causes problems like severe blood loss, painful menstruations and childbirths, and uncomfortable sexual experiences, among many other issues. Most of these women understand that uncut girls have fewer marriage prospects, so cultural acceptance takes precedence over physical pain.
With a taboo subject like FGM, most people feel more comfortable avoiding it —keeping their opinions on other cultures to themselves. But when this becomes a global mindset, tiptoeing around FGM in order to be politically correct becomes a major disservice to the millions who need protection.
Culture is a vital aspect of society, and while it may be important to uphold cultural traditions, citizens should be willing to acknowledge that reform is needed when cultural practices harm their own people.
One of the saddest aspects of FGM in Somalia is that it’s women who perform the act. While the men in the community contribute to keeping the practice relevant when they search for a woman to marry or match with their sons, it’s women who keep FGM alive.
Any change must begin from within the Somali community. Since men and women in Somalia are responsible for enforcing and passing down the tradition of FGM, ultimately they can be the ones to end it. By refusing to subject their daughters to FGM, they’ll be empowering young women, and teaching men that a woman’s value doesn’t lie between her legs.
Despite my luck, it’s hard to feel at ease knowing that FGM still continues in Somalia and other countries. It’s difficult to forget that much of the older female Somali population in Ottawa has undergone FGM. These are women who have not only gone through such a traumatic experience, but also lived through a civil war and struggled to find safety for their family.
It’s unlikely that they’ve received the mental and physical help needed to heal from their experiences, as FGM is rarely discussed in the diasporic community. Perhaps this is because it’s so embedded in Somali culture that women feel speaking out against it would change little.
I am hopeful that one day these women won’t have to feel uncomfortable raising their voices about this topic. I am hopeful that FGM will one day be a thing of the past. Then, women around the world will have one more reason to celebrate on International Women’s Day.