In her book The Whole Woman (1999) she writes on the double-standard of male & female circumcision. She asks by what standard the West judges those parts of the world that still practice female circumcision when male genital mutilation is freely & openly carried out at home in America on going on two-thirds of all infant boys, & girls cut themselves, pierce themselves & surgically alter themselves in their millions. She was vilified by practically all organized Feminism for this stance, although it seems to me to be an extremely reasonable, moral, & thoughtful point of view, intelligently stated. The following is a condensed extract from it. It's not the right opinion, or the wrong opinion, it's just an opinion that deserves to be heard but isn't.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been condemned as a violation of human rights by the International Conference on Population and Development, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, and the United Nations Family Planning Authority. Male genital mutilation is seldom condemned. Men mutilate the genitals of other men; usually women mutilate the genitals of other women, except where the procedure is carried out by a male professional. In England a doctor will be struck off the medical register if it is found that he has carried out a female circumcision of any kind. He will not be struck off for splitting a penis down the middle so that its owner can insert rings in it fore and aft for the gratification of himself and partners. He will not be struck off but rather encouraged to 'tidy up' the ambiguous genitalia of intersexual newborns, usually by removing the inadequate penis and creating an opening that will pass for vagina, so that the child becomes a girl, regardless of actual chromosomal make-up. And he may massively mutilate built men and women seeking gender reassignment. But he may not carry out any form of female circumcision at the request of a patient or her parents.
Human beings have always modified the external appearance of their bodies in one way or another; one man's beautification is another man's mutilation. Looked at in its full context the criminalization of FGM can be seen to be what African nationalists since Jomo Kenyatta have been calling it, an attack on cultural identity. Any suggestion that male genital mutilation should be outlawed would be understood to be a frontal attack on the cultural identity of Jews and Muslims.
Notwithstanding, the opinion that male circumcision might be bad for babies, bad for sex and bad for men is steadily gaining ground. In Denmark nearly 2 per cent of non-Jewish and non-Muslim men are circumcised on strictly medical grounds; in Britain the proportion rises to between 6 per cent and 7 per cent, but in the US between 60 per cent and 70 per cent of male babies will have their foreskins surgically removed. No UN agency has uttered a single protocol condemning the widespread practice of male genital mutilation, which will not be challenged until doctors start to be sued in large numbers by men they mutilated as infants. Silence on the question of male circumcision is evidence of the political power both of the communities where a circumcised penis is considered an essential identifying mark and of the practitioners who continue to do it for no good reason. Silence about male mutilation in our own countries combines nicely with noisiness on female mutilation in other countries to reinforce our notions of cultural superiority.
To be sure there are influential feminists who are fighting to eliminate FGM in their own countries and their struggle must be supported but not to the point of refusing to consider the different priorities and cultural norms by which other women live. When I explained to Sudanese women that western women sometimes have their breasts cut and trimmed, they were every bit as mystified and horrified as we are by Pharaonic incision and infibulation. Stephanie Welsh, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her photographs of the ceremonies surrounding female circumcision in rural Kenya, described it as 'a wonderful ritual that unifies the tribe. It's very beautiful - except for the circumcision itself.' Welsh's prize-winning photostory traces the lead-up to the climactic ritual: first the girl's mother builds the house where she will live as a woman; then the girl has her head shaved; circumcised women from surrounding villages gather to paint her with red ochre and assure her that she will have no pain; then they hold her down and stifle her cries as her own mother cuts her with a razor and plasters goat fat on the wound.
Male genital mutilation is considered trivial; female genital mutilation is considered devastating even if it involves nothing more than nicking the prepuce of the clitoris to provoke ritual bleeding. FGM takes so many forms that it is doubtful whether it represents a single phenomenon with a single cultural significance. The WHO recognizes degrees of severity of mutilation, one, in which the hood of the clitoris and surrounding tissue are removed, two, in which the clitoris and the labia minora are removed and three, infibulation, widespread in Somalia, Northern Sudan and Djibouti, in which the clitoris and labia minora are removed and raw surfaces created on the labia majora so that they can be stitched together to form a seal over the urethra and most of the introitus of the vagina. The accepted view of what these practices mean can he summed up as follows:
Beliefs and practices regarding Female Genital Mutilation seem to show a desire to control women's sexual experience and reinforce established gender roles. They support a priority of male over female sexual satisfaction (often at reproductive risk to women) and give evidence of profound ambivalence among men regarding the sexual needs and concerns of women.
This is indeed a curious explanation of something that women do to women, because it suggests that they are simply carrying out the desires of men, desires which in these cultures men would never have discussed with them. In Ethiopia circumcision is common but not universal among both Christian and Muslim women; when I asked Ethiopian men whether they preferred sex with circumcised or uncircumcised women they appeared not to know. They could not say for certain whether the women in their own families were circumcised or not. Circumcised women in Sudan told me that it was 'no problem for the sex' but 'a big problem with the childbirth'. They thought they might not have it done for their daughters, because it was going out of fashion, but when their mothers became agitated and said that their granddaughters would be considered ugly and unmarriageable, they said maybe they would do it anyway. These Sudanese women were very sensual and up front about their erotic interests; it is impossible to think of them as having no notion of their own sexual pleasure.
There is also a pronounced cosmetic element in the way women talk of their own circumcision. Many women who are circumcised or infibulated also remove absolutely all their body hair; the depilated, infibulated genitalia become virtually invisible — as they were in all western painting and sculpture very recently. Certainly FGM represents a significant health risk but it must also be a procedure with considerable cultural value because it has survived fifty years of criminalization and concerted propaganda campaigns. The fact that it is both painful and dangerous adds to its undeniable function as ideal in the rite of passage from child to woman. As UN workers in Eastern Uganda found, women would not abandon female circumcision until some similarly significant procedure could take its place.
Though I was among the feminists at Mexico City in 1985 who first raised the problem of FGM in an international forum, I am loath now to pronounce upon its significance as a cultural phenomenon given the occult attachment to self-mutilation that can be discerned in our own culture. This can perhaps be explained as partly an angered response to being defined as our bodies. The woman who cuts her body asserts undeniably and emphatically that there is a self that has power over that body. Time and again we are told by young women who cut themselves that they find release in watching their own blood flow. Self-harming of this kind is not a cry for help nor is it clamouring for attention, because it is secret. It is a genuine attack by the self upon the body, by which mental anguish swapped for bodily pain. Self-harming is older than Christendom, embedded in contrition, penance and expiation and rotten with guilt.
Piercing is no less mysterious to a non-piercer than cutting, but the underlying dynamic is similar. Perhaps we should be considering the possibility that FGM acts in a similar way to assert the individual woman's control over her genitals and to customize them to her specification, which may also be the hallmark of the group to which she wishes to signify her allegiance. If an Ohio punk has the right to have her genitalia operated on, why has not the Somali woman the same right?
We ought at least to entertain the notion that the African woman is having FGM done for herself and allow her the same access to professional assistance as jen angel can expect. Instead of prescribing improved operating techniques and antisepsis, westernized governments have criminalized FGM and driven it underground, so that the painfulness of the procedure and the attendant health hazards are much magnified. In our own culture girls too young to qualify for professional piercings have been known to do it themselves. I used to teach at a school where bad girls carved their own tattoos with steel pen-nibs and coloured them with school-issue ink.
Thirty years ago parents were not fighting with their sons and daughters over piercings and tattoos. No teeny-hopper heroine sported a stud through her tongue as Scary Spice does and sticks her tongue out ostentatiously to prove it. The tongue stud is supposed to have an erotic function in stimulating the underside of the penis during fellatio. What the Spice Girls' eight-year-old girl fans make of this is anybody's guess. Mothers know that their daughters' insistence on having a nose stud or a navel piercing or a bracelet of barbed wire tattooed around an arm is an act of hostility towards them. The child is asserting her right to alter irrevocably, even to damage and destroy, the body that her mother grew for her out of her own substance. The child thinks she is claiming her own body, wiling her autonomy; the mother sees it as mindless tribal behaviour, pretty much as the 'first' world sees FGM. The mother wants the tattoo parlours closed down, and piercing banned. The law capitulates only so far as to impose an age limit, thus presenting the mutilation even more effectively as a privilege, a goal to be fought for, a sign of adulthood, a rite of passage. Though we might suspect that the child who thinks she needs a nose-ring might be afraid that her face is a blank in need of illustration, that she becomes a piercer and tattooer because rings and tattoos make her visible to herself, we have got to see that this is no more than a continuation of the incessantly stimulated desire in the little girl to bedizen herself, to change her hair colour, to paint her face, and her nails. All these are ways of making herself visible. Or invisible, depending how she sees it.