Thursday, 13 January 2011

Germaine Greer on Male & Female Genital Mutilation

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for Germaine Greer. It's true, of course, that much of her writing is openly contemptuous of men, & therefore surely the very opposite of everything this library should be housing. But beyond all that sorry misandry, she has a good mind, & her own opinions. Of all the major second-wave feminist writings I found The Female Eunuch to be the most interesting, intelligent & (comparitively speaking) fair. And she has, as Dennis Potter once said of her, the courage to change her mind in public, which is a quality I much admire in anyone, & one which should be treasured wherever found. So, I like to hear what she has to say, even if I disagree with the greater part of it.

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.


  1. Bullshit! This is done to prepubescent girls who have no say in the matter. What you do to your own body once you reach the age of consent is entirely your own choice.
    And anyway I think cutting off someone's clitoris and inner labia is slightly more irreversible than having one's tongue pierced.
    For the record, I am against the circumcision of male infants for exactly the same reasons.

  2. Yes, fair enough, & I think I would agree with you.

    I just find this piece interesting because it asks us to see how much greyer the issue becomes when unfolding in a culture so different to ours, with such different notions of individual rights, bodily integrity & so on, to people who in other areas of their lives may well be far more happy & content than you & I in the unbelievably fucked-up west, with a lived experience of purpose, acceptance & belonging that practically none of us have here.

    Greer was the single lone feminist voice who asked people to just stop & take a step back before thoughtlessly judging & participating in the FGM hysteria that feminism kicked off in the 80's. She most emphatically never said female circumcision was good, she just said think about the wider picture before speaking.

    Also, the original piece is considerably longer than this, if I remember correctly, so these extracts might be presenting her actual position a little out of context.

  3. "a culture so different to ours, with such different notions of individual rights, bodily integrity & so on" How about the UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS of the UN's General Assembly, the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family! In my opinion, your culture-relativism is discriminatory, ignorant and evil, because of the double standard you apply!

    1. Hmmm... & what is the UN's stance on male genital mutilation? Do those human rights apply to the other half of the human family, too?


      I'd say that was a double standard, if I've ever seen one.

      Other than that, I can't really make head or tail of what you're going on about (discriminatory, evil, double standard etc). Sorry.

  4. "If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes “culture,” and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible.” Donald Symons, anthropologist.

    “Culture” cannot justify the nonconsensual genital cutting of babies. Neither can religion. Even if I sincerely believed that the creator of the universe had commanded me to remove genital tissue from my son without his permission, I would have to decline on ethical grounds.- Brian D. Earp, University of Oxford.

    Nonconsensual cutting of a child’s genitals, is never justified, boy or girl, except when there is a medical necessity to do so when a boy has a narrowed foreskin. Removing the labia and clitoris is worse than male circumcision. Cutting of the head of the penis would be the equivalent in men. If you do not understand why it is evil to allow such a crime, then that says a lot about you, in my opinion.

    1. "Nonconsensual cutting of a child’s genitals, is never justified, boy or girl, except when there is a medical necessity to do so"

      Cool, then we agree. Any other business?

      I still fail to see quite what it is here that has whipped you up into such frothing outrage. I can only assume you've either a) not read the whole piece, or b) have attributed Germaine Greer's statements to me. Under such circumstances it seems pointless to enter debate, so I'll just wish you well & let you go.

      I will point out though, that cutting off the head off the penis would not be equivalent in men, as then reproduction could no longer occur & the tribe that practiced it would die out within a few decades. Circumcision is the practice of claiming ownership, imposing an identifying tribal mark upon those belonging to a particular group, & it's also an oppressive way of hindering & limiting both male & female sexuality, but to extinguish that sexuality altogether would be suicidal from a societal point of view.

      Also, I was pleased to read recently it had been demonstrated that circumcised women could still achieve orgasm, so the false equivalence is further disproved.

      I am opposed to both male & female circumcision, so no longer rank them in order of favourites. However, male genital mutilation is far more widely practiced & legal everywhere in the world, so I think that is the most deserving focus of our attention right now.

  5. If you really want to know what made me angry, it is your statement, that: "I just find this piece interesting because it asks us to see how much greyer the issue becomes when unfolding in a culture so different to ours, with such different notions of individual rights, bodily integrity & so on, to people who in other areas of their lives may well be far more happy & content than you & I.."
    The issue does not become 'greyer' when unfolding in a different culture, it remains black and white. because the practice is evil. I find your above statement highly misleading. You are downplaying the severity of the crime. See the quotations I wrote down in my last message. Reproduction without the head of the penis would still be possible, since the man afflicted would still be able to produce sperm, but that is not the point. Neither is 'Circumcision is the practice of claiming ownership.' The point is that FMG is a heinous crime, that has to be stopped at once, in the interest of millions of women. I agree male circumcision has to stop as well, as I have stated before. But none of these acts can be justified by any culture or religion, nor does the issue become 'greyer', as you say, because it is a crime against humanity.
    About the link you provided, I quote from the article: "Egyptian sexology professor Hussein Ghanem is sceptical. Remember that the clitoris is the female equivalent of the penis, he says. His answer to men who argue about the effects of female circumcision: “Let’s cut off your penis and see how well you do!”" Anyway, what are you trying to prove by wanting me to read this article? That the practice isn’t so bad after all? Again, you seem to be downplaying it.

    1. Hi, this dialogue is going round in circles & not getting anywhere, as you haven't even read the piece that is the basis for my comments & are asking me to argue for a position I've made clear I do not hold.

      On top of that, your fevered insistence on using terms like 'EVIL' in every single one of your comments I find creepy & disconcertingly judgmental, like a slightly unhinged fundamentalist christian fired up & looking for a new ministry. And your assertion that men could still father children with the head of their penis chopped off is so staunchly bizarre I am entirely at a loss to know how to begin tackling it.

      Clearly we see the world & morality in such different ways there is no more to be gained from discussion on this matter for either of us, so this is the last time & space I'll devote to it. I am wishing you well though.

  6. I would appreciate it if you would post my response to your statement, since it clarifies my stance:
    I have read the article, contrary to what you claim to be the case. You say that there is a cultural component to FGM which makes the matter more grey. I oppose that. Simple as that, but you refuse to go into this. Yes, I think the practice of FGM is indeed evil, as is condoning it in any way. There is nothing 'deranged' about that, I would say. We all need to be highly judgmental about this issue, if we are to eradicate the practice, I believe. What is really deranged is trying to put the FGM in any sort of perspective. It is wrong, in any culture, or practiced for whatever reason, full stop. That is my opinion, and I stand by it.

  7. Take a look at what you support:

    1. Why would i want to do that? The article you link to is virulently Islamophobic trash, and the article itself adds nothing new whatsoever except some gruesome photos I'd very much like to unsee.

      It's also FIFTEEN YEARS out of date, cherry-picking quotes from the same chapter of Greer's book 'The Whole Woman' that I reproduced here in greater context and claiming they are pro-FGM statements when clearly they are not.

      Germaine Greer does not 'support' FGM.
      I do not 'support' FGM.

      Grow the fuck up and please don't call here again. The anti-Islamic views you are promoting will not receive a platform here in future.

  8. "The tongue stud is supposed to have an erotic function in stimulating the underside of the penis during fellatio."

    Interesting that the underside of the penis, the frenulum, is the only remnant left after circumision of the ridged band of highly sensitive tissue running round the inside of the foreskin, discovered by Taylor in 1995. Circumcised men (but not intact men) call the frenulum "the male G-spot". Fellatio seems of particular interest to circumcised men, perhaps because the mouth and tongue can stimulate the desensitised penis better than the vagina can. "If he isn't circumcised he'll never get a BJ" is a common reason for doing it.

    It would be interesting to know if tongue-studs are more common in circumcising cultures such as the USA than non-circumcising cultures such as Europe.