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Challenging the oppression of women

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Peer educator, Rihanata Ouedraogo, leads a group discussion on FGM in Koassinga village, Burkina Faso. UK AID under a Creative Commons Licence

On 5 May, Goodluck Jonathan, in his final act as president of Nigeria, banned female genital mutilation (FGM) in the sub-Saharan country, a move hailed as a positive step by anti-FGM activists.

Even so, it’s important to consider the progress marked by this new law within the broader context of a history of patriarchal control over female bodies, which continues to threaten women globally, in various forms.

FGM is practised worldwide, from Indonesia to Burkina Faso, and it is defined as the procedure to intentionally remove or injure, for non-medical reasons, part or all of the external female genitalia.

The motivation behind the perpetuation of the practice is largely cited as a ‘rite of passage to womanhood’, which will reduce women’s sexual desire, help preserve their virginity and prevent promiscuity. It is also thought to enhance male sexual enjoyment.

Complications are extremely common and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), can lead to infections, increased risk of infertility, childbirth complications and, in some cases, death. The procedure is carried out mainly on minors.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to ban the procedure is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, especially when placed within the framework of the primary prevalence of FGM in Africa, where it is practised in 28 countries; this sets a useful precedent for other countries.

However, the struggle is far from over. FGM often escapes regulation, and because the practice is so tied to social pressure, countries where it has been made illegal for years still continue to report high numbers. A case in point is Egypt, where FGM has been banned since 2008, but where the practice continues unabated.

In Somalia, 98% of women and girls are reported to undergo the procedure. It is also prevalent in certain countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Additionally, while FGM is illegal in Britain and the United States, it is nonetheless a widespread problem in certain communities, with national campaigns targeting the practice.

FGM can be understood as a part of a wider history of the patriarchal violation of women’s bodies and sexuality, so it is important to ensure that the underlying attitudes that lead to such practices are not ignored. The many different ways in which patriarchal society impacts on women’s and children’s rights must be acknowledged, and solutions found.

FGM is often viewed as a separate category of violation, and though the dehumanizing nature of the procedure can and should be discussed in its own right, a broader discussion of a woman’s right to make choices about her own body is vital in overcoming oppression. In a patriarchal society, it is hard for women to extricate their views from what that same society teaches: in this case, that women do not have the right to control their own bodies or their sexuality.

Similarly, rape is often made light of across the globe, with legal cases dropped and a culture of victim-blaming characterizing trials. There is growing evidence of rape and sexual abuse being covered up – the recent Jimmy Saville scandal in Britain being just one example of many.

The United States has notoriously failed to deal with rape on college campuses, often refusing to acknowledge allegations of rape when alcohol is involved. Additionally, sexual harassment is disregarded and increasingly normalized as a routine part of stepping out in public as a woman.

The violence that occurs as a result of male entitlement to the female body often goes unreported and the idea that women should expect their bodies to be violated at some point in their lives goes unchallenged.

Procedures such as FGM must be tackled not only because they are abhorrent in themselves, but because they perpetuate damaging attitudes that lead to the violation of female bodies more broadly. But reserving FGM as an act exclusively worthy of outrage is counterproductive to the feminist cause. Failure to get to the root of the issue means we are ignoring the suffering endured by women who, though they may escape FGM, are regularly violated in other ways through the all-pervasive nature of oppressive patriarchal ideologies, which will not be abolished by a ban alone.

Neda Tehrani is a graduate of Religion, Philosophy, Ethics from Kings College London.

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