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U.S. Ban on Female Genital Mutilation Mired in Racism and Fear

The beginning of February saw the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which marks another day of tolerance towards intersex FGM.

While we in the intersex community commend nations that have, or are seeking to ban, FGM, the ban currently excludes baby girls such as those born with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), who are biologically female (with ovaries and uteruses) but often have large clitorises.  These girls are routinely subjected to FGM every day in the United States and other nations.

The ban on FGM should include all girls.

FGM is defined as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”

So why is FGM wrong when performed by African cultures but not when performed on intersex babies in the United States?

The answer, as you might’ve guessed, is racism.  An article in the Harvard Law Review notes:

“… mainstream anti-FGC [female genital cutting] discourse constructs societies where FGC is performed as barbaric, primitive, and uncivilized.”

The article goes on to say,

“If FGC [female genital cutting] and intersex cutting are sufficiently similar, then either both should be criminalized or both should instead be addressed only through education or other such awareness-raising reforms (as has so far been the approach used with intersex cutting),” (Intersex Surgery, Female Genital Cutting, and the Selective Condemnation of “Cultural Practices” Nancy Ehrenreich with Mark Barr).

Given what we know in our supposedly enlightened, sex-positive culture about the clitoris’s important role in achieving orgasm, you’d think having a large clitoris – as some intersex individuals have – would be considered a boon.

However, Dr. Kenneth Glassberg, former head of the American Pediatrics Association, reveals the discriminatory cultural factors driving support of the practice:

“Society can’t accept people of different colors, and now we’re supposed to accept people with genitalia that don’t match what their gender is?  I do not believe this society is ready for it.”

Apparently, women with abundant pleasure organs are just as threatening to certain segments of American society as women capable of sexual pleasure are to certain African cultures. Enforcing social norms has taken precedence over doing no harm.

As the Harvard Law Review article concludes:

“… close analysis of intersex surgeries shows that each of the arguments central to anti-FGC [female genital cutting] discourse—including the argument that FGC is a patriarchal cultural ritual— applies with equal force to intersex surgeries.

“Like FGC, intersex cutting can produce severe physiological complications and have a devastating psychological impact. It frequently results in sexual impairment and can permanently deprive an individual of the right to make decisions affecting his or her own sexuality and gender identity.

“Finally, despite their good intentions, medical practitioners performing intersex surgeries, like their counterparts who perform female circumcisions, do not provide medically necessary treatment but rather enforce (perhaps unwittingly) a system of culturally specific gender norms…”

“Zero tolerance,” means no tolerance. If the U.S. State Department truly considers FGM a violation of women’s rights and dignity, they should include all girls in their ban on the practice.

About Hida Viloria

Hida Viloria
Hida Viloria is Chairperson of the Organization Intersex International (OII), and the Director of OII-USA. She has a degree with high honors and high distinction in Gender and Sexuality from the University of California, Berkeley, and been educating extensively on the topic of intersex since 1997 as a writer, university lecturer, consultant (International Olympics Committee, UN Human Rights Office), television guest (ABC’s “20/20,” Oprah, and others), and in the documentary films Hermaphrodites Speak, Gendernauts, One in 2000, and Intersexion. She has been published in Ms., The Advocate, The American Journal of Bioethics, CNN.com, and others, and writes about intersex issues in her blog Intersex and Out.

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