In 2020, around International Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Day (February 6 annually since 2003), a document drafted by a voluntary collaborative group -- Action:FGM -- was presented at No.10 Downing Street, a Manifesto* drawing attention to FGM as among a plethora of customary acts detrimental to the well-being of women and girls.
Among the signatories as President of FORWARD – Germany, e.V., I underscore the continuing need for political will, knowledge production and application if FGM is to end by 2030, a date agreed upon by local and international stakeholders. To further this aim, together with my colleagues, Professor Maria Jaschok and FGM specialist midwife Comfort Momoh MBE, I am preparing at King’s a proposal investigating traditional abuses of women across cultural contexts that applies a human rights lens. In preparation is a conference titled ‘Powerful Inscriptions and Inscriptions of Power: female bodies contested, invaded, defended and owned’.
The implied cross-cultural work is urgent and significant, as female genital mutilation, early and forced marriage, and neglect of girl’s education are among many other related forms of gendered abuse seldom considered systematically as objects of study. Carving into and mutilation of the female body, justified in reference to sacred tradition and revered practice, has become daily news. But because this news is enshrouded in matters of sensitivity and prejudice, narratives of suffering are muted and even suppressed, seen as indigenous practice or become ammunition for racist organizing. Such conflicted and often opaque debates obstruct clear vision of the problem’s scale and thus of solutions. Against this background, we propose both extensive survey of the presence of mutilating practices as well as in-depth ethnographies of selected sites where such practices prevail.
Our comprehensive and ambitious strategy, to be supported by solid researched evidence and nuanced analysis in partnership with international colleagues, will protect advances made and build on, as well as add to, rapidly increasing knowledge. But knowledge is not enough; important to us are context-sensitive applications of findings to improve women’s lives on their own terms.
Within a broad spectrum of historical and cross-cultural violence against women, the female body is subjected to patriarchal inscriptions which range from fashion-driven body modifications to brutal mutilation, situated on a continuum of acceptance and repulsion that obscures commonalties and erases distinctions. Our proposal has a two-fold aim: mapping of the body singular and female, and mapping body politics as global and gendered. Although at present we have no such maps, our effort to institutionalize in-depth intersectional and cross-cultural analyses will contribute to develop a field of FGM studies. To date, students wishing to research FGM can of course do so, but lacking the university’s imprimatur results in a dearth of experts, advisors, and courses. Women and girls are ill-served by this deficiency, and our programme of study is designed to overcome it.
*To read the Manifesto see https://hilaryburrage.com/2020/02/06/zero_tolerance_day_action_fgm/#more-11526