Female Genital Mutilation: The Perpetuation of Patriarchy

Priyanka Garodia, Visiting Assistant - Gender Equality

Photo credit - BBC

“Even though they knew the suffering and the pain, they were doing what they were doing so we could fit into society, we could go to school and not be bullied, we can get married. So a lot of the parents had that pressure on them – from society and from everywhere else.”

- Ms Ali

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female circumcision is one of the many painful practices developed and dispersed under patriarchy to control women. FGM, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is defined as the partial or complete removal of the female genitalia for non-medical purposes. It is codified into four categories - clitoridectomies, the partial or complete removal of the Labia Minora, Infibulation which is the narrowing of the vagina and creating a seal on it and any non-medical piercing, puncturing and cautery of the vagina.

The patriarchal underpinnings of FGM are disguised in communal and cultural tones. This is done through the creation of a dominant and ideal understanding of how a woman should be and consequent femininity which becomes impossible to realise. Participating in female genital mutilation allows these women to access the femininities and ethnic identities. The practice finds ready adherents because it is expected of the families by society at large and partaking in the ritual comes with multiple positive social rewards like social accolade and acceptance.

Conservative estimates believe that more than 200 million girls and women have been subjected to either form of FGM between the ages of 5 to 15, with a few cases of older women being cut as well. The practice is carried out across the continent of Africa in fluctuating numbers and in middle eastern societies including Yemen and Iraq. It is found being performed in parts of South-East Asia as well as South Asia. Migrant communities settled in North America, Europe and Australia have recorded the practice as well. The main methods of data collection on FGM are extensive domestic surveys undertaken by Demographic and Health Surveys, the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) and the International Household Survey Network (IHSN).

An interagency statement issued by the United Nations (UN) reports that there are tremendous physiological and psychological repercussions of FGM. Immediate concerns include severe pain, excessive bleeding, septic shock and infections, whereas long term complications include increased chances of recurring infections, urinary tract issues, reproductive system damage including infertility and higher rates of HIV transmission. Many badly performed jobs also result in death with the most recent case being recorded in Egypt during February 2020.

Photo Credit - Economist

Culture, Gender and FGM:

Female Genital Mutilation is a socio-cultural phenomenon of significant value in the societies that practice it. It is embedded in hierarchical familial and community relations. In some societies, FGM is seen as a rite of passage marking the transition from girlhood to womanhood. In some cultures, FGM is a mandatory ritual performed before marriage. FGM finds salience across religious lines with Jewish, Christian and Islamic groups having been recorded in following the practice as well. It is used as a regulatory practice to protect girls from sexual promiscuity, ensuring their virginity before marriage. FGM is believed to enhance the beauty of the female genital that inturn increases male sexual pleasure. For some, FGM proves to be an important aspect of their ascriptive communal identities rooted in communal belonging.

Dave Elder-Vass defines culture as an amalgamation of practices. Cultures do not emerge in a vacuum, they are constructed and reconstructed. They flourish when members are socialised into accepting and promoting practices that define the culture. Slyvia Walby in “Theorizing Patriarchy" states that notions of masculinity and femininity are the products of practices of cultures resulting from specific socialization. FGM is the output of a patriarchal system of dominance that rests on insubordination. Its central aim is policing and controlling women's bodies and sexualities. FGM becomes problematic because as a cultural practice it actively harms women and not men.

Gerry Mackie’s Convention Theory states that continued compliance with practices that can cause active harm to members of a community is a result of the expected behavioural actions by other group members. FGM finds continued practice because it is a recurrent social norm in the societies in which it is performed. Social norms can be defined as "rules of accepted behaviour shared by members in a group”. These norms play a decisive role in the action and choices of members of a particular community. Social norms have two components - a moral component and a social component. The moral component induces a feeling of correctness - "it is the right thing to do". The social component pushes people to compliance because it is expected of them by people of their community.

Criticisms Against the FGM Movement:

The anti-FGM movement has seen an array of criticism levied at it. The uproar around FGM is marked by insensitivity to the practices of the global south by the global north - the imposition of a western value system on judging practices of societies largely considered to be dogmatic and archaic. This includes a complete erasure of the voices of women who do not believe the practice to be harmful and reiterate the celebratory aspect of the ceremony. While the cultural insensitivity argument may hold ground in the earlier approach to FGM by institutions likes the WHO during the first 10-15 years. Nevertheless, recent research shows an improved sense of cultural sensitivity when addressing FGM. Recent research includes concentrating on the cultural and social contexts of the practice rather than divorced observation.

The second line of criticism falls short. It has been widely noted that FGM’s enforcers are older women from the community - including mothers subjecting young daughters to the process. What needs to be understood is that the social weight behind the practice does not allow for any other chain of thought to prevail. The matter becomes complicated in societies where institutions such as marriage are an important source of status and economic security. So, when FGM becomes a condition for marriage, non-compliance with the practice is not a viable option.

The larger argument here rests on the nature of patriarchy and women’s engagement with it. Consent and compliance have characterised women’s experience with patriarchy. Older women have acted as watchdogs of cultural and social practice which have been pernicious for women. It does not alter the fact that the practice is wrong and harmful for those who undergo it simply because women agree to it.

Photo Credit: Equalitynow

FGM and International Discource:

The international criticism towards FGM comes from the focal points of health, gender equality and human rights. Female genital mutilation is seen to be a clear violation of the United Nations Human Rights Declaration under article 25. It violates the United Nation Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

Regional endeavours to stop the practice include national legislation being adopted by most countries with Sudan being the latest to declare the practice illegal in 2020. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (the Banjul Charter) and its Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child under the jurisdiction of the African Union and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms undertaken by the European Union are some measures taken to control and eradicate FGM.

Approaches to Combating FGM:

International Organisations, Transnational Activists Networks, International NGOs and NGOs are working endlessly to create awareness and combat FGM practices worldwide. The strategy adopted by the United Nations blends legislative and socio-cultural change. A three-tier approach devised by the UN includes multisectoral, sustained and community-led action to create substantial changes in the prevalent social norms through education, public dialogue and public pledges that aim to address gender inequality in society.

In other work, Toubia and Sharief highlight four approaches which have been used in varying capacities to combat FGM. The first approach which is the health risks approach largely allowed FGM to be addressed in public settings for the first time while addressing the damage the practice does to women. The second approach targeted circumcisers or those who perform the process and offered them an alternate livelihood. The third approach involves creating alternative rites of passage that don't involve physical harm to women. Finally, an integrated social development approach which looks into the holistic development of these societies in areas of literacy, economic development, social upliftment and healthcare facilities has also performed significantly well.

All these approaches have seen varying levels of success. However, simple legislative changes at the national level, seminars and international conventions addressing the issue at the international level are not sufficient to end FGM. Change must be initiated at the level of individuals, families and communities. Legislative and policy action supplemented by Community-oriented programmes is imperative to eliminate FGM. A bottom-up approach of persuasion which uses micro-processes rather than a top-down strategy of diffusion dealing with macro-level functioning has been observed to produce better results.


In conclusion, patriarchy is a stubborn system and to rework the system - an alternate sensibility needs to be implemented which allows the markers of culture to shift from reinforcing female subordination to gender equality. The hegemonic notions of femininity and masculinity that become the basis of cultural and social practices under this social system need to be understood, analysed and replaced. They need to reflect and inculcate values where women are not seen as submissive, secondary and something that needs to be controlled but rather as the social, economic and political equal of men. This task is difficult.


Priyanka is presently pursuing her M.Phil in International Relations from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She has studied at Presidency university and SciencesPo, Paris. Her research areas include gender theory, feminist international relations, feminist foreign policy and critical theory. She is a voracious reader with a penchant for modern literature.

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