Feminists are congregationists; we band together on issues from the revolutionary to the most bizarre. When a sticky issue arises though instead of addressing it (with a possibility of disbanding) it is often thrown into the ‘WARNING: contestations – return to academia’ outbox. Issues of such include the politics of hijabs, economics and pornography to name but a few. One other issue of kind is female genital elongation (FGE).
FGE is a pseudo-cultural/sexual practice of pulling on the labia minora (inner vaginal lips) such that over time they become engorged and the clitoris becomes hidden under the folds of the enlarged skin. The process of elongation involves rubbing the labia from the inner top, pulling all the way down to the lower edges – I am sorry, too much detail here!
The questions are: is it a cultural novelty or a human rights violation? Is it a patriarch-motivated act done to heighten the sexual pleasure of men? Or is it an invited space of power wherewith young women are given the keys to play a salient hand in their own sexual pleasure? Either way does it matter?
A cultural rite of passage. For a Zimbabwean culture is all around; it is not like an embodied national dress (for we do not have one) but more of a hidden hand that shapes livelihoods. I would not for, example, dream of marriage without the proper negotiations for my dowry. It is just how we do things. FGE falls into this category. Without it the onset of period becomes dreadful. Aaah! the uncomfortable pads, bathing several times a day, the innumerable visits to the bathroom. The only glimmer of hope and fun is the sharing of uncomfortable/hilarious initiation stories with other similar initiates and the feeling of being connected to something that stretches back into your people’s history.
A human right violation. The World Health Organisation (W.H.O) does not share this fascination with culture. Instead it defines female genital mutilation (F.G.M) as ‘all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’. This includes FGE. Because it is not a medical necessity so why do it right? If we truly thought in this way then earrings would not be a shiny section in the department store and babies would come from a doctor’s appointment. On a serious note: FGE in Zimbabwe often comes with its own set of herbs and spices (as if the vagina needs anymore seasoning) to speed up the process which becomes problematic when introduced to a highly sensitive area like the female genitalia.
Patriarchal motivation. For whose pleasure is FGE done? When my aunt first told me of FGE she said it was important for me to carry out the practice every day if I wanted to give birth, later giggling friends in high school told me it was so that men could play with and enjoy. I have come to ‘hear’ that for a woman, having elongated labial lips makes the sexual journey more enjoyable and the destination almost always guaranteed. But then this mostly rests on hearsay.
Does it matter though? Sex is many a times a plus one party right? Does the question: for whose pleasure count? In the context of human rights it is important. In explaining libertarianism and rights Sandel (2009) notes that ‘persons should not be used merely as means to the welfare of others, because doing so violates the fundamental right of self-ownership’ So yes it does matter for whom FGE is really carried out for.
Invited spaces of power. As with many rites of passage FGE is governed by culture and in each ethnicity it differs. Khau (2009) traces FGE in Suthu women whereby girls sometimes help each other to pull on the labia. In some Shona sub-cultures I have heard of the elder women barring their labia proudly to initiates to show them what a grown woman’s vagina looks like. For anyone outside these cultures this will sound obscene and downright neurotic but it is culture. There is a created space of power that allows women of all ages to talk of otherwise muted subjects and explore the body in a way that would make a Bohemian hippie blush. To take this away would be to detract from the potential power that is transmitted to young women initiates. Another question becomes can these spaces ever be recreated?
What is the way forward then? One contributor, (Khau, 2009) notes that the argument boils down to whether “to pull or not to pull”. Cowan (2006) on the other hand does not give a brush answer but instead calls for interdisciplinary dialogue, empirically grounded research and reflexive action.
I would add my thoughts to this but the fact on the ground is that in this age of MTV, Big Bang Theory and Boys Over Flowers culture is dying an unnatural death by global cultural assimilation.