Written by Dr Kate Cook, Senior Lecturer in Law at Manchester Metropolitan University.
In this post I am going to discuss female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). I am not going to describe what is done in the name of “cutting” in great detail. You can look that up elsewhere, if you have not already learned about FGM/C. In fact, I would strongly urge you to read about this practice, if you are new to the topic. However, what I want to do here is to talk about my own reactions to learning more about FGM/C and I want to do this is a post that I hope everyone can read, without the need for a “trigger warning” about the content.
I have worked with survivors of various forms of violence against women for more than 25 years and so I am keenly aware of the issues that we can all have, with regards to our bodies and our sexuality, as a result of abuse. However, I had little knowledge about FGM/C until a couple of years ago. Yes, I knew that there were various kinds of “cutting” and that the most extreme were, frankly horrific, in terms of the damage that they do to women’s bodies. However all of that changed when a woman came to see me, at the University where I work, wanting to arrange a conference for Greater Manchester. Through her I met other women locally who are working with survivors and I slowly came to understand that FGM/C is no longer a problem that exists in other parts of the world. It is now something that is being done to young girls, living in my own city.
Since then I have hosted some events and done some academic writing on FGM/C and also thought, a good deal. I have come to realise that British society supports cutters without ever intending to. We tend to be shy, within British culture, in talking about female genitals. The compelling silence about female genitals, with some striking exceptions, such as this blog and the magnificent Vagina Monologues themselves, means that it is harder to speak of cutting. If nobody around you speaks of their labia, their vagina or their clitoris – ever – then how does a frightened girl begin to talk about what might be done to her, or what is being done to girls in her family? If you are an adult woman who is experiencing pain, bleeding, infections, difficulty in having sex and/or in conceiving then British society does not make it easy for you to talk about these issues, either.
As a result of this realisation, I have become far more enthusiastic about talking about our sex organs, openly. The comparison that I often use is to a wall-display of candy-cock lollipops, that I came across in a shop in Blackpool (see below).
The shameless exploitation of the male member is in such stark contrast to the polite vagueness with which a woman might speak of “down there”, or “my bits”, if really required to say something about her genitalia. I am reminded of the film Fried Green Tomatoes, where Kathy Bates character Evelyn goes to women’s empowerment class and learns that the women are using mirrors to look at their own genitals, in a group setting. The scene is funny and Evelyn runs away, very quickly. However, it serves as a reminder that pioneers of the second-wave of feminism did aim to encourage women to learn about our own bodies. Learning about FGM/C has reminded me that there are strong political reasons for all women to do this. So I propose an end to “my twinkle” and similar euphemisms and far more talk about “my clitoris”!
Dr Kate Cook is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is also a radical feminist, who has worked with survivors of abuse for the past 26 years, via a range of voluntary groups. Kate is co-author of the “must read” book, Rape Crisis: Responding to Sexual Violence, about the rape crisis movement in the UK and she is currently an active member of Safety4Sisters, working with migrant women experiencing violence.
You can find her on twitter at @dockatecook.