By Tilda Janbrink

Sexual inequality between men and women has become an increasingly debated issue, and one of the things most commonly criticized is the prioritizing of the male orgasm over the female. This debate is often trivialized, which is problematic considering that suppression of female sexuality is an issue that dates back hundreds of years. One of the most troubling and violent examples that can be found of sexual inequality is female genital mutilation. Here, the denial of the female orgasm becomes not only a reflection of injustice, but a violation of human rights.

Female genital mutilation, or FGM for short, is a practice where parts or all of the external female genitiala is removed, or where the genital organs are injured in other ways. While the age of cutting differs between countries, the process is almost exclusively conducted on girls younger than 15. FGM is known to have no health benefits, but can rather cause complications such as excessive bleeding, infections, urinary problems, difficulties surrounding pregnancy, or even death. In addition to the physical consequences, FGM can also affect the psychological well-being of those who undergo it. Herein lies the puzzle; despite evidence showing that FGM only does harm, the process is still carried out on millions of girls annually.

An illustrative example of the width of the problem can be found in Egypt; a country where, according to a report published by UNICEF, 87 percent of the girls and women between ages of 15 to 49 have been subjected to FGM. While it is not known for sure when or where the process originated, many theories point to Egypt and the surrounding area. There are references to FGM in Egypt that dates back to the 5th century BC – meaning it predates both Islam and Christianity in the region. Numerous possible explanations of why FGM came about have been presented. Some claim that it was a way to increase a women’s marital value while others refer to FGM as a strategy used by slave-traders to receive higher payment for female slaves. Although the process has become less common in recent years, there is still a widespread support for it in Egypt. Among the reasons for this are cultural beliefs that FGM promotes chastity and that men prefer to marry women who have been circumcised. This brings us to the discussion on sexual inequality, and why it can be presented as both a reason for, as well as a result of FGM.

While most of the complications caused by FGM are unintended, some are not. The process is in many cases carried out with the purpose of decreasing the female satisfaction during sexual intercourse. This can be done through removing the clitoral glans and/or narrowing the vaginal opening, which is also known as infibulation. Infibulation includes a repositioning of the inner or outer folds of the vulva in order to form a covering seal that causes the woman to feel pain during intercourse. By reducing women’s ability to experience sexual pleasure, FGM is believed to prevent both premarital sex and adultery, and thus ensures that the women who undergo it perform in accordance with what is acceptable sexual behavior in their society. Seen from this perspective, FGM becomes merely one of many ways in which a worldwide inequality between men and women manifests itself.

As dark as the situation might appear, there are glimmers of hope. The elimination of FGM is included in the Sustainable Development Goals and the aim is to put an end to the practice by 2030. Although Egypt currently is not on track to reach said goal, some important changes in the pattern can be observed – especially since a federal ban against FGM was introduced in 2008. A contributing force enabling this was a mass media campaign launched by the UNDP, whose purpose was to raise awareness of FGM and spark a debate. With country director Ignacio Artaza in the lead, the UNDP and their partners have since then continued to try to combat the process and the attitudes surrounding it – and it has yielded results. The number of girls who have been subjected to the process have dropped considerably; however, there is still a long way to go. It all boils down to this: in order to ensure abandonment of FGM for good, there must be a shift on the local level in the attitudes concerning female sexuality and women’s roles in society.

Even though the outlook on eliminating FGM entirely by 2030 could be more promising, most countries have seen an improvement of the situation. Thus, not reaching the goal to end the practice in ten years from now should not be considered a complete failure – moving in the right direction, if ever so slowly, is always a better option than standing still. That is one of the main reasons why it is crucial to not trivialize the debate around the female orgasm, but to instead acknowledge its importance as a part of combating an even bigger issue.

Illustration: Smilla Lind

Tilda Janbrink is a bachelor student at the Peace and Development program in Uppsala. Above everything else she loves contemporary jazz dance, rollercoasters and picnics in the park with her friends. She dreams of writing a bestselling novel, but would settle for becoming a moderately successful journalist.

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