FGM Silences a Woman’s Most Primal Voice
Originally published in the NYT Women in the World
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is the horrific act of cutting off a young girl’s clitoris. Often seen as a humanitarian and women’s rights crisis in third-world countries, FGM hit home in the United States recently when an American-born Muslim doctor was arrested and charged with committing FGM on two girls. Further investigation has also led to charges against a second Muslim doctor and points to his wife as a co-conspirator. The girls, between the ages of 6 and 8, were presented for the procedure by their parents.
FGM is a cultural practice with one key aim: To control an emerging woman’s sexuality by physically removing the most sensitive part of her anatomy. In the back-and-forth dialogue on FGM over its religious association and clinical definition, there is one psychological aspect of FGM that continues to be ignored: sexuality as voice. A woman’s ability to feel and express herself is an extension of her voice. When little girls are stripped of their ability to feel, and are later shamed for expressing (or wanting to express) themselves sexually, it’s a form of mental abuse that silences the most primal form of communication: sex. It strips them of their ability to discover themselves before they have even reached the threshold of womanhood.
In these cultures, girls are cut off from themselves psychologically and spiritually far before the barbaric genital mutilation takes place. Girls are violated at the earliest age, trained to be obedient and submissive. They’re often conditioned through praise and rewarded for compliance. When those cultural backgrounds arrive in Western cultures in the vessels of their host bodies, girls are taught to cut off from a society that is seen as impure and promiscuous.
Every single anti-FGM campaign emphasizes the physical cut. Yes, FGM is brutal, painful, and irreversible, but in these cultures there is far more that is being stripped than a powerful sexual organ. Millions of girls grow up cut off from something far older and more powerful than religion. They’re cut off from their intuition. There is no protective matriarch, no archetype of the Wild Woman, who is free from the structures and constraints of indoctrinated communities. Most girls are cut before they ever part their legs, the tongue behind their lips snipped long before an older voice rooted between their legs is torn off.
Conversations on FGM are often bracketed with language describing FGM as a “primitive” practice born from patriarchal societies. Yet it’s been argued that many “primitive” societies were matriarch-led and honored the “divine feminine” or “sacred feminine.” These were communities that revered women and nurtured powerful voices; communities that have since been lost under the regressive dominion of extreme, and often violent, patriarchy and radical feminism.
Author Cynthia Eller rejects the claim of a lost history of matriarchy, which she sees as a myth. In The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, Eller explores the growing fascination with lost cultures that embraced the divine feminine. She writes, “the idea that human society was matriarchal — or at least ‘woman-centered’ and goddess-worshipping — [is] from the Paleolithic era, 1.5 to 2 millions years ago, until sometime around 3,000 BCE.”
Yet, present day evidence of these communities continues to thrive. The Tuareg, a semi-Nomadic community of Muslims in Northern Africa, embrace matriarchal societies and sexually empowers its women. But for most other communities of tribal Arabia, patriarchy continues to violate the sanctity of female communities and thereby silence feminine voices.
In some circles, the idea of matriarchal communities is clearly romanticized. Still, for the modern world, the myth provides behavior incentives that have rebirthed a new community of women who are largely outliers to the waves of feminism gripping the West. Myth or not, women who channel the divine feminine within and through archetypes have found doorways to a much older and much more powerful and intuitive voice. Or, it can be argued, that we’ve reclaimed the voice stifled through the bastardization of religion and culture.
Imagine a girl today growing up in a community of women who embrace the divine feminine. She would not be made to forfeit sexuality and voice, but rather nurtured to be fully self-possessed and command her sexuality as an extension of her voice. I imagine the long list of pitfalls I could have avoided had I grown up with stories of the all-powerful and cosmic force that is the Hindu goddess Kali. Instead, I grew up as a Muslim girl in a world that abandoned powerful female figures who stood on equal footing with men; and even though I lived across four continents, the rigidity of Islamic patriarchy followed me like a tulpa.
I was raised in a family more or less tolerant of my intense personality, but I was never raised to know or develop my own voice. I was taught to obey instead of being taught to cultivate a powerful intuition. Because of it, I was so busy following rules that I struggled when my heart tried to speak up. This left me caught in a rift for three decades, between what I was expected to do and what I wanted to do, often not knowing which was which until life-altering mistakes were made — like drifting toward the wrong profession, marrying the wrong person, taking the wrong risks while living in fear of taking the right risks. I lived an inauthentic life shaped by the imprint of everyone else’s thoughts and opinions dating back 1,400 years. Tragically, the mistakes I made means they were not even my mistakes to make; they are the echoes of influence carried through the seed of unquestioned and unevaluated belief.
I wonder if a different world would have been born had that theocracy treated women as equals, beginning with respect for the Quranic verse honoring three goddesses of pagan Arabia. It is possible to honor the mantra of feminine power while also believing in monotheism. These dualities can be balanced in our hearts and minds; we can honor without needing to worship. Instead, those verses were branded as “satanic verses,” immediately creating an anchor in the mind of an entire civilization that female power and authority are abominations — a belief that is still held today.
Earliest Muslims, obsessed with prophetic infallibility and total rejection that the Prophet Muhammad made a mistake with the “satanic verses,” continued to build out a theocracy that stripped women of their autonomy through desperate control of female sexuality. Men were permitted to have four wives and alternate between them as they chose, but women were denied similar arrangements. Husbands could punish wives by denying them sexual gratification, but wives could not do the same. Men could enjoy (often forced) sexual relations with female slaves and concubines, but women were anchored to their spouses. Furthermore, despite centuries of scholarly debate fleshing out the faith, no one thought to consider what a woman’s rights were should her husband be unable to sexually gratify her. Even the concept of the afterlife is male-centric, dominated by visuals that appeal to male desire, in which women are not only overtly sexualized but also imagined as a glorified wait-staff doting on men.
The cradle of Islamic civilization is rooted in tribalism, and in many tribal communities a woman’s anatomy is viewed through the periscope of reproduction, service, and control. Contained sexuality, including through FGM, is designed to limit a woman’s sexual experience to the framework of marriage and reproduction. Destroying the clitoris means destroying a woman’s ability to fully experience and enjoy sex, including using that experience to communicate her desire and enjoyment even with her husband. She exists simply for reproductive purposes or to service the needs of her husband. What it comes down to is control; it is much easier to control someone who cannot feel. This is not acceptable. We must all stand up for the right of women in all societies to fully develop all aspects of their being.
Photo Credit: Artwork graces the cover of She Rises, Volume 1, published by Mago Books.