Millions of African, Asian and Middle Eastern women have had their vaginas sliced or otherwise mutilated, mainly by razor blades, sharp rocks or broken bottles.
Female genital mutilation and its repercussions were examined by Timothy Johnson, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University Medical Center and professor of women’s studies, in an informative lecture last night in conjunction with International Women’s Day, which is tomorrow.
Amnesty International member Ashwini Hardikar said her group co-sponsored the event along with Students for Choice because one of Amnesty’s current focal issues is female genital mutilation. “We wanted to bring awareness to campus,” said Hardikar, an RC freshman. “But a lot of people were reluctant to come because they thought it would be too graphic.”
During the lecture at East Quad, Johnson said the reasons for the procedure are culturally based. Such reasons include rite of passage for young girls, preservation of chastity and assurance of marriage. “This is a culturally powerful practice for some women,” he said. “This is much more culturally driven. There’s no religion that required this.”
Both diagrams and photographs of mutilated vaginas were presented. The photographs showed scarred vaginas with missing clitorises and labias.
This procedure is both physically and psychologically damaging to women, Johnson said. Short-term health problems include hemorrhaging, infections and urinary retention. Infertility, psychosocial issues, dysmenorrhea, labor complications and death are all possible long-term effects. Johnson said the procedure is counter-productive – it is meant to aid women’s fertility but diminishes this capacity.
Female genital mutilations are mainly found in sub-saharan Africa, Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. “We’re talking about cultures where women are not valued and where women’s voice are not valued,” Johnson said, adding that most of the procedures are done by women. Johnson said eliminating this act is difficult because it is culturally ingrained in women and has been done throughout generations.
Cultural sensitivity is another factor that must be considered when tackling this problem. “Convincing women (against the procedure) in large rural populations is tedious,” Johnson said. “Women who want to start solving this problem must ask, how would I enlist women’s groups? How would I go about this in a culturally sensitive way? How would I go about convincing powerful men?”
Johnson also added that cultural sensitivity is a slippery slope. “All that we do to bodies tend to be dictated by culture,” he said, referring to the common American practice of plastic surgery.
Several audience members said they attended the event to become more informed about female genital mutilation. “I came to show solidarity for feminism and National Women’s Day,” said recent Social Work graduate Jillian Dixon.
RC freshman Ruthie Freeman said she found the event eye opening. “I have a hard time believing that this still goes on,” Freeman said, adding she thinks this is a problem that needs attention, especially from feminists. “This is a university where we can take part in organizations that can do something.”