The XX Factor

A Michigan Case Triggers Debate Over the Terminology for Female Genital Mutilation

Safe Hands for Girls founder Jaha Dukureh joins Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Sept. 22 in Washington in a news conference opposing female genital mutilation.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, an emergency-room doctor in Detroit was arrested for allegedly removing parts of two 7-year-old girls’ genitals. The federal criminal complaint alleges that Jumana Nagarwala, who has denied the charges, committed the crimes at a medical clinic in Livonia and may have victimized multiple other girls at the request of their parents.

In an article about Nagarwala’s arrest, the New York Times calls her alleged crime “female genital cutting.” One reader wrote to Public Editor Liz Spayd last week, asking why the writer didn’t call it “female genital mutilation,” or FGM, the term favored by international health organizations and human-rights groups. Spayd threw the question to Celia Dugger, the paper’s health and science editor, who answered thus:

I began writing about this back in 1996 when I was an immigration reporter on the Metro desk covering the asylum case of Fauziya Kassindja. I decided in the course of reporting that case—especially after a reporting trip to Togo, her home country, and the Ivory Coast—to call it genital cutting rather than mutilation. I never minced words in describing exactly what form of cutting was involved, and there are many gradations of severity, and the terrible damage it did, and stayed away from the euphemistic circumcision, but chose to use the less culturally loaded term, genital cutting. There’s a gulf between the Western (and some African) advocates who campaign against the practice and the people who follow the rite, and I felt the language used widened that chasm.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, which uses the FGM phrasing, Western groups initially called the act of removing parts of girls’ or young women’s genitals “female circumcision.” This terminology fell out of favor when advocates noted that female genital cutting is very different from male circumcision, both in procedure and in public-health practice—the former can ease the spread of HIV while the latter can help prevent it. The phrase female genital mutilation was coined to emphasize the severity of the act, its lack of medical purpose, and its associated dangers, which include hemorrhage, infections, recurring urinary tract infections, menstrual problems, reproductive tract infections, PTSD, sexual dysfunction, complications for both mother and infant during childbirth, and chronic genital pain. In the ‘90s, others advocated for a shift to female genital cutting, arguing that mutilation is disparaging to cultures that subject all girls to cutting and may even provoke people who support it to promote it further in response to Western scorn. Some argue that cutting sounds both severe enough to be accurate and true to what both opponents and perpetrators think the act entails.

But cutting doesn’t accurately describe most varieties of this act. Cutting can sound like a ritualistic bloodletting committed with minimal harm. To be fair, some communities that require parents to take their daughters to have their genitals cut have okayed a minor, nonmedical cutting, scraping, or pricking that doesn’t permanently alter the girls’ genitals. The American Association of Pediatrics, hoping to keep parents from taking their girls to other countries for more severe abuse, once briefly backed parents who wanted to give their daughters a ceremonial pinprick before reversing its position. However, the other types of FGM— removal of the clitoris or clitoral hood; removal of part of all of the labia; removal of the clitoris and labia, sewing the labia shut to narrow the vaginal opening—entail far more than just “cutting.”

The U.S. outlawed female genital cutting on children in 1997 and prohibited adults from taking children to other countries to subject them to the act in 2013. On the New York Times site, a description of the paper’s April article about the Michigan doctor says the act is “widely seen as a brutal practice.” Touching or harming a child’s genitals for anything other than medical purposes is a crime in the U.S. Readers would no doubt bristle if the Times published a piece calling any other kind of child abuse a “practice” that is “widely seen” as brutal. It is objectively brutal—in any degree of severity, it draws blood from a child’s genitals for no medical reason—and it is a crime people commit, not a procedure people practice. People have been removing women’s clitorises for millennia, all over the world, including in the U.S., to make them conform to an imagined ideal of feminine sexuality. FGM is not a benign practice of culture or religion—it is a practice of patriarchal oppression.

This debate over terminology has made for unlikely bedfellows. Fox News reported the Times’ usage of “female genital cutting” under the “Bias Alert” rubric, falling in line with progressive human-rights groups and insinuating that liberal news outlets will excuse violence against women when it’s committed overseas. But the Times doesn’t seem to have a consistent style around the act: Under the tag “female genital mutilation,” there are references to FGM, “female genital cutting,” and “female circumcision.” The URL for the Michigan story this month includes “FGM.” Whatever the paper decides to call the act, it shouldn’t minimize the violence the words describe.