The Anthropology of FGM

The Anthropology of FGM 

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been around for thousands of years. It refers to the cutting or removal of a female’s external genitals for non-medical purposes.  

According to the United Nations, an estimated 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone some form of FGM (1).  

FGM is illegal in the UK. This means that victims either receive the procedure while ‘on holiday’ or it is performed while they are babies, making it exceedingly difficult for police to detect; in fact, 2019 was the first year that a woman was successfully prosecuted in the UK for this crime (1).   

Reasons for FGM include cultural tradition, religious belief, the preservation of virginity, a deterrence towards promiscuity, misconceptions about hygiene, and the desire to make a girl/woman ‘marriageable’. 


The covenant of circumcision  

Perhaps the most obvious way to understand FGM in biblical terms is through the covenant of circumcision. The noun covenant refers to an agreement or promise God has made with humanity. In the case of Genesis 17, God tells Abraham that “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (17:6 NRSV) on the condition that “every male among you shall be circumcised” as “a sign of the covenant between me and you” (17:10-11).  

Not only does He tell Abraham to mutilate himself, his male family members and slaves regardless of their consent (17:23-24), the act of circumcision itself is permanent whereas faith is not necessarily lifelong. It’s a physical display of possession designed to damn those who do not participate, as “any uncircumcised male… shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (17:14). Due to the physical intrusiveness of the practice as well as its permanence, the covenant of circumcision debatably portrays God as militant and unconfident in faith-alone. However, while the biblical history of circumcision seems rather cruel and unnecessary, the medical repercussions of the procedure are generally not severe. The same cannot be said for FGM.  

Bishara, one of millions of FGM victims, told the BBC how she was blindfolded, restrained and positioned with a vice-like grip before the same blade was used to cut her and three other girls without the use of anaesthetic (1). The only remedy used to ease Bishara’s pain was a traditional method which involved rubbing herbs into the open wound.  

FGM results in a high risk of heavy blood loss and infection, difficulties with menstrual flow and can cause future pregnancy complications. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the psychological trauma caused by the non-consensual restraining and cutting of girls - coupled with the physical scarring and shame associated with it - can be life-long and irreparable. These factors make male circumcision and FGM incomparable.  

Is it ok to find issue with God’s own covenant? 

And, is it ok to have an issue with the culture of someone else? 


The role of cultural relativism  

According to Wilkinson, “cultural relativism notes that cultures vary in what they regard as right and wrong” (3). This means that there is “no universal standard, and consequently it is mistaken to criticise the practices of another culture” because what you see as reprehensible, they may see as permissible; and in what you may see as acceptable, others see something unforgivable (3).  

Much like how God commands the exile of any uncircumcised man, in communities where FGM is tradition many women do not speak out against the practice out of fear of being outcast or, in countries where FGM is illegal, causing the imprisonment of their families. Those who introduce their daughters to the practice do not necessarily do so with bad intentions. Nevertheless, as those living in the western world, how do we distinguish the difference between respecting people’s cultural values and condemning something we see as fundamentally wrong. Worldwide FGM is considered a human rights violation; that decree does not come from nowhere.  

It is the right of outsiders to intervene in a matter that does not concern them or their culture? 

After many years of research, Joel Robbins introduced to anthropology the paradigm of “rupture”, which refers to a “cultural process” of change that is not limited to concepts of discontinuity, but continuity and progression (4). In other words, through Robbin’s paradigm, we can understand that judging and damning the practice of FGM will not be productive for ending it when even its criminalisation cannot. Rather, a way to make those who currently practice FGM in their culture more receptive to the prospect of change is to educate them about the health and hygiene issues that they, ironically, claim are fixed by the procedure; it is to explain to them the issue of consent when cutting babies and children; and it is to openly discuss with them why the practice is so valued within their culture. Through revolutionising tradition, rather than discontinuing it, change might be possible for the girls of the future. This approach may never end the practice of FGM in some cultures but educating women about it may diminish the value they have for the ritual while offering some young women the chance to be heard when they say ‘no’.  

From the perspective of the outsider looking in, the weight in which we give to the cultural values of others is determined by the degree of suffering it causes. In the case of FGM, for the reasons stated above, suffering can be extreme and life-long. This makes the argument of cultural relativism regarding the unwilling mutilation of children a rather weak platform on which to continue discussions. “Although morality is not relative, culture is relative” and can, therefore, be compared and judged by others for its actions (3). “It is entirely possible to deliberately change the rituals” of a culture (3) in order to alter the direction of its future because culture has never been static. In times before, it was developed and learnt based on an understanding of the world that does not necessarily apply anymore. A victim of FGM herself at the age of 13, Sarah Tenoi writes how some women in Kenya today (where FGM is prevalent) choose to celebrate every tradition in the coming-of age practice except the rite of cutting (5); thus, as Robbins would explain, creating a rupture in their cultural traditional of FGM that is characterised by continuity, progression and the protection of innocence people.  


International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM takes place every year on 6th February. This year, please take some time to think about those effected by the ritual and pray for the safety and happiness of those who will be cut that day too.  

Dear God, 

Let our awareness of FGM help guide us in our faith and make us feel firm in our support for the millions of women and girls out there who need more than a stranger’s love to heal their wounds. We also pray from everyone who is helping to end the practice through education and listening, and we pray that one day those who have already been changed by it will find peace and joy in a world that gives others the choice.  



Cited References: 

1) Ontiveros, E. (2019). ‘What is FGM, where does it happen and why?’, BBC News. Available at: What is FGM, where does it happen and why? - BBC News (Accessed 24th January 2022).  

2) Zimmermann. (2011). ‘Circumcision in boys and girls: why the double standard?’, The BMJ (British Medical Journal). Available at: Male circumcision is not comparable to female genital mutilation | The BMJ (Accessed 24th January 2022).  

3) Wilkinson, D. (2014). ‘Cultural relativism and female genital mutilation’, Practical Ethics – University of Oxford. Available at: Cultural relativism and female genital mutilation | Practical Ethics ( (Accessed 24th January 2022).  

4) Robbins, J. (2019). ‘Afterword: Some Reflections on Rupture’ in Holbraad and Kapferer and Sauma’s Ruptures: Anthropologies of Discontinuity in Times of Turmoil. UCL Press, pp. 218-232.   

5) Tenoi, S. (2014). ‘An alternative to female genital mutilation that prevents girls suffering’, The Guardian. Available at: An alternative to female genital mutilation that prevents girls suffering | Sarah Tenoi | The Guardian (Accessed 24th January 2022).