This post is by Anny Gaul and is a part of the Culture and Human Rights series (part II).
Female genital cutting (FGC; also commonly referred to as female genital mutilation or female circumcision) is one of the most polarizing flashpoints at the intersection of culture, gender, and human rights. The practice is central to the way many communities understand gender relations and social identity. But international human rights law unequivocally considers it a form of violence against women.
The issue is complicated by a complex association with religion; a common misconception, for example, is that FGC is prescribed by Islam. But religious identity is actually not a reliable predictor of FGC prevalence: according to UNICEF, prevalence rates in Senegal, Ethiopia, and Ghana are higher among Muslims than Christians, while in Niger, Nigeria, and the Tanzania, it’s actually the other way around. And in Mali, Eritrea, and Burkina Faso, rates are more or less equal among religious groups, according to the same study. FGC was also a relatively common practice in Europe and North America as recently as the 20th century (prescribed to “cure” women of everything from hysteria to lesbianism).
Today, no global religious leader supports FGC. But local faith leaders often support or at least condone the practice. And many individuals, including those involved at family and community levels, tie the practice to their religious beliefs and teachings. So where does culture end and religion begin? How do culture and religion influence one another? What are we even talking about when we say “culture” and “religion”?
Culture is such a broad, diffuse, and tricky subject that narrowing the focus to the interplay between culture and religion can offer some useful insights (not to mention help refute some commonly held stereotypes about the role of religion in FGC or other practices, which are often overstated). But it’s important to be specific about what we mean by “religion” if it is to be useful for understanding culture and cultural change: for example, what is the relationship between official doctrine or hierarchical religious authority and local beliefs and practices? Who has the power to change these relationships or participate in them? How can we use a religious lens to better understand FGC and its implications?
Religion means different things to different people; that much is obvious. But take this principle and apply it to understandings of FGC practice, and it helps highlight what’s really behind this form of violence against women. Religion can be a significant factor not only in the promotion and continuation of FGC, but also in efforts to change or eliminate it. To begin with, there are a number of different types of ways religion can factor into the issue:
Religious values, obligations, and duties: In Egypt, to take one example, FGC is perceived as helping girls and their families fulfill religious obligations (e.g., abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage) and embody specific religious values, such as cleanliness and purity. This helps explain FGC’s high prevalence in Egypt, despite clear condemnations of the practice at the highest levels of religious authority in Egypt. Without explicit religious textual evidence mandating the practice, the complex relationship between religion and culture can lead to the use of religious explanations for cultural practices, particularly among populations with high illiteracy rates. In other words, simply because religion is not the root cause of a cultural practice does not mean that it is not evoked as a source of moral authority to argue for its continuation.
Identity formation and rites of passage: FGC can also reflect the way a community approaches identity formation, of which religion is an important part. In communities or countries with multiple ethnic groups or religious sects, FGC can be perceived as a distinguishing factor differentiating one ethnic group or sect from another. And ethnic and religious identity can also determine which type of FGC is practiced in a particular community. For example, anthropologist Ellen Gruenbaum describes how in certain communities in Sudan, FGC is understood as the means by which a girl or woman is distinguished or established specifically as a Muslim girl or woman.
Religion-linked social structures: Finally, FGC can reflect the social structures that are tied to religion – namely, marriage and the family. Marriageability is a key aspect of FGC in nearly every practicing community, meaning that social pressure to conform to the practice for the sake of one’s family and daughter is a significant underlying cause. Trends and occurrences of FGC reflect the intermarrying communities that practice it; while these communities are not always directly or exclusively defined by religion, intermarrying communities can often be identified through association with a particular religious sect or leader. Particularly in societies in which economic and social factors dictate that a woman’s primary (if not sole) means to financial security is marriage, FGC becomes inextricable from a woman’s social security (and by extension, that of her family). The most successful interventions leading to FGC elimination have focused on building community-wide commitments for entire groups of inter-marrying families to give up FGC as a unified group.
The role of religion is often overemphasized in discussions of FGC, but religion can and does influence its practice – and campaigns waged to end it – in subtle, diverse, and sometimes contradictory ways. Although religion is not the sole cause of FGC in any context, it is nevertheless an important arena in which the practice is contested. Religious factors can create barriers to addressing or ending FGC, but can also provide a framework of values and moral authority that can be useful in efforts to encourage abandonment of the practice.
Religion, cultural change, and the big picture
Looking at religion’s role in FGC helps highlight how these practices vary across history, geography, and through different societies. Despite this variation, what remains consistent is an underlying process by which cultures imbue their members’ bodies (especially women’s bodies) with a distinctive significance in terms of how gender is conceptualized. This gives rise to cultural practices that shape and (literally) construct the body in order to realize this meaning, and they make forms of violence against women particularly tricky to target in the face of cultural relativism.
FGC is only one indicator, and it is one example of many types of practices – medical, social, emotional, psychological – that burden women’s bodies (in all cultures, in some form or fashion) with a significance that leaves them susceptible to violence of all kinds. Therefore it is unsurprising that most successful approaches to FGC elimination seek to integrate messages about the practice within the larger frameworks from which they are inextricable: human rights, women’s health, and healthy families.
Religion is a key part of understanding and engaging these larger frameworks. Its relationship to issues like FGC is more complicated than we sometimes acknowledge. Religious institutions are key providers of healthcare and social services in many countries; religious beliefs and rituals are woven throughout the fabric of the everyday lives of communities the world over. A better understanding of religion’s many facets, along with a committed engagement with religious actors and groups, has the potential to provide powerful new venues for those seeking to promote cultural change in the fight against gender-based violence.
Note: this essay is based upon a longer case study developed as a teaching tool by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. It is a pilot in a series of case studies designed to address the links between religion and global development. For more information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anny Gaul is an MA candidate in Arab Studies and a PhD student in Arabic Language and Literature, both at Georgetown University. She is also a researcher at Georgetown’s Berkley Center, where she works on religion, gender, and international development. Other writing and research interests include gender and development, human rights, the politics of representation, and food. Her website is http://annygaul.tumblr.com/.