Changing a Social Norm: Ending Female Genital Cutting

By: Mariya Taher

July 12, 2017

Female Genital Cutting: The Michigan Case and Beyond

I am an American-born woman who underwent female genital cutting (FGC) in 1990 when I was seven years old on a family visit to India for summer vacation. At that time, there was no federal legislation in place condemning FGC in the United States, and the practice continued within the Dawoodi Bohra community with little opposition and well-known secrecy. 

I’ll never forget learning that my father had no idea that FGC was carried out in the Dawoodi Bohra community, nor that it happened to his four younger sisters. My father would not learn of this practice, often inflicted on women by other women, until it came time for my own procedure and my mother informed him. I believe for him, as it most likely is true of many men in the Bohra community, there was a belief that FGC was a women’s issue, and so it was not their responsibility to know about it, nor was it their responsibility to question the practice. These men, like the women who underwent FGC, were all taught that silence was a virtue, and silence on FGC a necessity. 

Today, I work to break that silence by advocating against FGC through policy, research, community mobilization, and education, and across these various arenas, I am often asked the question, “Who do I blame for FGC continuing?” My answer: I don’t blame anyone, but I also blame everyone. 

FGC is citied to occur for a plethora of reasons, but ultimately, FGC is continued because of tradition, and within the Dawoodi Bohra community, if you do not follow tradition, you are not allowing your daughter to grow up with her best chances. You are not following the norm of your social community; thus, you are not following the tradition that was put into place centuries ago. 

Social norm was why FGC happened to me, and though U.S. federal law banning the practice exists today, social norm is why FGC occurred in Michigan despite its criminalization, and social norm is why defendants in the Michigan case are citing religion to excuse the practice. 

In our human history, for centuries social norms have continued in the name of religion and culture to promote all sorts of harmful practices. 

Take for instance domestic violence and the fact that marital rape was not recognized as a crime in some U.S. states until 1993 because it was believed that if a woman gave consent to her husband in marrying him, she had given consent to sex whenever he wanted. In time, with changes to the law and cultural perceptions around marriage, this practice eventually became appalling in the United States. Yet, sadly, research still shows that domestic violence remains culturally acceptable in many countries. One study reveals that in 29 countries around the world, one-third or more of men say it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, and in 19 of those countries, one-third or more of women agree that a husband who beats his wife may be justified in doing so. 

Learning from the “acceptability” of domestic violence, it is important to recognize that the social norm of FGC can only end if we address the underlying social, religious, traditional structures that hold this norm in place and influence the attitudes and behaviors towards the practice. 

Thus, we must recognize that some communities will use “religion” to justify the continuation of this harmful practice, but we must also recognize that religious leaders are subject to the same social norm dynamics that we all are exposed to; thus, they are not infallible. Our society tends to view faith leaders as indestructible, and devout followers tend to cling to the idea that there is no room for questioning those who are the gatekeepers of their faith. To counter these perceptions, it is important to include multisectoral approaches that not only address the legality of harmful practices, but also allow for dialogue and conversation to occur at the community level. For instance, by providing survivors platforms in which they can give voice to what they have experienced, communities can then engage in conversations around the health and well-being of the entire community. Or, women who have not undergone FGC, but who belong to these practicing communities, can share that there is an alternative to NOT continue the practice, an option that is often not even realized by some. 

To create impactful social change, the cultural, religious, and social context in which FGC occurs must be examined, and we must find a way to bring all members of a community—law enforcement, government, health professionals, survivors, community members, social workers—together so that we all understand that this harmful social norm should never have started, and that we have the power and responsibility to end it. 

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