Female Genital Mutilation: The failure of neoliberal feminism


h/t to discipline


A march took place in London Harley street today to raise awareness of the increase in gynaecological cosmetic surgery.

In Western countries FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is associated with tribal cultures and Islamic extremism. Articles inviting us to express horror at the primitiveness of other cultures and religions proliferate in the media. This emphasis diverts attention away  from the fact that FGM is also a highly prevalent cultural practice of Western countries.

 The Western version of FGM is perhaps even more pernicious because it carries with it the added taint of Western cultural imperialism, and is legitimized by the medical profession and the governments run by white males, meaning politicians do not regard it as an issue worth discussing.

Labiaplasty is an operation undertaken to “tidy up” and “neaten” the look of the vulva, and is the latest example of the lengths women must go to in order to make their bodies acceptable to men.

It has its roots in porn.

In Beauty and Misogyny, Sheila Jeffreys painstakingly examines the link between pornography and beauty norms, demonstrating that just as women’s fashion orginates in porn, so does what is considered to be an acceptable body shape for women. Having long ago conquered women’s psyches when it comes to weight anxiety and worries about breast size, now the media (in cahoots with the medical industry) focuses on manufacturing hang-ups about the appearance of genitals.

“In pornography women’s labia are frequently airbrushed so that they are uniform. The women do not have obviously unequally sized labia or particularly long labia because they are tidied up in the airbrushing so that men will not be offended, and able to purchase a uniform product. But airbrushing is not enough and women in porn regularly employ labiaplasty, in which the labia are cut to shape, to create the regulation look. This pornographic practice has an impact on women outside the industry when boyfriends pressure women to look like hairless pornstars. Women, already trained in male dominant cultures to dislike their genitals, notice their genitalia more. They may worry that they are not like those on the women in porn, or their male partners may make this clear to them.” (Jeffreys, p.83)

Today, girls in their mid-teens are worried about the appearance of their genitals. The negative messages of the malestream media are compounded by the fact that most women and girls do not know what each other’s normal genitals look like. They believe the appearance of the women in porn is the norm, when in fact it is not. The medical profession is cashing in on society’s carefully cultivated disgust of the female body.

This issue is often dismissed as being apolitical because Western women are said to choose to go under the knife, whereas Muslim women do not. But the “choice” argument ignores social pressure to conform and the fact that many women perceive (correctly perhaps) that if their bodies are pleasing to men it will help them survive, either by enabling them to find a male spouse, or by facilitating their entry into the sex industry (which is, by the way, very well-paid compared to the pink-collar ghetto.)

Couple this with the garden-variety disgust that women are taught to feel towards their bodies, which has a long history in Western culture, and you get a cultural backdrop whereby women are coerced into surgery in order to feel normal perhaps, or at least less of a freak. It is these pressures which drive women to “neaten themselves up”, not vanity.

Protestors at the march also dressed up in nude bodysuits decorated with lavish pubic hair as a nod to the beauty standard of hairlessness now foisted upon women.

Pubic hair on women has long been regarded as an obscenity, and in order to evade bullying and harassment women shave and wax. Any woman who believes she is doing this by choice should try not doing next time she visits the beach or pool…and see what happens when a group of boys or men spot her pubes hanging out of her swimsuit…


As Allan Johnson explains in The Gender Knot:

In addition to socialization, participation in social systems shapes out behavior through paths of least resistance, a concept that refers to the conscious and unconscious choices we make from one moment to the next….Patriarchy is a kind of society organized around certain kinds of social relationships and ideas that shape paths of least resistance….If a society is oppressive, then people who grow up and live in it will tend to accept, identify with, and participate in it as “normal” and unremarkable life. That’s the path of leaast resistance in any system. It’s hard not to follow it, given how we depend on society and its rewardsa and punishment that hinge on going along with the status quo.

Meghan Murphy has written some awesome stuff on choice in feminism



Within feminist or, what some might call ‘post-feminist’ discourse today, ‘choice’ is front and center – it makes up the framework within which so many debates begin and end. And indeed, ‘choice’ is often used as a way to end the conversation. “Well, it’s my choice.” or “No one was ‘forced’ they just ‘chose’ to take off their shirts.” or “These women aren’t victims, they have ‘choice.” are commonly thrown about as ways to defend women’s choices and actions as being representative of freedom and to present every female choice as, in fact, a feminist act.

This kind of ‘anything-goes-so-long-as-we-call-it-a-choice’ discourse often, rather than signaling collective female power and freedom, is a co-optation feminist language used for individual means. Often this version of ‘choice’ is used in order to frame sexist imagery and actions as something that empowers women, when in fact, it is often doing nothing of the sort. While certainly ‘choice’ is one of the founding concepts of the feminist movement, and of primary importance, I can’t help but feel as though it has been taken from us; that the word ‘choice’ continues to represent feminism but is more often used in an entirely ‘unfeminist’ way. I believe we are beginning to forget where ‘choice’ came from and what it means. And I think it’s time we started paying attention.

Choice became a key part of feminist language and action as an integral aspect and rallying call within the fight for reproductive rights – the right to choose whether or not we wanted to get pregnant and to choose what we wanted for our bodies and lives. This choice was, and is, a fundamental aspect of the feminist movement because it impacts our ability to be empowered and autonomous in, not only the home and as individuals , but in other, more public, aspects of life and society. Having reproductive rights means we get to make real choices about what happens to our bodies, real choices about education, work, marriage, and family.

As of late, though, it has become standard to talk about ‘choice’ in terms of individual choice rather than collective choice (and collective freedom). As though ‘MY CHOICE’ could not possibly affect anyone in the world except for the individual who is making it. And, as though ‘HER CHOICE’ can somehow negate any justifiable criticism or questioning of said choice or the context within which said choice was made. Used in this context, it is a way a shutting down the conversation. And where would feminism be (and where will it go) without conversation and critique?



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