As a scholar and feminist activist who also happens to be a proud and empowered circumcised African woman, I am often castigated by mainstream (and radical) feminists about my support for the rights of women and girls who choose to uphold our ancestral tradition of female circumcision (this is the term preferred by most of us because of the parallel with male circumcision, which is important to our cultural frameworks of gender parity). This week, leading up to International Women’s Day, I am launching a new digital and print women’s quarterly called SiA and the Shabaka Stone Magazine, which is aimed at empowering other circumcised women and girls who also reject the term Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Additionally, I have been working with other women to launch African Women are Free to Choose (AWA-FC). AWA-FC is a movement that challenges ethnocentric, racist and sexist representations that underlie the term FGM and to advocate for the same basic human rights to equality, dignity and self-determination for circumcised women and girls that are enjoyed by every other human being in the world. Here, I argue why there should be zero-tolerance for the term FGM.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the term FGM “comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. For the past thirty or so years, the term FGM has been mainly applied to African or non-western women and girls who have undergone customary or traditional genital surgeries. However, during this same period and especially so in the last ten years, many western, mainly white, Anglo-Saxon women and girls have undergone “procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia”. Some of these procedures are even covered by the national health systems in Europe, Australia and Canada to name a few.

These ‘white’ female genital surgeries include what is popularly referred to as labiaplasty (trimming or removal of labia minorae), as well as an entire menu of external and internal genital surgeries the media does not report on, such as clitoroplexy (clitoral hood removal or reduction) and clitoroplasty (clitoral reduction) or combinations of these procedures. These white female genital surgeries are also performed on teenagers or young girls (as young as 10 and 11) and yet they are not considered FGM but FGCS (Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery).

So, this means that white FGCS is perfectly legal even if some question the ethical basis of such practices while FGM is condemned and there are global campaigns to criminalise the communities involved. A review published in 2012 by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists concedes that many FGCS procedures compare anatomically with types of FGM. And, like white women and girls who opt for so-called FGCS, most of us African women and girls view our traditional genital surgeries as aesthetic improvements and not ‘injury’.

Although the WHO definition of FGM must by definition also apply to so-called FGCS, there continues to be a legal and ethical differentiation between these similar practices. Defenders of the distinction usually stress that FGM is ‘dangerous’ or involves ‘non-consenting’ girls . However, the highest quality medical and empirical evidence does not support either assertion. We know through controlled studies that there is very little variation in reproductive and sexual health outcomes between circumcised and uncircumcised women (Public Policy Advisory on Female Genital Surgeries, 2012) and there is ample documentation that white adolescent and pre-adolescent girls in Britain and other western countries undergo external genital surgeries for non-medical reasons. So, if the health consequences of FGM are exaggerated and FGCS are also performed on minor girls, why is there a continued distinction between these practices?

One might argue that it’s not about race at all, that FGCS takes place in clinical or sanitised medical settings and this is less dangerous or more humane than FGM, which occurs in obscure, dirty parts of a dark Africa with rusty knives and razor blades wielded by toothless, old women bent on permanently destroying female sexual pleasure. Even if this grizzly media caricature of FGM were true (and there is no medical evidence yet to support that female genital surgeries performed in clinics are safer than those performed in traditional or non-clinical settings), the WHO definition of FGM does not discriminate between where, how and by whom a procedure on the external female genitalia is performed. Further, in most western countries, adult African women are denied any form of genital surgeries even for purely aesthetic reasons. And, in all cases medicalisation of traditional surgeries preferred by African women is prohibited by WHO.

One might still insist that it’s absolutely not about race – even though adult African women are prohibited from FGCS or any form of medicalisation of customary genital surgeries – but that FGM involves coercion while FGCS is freely chosen. However, the WHO definition makes no reference to agency (or lack thereof) with respect to “the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia”. And, this is for good reason. We know (and so does WHO) from survey after survey in country after country that the vast majority of affected African women are in favor of the continuation of our customary female genital surgeries.

We also know that white women and girls freely choose genital surgeries to improve the appearance and structure of their external genitalia. So, there is no reason to automatically presume that African women and girls are any more brainwashed or coerced than white women and girls who supposedly exercise free choice. Unless, of course, it really is about race and ethnicity. Perhaps, in the eyes of white male patriarchy (which disconcertingly includes mainstream and radical white feminists who want to police the genitals of African and other non-white women and girls yet ignore female genital surgeries within their own communities), circumcised African females are somehow inherently incapable of exercising free choice or we come from societies that prevent us from doing so. In both cases anti-FGM activists make assumptions based on race, ethnic, religious, socio-economic, cultural and geographic differences that have no relevance to the WHO definition of FGM, which clearly focuses on physical descriptions only.

For these reasons – that FGM applies to and criminalises only African or non-white girls and women respectively while FGCS legitimises very similar procedures for white women and girls – anti-FGM campaigns are racist and ethnocentric.

As for the sexism in the term FGM, this too is obvious. Genital surgeries on males – adults and children – are perfectly legal and not officially referred to as ‘mutilations’ even though there is a growing number of detractors and campaigners against these practices. Let me add that there is no medical evidence that supports the idea that male circumcision is less harmful, less painful, less traumatic etc. than female circumcision practices. Also, there are no distinctions made between traditional or customary male circumcision versus those procedures that are hospital based.

What I am against, and African Women are Free to Choose is organising to contest is the racism and sexism that underlies anti-FGM campaigns. We stand for the equality of African women and girls with western or white women and girls as well as men and boys globally. We resist the singling out of African women and girls as ‘mutilated’ as well as the criminalising and policing of only our bodies with respect to non-medical genital surgeries. The notion of FGM is a discriminatory one – an outright breach of our basic human rights to equality, dignity and self-determination. Ours is not an argument about child rights versus parental prerogatives or cultural rights versus human rights but an insistence that universal human rights must be in principle and practice, universal.