Introduction total removal of the external female genitalia, or


In a majority of western countries such as the UK and some
developing countries, such as Ghana and Eritrea, female genital cutting is
perceived as barbaric, inhumane and ultimately unlawful. Several organisations
and arguments have been presented both in favour and in opposition of the eradication
of FGC. For example, The World Health Organisation argue that FGC is a violation
of human rights, whereas Janice Boddy (1982) sought to understand the
persistence of FGC in Sudan.

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The WHO define female genital cutting as “procedures that involve partial or total removal of
the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for
non-medical reasons.” (World Health Organisation) But how does
this definition differ from genital cosmetic surgery? This leads me to
introduce the focal point of this essay, whereby I will be discussing the differences
between FGC and GCS. In doing so, I will be looking at the different reasons to
explain why people may participate in these procedures and discuss the
different attitudes towards them. I will also look at a variety of characteristics
that distinguish them from one another, such as; values associated with the
procedures, source of influence, sexuality and the power of language.

Accepting GCS, Condemning FGC.

The most significant difference between
female genital cutting and genital cosmetic surgery is the attitudes towards
it; female genital cutting is viewed as negative, whereas GCS is widely
accepted. There are several genital cosmetic surgeries, with the most popular
ones being labiaplasty, vaginoplasty and hymenoplasty. The labiaplasty procedure
involves the reduction in the size of the labia minora. Vaginoplasty entails
the tightening of the inside of the vagina and hymenoplasty is the
reconstruction of the hymen. In comparison to GCS, there are only 4 types of
female circumcision. According to the World Health Organisation, type 1 is
often referred to as a cliterodectomy- which involves the partial or complete
removal of the clitoris. Type 2 involves the removal of both the clitoris and
the labia, type 3 is commonly known as infibulation and type 4 accounts for
other harmful procedures such as pricking, prodding etc.

In terms of physicality,
(excluding the way that the procedure is performed) what is the difference between
FGC and GCS? Although there is difference as to why the procedures are
performed, there are some commonalities between the two in terms of what the
procedures entail-for example, the cliterodectomy is similar to the procedure
that will usually occur when a child is intersex and the labiaplasty shares
some similarities with type 2 (partial removal of the labia minora).

To answer the
question above, I believe that one of the main reasons for the contrasting
attitudes towards FGC and GCS is due to the matter of consent. FGC is viewed as
non-consensual, and a violation of human rights, whereas GCS is dependent on
the decision and consent of the individual. Force is a characteristic commonly
associated with FGC, further supporting the lack of consent. FGC is practiced
roughly between the ages of 2 to 15, which goes against the age of consent (16),
thus demonstrating a violation of Article 3, which is
the “Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.”( The Human Rights Act 1998) Janice Boddy
(1982) expresses her account of her experience watching a female circumcision

“I dare not confess my reluctance. The girl is lying
on an angareeb (native bed), her body supported by several adult kinswomen. Two
of these hold her legs apart. Then she is administered a local anesthetic by
injection. In the silence of the next few moments Miriam takes a pair of what
look to me like children’s paper scissors and quickly cuts away the girl’s
clitoris and labia minora. She tells me this is the labma djewa (the inside
flesh). I am surprised that there is so little blood. Then she takes a surgical
needle from her midwife’s kit, threads it with suture, and sews together the
labia majora, leaving a small opening at the vulva” – Janice Boddy, 1982

Despite there being lack of consent during
FGC, this does not apply to all cases as some may willingly participate in FGC,
not solely for the sake of it or because it is tradition, but because of the
social benefits that it provides, such as status. A prime example of affirmation
of consent in relation to FGC, was in 1956-1959 where a number of Kenyan girls in
Meru defied the implementation of a circumcision ban and took matters into
their own hands by circumcising each other. They labelled this as “Ngaitana”
which translated to “I will circumcise myself” (Thomas, 1996). This act opposes
the westernised view of FGC, thus showing that an individual’s choice should
not be considered as “barbaric” because western values label it as that, but rather
it should be viewed for what it is-a rite of passage and an expression of
choice. The discussion about consent and how it is viewed has led me to the
assumption that the reason for the negative attitudes towards FGC is a result
of western values being applied to cultural values; rather than seeing it from
the perspectives of those practicing it, they override it with their own

This leads me to another point that
highlights the difference between FGC and GCS; language. Language is a powerful
tool and in this case, has resulted in demeaning attitudes towards FGC. FGC is
sometimes referred to as female genital mutilation. Mutilation is defined as “The infliction of serious damage on something.”
(Oxford Dictionary) Njemba (2004) criticises the use of the word
mutilation as she believes it arguably demonises cultural practices. The
juxtaposition of the words can strongly influence one’s opinions, for example, GCS
is sometimes referred to as “designer vagina”.


The Influence of Society

Earlier, I mentioned that women may
choose to undergo circumcision because of the social benefits it provides, such
as status and desirability. This also applies to women who undergo GCS as “mental
and physical wellbeing seems to be prominent reasons” (Essen,2004:612) Debates
have been made by a range of theorists that conclude that both of these
procedures promote a socially constructed idea of beauty and this is further
integrated into society through agencies such as the media. Women take pride in
their appearance, and society plays a significant role in governing the
attitudes of beauty, which could eventually affect their personal opinions. The
media is saturated with the idea of “perfection” and this could even influence
how a man views his sexual partner/wife/girlfriend. A prime example of this is
pornography. The popularity of pornography has warped the outlook of reality
because of what is seen as desirable; words such as “neat” and “tight” are used
to describe vagina’s and when people compare it to themselves, they begin to
see theirs as deformed as unusual. The element of insecurity is a significant
characteristic that differs FGC from GCS and this is evident in the increase in
the demand for genital cosmetic surgery, which has risen in five-fold in the
last 10 years, according to the NHS. Zwier (2004) states that the results from
his study on the motivation for genital cosmetic surgery showed that “Emotional
discomfort regarding self-appearance and social and sexual relationships was
found to be the most frequent and most prominent motivation for considering
labial reduction surgery on women’s online communities, regardless of age and
national background.”

Although they have made a decision to
undergo FGC or GCS, it could be argued that their personal decision comes
secondary to the values that have stemmed from society. In both circumstances,
society plays a significant role in governing what is desirable and what is
not; the media as well as word of mouth exert pressure on women to satisfy
these standards.  

In comparison to the role of society in
relation to genital cosmetic surgery, the role it plays in cultures that
practice FGC can be seen as the opposite. Whilst the social influences of GCS
is heavily dependent on sexuality, women who undergo FGC do not regard
sexuality as a factor as well as many other reasons. One of the reasons being,
if a woman is not to be circumcised, she will be shamed, precluded from
marriage and have an even lower status than a woman already has in patriarchal
societies, ie the Maasai tribe in Kenya. The Maasai tribe value this ritual and
Llewellyn-Davies illustrates this in “Women,
Warriors and Patriarchs” (1981) The ritual of circumcision “marks the
formal end of childhood” and the woman “is considered ready for childbirth ”
and are deemed “fertile”(1981:336,352) Maasai people state that when they
undergo circumcision, they are “thought to be wiser and calmer” (1981:352)
Being circumcised provides the woman with social pleasure as they are praised
and admired and showered with gifts.



As we progress in the modern world, the
conversation about sexuality is becoming normalised, encouraged and widely
accepted. However, this differs from those in the developing world that practice
female circumcision. In this section of the essay, I will be discussing the
different perspectives about sexuality and how it is related to FGC and GCS.

One of the main purposes of undergoing
GCS, other than to overcome insecurities, is to increase sexual pleasure.
Genital cosmetic surgeries such as hymenoplasty, vaginoplasty and clitoral hood
reduction are popular surgeries that aim to heighten a woman’s sexual
pleasure. As previously mentioned, pornography is very influential in the decision
to proceed with the surgery, for example, the emphasis on the vagina being “tight”
is seen as desirable for both men and women. Similarly, in Sudan, the practice
of repeated infibulation ensures that the husband “experiences a unique and
special pleasure” (Lightfoot, 1991) however, this is not pleasurable for the

On the other hand, cultures who practice female circumcision
are very strict about sexuality and seek to restrain/control it. Sexual
activities such as masturbation are frowned upon as it is believed that it
causes madness and affects the woman’s sanity (Somalia) Green (2005) states
that “cuttings are often motivated by a desire to contain women’s sexuality,
preserve virginity, chastity, faithfulness and the honour of the family”
(2005:157). In addition to this, Kedar (2002) touches on how Islamic law
experts amplify the necessity of female circumcision as they believe that “the
part of the woman that is removed is useless” and state that if the clitoris is
not removed, it will rub against clothing which could cause “constant
stimulation and resulting in the sexual aggressiveness, which reduces the man’s
respect for her” (2002:409)

Another significant commonality between
FGC and GCS in reference to sexuality, is the existence of patriarchal control.
Some may argue that undergoing genital cosmetic surgery is not oppressive but
is in fact the opposite, however, I do not agree. Kelly (2012) asks a vital
question; “What if the woman perceives herself
to be abnormal because an oppressive sexual partner tells her repeatedly that
she is abnormal?” A prime example of the existence of patriarchal
control amongst cultures that practice FGC is in Somalia; Talle (1993) mentions that “It is the privilege of the husband of the
girl to open her and ‘make her into a woman'” and that the infibulation of a
woman “sharpens” a man’s ego and manhood. (1993:98).This relates back to the point made earlier about the pressure from
sexual partners to satisfy their definition of desirability.

The difference in Procedure

As illustrated by Janice
Boddy’s account of a female circumcision earlier in the essay, female genital
cutting is commonly conducted by traditional circumcisers, who are most likely
to be older women. The WHO deem FGC as an unsafe procedure as it often occurs
in unsterile conditions and could result in severe complications. They state
that FGC has “no health benefits, only harm”. Furthermore, the lack of
education can further increase the risk of severe complications, which will
occur after the procedure- the WHO mention complications such as haemorrhage,
urinary tract infection, shock etc.

Whereas, on the other
hand, genital cosmetic surgery is conducted by health professionals, such as doctors,
or in a majority of cases, plastic surgeons in a safe and sterile environment.
Ehrenreich (2005) says that “The Western medical community has
represented its genital cutting as modern, scientific, healing, and above
reproach” as it provides many positive results, such as sexual pleasure.

However, some argue that
the only difference in the procedure is the conditions that it is practised in;
Foldes (2015) believes that FGC and GCS should not be defined as two separate procedures
and that the only difference between the two is that GCS has been “medicalised”,
meaning that the act is performed by doctors or health professionals.


To conclude, there are many differences
between FGC and GCS but there are indeed some commonalities. Generally
speaking, it could be argued that the outlook of FGC and GCS is dependent on
the context and environment that it takes place- those who practice FGC do not
see it as problematic as they have not adopted a westernised way of thinking,
whereas those who practice GCS do not see it as a problem but see FGC as a
problem, despite the commonalities between them.

It is obvious that there
a double standard present between the two procedures, solely because of the
environment that it is conducted in.