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America's Next Top Issue: Female Genital Mutilation
Posted Feb 20,2008

Tyra Banks is talking to one of the contestants on the first episode of the new season of America’s Next Top Model and it is like no conversation that has taken place on that show before – or, for that matter, on any prime-time entertainment program.

Fatima, a beautiful young woman from Somalia, says, “When I was seven, I was circumcised. It’s a very traditional positive thing where I’m from.” But it quickly becomes clear that when she used the word "positive," she was not endorsing this practice. She goes on to say: “Female genital mutilation is removing the entire clitoris and sewing the two labia together. I’m going to dedicate my life to making sure no one goes through what I went through. As we are talking right now, young girls are being circumcised and some are dying in the process.”

Later, when she shares her story with some of the other contestants, one of them asks, “So do you feel less of a woman?”

The other contestants accuse her of asking an “ignorant and inappropriate” question.

And so, the controversial issue of female genital mutilation will be introduced to the show’s millions of viewers. [Note: this interview contains graphic details about female genital mutilation and its impact on sexuality.]

Did ANTM do a responsible job in presenting information about this topic? To find out, I spoke with Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now, a human rights group that works to end violence and discrimination against women. One of the practices it is fighting is female genital mutilation, or FGM. Here’s what Bien-Aime had to say.

How widespread is FGM?
It is practiced in 28 countries in Africa and some countries in central Asia.

Is it a religious practice?
That’s a misnomer. Take a country like Ethiopia. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and animists all practice FGM. It is a 5,000-year-old harmful traditional practice. Throughout the ages, people have adopted it as a religious facet. You’ll hear it is in the Koran, which it is not. Nothing in the Koran dictates FGM.

Why is it done?
The reason is to guarantee marriageability in a girl, to guarantee her chastity and virginity until marriage.

How many girls undergo this procedure?
Six thousand girls a day are still subjected to the practice. That’s two to three million every year.

Is there any effort to lessen the pain?
No. It is generally done without anesthesia.

Do girls die from this procedure?
There are no statistics on mortality rates. But a girl can die immediately from hemorrhage or from shock a week later, or three years later from a renal infection, or much later during labor.

Was the description on America’s Next Top Model an accurate depiction of FGM?
There are three types. Clitoridectomy is the removal of the clitoris.

The most pervasive is type two: excision, which is the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora and majora.

The third is the most extreme form, probably what Fatima was subjected to: infibulation. It’s the removal of all of the above. The remaining tissue is sewn together so that only a small hole is left, the size of a pencil eraser, for menstruation, sexual intercourse, urine, childbirth. You have to tear the tissue to deliver the baby, it’s just a nightmare, and then re-sew it.

Are efforts to end FGM meeting with success?
The good news is that groups all across Africa are working in their community against the practice. Survivors of FGM are working at great risk to their lives. And we are making inroads. It is very slow, but things are moving in the right direction. Equality Now is working with grassroots groups because you can’t stop it unless people from the community work to end it.

And the question for Fatima about the impact on her womanhood – was that an inappropriate question?
People ask that question a lot. I think it’s a very legitimate question. These are questions that come up within the community. Am I less of a woman? Some women say I can find sexual pleasure in my head, it doesn’t define me as a woman, I’m still a mother and a wife. Other women will say I’ve been mutilated for life, I can’t find sexual pleasure.

Was Fatima overstating the case when she said she could not have sex with a man?
Maybe she meant that she can’t find pleasure, which is what women sometimes say when they’ve been mutilated to that extent. Some men bring a knife or a goat horn to the wedding bed to open the woman up [for intercourse]. So probably that’s what she means.

Is this an appropriate topic for America’s Next Top Model?
It’s a good thing. Fifteen years ago, nobody talked about FGM, even here in the States. We went to the Geraldo Rivera show in the mid '90s, and they said it was to controversial to talk about FGM on their show.
-Marc Silver

Posted by Marc Silver | Comments (8)
Filed Under: Television


Feb 20, 2008 3PM #

it just a stupid thing.It is going around the world.we need to ban rthis up.

Feb 20, 2008 3PM #

wow idk what to say. this is rather disturbing. no anesthesia? i cant believe this stuff goes on in the

Feb 20, 2008 3PM #

I haven't heard anything about "Female Circumcision" until Fatima explained it in the show and was so shocked to see such uncivilized ritual is still performed somewhere on Earth.

Thanks Fatima for bringing up this issue, even to the audience from the other side of the world (I'm from Hong Kong, China).

Feb 20, 2008 3PM #

In the reality, FGM is just cultural thing not religious obligation! which people believe in it & pass from generation to generation. And when saying "cultural thing" means that the society or communities who practice FGM have a view point of which if the girl has not gone under the painful process of FGM, she is not regarded/seen as a women and mainly parents worrying who will marry their daughter if she is not seen as women? On the opposite side, women who have gone under FGM have psychological feeling of not being woman. The reason why FGM exists to continue despite of all the efforts and awareness raised, is that the society pressure which starts from the family of the daughter believing that she will not marry if not circumised in FGM. I think the only way to lessen the presure of the society is the society to put the life of their daughters in the daughters' hands which means not concerning and worrying much of who will marry her but to try hard to educate her and show her the path to her future life.

Feb 20, 2008 3PM #

Kudos to Tyra Banks and ANTM for addressing this important topic. The show attracts many young female viewers, and this is an issue they especially should be aware of, not only because of the obvious violations against women's rights and health, but because young women in the US need to discuss the value of women's sexuality. Especially after watching a show that judges women on their bodies!

Feb 20, 2008 3PM #

FGM is a sub category of violence against women. Violence against women is a violation of human rights. However, the issue regarding FGM is a controversy. FGM is practiced as a cultural belief and a ritual in certain countries, mainly in Africa from my studies. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 27, everyone is allowed to appreciate their culture's art and acts. Therefore, FGM is definitely a health issue that should be addressed, but to what extent? UNIFEM has contributed much to this issue. There are countries/villages that are beginning to explain the importance of FGM without going through the actual surgeries.

FGM is also an issue of ethnocentrism. As Westerners, we are saying that FGM is harmful - which it is - but not being a part of the other's culture, it's hard to judge significantly on the subject. Raising awareness is great, but I fear that cultures that practice FGM may see it as a form of intrusion. Development programs have been working hard to eliminate FGM practices, and to some extent, sociologists/anthropologists have been criticizing these programs as everyone should be a cultural relativist and not intrude.

FGM is a topic of many stories and sides. The American Top Model's story is sad. When I read her speech at first, I thought she was over exaggerating her experience. Not all FGM practices deal with the removal of the clitoris and sewing in the labia. I understand that she is trying to raise awareness-but do it with the right facts and information.

As the question regarding if the model feels less like a woman - if you go to certain countries that practice FGM, they will tell you without the surgery, they will not feel as if they are a woman. FGM is a stepping stone to adolescence to most of the cultures that practice this ritual.

I do not mean to write this to disregard the pain and suffering of those that have been hurt by FGM, but the facts need to be told from both a scholarly perspective and from an average "Joe" and "Jane" perspective. Educating ourselves about this topic is wonderful! I would love to see more people write and discuss issues regarding women's sexuality.


Lisa E. Baehr Ryan
Feb 20, 2008 3PM #

This is an issue that is far too important to ignore. Geraldo Rivera should have addressed it! What amazes me is that Geraldo had other topics that caused him a broken nose yet THIS topic, I'm sure, would have NOT caused him a broken nose, but would have educated Americans about this important issue. Today, I think that Oprah would be willing to address this topic--try her! Also, there is another super model--her story appeared in the Readers Digest a number of years ago--her name is Waris Dierie (I hope I spelled her name correctly) and she is from Somaila and a victim of FGM as well. Thankyou for addressing such a critical issue!

Feb 20, 2008 3PM #

Just thought I'd mention that this issue HAS been discussed in the press before, at some length.

Take a look at Alice Walker's 'Possessing the Secret of Joy', a 1992 novel. It's due out in a new paperback issue later this spring. I remember that I had some trouble finding some other (non-fiction) works about this issue at about that same time, but eventually I managed to find a few. Since then, there seem to have been any number of titles printed, and discussed.

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