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.