The FGM and immigration rhetoric

I was interviewed by an online health magazine on concerns about FGM taking place in the United States by Rachel Grumman Bender from The article was nicely written, and served as a good introduction for someone who might not be very familiar with the issue. It is entitled “Female Circumcision Is Happening in America” (April 30, 2014).

It has been a while since I have engaged in this debate, being more preoccupied with teaching and other research. In the last ten years, however, it seems that the narrative surrounding FGM has begun to shift. What is different now, however, at least on the national level, are some of the policies introduced that are not alarmist, but are, to a large extent, backed by data, research, and advocacy.It is also encouraging that advocates seem, more or less, to be in agreement as to how the practices should be addressed.

We may never know the extent to which these practices are happening in the United States. We can only estimate, and these estimates could be very conservative.

FGM, as an “issue”, however, cuts to the heart of the current debates and rhetoric about integration, assimilation, and cultural continuity. This is the same debate that is currently taking place in the UK which seems to be playing itself out in the media.

For example,  a London Times opinion piece by Jenni Russell begins with “In a diverse society it is not tolerant to leave minority groups to their own devices – it is neglect.” In it, Russell argues that immigration should equal, in a sense, assimilation of values and practices, and that maintenance of “home values” prevents children from “succeeding” in a class-based society where access to employment, education, and opportunities are only available to people who have internalized the dominant cultural paradigms. Cultural continuity, in this sense, becomes antithetical to full citizenship.

FGM, when viewed through the prism of immigration, becomes a “problem” that they bring with them that needs to be “solved” by us. After all, if they were real [insert citizenship of choice here], then they would not continue these barbaric practices.

The “solution” has to be collaborative and participatory rather than paternalistic and punitive. Here’s an excellent example of how it can be done:


(link to article)

We should keep in mind that FGM is too complex for a simple solution. It requires education and support as people try to reconcile their culture with their new environment. When this environment, however, is perceived as hostile and threatening, the likelihood of assimilation/integration is unlikely to be smooth or successful in however the host culture defines success.

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