Over the past four months, I have been working alongside a couple of UK organisations that aim to research and campaign against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Recently, a friend who is training to be a midwife sent me an article on labiaplasty and FGM, written by a practicing midwife in the UK. This gist of this article was that women such as myself campaign against FGM from a poor standpoint, as we come from a society in which labiaplasty is becoming increasingly common; this therefore (apparently) makes us hypocrites.
For those who are not aware, labiaplasty—also known as ‘designer vagina surgery’—involves surgically ‘perfecting’ labia minora and majora. It is the latest, in an ever growing list, of cosmetic procedures chosen by women who want to enhance their image. While some women may seek this as a result of large labia (which can make sex painful), others do so because of the growing pressure to meet society’s expectations of what constitutes an attractive female form.
According to some doctors and midwives, there is little difference between FGM and labiaplasty. Those same individuals feel that Western societies should remove the plank of wood from their own eyes, before attempting to remove the speck from others. I have to strongly disagree with this.
First of all, I will examine the pressures exerted on those who have undergone FGM and labiaplasty. To an extent, there are similarities. I have come across stories of FGM victims who were told their clitoris would grow extensively should they not have it removed, that men would not want to marry them, and that they could not fulfil their duties as a woman. Similarly, some women who undergo labiaplasty do so due to the images of perfection imposed by the pornographic material industry; these images of women with perfect labia suggest that is ‘normal’. However, that is where my agreement ends.
Any woman (at least in the UK), who seeks labiaplasty will be fully informed of what she is electing to do. Under British law, surgeons are duty bound to inform their clients of the risks involved. These women will then have their labia adjusted in a clean, surgical environment. Similarly, the element of consent involved is different. In the UK, consent by coercion is not consent at all. A person who consents to a medical procedure must have done so as a result of their own motivations. This consent in the absence of coercion is closely related to autonomy. Suggesting that a woman who chooses labiaplasty has not done so as a result of her own autonomous decision making process is patronising.
In contrast, a woman who undergoes FGM will be told that it is necessary for a host of reasons that are untrue. She will not be informed of the risks associated, which include an increased chance of dying as a result of pregnancy or childbirth, painful menstruation, infection, and an increased risk of AIDS. FGM is usually performed in unsanitary conditions, with no pain relief, no medical assistance, and as a result is dangerous and frightening. As FGM is often performed on young girls who are not capable of understanding these risks, it cannot be argued that they are fully informed—that is assuming there are informed of any risks, at all. These girls will be coerced by their parents, and other members of their communities. They don’t seek FGM, they are forced into it. Their autonomy is not used, it is taken away from them.
Attempting to draw parallels between FGM and labiaplasty is not only ridiculous, it is thoroughly unhelpful. Each person who does this arms the individuals who campaign to maintain the practice of FGM with ammo, which they will then use against us. Meanwhile, the real issues surrounding FGM campaigns will be ignored; these issues are that young girls are being subjected to a procedure that is inherently violent, in conditions that are unsafe, without their full consent. Until we stop trying to draw such petty comparisons, the real issues will be overlooked, and women worldwide will continue to suffer.
So to those who would like to argue that we cannot campaign against FGM while labiaplasty is practiced in Western society, yes we can. I am by no means an individual who would undergo unnecessary cosmetic surgery, but if others do, then so be it. Tarring myself and my fellow campaigners with the same brush as those
who inflict FGM will not help anyone.
Laura Mc Keever