We still don’t talk about it: FGM

In 2014, I contributed a blog post to Voices of Youth as part of my internship and in observance of  the 2014 Girls Summit. This post will make various references to my initial entry, but it is not necessary to read one in order to understand the other.

I am a 20 year old who has undergone FGM Type I/II. I currently live in Malaysia, a country where FGM/C is practiced and normalized, but where data and information on the matter is sparse. In the past, I have studied resources on FGM and noticed that Southeast Asian countries were typically left out of the picture. I wanted to share my thoughts and experience because of this lack of attention to the practice in my region.

While Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not technically a taboo topic in this country, the practice is so normalized it is not considered different from other medical practices. Our culture silences discussions of women’s bodies out of modesty, or because women’s sexuality itself is considered too shameful a topic for polite company. Further, girls all over the world are often treated as having no autonomy over their bodies, so performing a procedure that forever alters them is considered acceptable and to some, obligatory.

The blog post that I wrote two years ago was the first opportunity I had to discuss the matter frankly and without shame, because the Internet lent me a space to talk openly. Two years later, the situation here (and undoubtedly elsewhere) still remains the same. There is still no solid movement advocating for the discontinuation of the practice, nor is there a mass awareness campaign on the issue.

A poster drawing depicts a girl, her arms raised in a gesture of fear, who is cut in half by a red line.
© UNICEF/UNI42932/PirozziA poster drawing depicts a girl, her arms raised in a gesture of fear, who is cut in half by a red line. A razor edged with blood covers part of her body. The poster hangs at a branch of the Red Crescent Society in the village of Zaweyt Sultan in Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt.

The response to my first post was expected but rather distressing. Most people didn’t know this practice took place in our country. In their defense, the phrases that we use differ – FGM/C connotes a cruel practice, while the common term ‘female circumcision’ carries no negative connotations in the culture and stands in complement to male circumcision. Perhaps the most disheartening were people who have never questioned the practice even if they had undergone the procedure, or their daughters had. For the former, they couldn’t tell the difference, either in physical or sensory terms. To many whom I approached, reading my blog post and conversing with me was the only exposure they have ever had to the topic.

In discussing FGM with these people, I brought up all different types of genital cutting (which can be viewed here), they usually react in horror. Procedures vary by culture: some are painful and traumatic procedures performed when a girl is past infancy, and some produce painful ramifications (physical or psychological). Personally, I don’t recall the experience because I was a baby. It did, however, produce painful ramifications as an adolescent trying to get comfortable with my body. This is something I would like to highlight, because in discussing FGM, many feel shock at the physical mutilation of a person, while not fully comprehending the psychological effects. Only someone with the experience can talk about how confusing and terrifying it is to find out that your body is not like someone else’s, not because you were born like this but because you have had something taken away from you without consent or even knowledge.

The biggest problem in stopping this practice is lack of information or rampant misinformation. I will be the first to admit that I am not 100% sure of everything I have read on the subject. Whether it is obligatory according to schools of jurisprudence (or not), whether it is a fatwa applicable nationwide (here and here), whether there are legitimate health and hygiene concerns (everyone who uses this justification cites ‘research’ that they have yet to show me). I have even had people tell me that circumcision is advised for women to increase their sexual pleasure. I speak not from information I garnered from reading, but from listening to and learning my own body.

The justification for the practice is contestable on every level. As long as the practice is not outlawed, and allowed to continue, culture will perpetuate and sanction it as a norm. Beyond the law, we also need to bring about a change in mindset. As part of the culture myself, I can see that at least on this level, there is no malicious agenda. The local authorities truly believe that the procedure is justifiable and necessary. Women believe it to be mandatory per religion. For them, for us, this is how it’s always been. We have our beliefs and sense of obligation, so if it’s not medically harmful, why question it?

Troublingly, so much of global-scale FGM activism I have been exposed to is spearheaded by those who have not undergone the procedure or even live in the culture (and global campaigns of visibility move mainstream media). While I appreciate the support and additional information, sometimes it does feel like being talked down to, or as if my experiences are minimized. Of course I believe that FGM is wrong, but hearing people attach words such as ‘barbaric’ and ‘backwards’ to countries considered too ‘cruel’ or ‘stupid’ to outlaw the practice have only made it harder to process my thoughts on the matter. To many people in this country, the procedure is almost inextricable from the birthing process. Ignorance is no excuse, but the discussions I have heard in the media have further compounded the horror I felt about my own body.

In the past two years, I have been working with children as a teacher. The main thrust behind my work is to ensure that these children don’t grow up the way I did, feeling alone and wrong, and that they will get the opportunities and spaces they need to grow into themselves. Children will grow into confused, hurt and lonely adolescents, and they will grow up into adults whose beliefs are formed from their experiences as children. Protecting children, especially girls, from a practice that robs them of ownership of their own bodies is the most important thing.

For me, all that can be done now is to live as I am, to find spaces that nurture my well-being, to endeavour in pursuit of good work. I can’t turn back time, or regrow a piece of flesh that has been removed. But for the girls – girls who have undergone the procedure and will need support, reassurance or simply information; girls who have not been born or have yet to undergo the procedure – for them, there is still a lot to be done.

That’s why I’m grateful for this opportunity and platform to have a voice in the conversation, and why I want to encourage others to talk about this as far as they are comfortable. Being able to talk about it among friends and in various safe spaces helped me a lot. Do I still think it is a horror to come to terms with, something that is indelible and for some, even traumatic? Yes, but I know I’m not alone. The more voices speaking out, the less chance for young people to go through what I did, and more opportunities to band together to stop the practice.

There are many fronts for this work: education (comprehensive, unbiased sex education for everyone), awareness campaigns (specifically targeted in hospitals and clinics), legal advocacy, or the hard-won cultural shift in mindset. Just breaking the silence and engaging with people on the topic is already taking many steps forward, and while I believe it is not the responsibility of people who have undergone the procedure to fight to have their voices heard, I do know that I would really have appreciated hearing from them about their experiences as I was growing up.

I am based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Please feel free to contact me at effiejohari@hotmail.com or my Twitter @redrumming, if anyone needs someone to talk to.

With many thanks to the Voices of Youth team for help facilitating this post

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  1. An excellent post Effie. I think you touch on all the important issues and we hope this article gets conversations started among friends, among families.