We Need to Talk About Vaginas

It’s time to have a conversation about FGM, says MORWENNA JONES.

female genital mutilation Feminism FGM genitalia genitals morwenna jones Vagina vaginas women

We like penises. We come back with penis-shaped pasta from Italy. We make snow-phalluses. We draw swirly-cock doodles on our contemporaries’ notes if they leave them unattended. But what about the humble vagina? Ever seen a diagram of one of those in the corner of your notes on the French Revolution? Ok, they don’t lend themselves easily to representation in snow form but that’s not the reason why they get barely a fraction of penis’ publicity. The simple truth is that they scare the shit out of us.

Our fear stretches back through history. In The Rainbow, published briefly in 1915, D.H Lawrence transforms the female protagnonist’s vagina into acid during her first sexual encounter, describing it as ‘seething like some corrosive salt.’ 100 years later, in noughties culture, the vagina is still a fierce, frightening unknown. The 2007 film Teeth had men wincing all over the world with the story of a teenager who castrates man after man with the teeth inside her vagina:

Thankfully, most of us wise young Cambridge students know that vaginas don’t have teeth, but we still express our fear of vaginas in different ways. Consider the almost-unmentionable subject of women’s masturbation. Why are we afraid to accept that women (apart from Ellie Slee) touch themselves? Well, vaginas, and our fear of them, are central to our reluctant acceptance that women are responsible for their own bodies. That’s not to say that if you have a dick, you can’t support women’s rights, it’s just to say that, to improve gender equality, we need to tackle our fear of women’s front-bottoms.

Think about how vaginas define women. If a woman is open about touching herself, how would we see her? How do we see women who have lots of sex? How do we see women who have no sex? Do we recognise that their bodies are their own property and that they can take responsibility for themselves? Of course not. Instead we judge how women decide to use them and when important problems like rape and sexual harassment come up, rather than confronting the problem, we ask what the victim was wearing and how much alcohol she’d consumed.

If this ‘how-to-not-get-raped’ advice is an attempt to instruct women on the patently obvious necessity of being sensible, what happens when women are deprived of their rights to their bodies? I’m not talking about Page Three models or even abortion, although they are undoubtedly important.

I’m talking about FGM.

Without going into too much detail and risking this article being moved to The Tab’s trash folder, as I was warned might happen, FGM is the act, prevalent among African communities, of removing the outer female genitalia. It is done with or without anaesthesia using a knife or razor, and the ages of victims range from weeks after birth to puberty, although in figures from 2013, it was revealed that most girls were cut before the age of five.

The practice is rooted in North-East and Sub-Saharan African religious and social cultures. More worryingly, it has firm support amongst these communities’ men and women; many women see it as what defines them as a woman. Leyla Hussein, one of the leaders of the campaign to stop FGM wrote in The Independent that ‘Women in my community worry that they won’t be considered a good Somali woman if they haven’t undergone FGM.’ For this reason, in the UK, if a doctor can’t perform the ‘surgery’ mothers or grandmothers often do it.

It affects 140 million women around the world and more than 24,000 young girls in the UK. Yet, at the best university in the world, a significant percentage of the audience in the Cambridge Union Society on Thursday night did not know what it was. Why? Because, while we’re taught about male-circumcision in Religious Education at school, while we watch NSPCC videos about child-abuse and while we read articles on student papers or attend debates about the cause for female equality, FGM doesn’t get a look in.

Earlier in this article, I said that the simple truth is that vaginas scare the shit out of us. Whether that’s the case or not, whether we don’t want to accept or talk about them, we should. If we can complain about the taboo on female masturbation, we should be outraged by the taboo on a practice that makes death during childbirth 50% more likely.

We need to talk about vaginas, even if it’s solely because many people in a prestigious debating chamber at a world-renowned university didn’t understand the horrific procedure of defacing a woman’s body.