Monthly Archives: September 2015

Nip and Tuck


Source: Youtube

When I was a child, part of our Saturday evening entertainment was the quiz show Family Fortunes. Anyone else remember Les Dennis with his bright hair and smile, turning to the camera with the line, “we asked a hundred people to name…”?

I don’t remember there ever being a word association around cutting. But if Les Dennis had asked 100 people, I bet Mr Babbage would have given the top answers as: cutting hair, grass, fingernails, flowers.

And probably not: female genitalia.

I’m sorry. From 80s tea-time telly to a woman’s nether regions: I appreciate that was a steep subject shift.

If you’re still with me, shall we get stuck in?

Cutting is also known as female genital mutilation, or FGM.

(Thank goodness for acronyms: helpful for my word count).

Now, FGM is not the equivalent of male circumcision.  Circumcision is done for cultural and religious reasons, but also has proven health benefits in some cases – and certainly does not impact on a man’s sexual health/enjoyment later in life.

Neither are we talking about episiotomy (a temporary cut performed by midwives or obstetricians during difficult births).  While episiotomies are (granted) disagreeable, they aim to relieve rather than create discomfort, by avoiding painful natural tearing.

No, FGM is about taking a knife (or, whatever handy, apparently: a razor blade, a shard o’ glass) to the sexual genitalia of girls, cutting away certain bits or stitching over others.

I appreciate my chop-a-bit-sew-a-bit definition leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy, so here are the official four types of FGM:

Capture d’écran 2015-09-18 à 22.27.06

Source: WHO

Well, that’s simple enough – if you’re a obstetrician.

For the benefit of those are not, here’s a short video to walk you through it (hurrah for YouTube tutorials, eh?)

Picture it now ok?

This lovely tradition, ladies and gentleman, is performed on an estimated two to three million girls worldwide every year (6000-8000 every day) before or at the age of puberty.

6000 girls every day: that’s one every fifteen seconds, done generally without anesthesia or antibiotics and usually with unsterilized tools.

And those are conservative estimates.

For many countries, data is lacking.  In others, people are now underreporting, given recent moves to legislate against FGM:

(…) The self-reported circumcision status of women aged 15–49 was verbally surveyed in 1995 in northern Ghana. The same women were interviewed again in 2000 after the enactment of a law that criminalized FGM and Ghana-wide public campaigns against the practice. This study discovered that 13% of women who reported in 1995 that they had undergone FGM denied it in the 2000 interview, with youngest age group girls denying at rates as high as 50%.

Indeed, campaigning in recent years has had some success: twenty African countries have now prohibited FGM.

But in many cases these laws remain symbolic.  Egypt banned FGM six years ago, yet 94% of girls still undergo the procedure, and only this year a doctor was convicted of manslaughter after the death of one 13-year-old “patient”.

Other countries have yet to even legislate. How is it, for example, that FGM is still legal in Liberia, a country presided by a US-educated, Nobel Peace Prize winner (and woman….)?

So, on top of the usual array of UN conventions and treaties, some progress, thanks to the efforts of NGOs such as Equality Now, End FGM.

But not enough, as the map below shows (top prize to Somalia, just 2% away from universal mutilation of all of its young women. Good job Somalia!)

Credit: UNICEF

Source: UNICEF

FGM is not just confined to the places shown above: with first- and second-generation migration, the practice has been imported in pockets of diaspora communities in countries such as the US, Australia, France or the UK (an estimated 66,000 girls and women living in the UK have undergone FGM).

With such a geographic concentration, FGM is commonly misconstrued as religious practice.  This is not true. Cutting predates the major religions: neither the Koran nor the Bible offer any theological justification for FGM, and, for example, FGM is not prevalent in Muslim countries such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

However, the blurred line between culture, tradition and religion, and the link between cutting and certain religious values (e.g. chastity) has led to a clear if erroneous religious association.

Well, then: why cut?

Here are the main reasons, as dispassionately as I am able to set them out:

  1. Rite of passage for young girls, symbolising their maturity/availability as a wife;
  2. Cleanliness“: to eliminate natural secretions and odours;
  3. Femininity: to tidy away what are seen as ugly/masculine physical attributes;
  4. Promiscuity: a way to reduce a woman’s sexual pleasure and therefore inhibit any desire to seek partners outside of/prior to marriage;
  5. Male pleasure: type 3 of FGM (infibulation) makes the vagina “tighter” and therefore more pleasurable for the man during sexual intercourse.

*takes controlled breath*

FGM might, just might, be a chouïa less outrageous if it were some awful-but-actually-harmless-tradition; but it isn’t.

Because this is what happens when you are held down, legs spread and mutilated:

  • shock or, whoops, death from haemorrhages
  • risk of infection, or, whoops, death from dirty tools: including septicemia, tetanus, HIV or hepatitis;
  • longer-term urinary or pelvic infections from retained urine or menstrual blood
  • infertility (from infections)
  • kidney impairment/failure
  • severe pain during sexual intercourse (especially in the case of infibulation)
  • childbirth complications (eg fistula) or neonatal death (one to two babies per 100 deliveries die as a result of FGM).

And that’s without the psychological trauma of the operation itself, the pain of intercourse or childbirth in later years, or the simple denial of any kind of sexual pleasure.

Therein, of course, lies the problem. FGM is maintained on the back of centuries of values about women’s virginity, submission, and dependence.  FGM continues because women must be docile and “pure” to be marriageable material, and in communities where marriage and motherhood are not choices but an economic or cultural necessity, girls – and their parents – will fulfill whatever prerequisites are necessary for them to become wives and mothers.

Even if that means cutting away their genitalia and enduring a lifetime of the consequences.

So how do we go about changing things?

It is the usual combination of tackling the practice itself and the reasons for it: educating people about the dangers, supporting legislation (and prosecutions), empowering women and young girls economically, working with boys and men to help them view women and sexual health issues differently, collectively challenging harmful practices, encouraging local or religious leaders to take a firm stance against cutting.

FGM may be irreversible: but tradition is not. Time to cut loose.


Men are from … Earth, and Women … also from Earth

His and Hers?

His and Hers?

I recently spent a weekend in Grenoble with one of my best French friends.

We were chuckling over breakfast about the time we went hiking in the Belledonne. We started an English lesson half-way through the walk, and my friend (who was map-reading) was concentrating so hard on the ship/sheep pronunciation conundrum that we got lost (yep, in translation).

When her man heard us reminiscing he gave a gaullic shrug over his bowl of cold chocolate milk (cold. I will never understand how some French people mix cocoa into room-temperature UHT milk and still claim culinary superiority over the British).

‘C’est normal,’ he said. ‘Les femmes n’ont pas le sens de l’orientation.’

He paused, bowl at his lips, as we glared at him over the table.  My friend (being French) has the icy-stare thing down much better than I do, so he was suitably scared (of her, at least).

But I have to say, it’s not the first time I’ve been told that my genetic makeup (not the Boots N°7 kind) explains why I am bound to end up getting lost.

Or to be a rubbish driver.

Or, on the upside, to multitask like there’s nothing to it.

There are of course many other weird and wonderful gendered clichés out there: cleverly depicted recently by designer Yang Liu.

But since your attention will start to wonder if I get carried away (ô fickle reader!) let’s focus on those three old chestnuts: direction, driving, and multitasking.

What’s fact, and what’s fiction?

  1. (n)one-Direction

Do men have an inbuilt GPS?

Absolutely, as well as being good with numbers, Imax films, and moving their limbs, or so say the Columbia University anthropologists:

Men are better in spatial coordination and have a better sense of direction (usually!). They excel in math and are great at interpreting three-dimensional objects. They have a better hand-eye coordination and more precise control of large muscle movement.

Spot the reassuring “(usually!)” in the middle of an academic paragraph?

Well, soyez tranquilles: the claim above is backed by some astounding (said the Gruffalo) research from MIT:

(…) Women whose ring finger is shorter than their index finger are much more likely to rely on satellite navigation technology to find their way round, whereas women whose ring fingers are of similar height to their index finger are better at navigation.

Researchers explain that finger length reflects exposure to different level of hormones in the womb, explaining why men tend to have long ring fingers because they were exposed greater levels of testosterone in the developmental stage and women tend to have ring and index fingers that are similar in length.

Aha, I caught you surreptitiously checking!

Well? Where does your index/ring-finger ratio come out?

Size-does-matter aside, I did manage to find something sensible sounding, in the form of this article.  It explains that getting from A>B actually depends on your C: your entorhinal cortex, the part of the brain that handles navigation.

(Teapoint conversation challenge for Monday morning – see if you can work it in: How was your weekend? Good, thanks, although my entorhinal cortex played up, and I got lost coming home from the pub Friday night. You?)

Anyway.  It appears a) both women and men are endowed with this particular C-spot; and b) there is no evidence to show it works better in men than women, or vice versa.

The article does suggest however that women are less confident about trusting their inner entorhinal cortex, and would rather refer to a map.

(My guess is that that goes back to Gretel’s bad experience. Hansel’s breadcrumb trail: not so reliable).

2. Driving Miss Daisy

Studies generally concur that women are safer drivers.  They are less aggressive on the road, take fewer risks, and therefore cause fewer accidents.  Indeed many EU insurance companies used to offer lower premiums for female drivers (until struck down as sexist, ho!, by the ECJ in 2012).

But safer grates on me. Safer does equate to being skillful. It simply suggests women are mindful of other roadusers, whereas men (evidently due to all that testosterone) cannot help but rev their Vauxhall Astras at the traffic lights as if they were extras in Fast and Furious.

(Testosterone, que dalle. Give ME a Maserati and an Autobahn, and I would be GOD).

Anyway. We won’t reach agreement about what constitutes a good or bad driver here. What IS interesting however is that female drivers consistently underestimate their own driving skills.

Why is that?

  • Is it because it’s only comparatively recently that women have been able to get behind the wheel (whenever you’re ready, Saudi Arabia!)?
  • Is it because even though there are now as many, or even more, female drivers on the road, driving is still consistently portrayed as a masculine occupation?
  • Or is it because if you’re told that you cannot drive as well as a man, you’ll be inclined to let guys drive, and therefore get less practice, and feel less confident, and, and, oh: spot the vicious circle?

3. Too much to (multit)ask?

Credit: Yang Liu

The legend reads: “Modern Man” for the green picture, and “Housewife” for the pink. Credit: Yang Liu

I think men quite like this one. Because it’s actually quite convenient for guys to encourage the assumption that they are incapable of, say, answering a question and watching TV at the same time.

(My suspicion also stems from the way menfolk often disappear to the loo clutching a newspaper: that suggests a definite ability to do two things at once.)

As for the science: well, bof.

One oft-quoted study from 2013 claims that male and female brains are “hardwired” differently: this, apparently, would explain the multitasking point (and every other gender cliché). This “scientific evidence” was picked up frenziedly by the likes of the Daily Mail, but soon after the study was knocked for making such simplistic assumptions about anatomical differences and behaviour trends (i.e. all nature, no nurture).

Because clearly the impact of “nuture” (our upbringing, our learning-by-doing, our assumptions of our own and others’ abilities) is undeniable (if admittedly unmeasurable), as the Guardian’s Science Editor, Robin McKie, summarises:

“The longer we live, the more our intellectual biases are exaggerated and intensified by our culture, with cumulative effects on our neurons. In other words, the intellectual differences we observe between the sexes are not the result of different genetic birthrights but are a consequence of what we expect a boy or a girl to be. Why so many people should be so desperate to ignore or obscure this fact is a very different issue.”

I would agree with that.

But then, great minds think alike …