By Aoran Zhang
“Every coin has two sides,” says Bu Fan, a student at the Vanderbilt University, when asked about her views on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). “Although FGM is immoral, it is a very important part of local culture that cannot be banned immediately.” After she went to Africa to study FGM in 2017, she set up a WeChat official account, ‘Discover Feminism’, and has run it ever since. The content of the account all falls under the themes of female empowerment. Her study of FGM in Africa was the inspiration of it all.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as all procedures that are involved in the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. In some cultures, FGM is seen as a right of passage for a girl to become a woman. FGM is painful and has a direct and long-term impact on the health and psychology of women and girls who undergo it. Despite the adverse effects on women’s sexual and reproductive health, however, worldwide between 100 and 140 million women have undergone the procedure, of which about 91.5 million are in Africa.
The continuation of FGM involves factors of culture, tradition, sexuality, and gender. Currently, people worldwide, together with local activists, are making efforts to fight against FGM. The anti-FGM movement has even travelled across the Indian Ocean and taken roots in China. Chinese youth, like Bu Fan, are an integral part of the Chinese anti-FGM movement. However, like any other social movement, there are different views towards FGM among its sympathizers.
This article aims to uncover the different perceptions on the subject of FGM among Chinese sympathizers of the Anti-FGM movement. This article summarized 4 levels of perceptions toward FGM based on the extent of technical and contextual understandings behind the formation of such perceptions. In the scope of this article, contextual understanding is defined as comprehension of the local situation based on exposure to local people, cultural, political, and socio-economic situations. Technical understanding is defined as people’s knowledge of scientific, historical, or other related technical facts about FGM based on their comprehension of related academic literatures.
A preliminary mass online survey and 20 in-depth interviews were conducted for the purpose of this research. However, due to the limited numbers of interview subjects, the voluntary participation principle, and the snowballing referral of interviewees the interview results may not be fully representative. Despite such limitations, the in-depth case studies of the interviews still offer some meaningful and generalizable insights into how different levels of contextual and technical understandings shape perceptions towards FGM. Different approaches to FGM in either technical or contextual understandings are rated based on the criteria in the chart below.
The 1st level: “FGM is an abomination and the worst thing ever ”
“I’m one hundred percent against FGM, it is an abomination and the worst thing” says Blurry, a student from a Chinese public high school. She knew about FGM from an article online. After reading the article, she watched the film Desert Flower and wrote an opinion piece against FGM on social media. People like Blurry tend to have limited knowledge of FGM as their understanding is often solely based on the popular book/movie Desert Flower by Waris Dirie, or the one or two articles they came across online. Their understanding of FGM can be categorized as level one, where they considered FGM as something barbaric and unethical.
Such a view can be traced to the overwhelming negative narrative around FGM on the Chinese Internet. A search for FGM on Baidu, China’s largest search engine, yielded about 512,000 results, with the keyword “painful” accounting for 477,000 and “cruelty” accounting for about 22,600 of the results. Furthermore, “outrageous”, “barbaric”, “absurd” and “creepy” are words that readers often see in the headlines of anti-FGM articles. While FGM may have some characteristics of these words, according to editors of an online explainer article about FGM, their main purpose in using these emotionally arousing words is to attract more readers. “I think anyone who sees these sensational sentences would want to click on them.” Zhu, an official account editor points out.
Ann, a college student, said: “After I read about FGM, I felt that it was an extremely cruel activity. We should get rid of this custom as soon as possible.” After reading Zhu’s article, Ann continued to read Desert Flower and watch its movie adaption. She is confident that the tradition can be eliminated soon. “Waris Dirie escaped so she can have a better future. With the increasing publicity of the book, FGM will disappear from the region much sooner.” Other readers interviewed all expressed similar anger towards FGM and are certain that it will be stopped soon.
However, the level one knowledge of FGM is often limited to Desert Flower, and thus is easily influenced by the emotions of the book’s narrator. When asked about their perceptions of FGM, people on level one usually use emotional adjective to describe the actions and its consequences but rarely focus on the cultural background that gave rise to its cause.
At the same time, those at level one see Africans and African cultures in a somewhat prejudiced light. “I cannot believe that in such a modern world, these absurd things can happen. It’s a humiliation to humanity as a whole!”“Frankly speaking, those living in tribes are savage and uncivilized, so their customs are more dehumanizing. It’s not like us, who are educated and raised civilized.” Says Blurry. Such un-scrutinized criticism from level one often dismisses the cultural significance of FGM as they consider tribal culture as savage and uncivilized.
People like Blurry are in support of the anti-FGM movement in the form of reposting/sharing online articles they read. Such support is without any form of physical/financial contribution. Angry as they are about the existence of FGM, they don’t think they have the responsibility to address the problem. “It’s too far away from our society. It’s none of our business.” she continued.
The 2nd level: “Ending FGM is solely about promoting gender equality .”
“Gender equality is really important.” Says Yu Xinyao when asked about her thoughts on FGM. This spring, together with other students, Yu Xinyao founded an award-winning anti-FGM project online. She represents a typical online researcher, whose views on FGM can be categorized as level two.
Those on level two have often read copious academic articles on FGM. In addition, some of them have contacted local NGO workers and even government staff in Africa. As a result, they have a more thorough understanding of the subject matter compared to those on level one. However, such secondhand research data only allows a limited level of contextual understanding. Therefore, they still tend to view FGM monolithically through the lens of gender equality. Compared to the previous group, those on the 2nd level are more willing to devote time, money, and energy to contribute to anti-FGM activities.
“I decided to study FGM because of the competition; therefore only looked at papers on the World Health Organization website and other online academic libraries.” Run Hongru, a senior high student, previously participated in PBIC2020 (Public Benefit International Challenge for Youth), talked about her personal experience researching about FGM. Her team set up a fundraising campaign to sell products that represented African culture on the Chinese Internet and donated the profits to local anti-FGM groups in Kenya. “Situations can be improved soon if we keep working on it. After all, unlike other more complicated issues, such as abortion or child marriage, ending FGM is solely about promoting gender equality.”
Online researchers admitted that they lack a contextual understanding of local situations. “We understand the technical aspect like FGM types, causes, and influences from our online research. But we have not had the opportunity to communicate with those who are affected.” Run Hongru pointed it out. Another team member, Wang Man Shengyuan, also mentioned this deficiency, “We only communicated with NGO workers. Almost ninety percent of residents who experienced FGM cannot access the Internet.”
The 3rd level: “We cannot simply presuppose FGM as a corrupt custom.”
“We thought we could change Africa. We didn’t. Instead, Africa changed us.” This is the title Lie Kexuan wrote for her article published on the China Africa Project website. In 2019, she went on a research trip to Kenya for three months to study FGM. She traveled to villages bordering Kenya and Tanzania to interview local Maasai tribes and NGOs. After returning to China, she and her partner held charity concerts and collected donations for the local anti-FGM organization.
Lie Kexuan is a typical example of those with the third level of understanding. They had the opportunity to research in Africa and were able to communicate with local people apart from NGO and government workers for a longer period. Such personal experience enhanced their contextual understanding of FGM and allowed them to arrive at the 3rd level. After knowing more about the complexity of FGM in local culture, they turned to consider eliminating FGM is a very difficult task, which is different from 2nd level of understanding.
Most field researchers went deep into the native tribes to interview locals and NGO workers. They wrote articles based on data from the interpersonal interviews they have conducted. Some also filmed Vlogs to document the project. Apart from research, they also gave financial support to NGOs, and helped teach local students about the consequences of FGM on women’s sexual and reproductive health.
Most of the interviewees who achieved a 3rd level of understanding were able to see that FGM is a result of a combination of factors in local culture and society. “We cannot simply presuppose FGM as a corrupt custom.”Liu Kexuan says. She points out that FGM has a very complex religious and cultural meaning behind it. It is only by looking at it from a local perspective with a respectful attitude that one can gain a deeper understanding of FGM.
What is worth noting is that there is often a change of attitude among researchers before and after conducting field research and interacting with those affected. After going into the field, most researchers’ perceptions on the issue shifted from solely wanting to save girls from FGM to discovering more aspects of FGM, including its cultural causes and the local conditions that give rise to the practice.
After learning more about local situations, Lisa, another field researcher, changed her position from a savior to observer, “We shouldn’t see ourselves as givers or those of higher social status, on the contrary, we should try to put ourselves in their shoes and assist them in solving practical problems.” When questioned about what she learned from the research, Lisa highlighted the change in perceptions. “While we were there, we realized that our power as outsiders was very limited, and it was impossible to reverse the situation in a rather short period.”
According to many filed researchers, they view the anti-FGM movement rather pessimistically. “Kenya has established laws against FGM for a long time. However, if you take away a parent who wants to have their daughter circumcised, the family’s means of subsistence may also be taken away. You may sanction the practice, but you would destroy a family,” says Lisa. “I am despaired of FGM and the local patriarchal system, especially as it is common for some local fathers to practice it and deny girls their right to education.” Duan Yige, who went to Kenya with Lisa and Liu Kexuan, expressed her sense of despair frankly. “I feel so powerless that we cannot fight against this kind of deeply rooted patriarchal society at all.”
Although many are pessimistic, there are still people from the 3rd level who believe that they can make a difference. “FGM is an extremely important part of becoming a woman from a girl in their culture, so they want to preserve this cultural identity. Nonetheless, because FGM hurts women, they should choose the most appropriate position between health and culture. The only thing is where the exact point lies in,” says Bu Fan. She is still confident that FGM will eventually be eliminated. “In my opinion, anti-FGM activities can go step by step with the improvement of education and economic development.” But, according to her, there is a long way to go.
The 4th level “Without empathy, we will never be able to promote the anti-FGM movement.”
“There are so few people in China who do charity work in such local places like Oloitokitok village in Kenya,” Aguang said in the interview. Since joining China House in 2016, she has been in contact with a local NGO, MAGRIAF, in Kenya. Every year she and her colleagues take students there to conduct field research.
Compared to student researchers, people like Aguang, who has the fourth level of understanding, know more about FGM in the contextual term. They see FGM not only as a cultural issue, but they also understand that economic and political factors make this issue complex. In addition to simply talking with local people, NGOs, and government staff, they work with local anti-FGM NGOs and deal with government-related issues continuously for long periods. In this process, they gain more holistic perceptions of FGM and the anti-FGM movement. They tend to be more optimistic than researchers from the previous level as they have fought at the forefront of the Anti-FGM movement.
“Contextual understanding is extremely important for people to comprehend the complexity of FGM. Without interacting with the locals, one could not understand why legislation on its own is insufficient,” says Aguang. Many tribal people consider that state laws are separated from their culture. A son of the Sheik of the Samburu tribe once said that, “The law is the law of Kenya, and the faith of our tribe is our faith. We will never lose our traditional beliefs and culture.” Therefore, due to the conflict between tribal identity and state identity, the mainstream’s disdain for the state law has led to a general insufficiency to enforce the ban on FGM in Kenya.
In addition, without working with the corrupt local government and local NGOs that lack independent working capacity, one could not imagine the magnitude of the difficulties the anti-FGM movement faces. Aguang believes it is important to bring more Chinese youth to Africa to see things for themselves: “Without empathy, we will never be able to promote the anti-FGM movement effectively.”When people actually go to Africa, they are able to learn more about the local situation, develop empathy, and push the anti-FGM movement forward.
Aguang admits that the anti-FGM movement still has a long way to go, but she remains optimistic about the effectiveness of the movement. “It is true that the power of the individual is small, and such practice is deeply rooted in the local culture. But the program is ongoing, through these years of unremitting efforts, the situation has improved to a certain extent.”
What does this all mean?
This study suggests that the more facts, either technical and contextual knowledge, people know about FGM, the more complicated and intractable they consider FGM. In addition, it’s also interesting that the more contextual knowledge people have, the more challenging they find the anti-FGM movement to be.
Apart from revealing the differences in views among the Chinese sympathizers for the Anti-FGM movement, the interviews also found that although some people solely considering FGM an issue confined to Africa, others were able to reflect on their own culture through the common core of women’s oppression.
Lisa once wrote a play about female empowerment inspired by both the Chinese culture and FGM. According to her, the control and prohibition of female sexuality behind FGM is very similar to the so-called Virginity Complex in China. “Some social phenomena in China are mild versions of FGM.” She says, “These manifestations are more moderate. As a result, they are not often perceived as an expression of gender inequality, which creates difficulties in addressing the problem.”
Lisa believes it is important for Chinese people to join the anti-FGM movement, because understanding FGM would help Chinese people to gain different perspectives on gender equality and reflect on their own culture. Although anti-FGM movement still has a long way to go, with more participation and support, both at home and abroad, everything is progressing.
Female genital mutilation. World Health Organization Facts Sheet. Accessed February 3, 2020. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation
Liu Kexuan, Fan Peifeng, Duan Yige. “We thought we could change Africa. We didn’t. Instead, Africa changed us.” China Africa Project. Accessed September 8, 2019. https://chinaafricaproject.com/student-xchange/we-thought-we-could-change-africa-we-couldnt-but-africa-did-change-us/
Yu Xinyao. Remote. September 3, 2020.
Run Hongru. Remote. September 3, 2020.
Wang Manshengyuan. Remote. September 3, 2020.
Lisa, aliases. Remote. September 3, 2020.
Liu Kexuan. Remote. September 4, 2020.
Duan Yige. Remote. September 5, 2020.
Bu Fan. Remote. September 5, 2020.
Blurry, aliases. Remote. September 6, 2020.
Zhu, aliases. Remote. September 6, 2020.
Ann, aliases. Remote. September 7, 2020.
Aguang, aliases. Remote. September 11, 2020.
（9 other interviews were not directly referenced in the article）