‘ Hear our Voices’ -women’s Health and Family Services


Terminology and the media



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Terminology and the media
There has been much debate internationally about terminology in discussing this subject. Female circumcision, the term common in the 1970s, was replaced by the phrase female genital mutilation as a more accurate reflection of the severity of the practice and as a means of ‘condemnatory advocacy’ (Denison, 2014). However during the 1980s and 1990s a body of literature emerged that viewed the term FGM as problematic in a number of ways: to describe someone as ‘mutilated’ is degrading and prejudices debates about women’s autonomy (see also the WHFS, 2014 report). Gunning (1992) notes the arrogant perceptions which typify western criticisms of other cultural practices- “creating polarization between us women who make choices and are part of the modern world and them victims of an oppressive culture”. Moreover, Jones (2000) talks about an ancient cultural right that blights the lives of many women. This negative framing may prohibit rather than encourage women to come forward as supported by the WHFS (2014) report.

Thus women may find the term ‘mutilation’ offensive particularly when used by the media and by healthcare staff. Popular media explanations of genital cutting are often simplistic, and give a single underlying explanation, despite the literature documenting wide variations in practice (Gruenbaum 2005). The assumption is that culture and cultural values are homogeneous and unchanging. They also ignore the values of the different groups (males, females, younger, older, community leaders, and ordinary people). Moreover, campaigns to eradicate FGM have ignored diversity and treated it as a single procedure, usually more extreme infibulation - “ a lumping together of diverse forms of practice into genital mutilation” (Walley, 1997). Moreover, the term ‘mutilation’ may alienate members of practising communities and may account for why women who seek reversal operations may not end up attending their appointments to have this procedure undertaken (see WHFS 2014 report). In recognition of these arguments, some commentators adopted what they saw as the more neutral language of female genital surgeries or cutting. Accordingly, this article uses the term female genital mutilation/cutting or FGM/C throughout. (See World Health Organization 2008: 3 and Annex 1 for further discussion.)




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