Bill Maher's been busy telling the world about the poor treatment of women by Muslims, bringing up female genital mutilation or FGM as evidence. And Reza Aslan did an admirable job correcting his many misconceptions.
Reza's correct in that FGM is practiced by various religious groups but what no one mentioned during this sling fest, was that the newest group to start practicing FGM are western women living in western countries.
A few years ago, I read a story in the Globe and Mail about a Canadian woman who went to visit her male gynecologist. Mid-examination, he pointed out that for a fee, $3,500 to $6,000, he could trim her labia to make it look more pretty, like a symmetrical butterfly. He was talking about labiaplasty, which the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery has described as one of the fastest growing cosmetic surgery procedures for women in the U.S. The same trend holds for other western countries such as Canada and the UK. This particular surgeon told the woman that cutting her labia would enhance her self-esteem, while creating an attractive look and a comfortable feel while she's sitting.
Labiaplasties fall under the UN definition of type IV category of FGM- a procedure involving partial removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. To be fair, the physical devastation and the catastrophic results for FGM types I -III are not comparable to FGM type IV, but I do think it's fair to compare the underlying reasons behind the two practices: women are being pressured to conform to sociocultural expectations of beauty. Western women probably didn't give their labias a lot of thought in the past. But when Brazilian waxes became the norm in Playboy, women followed suit and started noticing their labia minora in earnest for the first time. Labiaplasty is a common procedure for porn stars, and with the proliferation of internet porn, the 'pornification' of western culture comes full circle. Media routinely airbrush out labia minora in photos creating a skewed view of female genitals and suddenly, there's a standard of genital beauty that didn't exist before.
Dr. Virginia Braun, a New Zealand psychologist who specializes in female genital cosmetic surgery issues (FGCS) reviewed published academic works for Journal of Women's Health and found doctors reporting clients as young as ten coming to see them, with the majority of women falling between the ages of 20 -30. She worries about what surgeons are not telling women.
Very few surgeons note that all female genitalia "are, in principle, normal" and that "the perception of female genital beauty is very much culturally dependent.
Kirsten O'Regan wrote an investigative piece about labiaplasties for Guernica Magazine. She talked to Dr. Gary Alter, a urologist and plastic surgeon who practices in both Beverly Hills and Manhattan. She writes that:
Alter confirms that there is a lot of suing in the business, and attributes widespread malpractice to inexperienced surgeons seduced by the money.
O'Regan also writes that:
This surgery is relatively unregulated and frequently botched, as indicated by the staggering number of clinics that advertise discreet revisions of bungled previous surgeries.
Doctors who perform these surgeries report high levels of success and high patient satisfaction. But according to Dr. Virginia Braun's research into FGCS, this is false advertising:
There are no published studies, however, that directly report the failure of a technique of labial reduction or other FGCS procedures... However, surgery does go wrong. Online accounts of "labiaplasty nightmares" are easily found, and surgeons report that they see and attempt to fix other surgeon's botched procedures.
On-line support groups have started for women who are sharing their stories of failed labiaplasty. They reminded me of the painful and sad stories that we normally think only happens in African countries. One wrote about her unsuccessful surgery from five years ago.
(sic)...my surgeon removed the lot,-all my labia ,minora I couldn't believe it-still can't. He burnt me to cauterise me resulted in me burnt from my clitoris to my backside... I am now left looking worse & unnatural and sex is sore and tight, he has done a lot of damage and got away with it. If your privates work a treat, don't mess with them. I had a great sex life before now I don't date at all. Don't do it ever- this is the biggest regret in my life, it is very difficult to move on as it has really messed with my head.
Another 19 year-old wrote:
(sic) i had undergone this surgery and also found my lips totally amputated as i asked for just a small reduction. i had the procedure in january 07 and the doctor had told me that they were going to look better as it heals but that was not true. i was wondering if its too late to file a lawsuit i feel like i was butchered and violated. This was the worst thing that ive ever done in my life and im totally dpressed about it.
Many of the posts reveal that women went in for what they thought was minor trimming of their labia minora and came out with their entire labia minora amputated without their consent. Women talk about chronic pain, scarring, inability to have sex, even more embarrassment about their genital's appearance years after the surgery, and feelings of depression and suicide.
New View Campaign, a grassroots organization was created to challenge the over medicalization of female sexuality criticizes plastic surgeons. They are worried about unethical medical practioners who through aggressive advertising deliberately create markets for female genital cosmetic surgeries.
Real choice is important, but choice does not exist in a cultural vacuum. In campaigning against genital cosmetic surgery we are calling for critical attention to the cultural conditions that lead women to choose these operations. We want to encourage debate about what is going on in contemporary western society that could produce a woman's desire to surgically alter her genitals?
The response I usually hear is that women in the west 'choose' to have this 'risk free' surgery out of 'free will' while 'other' mostly black and brown women are forced against their will to have FGM by their barbaric cultures. I agree that FGM is barbaric. And Muslim communities have responded. There are massive grassroots campaigns taking place in mosques and villages where FGM takes place. Imams and community leaders are educating both women and men about the harmful effects of this practice. The Prophet Muhammad had four daughters and FGM was not practiced on any of them. Based on lack of evidence, Islamic scholars around the world have issued fatwas against the practice of FGM. Satisfaction of a woman's sexual needs is an important requirement in Islam and FMG causes harm and must be eliminated. Education and awareness has resulted in declining rates of FGM in Africa and the Middle East especially among the educated. But ironically here in west, where rights for women are considered superior, the rate of FGM and other forms of female genital cosmetic surgeries is growing astronomically.
As Dr. Braun and Dr. Tiefer point out in their research paper, breast augmentation was a rare surgery for women in the 1950s but today it's the most common surgical enhancement around, and the fear is, unless we all start speaking out, labiaplasty is positioned to become the next big 'normal' surgery for western women.