The New York Times included the term “Female Genital Mutilation” in an online feature Wednesday, an apparent reversal from an editor’s declaration last week that the paper would not use the “culturally loaded” term.
The op-ed by “Muslim feminist” Shireen Qudosi, a forceful condemnation of the practice, was posted in the Times’ online Women in the World section Wednesday. “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is the horrific act of cutting off a young girl’s clitoris,” Qudosi opens her piece.
The semantic bluntness contrasts with Health and Science Editor Celia Dugger’s decision to avoid the term “female genital mutilation” in the Times’ print edition. Dugger explained her reasoning for substituting the term “genital cutting” in a response to a reader last week. “There’s a gulf between the Western (and some African) advocates who campaign against the practice and the people who follow the rite, and I felt the language used widened that chasm,” she wrote.
“Female genital mutilation” is the language used in the federal statute, 18 U.S.C. §116, under which Doctors Jumana Nagarwala and Fakhruddin Attar were charged in Michigan. The cases are the first of their kind in the United States, and have rocketed the predominately Muslim practice of FGM to the forefront of the American public consciousness. While the New York Times has used the term FGM in the recent past, the flurry of reporting on the issue in the wake of the Michigan arrests prompted the editorial decision to avoid that language.
FGM is also the preferred terminology of international institutions like the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF. The term replaced the once-common “female circumcision” as the preferred manner of referring to the practice among anti-FGM campaigners in the 1990s. The Times‘ Dugger explained to readers that she found that term, prominent when the details of the tradition were not widely understood in the West, “euphemistic” and favored the term “cutting.”
Millions of girls in the Muslim world are still subjected to FGM, especially on the continent of Africa, where UNICEF estimates 98 percent of Somali and 87 percent of Egyptian women have had their genitals mutilated. The degree of mutilation varies by region and religious sect, but all types of FGM involve the removal of parts of a young girl’s genitalia.
This can range from the mere cutting away of parts of the clitoral hood to the wholesale removal of the clitoris, labia majoria, or labia minora. The most extreme form of FGM is called “infibulation,” in which virtually all external genitalia is removed and the wound sewn together, leaving only a single tiny hole from which to urinate and menstruate until the girl is married.
Until recently, the practice was virtually unknown in the West, but the ongoing Nagarwala-Attar prosecution suggests girls from around the American Midwest have been being brought to the Detroit area to have their genitals mutilated since at least 2005.
FBI Director James Comey addressed the issue Wednesday in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He used the term “female genital mutilation.”