The argument by some trans activists that the term Female Genital Mutilation is cissexist, and offensive to transgender people has caused much debate, frustration and anger from all sides. Transgender activists feel that the term is oppressive to them because it denies their identity of being woman and excludes them from being female.
A Unicef report (2013) states that FGM is practiced in 29 countries in the north-east, west and east of Africa and in some countries in Asia, and the Middle East. In the UK girls from migrant communities from these areas are also cut and mutilated.
Experiences of oppression are not solely forged out of how we identify with our gender. As females we are socialised as ‘women’ and ‘girls’. We experience oppression in many ways, through FGM, forced marriage, dowry etc; because of biology that we inherit at birth and how we are socialised and treated as women and girls. As Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women the intersection of race together with our female bodies at birth, amongst other categories like social class and disability dictate the oppression that we experience. The oppression forges through the inequality that is of being woman.
FGM is performed on some BME girls because they are identified as girls by virtue of their biology. This social reality results in inferior treatment compared to males. Even if these girls later identify as transgender men, it will have no bearing on their subjugation from patriarchal forces that require females to be cut in order to be valued as “pure” within society. It is precisely because they are identified as girls that they experience the oppression of FGM. Their experiences and agency in response to oppression cannot be distorted, colonised, minimised, or erased.
Transgender women’s experiences of oppression (transphobia) is dictated by their biology not ‘matching’ their gender identity and transgender women’s experiences of sexism are not dictated by their biology. This is not to say that transgender women and men do not experience oppression but to say that the experiences are different and specific. There is no moral high ground to be attained by arguing that one form of oppression is of more significance than another.
What troubles me about the argument that the term FGM is cissexist and should be eradicated, is that yet again specific experiences of oppression are being wiped out as a result of viewing FGM though a western lens.
Saying FGM is cissexist ignores, and worse still, actively erases the dimensions of experiences faced by BME women and girls who are subjected to FGM by patriarchal forces. Arguments that FGM is cissexist reinforces their disempowerment because it silences their voices
This debate frustrates me because the very women who experience such appalling oppression are being denied their basic human rights and a voice in this debate. Who are we to deny the struggles that have taken place in our societies to combat FGM? To erase the term FGM is to erase the struggles behind it. The reality is that these women are denied a right to their own bodies. The struggles to have FGM acknowledged, recognised and addressed has finally attained some funding and support. Just when some milestones have been achieved there are moves to deny the very language we need to fight female oppression within BME communities.
We are doing a disservice to all the battles feminists have fought for all women, transgender or otherwise. Positing the reality of the oppression means we have to take account of the extent of the reality faced by women and girls.
As a black feminist I understand and fully support the struggles of transgender activists to achieve equality and remove discrimination. I empathise with the anger and frustration felt. The way forward is not achieved by removing the language that serves to articulate how brutal experiences of patriarchal oppression are experienced but by joining forces and showing solidarity to end oppression for all.
Kalwinder Sandhu is a freelance consultant, researcher and writer and a feminist activist. She is currently studying for a PhD in South Asian women’s agency in familial and intimate partner violence.