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Women’s ability to negotiate their bodies

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A fascinating historical account about clitoridectomies, (also known as Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM) takes the reader through interesting facts.

Excerpts:

  • FGM is often motivated by beliefs about proper sexual behaviour and the preservation of chastity; the desire to maintain hygiene and cleanliness; and efforts to confirm power inequalities and the compliance of women to the dictates of their communities.
  • In Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century doctors performed ‘clitoridectomies’ – the removal of the clitoris – on women explicitly to eradicate elements of female libido.
  • Written in 1881 in the British Medical Journal: ‘The sexual system dominates the other organic systems in woman.’ This statement encapsulated the two strands of Victorian medical thought: that the female body by definition walked the precarious line between health and illness; and that the female reproductive system governed not only her other biological functions, but her mental and emotional capacity as well.
  • The late nineteenth century saw a proliferation of increasingly extreme gynecological surgeries performed on women deemed neurotic or hysterical. The ovary was seen as the seat of neurosis and oophorectomies (removal of the ovaries) were performed to ‘cure’ hysteria, amongst other disorders of the mind and body.
  • The English gynecologist Isaac Baker Brown (1812-1873) believed that the ‘unnatural irritation’ of the clitoris caused a range of disorders including epilepsy and mania and he worked ‘to remove [the clitoris] whenever he had the opportunity of doing so.’ The procedure was most frequently performed in response to masturbation.
  • The nineteenth century in particular was a time of significant change with respect to women’s ability to negotiate their own bodies.  But, what is interesting about this move is the reasons given for rejection clitoridectomies:  they were almost exclusively framed in the language of scientific practice and propriety, not humanity or the bodily rights of women.
  • Genital mutilation needs to be understood, in part, as an example of the continuous re-negotiation of medicine, culture and sexuality – both at home and abroad.

The article can be found here.

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