Scarlet Letters: FGM, Christianity, and Purity Culture


Female genital mutilation (FGM) is defined as the (usually ritual) cutting of the external female genitalia, or the altering or injuring of the female genital organs for non-medical purposes. The practice is typically carried out when a girl is between six and ten years old, though it is known to occasionally be performed on an adolescent or adult female. The practice is heavily cultural, but due to its predominance in Islamic cultures, it has become a significant factor in the debate in the West about religious discrimination. In the midst of such a sensitive debate, how can Christians understand and engage in the discussion, and act with humility and justice?

Although Islamic cultures more commonly practice FGM, the practice is not actually condoned by any religion. It is not mentioned in the Torah or any of the Gospels or the Qur’an; in fact, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all condemn bodily mutilation. However, FGM has occurred in Muslim and Christian circles alike (CNN). Many Muslim women have undergone the ritual, and the issue has become relevant to the Western world due to the practice occurring among Muslim diaspora in the United Kingdom and the United States, where it is illegal. Among Christians, it is much more common in African countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Kenya, where the practice is more culturally acceptable, though even in these Christian circles the practice is rare. However, the practice has been known to occur even among Western-born Christians—Renee Bergstrom, a white woman from Minnesota, recently spoke of her own experience undergoing female genital mutilation at the age of three, when her mother, concerned about her toddler touching herself, took her to a (Christian) doctor whose solution was to remove her clitoris. Bergstrom now works with the Somali community in Minnesota, educating them about the dangers and injustice of the practice. Advocating for her Somali neighbors, Bergstrom says that she “didn’t want this [issue of FGM] to be another form of discrimination against Muslims” (CNN).

Statistically, FGM is much more common in Muslim communities, whether in their native countries or in the West. So what links all of these stories together? In cultures throughout the world, whether Muslim or not, there is often some level of revulsion toward female sexuality and an expectation of female purity. FGM is the result of a dangerous extreme of securing a girl’s purity and suppressing her sexuality. The concept of a woman’s sexual pleasure is, at best, easily dismissed, if not completely taboo and not addressed at all.

This is not exclusive to Islam—Christianity has never had the best track record when addressing female sexuality and sexual purity. In its own way, Christianity has placed such an emphasis on purity and abstinence that it has often lost any sense of grace and demonizes women who are sexual outside of a heterosexual marriage. Purity culture in a Christian context has often led to damaging effects when issues of extramarital or premarital sex come up, as well as domestic violence or assault within the Church.

Nevertheless, Christianity is in the minority when it comes to perpetrating the sexual violence of female genital mutilation. In the Western world and in the Christian Church, FGM is generally perceived as violence against another human being—our culture, though still in throes of hypersexualization and questions of identity, does not see FGM as any kind of ethical practice. Female genital mutilation is indeed a crime against the humanity of another person, and Christians have been influential in speaking out against it. However, in standing for Muslim sisters, Christians cannot fail to acknowledge the familiar motivation of purity, and perhaps gain a deeper understanding of taking it to dangerous extremes and causing complex hurt to vulnerable women and girls.

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