Nothing but 200 grains of rice or guava seeds

By Debra LoGuercio

©Copyright 2008, Debra LoGuercio, all rights reserved

I can’t remember when I’ve read a story that was written this poorly. Someone get New York Times reporter Sara Corbett a one-way ticket back to journalism school.

The story, “A Cutting Tradition,” appeared in the Jan. 20 New York Times Magazine, and is posted online at Pull up the story yourself. Take a good, hard look at the face of a little girl being photographed as her clitoris is being snipped off. It’s the face of agony – her mouth flung open, her eyes mere slits. This is the face of torture. On just one child out of 200, on just one morning, in just one country.

Corbett witnessed all this, but didn’t mention even one gasp of pain, nor one tiny face clenched in agony. Whether from cowardice or incompetence, Corbett skipped over the real heart of the story: the girls. But the photographer didn’t. And that one photo speaks volumes.

Noting that the circumcisers slice off each clitoris “swiftly and with great affection,” this is all Corbett had to say about what she witnessed: “The procedure takes several minutes. There is little blood involved. Afterward, the girl’s genital area is swabbed with the antiseptic Betadine.” Following the mutilation, the child is “returned to a waiting area, where she’s given a small, celebratory gift — some fruit or a donated piece of clothing — and offered a cup of milk for refreshment.”

Gee. A tangerine and some socks. What an equitable exchange.

So, Ms. Corbett. During those “several minutes,” what about the little girls? What did you see and hear? How did they respond to this greatly affectionate act? Did they find the milk refreshing after having the most sensitive parts of their bodies sliced off without anesthesia?

How about tears, Ms. Corbett? I’m sure there were many. Was not a single tear worth mention?

Gutless. Just gutless.

Corbett gives far more attention to the circumcisers, who downplay the significance of what they have amputated – why, it’s only the size of “a grain of rice, a guava seed, a bean, the tip of a leaf, the head of a needle.” With about 8,000 nerve endings. The same number as a penis. All packed into an area smaller than a tiny fingertip.

Did Corbett challenge the circumcisers? Ask them if they understood female anatomy or what they were cutting off? No. Nor did she challenge the explanation of the chairman of the organization sponsoring the mass mutilations, when he offered the following rationalizations about the “benefits” to circumcising girls: “One, it will stabilize her libido. Two, it will make a woman look more beautiful in the eyes of her husband. And three, it will balance her psychology.”

Makes me want to puke.

Beyond ignoring the human tragedy in this story, and cautiously tiptoeing around the entire issue lest someone be offended or she be labeled “intolerant,” most of Corbett’s story reads like a freshman college term paper, full of nice sterile facts, but devoid of relevant human emotion or experience, and ending on an apologetic note, a plea for political correctness and tolerance.

Why is Corbett so timid? Well, note the group that sponsors this mass circumcision: “the Aassalaam Foundation, an Islamic educational and social services organization.” And, the women in the photos in Corbett’s column appear to be in Muslim dress. We know what happens when you rattle that cage.

Funny, when I wrote about the “circumcision” of African Muslim women awhile back, local Muslims wrote to me and insisted the practice isn’t condoned by Islam, and is in fact prohibited. Maybe they should stop writing to me and start writing to the Aassalaam Foundation. I don’t think they got the memo.

Of particular note is the story’s location: Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population. Based on statistics, it’s safe to assume that most, if not all, of those 200 girls were Muslim. And therein, we come full circle.

This entire FGM discussion sprang from a column about a Muslim Barbie – Salma – invented by an Indonesian entrepreneur to represent traditional values for little Muslim girls. Like Barbie, Salma probably doesn’t have any genitalia. Oh, irony of ironies, it turns out that for little Indonesian Muslim girls, Salma is anatomically correct.

So, upon learning of this abomination being conducted by Muslims against Muslims, will there be outrage? Protest? Rioting in the streets? Unlikely. We’re only talking about 200 grains of rice, 200 guava seeds -- not something vitally important, like a cartoon or the name of a Teddy Bear.