April 24, 2017

‘Female Genital Mutilation’ Is a Too ‘Culturally Loaded’ Term at the NY Times

Female genital mutilation (FGM) has unfortunately been in the news recently with the arrests of several people in Michigan allegedly involved in the practice. The World Health Organization has declared that FGM “is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.” But, it has recently been learned, the New York Times won’t use that term unless someone a reporter quotes uses it; otherwise, it’s called “female genital cutting,” — because, it turns out, one editor finds that term “less culturally loaded.”

Perhaps because it appears not to have made the paper’s print editions, a March 13 Times story on the deportation of an Ethiopian man who had completed a ten-year prison sentence for having “used scissors to remove the clitoris of his 2-year-old daughter in his family’s Atlanta-area apartment in 2001″ got very little attention.

That writeup by Daniel Victor referred to “cutting” in its headline and seven times in its content. The only reference to “mutilation” was in a quote from an ICE official.

A Times reader complained about frequent references to “cutting” in its April 13 story (Page A14 in the next day’s print edition) on the arrest of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala in Michigan the previous day. The headline at Jacey Fortin’s dispatch also referred to ”cutting,” and that word was used eleven times in the story’s content. “Mutilation” was only seen in a quote from a Justice Department attorney. Stories at the Associated Press, Reuters, USA Today and in local Detroit papers showed no reluctance to employ the commonly accepted “female genital mutilation” in their related reports.

As Alex Griswold at the Washington Free Beacon reported Monday afternoon (HT Weasel Zippers), that reader’s complaint led to the following justification (bolds are mine):

The (reader’s) letter caught the eye of Times public editor Liz Spayd, who asked the story’s editor Celia Dugger to explain.

“I began writing about this back in 1996 when I was an immigration reporter on the Metro desk covering the asylum case of Fauziya Kassindja,” Dugger wrote back. “I decided in the course of reporting that case–especially after a reporting trip to Togo, her home country, and the Ivory Coast–to call it genital cutting rather than mutilation.”

“I never minced words in describing exactly what form of cutting was involved, and there are many gradations of severity, and the terrible damage it did, and stayed away from the euphemistic circumcision, but chose to use the less culturally loaded term, genital cutting,” Dugger wrote.

“There’s a gulf between the Western (and some African) advocates who campaign against the practice and the people who follow the rite,”she argued, “and I felt the language used widened that chasm.”

Ms. Dugger, in calling FGM a “rite,” appears to be giving away some sympathy for a practice with no conceivable medical justification which the civilized world has properly and roundly condemned. The “chasm” to which she refers is there for a reason. There should be no cause for feeling guilty about using a term recognized worldwide that might widen the perceived contrast between civilization and savagery.

FGM is a commonly understood term — so common that it has its own medical dictionary definition: “the cutting, or partial or total removal, of the external female genitalia for cultural, religious, or other non-medical reasons.” Note that “cutting” is a subset of the term’s full definition.

How odd it is that the ordinarily reflexively feminist-supporting Times has allowed one woman to exercise such control over this area of the language it uses in its reporting, especially in moving to an alternative term which, despite Ms. Dugger’s protests and claims of full disclosure, partially sanitizes a practice which has done so much real harm to millions of women around the world.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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