Navigating Conflicting Norms on Body and Sexuality : Exploring Swedish-Somali Women's and Swedish Welfare Workers' Perceptions of Female Genital Cutting

Abstract: Female genital cutting (FGC), sometimes referred to as female genital mutilation, is the subject of intense debate, exposing tensions between varying cultural values about bodies and sexuality. In Sweden, FGC is framed as a social problem designed to control female sexuality, and national efforts have long aimed to prevent it from being perpetuated. Welfare workers have a key role in interpreting and implementing FGC politics, making the welfare encounter a site where sometimes divergent cultural understandings about FGC, bodies, and sexuality converge.In this thesis, I explore how sexuality and sexual health are constructed in relation to FGC through welfare work and from the perspectives of different generations of Somali women in the Swedish setting of immigration. Based on individual interviews (16) and focus groups (3) with welfare workers (24) in social care, healthcare, and education, I investigate how FGC, sexuality, and sexual health, is approached in counseling and information targeting young women potentially affected by FGC. Through individual interviews (12) and focus groups (9) with Swedish-Somali women of different generations (53), I examine how women relate to and make sense of their own FGC experiences in light of changing social norms and discourse of FGC post-migration to Sweden. I discuss how concepts of FGC, body, sexuality, and sexual health are navigated and negotiated by investigating meanings ascribed to FGC by the various actors. I also consider the ways in which the understandings of these notions are changing depending on a complex interchange between individual experience, social interaction, and global discourse on FGC.The thesis consists of four papers. The first two papers explore the complexity of how to counsel and address FGC in welfare encounters while having a difficult dual role – working to protect future generations from the practice, while simultaneously encouraging and empowering those for whom it has already been done, without undermining body image or sense of sexual capacity. The first paper found that a key problem is the over-reliance on medical models of sexuality that tend to result in a reductionist focus on the genitals for sexual function, perhaps under-emphasizing the role of the mind, emotions, and sociocultural factors. This approach often led welfare workers to conclude that FGC inevitably negatively interferes with sexuality and sexual health. It was also primarily within a biomedical discourse that solutions and strategies to promote young women’s sexual wellbeing were sought.The second paper investigate how welfare workers understand and respond to health discourse about FGC, using counseling on menstrual pain as an empirical example. The study found that welfare workers navigate their various sources of knowledge, where acquired FGC-knowledge worked as a lens through which young women’s situations were understood. Medical discourse, and menstrual pain in particular, was also used as a starting point for discussing drawbacks of FGC, in order to deter young women from forwarding the practices to future generations.The third paper highlights how women navigate dominating discourse of FGC in their efforts to make sense of their experiences. The study found that imageries and dominant framings of FGC affect how women are perceived by others, or how they expect others to perceive them, also affecting women’s selfunderstanding. Women “talked back” to and talked through expected categorizations and elements of dominant discourse that put women with FGC in a stigmatized position. Doing this, they reinforced categorizations of the most extensive form of FGC (type III, pharaonic cutting) as stigmatized and harmful, while less extensive forms of FGC (type I-II, IV, sunna cutting) were disconnected from some of the stigma attached to FGC.The fourth paper examines subjective experiences and perceptions of sexuality in relation to FGC. The study found that while FGC has been seen as a means to mold a tempered female sexuality in line with cultural standards for proper gendered behavior, both gender standards and means to achieve them have changed under influence of migration and global FGC politics. The findings suggest that while premarital virginity remains as an important value, the external regulation of sexuality through FGC to protect female chastity has been replaced by increased emphasis on inner control and self-discipline. Women disqualified previous rationales for the practice by unsettling the connection of FGC to reduced sexual responsiveness. Many described sexual responsiveness as inherent and not necessarily adversely affected by FGC, although experiences varied. While most expressed positive expectations on sexual desire and pleasure, emerging was also more mixed understandings among some older and younger women. These were associated with notions of the clitoris as significant for sexual responsiveness, causing women to question their bodily and sexual adequacy. Such understandings shall be seen in light of previous cultural ideas about FGC as contributing to reduced sexual responsiveness, which is reinforced in the Swedish context which emphasizes the negative impact of FGC on sexuality.In conclusion, this thesis sheds light on the complex nature of FGC in a context of immigration, particularly highlighting FGC in relation to individual care and counseling in welfare encounters. In Sweden, FGC is framed as a social problem, shaping how women with FGC are perceived and understand themselves. Welfare workers predominantly address FGC from a health perspective, often adopting a genital reductionist approach. Medical discourse plays a dual role: empowering women through knowledge while also exerting control over their bodies, drawing boundaries of some bodies as normal, and others as pathological. Interviews with Somali women shed light on their interactions with FGCconstructs in the Swedish context, illustrating a complex interplay of sociocultural, individual, and global influences.

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