Female Genital Mutilation:

An Issue of Cultural Relativism or Human Rights?

By Jacqueline Castledine, Mount Holyoke College


What is Female Genital Mutilation?

Female Genital Mutilaiton (FGM) is the practice of cutting away parts of the external female genitalia. It is ususally called female circumcison by those who practice it. The three broad categories of FGM are: clitoridectomy, excision and infibulation. The mildest form of FGM, clitoridectomy, is the removal of all or part of the clitoris. Excision includes the removal of the clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora. The most extreme form of FGM is infibulation, the removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and the stitching together of the labia majora. Infibulation leaves just a small opening in the vagina for the passage of urine and menstrual fluid, and requires binding together of the legs until stitches adhere. Often the removal of the stitches is part of a wedding night ritual. The U.N. agency, the United Nations Childeren's Fund (UNICEF), reports that FGM is "normally performed by traditional practitioners with crude instruments, such as knives, razor blades and broken glass, usually without anaesthetics."

The invasive nature of FGM and the unsanitary conditions under which it is usually performed can have serious consequences. Public Health Magazine writes that "FGM may cause numerous physical complications, including hemorrhage and severe pain, which can cause shock, even death." It also writes that "FGM may create long-term complications resulting from scarring and interference with the drainage of urine and menstrual blood, such as chronic pelvic infections, which may cause pelvic and back pain, dysmenorrhea, infertility, chronic urinary tract infections, urinary stones, or kidney damage." The magazine also writes that "FGM may create long-term complications resulting from scarring and interference with the drainage of urine and menstrual blood, such as chronic pelvic infections, urinary stones, or kidney damage." Infibulation is especially dangerous during childbirth when women who have been infibulated are "at risk of prolonged labor, which may lead to fetal brain damage or fetal death. FGM is also associated with sterility, and it is "estimated that 20-25% of cases of sterility in northern Sudan can be linked to infibulation."

Who Practices FGM?

According to the United Nations, it is estimated tht over 130 million women have had some form of FGM performed on them. This practice is often associated with the religion of Islam, and is most often perfomed in Middle Eastern and North African countries. In both of the African nations of Somalia and Djibouti, 98% of women have had this procedure. Because of immigration, however, the practice of FGM has recently become more prevelant in Europe and North America. Concerns for the health of women and girls as young as three who are subject to this procedure, have led to legislation making FGM illegal in the United States. In 1994, a bill to ban FGM was introduced in the House of Representatives by Pat Schroeder (D-Colo). This bill, H.R. 3864, was later combined with H.R. 941 and passed into law in September of 1996.

A Practice of Custom or Religion?

FGM is not a religious practice required by the Islamic faith. It has, however, become a "law by custom." Neither of the two main sources of Muslim law, the Koran and the Sunnah, mention the practice, and most Islamic scholars agree that it is not an Islamic religious rite. The practice has become important to Islam because it is associated with female sexual purity. FGM is intended by its practitioners to both control women's sexual drives and also to cleanse women's genitalia by removing the clitoris which is seen as masculine, a female penis. Because of its association with purity, young women who have not been excised have little chance of marriage in the countries where FGM is practiced

It is important to point out, however, that FGM has also been practiced in the West, and that "the practice of clitoridectomy was actually promoted in the United States and Britain during the 19th and early 20th centuries as a cure for lesbian practices or suspected inclinations, masturbation, hysteria, epilepsy, and nervousness." This fact brings up interesting issues about the cultural relativity of this practice.

Cultural Relativism vs. Human Rights

There is serious disagreement about whether the practice of FGM is an issue of cultural relativism or an issue of human rights. Some Western anthropologists have equated the practice of FGM with such Western practices as breast augmentation and tattooing. This agrument is flawed, however, for at least two important reasons. The first is that in both the examples given, the subjects making these decisions must, by law, be adults. This is not the case with FGM, whose subjects are often as young as three. The second flaw in this argument is that neither breast augmentation nor tattoing impede natural body functions, in the way FGM can. The argument has also been made that FGM is analogous to male circumcision, which is a common practice in the West. While it is true that both procedures are cultural traditions that have no real health benefits, there are major differences between the two. The most important difference between FGM and male circumcision is that, again, FGM impedes the natural functioning of the female body in ways that male circumcision does not.

There has also been serious debate within the African American community about FGM. While some African American women see the West's attack on FGM as "ethnocentric," African American novelist Alice Walker has written about her oppostion to the practice. Walker has produced a documentary and published a book, both entitled "Warrior Marks," based on her experiences investigating FGM in Western Africa. In the following footage from the documentary "Women Under Attack," Walker shares an interview from her "Warrior Marks" documentary. If you want to see this video click here.

Many human rights organizations agree with Alice Walker, and view FGM as a violation of human rights, calling for its eradication. In a meeting in Geneva this year, three UN agencies announced efforts to end FGM. These agencies, The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and UNICEF, asked for world support for their goal, calling FGM an "unsafe and unjustifiable traditional practice." Amnesty International has also come out against FGM, saying "the practice is a form of violence and a violation of boldily integrity." Non-Western organizations such as the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation (EOHR) have also joined this capaign. Egypt has been a battleground in the struggle to eradicate FGM, where the practice is currently banned. The goal of EOHR is to teach Egyptians "the harms of the operation to both individuals and society and to clarify that this pagan custom has no connection with Islam."

The Economics of FGM

There are several economic factors that contribute to the cultural importance of FGM. One of these factors is the ritual that surrounds the practice. Often this ritual involves gifts given to the girls in a cermemony that also honors their families. More importantly, though, is the fact that is is much easier for the parents of a circumcised daughter to find a mate for their child, than it is for the parents of an uncircumcised daughter. Being able to "marry off" daughters is an important economic consideration in some of the poorer countries that practice FGM. Another important economic consideration is that for the excisers who perform FGM, nearly all women, there are few equally lucrative options for supporting themselves. These women gain both fincancial support and a place of honor in their communities for performing this rite.

Overcoming Barriers to Eradication

One of the biggest barriers to the eradication of FGM is the perception, among those who practice this rite, that Western opposition to the practice is an example of cultural imperialism. This argument is bolstered by the fact that FGM was once performed in the West. In the past, feminists and human rights activists have also created resentment by not respecting the social and religious implicaitons of FGM. One Somali woman states, "if Somali women change, it will be a change done by us, among us. When they order us to stop, tell us what we must do, it is offensive to the black person or the Muslim person who believes in circumcision. To advise is good, but not to order." Thus, a serious problem faced by activists, is how to keep opposition to FGM from being viewed as part of "the current Western onslaught on Islam."

Education programs that are sensitive to the cultural and religious importance of FGM seem to be the best hope of eradicating the practice. Education can, however, be a long process, as evidenced by the UN plan "to bring about a major decline in female genital mutilation in 10 years and completely eliminate this practice within three generations." There are some signs, however, that education programs are having an impact. In Ethiopia, the Ministry of Education has used radio broadcasts to warn about the dangers of FGM. The broadcasts are sponsored by the National Committee on Traditional Practices in Ethiopia, a committee that includes UN agencies. These actions, along with a government ban on FGM, have had "encouraging" results. The UN has also helped fund programs in Sudan where Dr. Amna Abdel Rahman has been working through the Sudan National Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices (SNCTP) to eradicate FGM. Allthough the programs in both Ethiopia and Sudan are backed, in part, by UN agencies, they are administered by committees headed by citizens of these countries. This is an important consideration in dealing with the justifiable concerns about Western interference and cultural imperialism.

Not all governments, however, have welcomed efforts to eradicate FGM. The West African nation of Gambia has prohibited any programming that opposes FGM from being broadcast on state-owned radio and television stations, and has even called for the use of radio and television to promote FGM. The reaction of the Gambian government toward educational efforts to end FGM helps to illustrate the difficulty faced by those trying to eradicate the practice. As the Director-General of WHO has stated, "we have to realize that female genital mutilation is a deeply-rooted traditional practice. As such, it can only be abolished completely when attitudes have been changed." As this statement suggests, change can only be made by the countries involved, and not by well intentioned Western forces.


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