Female Genital Mutilation: A Case of Cultural Relativism (Or Not?)
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural practice that involves the cutting of external female genitalia. Issues that need to be considered regarding FGM are its health consequences, the fact that it violates basic human rights and democratic principles (of paternalism), and that the reasons why it is performed are completely unjustified. Supporters of the practice argue how it is a cultural right, and hence universal laws do not apply to it. This essay focuses on arguing against this viewpoint.
In the morning of the fixed day, the grandmother takes the granddaughter to the chosen place. A hole has been dug in the earth. The girl lays herself down, with her thighs over the hole, to collect the flesh and skin cut away . . . . Then, [a] woman . . . . takes a little knife (fonou) that has been put in a basin of black powder and cuts the [girl’s] clitoris. (Sala & Manara, 2001, p. 248)
The act described above, albeit horrifying, is not an uncommon ritual; the cutting of female genitals, known as female circumcision or as it is referred to by abolitionists, female genital mutilation (FGM) is commonly practiced in African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries such as Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India (Babatunde, 1998, p.3; Little, 2003, p. 30). The World Health Organization defines female circumcision as comprising “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs” (as cited in Little, 2003, p. 30), and estimates that 130 million females have undergone some form of circumcision and another 2 million are in peril of facing the same although the actual figures might well be greater due to the silence that shrouds the practice (Kisaakye, 2002; Sala & Manara, 2001).
Female circumcision is usually performed on young girls “between the ages of a day old to 16 years of age” (Little, 2003, p. 31). Depending on the culture and traditions of the group carrying out the procedure, there are different ways in which the circumcision can be performed ranging from “removal of part or all of the clitoris” to more extreme practices involving “stitching of the vaginal opening” (Feminist Majority Foundation [FMF], 2005, p. 188).
FGM is rarely practiced in hospitals; in most cases, the procedure is carried out by elderly ladies, midwives, traditional healers, birth attendants, physicians or even barbers (Little, 2003). In the absence of proper medical equipment, the operation is usually carried out without the aid of anesthesia and using crude instruments such as razors, scissors, knives or pieces of glass (FMF, 2005, p. 189; Little, 2003, p. 31).
Relativity of Ethics
The practice of female genital mutilation is condemned by most organizations – after all the very description of the procedure seems revolting to human sensibilities. Among the ranks of the condemners are the United Nations Organization, Amnesty International, Feminist Majority Foundation and Human Rights Watch, all of who are reputable and credible organizations whose moral integrity one finds difficult to question. And why not, when their ethics are universally accepted? Or are they? Ask what secret women’s societies such as the Sande in Liberia have to say about the universality of laws governing human rights and you will hear them opine radically different thoughts on the matter (as cited in Little, 2003, p. 31; Wikipedia, 2010). For them, circumcision rites are cultural rights, ones that cannot be questioned or overthrown by the likes of the United Nations.
Keeping these two views in mind, should female genital mutilation be considered a derogatory act that challenges the dignity of women or as a case of cultural relativism whereby it should be accepted as nothing more than...
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