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In the Eyes of the Beholder

Female Genital Surgeries and the Illegitimacy of Universal Human Rights

January 3rd, 2007 · Written by · No Comments

In order to protect certain inalienable, universal human rights, a just society must place a limit on its tolerance of the practices of other, less just societies. This statement seems innocuous enough, and repeated aloud in most social circles in the U.S. or Europe it is unlikely to draw harsh opposition. Some may even deride it as being a statement of the obvious. Considering, however, that the West is scarcely more than a century removed from the age of colonialism and slavery, perhaps we should be a little shy about affirming any ideology that alludes to concepts like inalienable, universal, or just.

A substantial number of human rights activists are not afflicted with such modesty. Disturbed by a growing sense of moral relativism among their peers, activists cry out that “the line must be drawn somewhere.” Marching under the banner of insidious ideals like equality and progress, activists espouse a myopic worldview built upon the faulty assumption that universal human rights could exist in a world with such an astounding diversity of interests, values, and beliefs. Activists overlook the fact that concepts like individual autonomy and egalitarianism are not necessarily prized by the men and women of every society. Even the very word tolerance is loaded with patriarchal and latent imperialist attitudes. It portrays the West as a patient father, condoning the minor moral infractions of the “undeveloped” but always prepared to set limits on truly extreme behavior.


To properly explore whether Westerners should still be in the business of drawing lines in other cultures’ moral and legal systems, let’s consider one of the most widely agreed-upon limits to tolerance in contemporary political discourse: female genital cutting in Africa. Notice the purposeful avoidance of the more popular designation: “female genital mutilation,” a label that effectively closes the debate before it begins. The term mutilation implies disfigurement, degradation, and cruelty; its unquestioned acceptance reflects the consensus denunciation of the practice, even by so-called relativists. The widely held view is that FGC is a barbaric, cruel practice — an instrument of male dominance designed to keep women celibate before marriage and faithful during.

As she points out, ritual excision is a means of social empowerment and an integral part of becoming a woman in Kono society.

Fuambai Ahmadu, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Chicago, suggests that the issue is not that clear. Born a member of the Sierra Leonean Kono tribe, Ahmadu offers an astonishingly underutilized perspective: that of a native. As she points out, ritual excision is a means of social empowerment and an integral part of becoming a woman in Kono society. On average, Kono women attending college in African cities support FGC, and many even return to their native villages to undergo the procedure themselves. Available footage of ceremonies (and Ahmadu’s own personal account) reveals a celebratory atmosphere where initiates willingly and even eagerly participate. And contrary to the notion of sexual control, women who were sexually active before undergoing the procedure report little or no difference in sexual experience. Further, FGC is typically a female institution with which the men of the community have little or no involvement. Ironically, efforts to eradicate the practice enlist the help of men; thus, activists are essentially using men to destroy a female institution, and doing so in the name of women’s rights.


If it is not a matter of ignorance or compulsion, why is this radical procedure considered a necessary step in the ascension to womanhood? A fundamental cultural belief — so deeply ingrained that Americans and Europeans don’t even recognize it as cultural — offers some insight. The Western view that the female body is complete, beautiful, and sexually differentiated at birth is not shared by many African cultures. Instead, they consider both male and female bodies to be androgynous at birth. In their view, features like the “masculine” clitoris and “feminine” foreskin must be excised in order for an individual to become a member of one distinct gender or the other.

This sociocultural explanation is overlooked by those who campaign against FGC. Since they perceive no benefit to the practice, they argue that it should be stopped for health reasons alone. It is unclear, however, whether FGC adversely affects health. In August of 2006 a World Health Organization study headed by Emily Banks found a significant risk of health complications associated with FGC. But analysis of the published data reveals that the conclusion was greatly overstated. The data actually shows low relative risk — on par with any procedure that breaks the skin. Inexplicably, the headline and findings of the report simply did not match the data. Even more telling is the massive public relations campaign that accompanied the study’s release. As one social scientist at the University of Chicago put it, he had never seen a study “launched” in such a manner, let alone one with such paltry findings. To date, no study shows a legitimate link between FGC and significant health complications despite enormous, politically motivated attempts to establish one.


Another tool used to cultivate opposition to FGC is propaganda involving graphic descriptions of the procedure. The tactic takes advantage of the fact that almost any bodily modification can be made to sound barbaric if described in the right way. Consider the literal descriptions of just a few common procedures that American culture condones under the umbrella of cosmetic surgery. Women have their faces sliced open and stretched toward their scalp just to smooth out their skin. Some have poison injected into their face to slacken their muscles and create the illusion of a youthful visage. Others have fat from their buttocks or from farm animals injected into their lips in an attempt to increase sexual appeal. Women whose breasts do not match the almost humanly impossible ideal choose to either have artificial objects crammed into them or large chunks of flesh and glandular material carved out. The question, then, may not be whether human rights advocates should campaign against FGC, but whether Sierra Leoneans are morally bound to fly to California and campaign against comparably alarming American practices. If not, how can Western activists possibly justify their third world campaigns?

When an individual judges the practices of other cultures, it is inevitably done against the backdrop of his or her own society.

When an individual judges the practices of other cultures, it is inevitably done against the backdrop of his or her own society. Seen through the eyes of the Christian or secular West, certain foreign behaviors are bound to be horrifying. Similarly, certain American practices surely horrify individuals from other cultures. Until the substantial variation among the world’s population is recognized — until people realize that we are not the world; that people are not everywhere the same — misguided attempts at establishing universality will continue to masquerade as more socially acceptable agendas. There was a time, more recent than we realize, when colonialism and institutionalized racism were similarly condoned. Everyone in our culture has been drilled in the importance of learning from past mistakes. The trick, it seems, is to recognize when to put that education to use.

Tags: Essays ·

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