April 24, 2024

A Primitive, Disgusting Practice

NY Times blogger John Tierney wonders:

Should African women be allowed to engage in the practice sometimes called female circumcision? Are critics of this practice, who call it female genital mutilation, justified in trying to outlaw it, or are they guilty of ignorance and cultural imperialism?

The topic is to be debated at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting.  What could there possibly be to debate?

Dr. [Fuambai] Ahmadu, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, was raised in America and then went back to Sierra Leone as an adult to undergo the procedure along with fellow members of the Kono ethnic group. She has argued that the critics of the procedure exaggerate the medical dangers, misunderstand the effect on sexual pleasure, and mistakenly view the removal of parts of the clitoris as a practice that oppresses women. She has lamented that her Westernized “feminist sisters insist on denying us this critical aspect of becoming a woman in accordance with our unique and powerful cultural heritage.”

Contrary to what Ahmadu says, the issue isn’t about denying women’s empowerment or reducing anyone’s cultural heritage, it’s about the maiming of toddlers and young girls not of an age to make an informed decision or have such a decision respected if they were able to make it.

This article says that there are some possible benefits to certain types of operations on the female clitoris.  As a lay person I will not dispute the validity of these claims; however, given the life-long effects and possible reduction or elimination of the so-called patient’s sexual life I would submit that no amount of cultural relativism should permit such an operation to be forced on a minor.

I applaud Dr. Ahmadu’s commitment to her unique culture and respect her right to, as an adult, do whatever she wants with her own life.  But that in no way gives credence to the idea that children’s future sexual practices and enjoyment should be mandated by primitive tribal customs.

Dr. Richard Shweder, who will also be participating in Saturday’s debate, would disagree, as he’s on record as saying:

…speaking as a moral realist who believes that moral realism is compatible with cultural diversity in social norms I conclude with a brief moral evaluation of the culturally endorsed West and East African practice of genital modifications for both females and males.   I use the global campaign aimed at the eradication of female genital modifications on the Africa continent as an example of some of the hazards of cultural parochialism and ethnocentrism that arise in making condemnatory moral claims about the unfamiliar cultural practices of third world “others.”   A properly applied moral realism, one that is free of ethnocentrism, should be slow to judge others and must be grounded on accurate and valid cultural knowledge and not on overheated rhetoric and sensational depictions designed to reinforce our own cultural prejudices in the name of universal human rights.

Strictly speaking, Shweder is correct, of course.  But in the same way that modern cultures have worked to eliminate “age inappropriate” sexual relationships and other practices common to many primitive cultures, female genital mutilation in children should be discouraged as a matter of policy at the state level.

There is also the question of forced FGM for adult women at the hands of their husbands and/or relatives in some cultures, notably among certain segments of the Muslim population.  From an ethical point of view, this situation as the equivalent of rape.  No consent, you understand.  But then we’ve seen how Saudi Arabia treats female rape victims, haven’t we? 

A wrong is a wrong and should be acknowledged as such, even at the risk of foisting western cultural values on other, less-developed societies.  While this may be anathema to Drs. Ahmadu and Shweder, I would suggest that their interest in maintaining the relative purity of certain primitive tribes and their rituals is at best a secondary concern to the well-being and individual human rights of the young women involved.

To Tierney, who concludes:

If I were asked to make a decision about my own daughter, I wouldn’t choose circumcision for her. But what about the question raised by these anthropologists: Should outsiders be telling African women what initiation practices are acceptable?

I say that the answer is yes, western women should indeed tell their African and Muslim counterparts exactly what their cultures may be depriving them of, namely the certain dignity of making their own choices and, perhaps, the ability to feel the deepest, most meaningful pleasure life has to offer – the female orgasm.


h/t Debbie Schussel (note:  her article contains a graphic, sickening image that, to me, defines the issue quite clearly)


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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