Friday, August 30, 2013

How to end Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: a comparative study of arguments

by Delphine Patetif, Guest Blogger [1]

According to the UNICEF in its most recent report released in July 2013,[2] Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting[3] (“FGM/C”) can end in less than a generation. This practice has existed  for more than a thousand years, and is deeply entrenched  with social norms and religious beliefs. The West has been concerned for many decades with this harmful practice. Already in 1996, in an explosive social context regarding women’s liberation and post-colonialism, Yael Tamir defined western societies’ exaggerated focus on clitoridectomy as their fascination for sex, as well as evidence of hypocrisy within their political debate. Tamir objected to “the way a particular kind of argument has been used in recent debates on multiculturalism.”[4] Nussbaum, on the other hand, thinks that this focus is “not a fascination with sex but the relative tractability of FGM[5] as a practical problem, given that it is already widely resisted and indeed illegal.”[6]  However, Tamir goes further, and aims to “emphasize continuities between local and “alien” practices.”[7]  Contrary to Tamir, I do not think there is continuity between the two types of societies, but a complementarity. Even if I obviously agree with the elements exposed by Nussbaum and Tamir to condemn clitoridectomy, a terrible act that has to be eradicated, I affirm that each society builds its own history and legends, as transmitted according to the aforementioned history. Eventually, clitoridectomy is not a phenomenon which occurs in “their” country, but also in ours. It is then crucial to take into account those ethnocentrist elements before judging the practice. I will argue in this article that the universalism of human rights, which is a concept espoused by western societies, too often ignores the particularism of the facts to the detriment of the locals who need nothing beyond requisite information and education.
The cultural relativism debate regarding clitoridectomy as a human rights violation began in the 1980s with the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of the Minorities. In the United Kingdom, for example, calls were made to African immigrant mothers in the early 1990s to use alternative ways of promoting children's integrity and respect for their bodies rather than clinging to "archaic" means of controlling women's sexuality. However, the human rights discourse completely misunderstood cultural reality, and did not take into account the group-think mentality of the women subjected to clitoridectomy. In this context, Yael Tamir takes a strong position against the way Western cultures judge this practice, and clearly affirms that there is a significant socio-sexual difference between the societies in which FGM is performed and those in which it is not. She wrongly assumes, however, that this phenomenon does not occur in her society, while Nussbaum emphasizes that FGM also occurs in countries such as the United Kingdom or France.[8]

However, according to a certain logic of multiculturalism, every culture following the example of the liberal tradition’s citizens must be autonomous, free and equal to other cultures. It is thus the extension of the principle of self-determination to cultures: all cultures should be respected. Further, we cannot forget that we are in a post-colonial context, and that susceptibilities are sometimes hypersensitive. The welcoming society agrees to be tolerant towards practices which it does not appreciate, especially if they pertain to the intimate domain and concern primarily women. However, this logic should not extend to clitoridectomy. There are 100 to 130 million excised women in the world, mostly in Africa, but also in certain countries in the Middle East and Asia. According to the European Parliament, approximately 500,000 excised women live in Europe. According to the UNICEF Report referenced above, “125 million girls and women have experienced FGM/C in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is concentrated.”[9] Every year, about 180,000 more undergo this practice, sometimes even on European soil. At present, 53,000 girls in France are at risk of clitoridectomy, and 30 million girls worldwide, under the age of 15 may still be at risk.

This harmful practice is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. Clitoridectomy is also seen as an extreme form of sexual discrimination, since it violates a female’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, as well as the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This operation even threatens one’s right to life, as the procedure can result in death. However, as Tamir pointed out, clitoridectomy is a matter of belief and culture, which can be very different from one group to another. This becomes a very important point regarding the way the argument against clitoridectomy is used in the political debate. Nonetheless, she could have gone further. I think it is dangerous to moralize regarding such practices only to avoid our own societal problems. This argument completely disregards the fact that we are actually living in contact with other societies. Clitoridectomy could be threatening our neighbor or our daughter’s classmate. I think that a complete argument would have been to say that this discourse endangers first the little girls exposed to clitoridectomy in our western societies. Indeed, by condemning in such a categorical way clitoridectomy abroad, Tamir assumes that all the women in her society share the same values and beliefs regarding clitoridectomy; that is, they all enjoy their bodies and their sexuality, and that the operation would deprive them of such enjoyments. It is this special particularism that was not taken into account when moralizing about violations of human rights.

Contrary to Tamir, I, as an educated and privileged young woman who is free to make her own decisions and leave the community I was born into, understand that it is not my duty to impose my vision on women who are not as fortunate. Doing so would be to impose modern colonialism - or “cultural superiority,”[10] according to Tamir. But since we are mainly talking about persons who are “impoverished or unequal under the law or illiterate or powerless or in fear and often all of these,[11] which is a statement I agree with, I would instead help these women to gradually realize for themselves the limits and dangers of clitoridectomy. All the while, I would keep in mind all that I could learn from this experience and these human contacts, in the same way the Tostan Project[12] does in Africa. Only in this way can it be universally understood that clitoridectomy is effectively reprehensible from a medical point of view as well as a human rights one.  

However, since clitoridectomy is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers who often play other central roles in the community, such as attending childbirths, it is only through an intelligent condemnation that the phenomenon can be fundamentally eradicated. This eradication must start from where we live. As Mrs. Sihem Badi, Minister of the Woman’s Affairs and Family of Tunisia, noted in the 56th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York in 2012, awareness and education are pivotal in achieving world abolition of female genital mutilation. Indeed, a special emphasis was made to urge the adoption of a resolution on the world prohibition of feminine genital mutilations by the United Nations General Assembly, which recognized such acts as grave and blatant violations of human rights. It is, however, important to highlight that many countries where clitoridectomy is still being practiced are fighting against the resolution. Only about ten African countries have adopted specific anti-excision legislations. It is essentially attempting to impose the strength of the law on traditions. The legislative measures are identical in Europe.

Nonetheless, I personally believe that the legislative approach is not appropriate. As proof, the effective application of anti-excision legislations in the concerned countries is painfully low. As well, the high prevalence rate of clitoridectomy in countries which have adopted laws against excision demonstrates that the populations remain generally attached to their habits and customs even if, as Nussbaum argues, the existence of laws “is evidence of a widespread movement against the practice in the countries implicated.”[13]

On the other hand, it is also crucial to understand the reasons for clitoridectomy: Africans who were interviewed regarding the significance of this mutilation said it first makes sure that girls remains virgins until marriage. Then, the practice prevents them from seducing men, which allows the husbands to have faithful wives. This makes clitoridectomy a way by which men control and then appropriate the female body. I concur with Tamir on this point, even if on the "positive" side, clitoridectomy is a rite of passage to the feminine status, and even if the modifications imposed to the female genitals are considered more aesthetic by the societies which practice them.

In the aforementioned post-colonial context, the general attitude plays on the former colonizer’s guilt by silencing the most-outspoken individuals in the "intercultural" dialogue that is those who, in the relations of power, choose to line up on the side of the dominated. It even managed to silence many European feminists, whether white or black. The white feminists are silenced because they do not dare to express a negative opinion of a minority “culture” and are thus afraid of being accused of racism. The black feminists are silenced because they are afraid that by criticizing an element of what they consider as “black” culture, they would be supplying arguments to the racists, making themselves traitors to their native culture.

However, it seems that a certain dose of multiculturalism is desirable so that each individual feels recognized in his other multiple dimension. As Tamir correctly noted, “group rights strengthen dominant subgroups within each culture and privilege conservative interpretations of culture over reformative and innovative ones.”[14] Furthermore, she adds, the notion of group rights starts from the premise according to which the group is a singular actor. This group, as a singular actor, would need rights to protect its tradition and defend its interests. Its leaders thus exercise pressure on the individuals so that the community presents a united front in the face of external oppression.[15] Clitoridectomy is clearly part of this definition because it can cause the death of the girls; it handicaps the women regarding their health and deprives them of sexual pleasure, as noted by both Tamir and Nussbaum. Further, it consequently restricts the women from finding partners within their group of origin; as underlined by Tamir, woman’s sexual pleasure is generally valued by men, as much as by women in modern western countries. Liberals and feminists should have no scruple to require law enforcement action, at least, against the circumcisers. The alternative – detention of the excised girls’ parents – raises numerous other social and moral problems, not the least of which is having to send their children to Social Services during their detention.

The watchword of the feminists of the 90s, “the private is political,”[16] rings true today, even though some people at the time seemed embarrassed to apply it to other “cultures”. They hesitated to assimilate clitoridectomy to conjugal violence or to violence against children since this ritual violence is a cultural product and not the appropriation by a single individual of the body of another. This is rather paradoxical since the culture –that is, the “other” culture – becomes unchangeable, fixed, motionless, almost a biological data. On the other hand, the decision to not penalize the parents for a custom of which they are the first victims – the mothers themselves were subject to the practice when they were their daughters’ age- is praiseworthy. The result is nevertheless unconvincing since according to the State Council’s estimations, the number of clitoridectomies performed in France is constantly rising. Both Tamir and Nussbaum are then right: we need “more fruitful theoretical discussion and more pointed political action,[17] and we must act to make clitoridectomy disappear.[18]
Therefore, knowledge and education are indispensable weapons against the traditional practice of clitoridectomy. Obviously, the relation with the body is very different from one society to other. But clitoridectomy occurs here, at our door. And this is intolerable. The act violates human rights as it continues to be gravely and extensively committed on women’s bodies, affecting the lives of millions of girls and women. And while the international community is unanimously supporting the criminalization of clitoridectomy in a certain number of States, it may be necessary to consider that the condemnation of the practice via the legislative channel is far from sufficient. It is only through the understanding of complementarities between cultures and the implementation of this understanding that the complete abolition of clitoridectomy can be achieved.

[1] Delphine Patetif, Ph.D Candidate at La Sorbonne University, Paris, and Graduate Student at Harvard University, Extension School.
[2] UNICEF Report, “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change”, July, 2013:
[3] According to the WHO, “Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. However, more than 18% of all FGM is performed by health care providers, and this trend is increasing.”:
[4] Yael Tamir Responds, Boston Review, October/November 1996
[5] Female Genital Mutilation
[6] Martha Nussbaum responds to Yael Tamir, Boston Review, October/November 1996
[7] Yael Tamir Responds, Boston Review, 1996
[8] Martha Nussbaum responds to Yael Tamir, Boston Review, October/November 1996, p.3
[9] UNICEF Report, supra note 2
[10] Yael Tamir Responds, Boston Review, 1996, p.3
[11] Martha Nussbaum responds to Yael Tamir, Boston Review, October/November 1996, p.6
[12] Acoording to the NGO, their « human rights-based Community Empowerment Program (CEP) allows community members to draw their own conclusions about FGC and lead their own movements for change. »:
[13] Ibid, p.3
[14] Yael Tamir, Siding with the Underdogs, Princeton University Press, 1999, p.47
[15] Ibid, p.48
[16] Hiba Ra’uf,  Woman and Political Work: An Islamic Perspective, 1995
[17] Yael Tamir Responds, Boston Review, 1996, p.3
[18] Martha Nussbaum responds to Yael Tamir, Boston Review, October/November 1996, p.6

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