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.”
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.