Hacking off your daughter’s clitoris is not ‘cultural heritage’

// 30 November 2007

I generally consider myself in sympathy with ideas about not imposing Western ideas onto the rest of the world. But this blog post on the New York Times is a clear example of the manipulation of the concept of cultural imperialism to justify one of the most blatently misogynistic things it is possible to do: cut off a girl’s clitoris and sew up her genitalia so that all sex will be painful and she is unlikely to ever achieve orgasm.

It’s especially irksome to see this idea associated with “third wave feminism” – although I am reasonably ambivilent about the term, I would certainly not accept that it would expand to include proponents of female circumcision.

The blog post, by John Tierney, includes this quote – from the description of a debate to take place at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting:

The panel includes for the first time, the critical “third wave” or multicultural feminist perspectives of circumcised African women scholars Wairimu Njambi, a Kenyan, and Fuambai Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonean. Both women hail from cultures where female and male initiation rituals are the norm and have written about their largely positive and contextualized experiences, creating an emergent discursive space for a hitherto “muted group” in global debates about FGC [female genital cutting].

It’s hard to understand how FGM could ever really be seen in a “largely positive” context – to anyone who has any doubts on this issue, I recommend this illustration of what the practice involves. Tierney carries on:

Dr. 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.”

At a very basic level, this is suspect. Ahmadu made a decision to undergo female circumcision as an adult. As adults, we can make these choices – even if they are somewhat difficult to understand. But, as I understand it, the vast majority of cases of FGM take place on children, who, even if they were given a choice in the matter, simply do not have the tools to make such a decision.

Dr. Shweder says that many Westerners trying to impose a “zero tolerance” policy don’t realize that these initiation rites are generally controlled not by men but by women who believe it is a cosmetic procedure with aesthetic benefits. He criticizes Americans and Europeans for outlawing it at the same they endorse their own forms of genital modification, like the circumcision of boys or the cosmetic surgery for women called “vaginal rejuvenation.”

It hardly matters to the girl or woman involved, if the trauma is inflicted on her by a woman or a man – although many of the arguments in favour of the “practice” are rooted in a misogynistic view of the world, like preservation of virginity, prevention of ‘promiscuity’ and “improvement of male sexual performance and pleasure” (taken from Wikipedia).

On top of that, it is outrageous to compare FGM to circumcising boys (it would be more akin to chopping off their penises) or “vaginal rejuvination”.

Then we have this conclusion to the post:

If I were asked to make a decision about my own daughter, I wouldn’t choose circumcision for her.

How nice of Tieney to say he wouldn’t mutilate his daughter!

Although it’s OK to raise these questions, it treads a dangerous line. To my mind, it is patronising and repugnant to say that women in Africa deserve any less right to live free of being mutilated than women in the West. This isn’t a case of Western feminists imposing our values, but an extention of basic human rights to girls and women.

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