A cultural relativism too far

// 20 June 2010

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There have been a few stories in the press recently which have put the issue of female genital mutilation back on the agenda. Female genital mutilation (sometimes referred to as female circumcision or female genital cutting) is the practice of removing parts or all of a young girl’s external genitalia for non-health reasons, but for religious or cultural justifications.

Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued their policy position on FGM, which went far too close to finding a compromise position on the practice than activists could stand. While the AAP’s position did state that they “oppose all forms of FGC that pose risks of physical or psychological harm”, in the original position they stated:

“Most forms of FGC are decidedly harmful, and pediatricians should decline to perform them, even in the absence of any legal constraints. However, the ritual nick suggested by some pediatricians is not physically harmful and is much less extensive than routine newborn male genital cutting. There is reason to believe that offering such a compromise may build trust between hospitals and immigrant communities, save some girls from undergoing disfiguring and life-threatening procedures in their native countries, and play a role in the eventual eradication of FGC. It might be more effective if federal and state laws enabled pediatricians to reach out to families by offering a ritual nick as a possible compromise to avoid greater harm.”

They compared the ‘ritual nick’ of a girl’s genitalia to ear piercing.

After an outcry, the AAP retracted their statement, saying;

“We retracted the policy because it is important that the world health community understands the AAP is totally opposed to all forms of female genital cutting, both here in the U.S. and anywhere else in the world,” said AAP President Judith S. Palfrey

Now, where to start with the problems with this? Firstly, the language used in the document is upsettingly subversive. Changing the term ‘female genital mutilation’ to ‘female genital cutting’ is a down-playing of this offensive act of violence towards girls. Similarly, they were keen to stress that they are against ‘cutting’ which “pose risks of physical or psychological harm” leaving the door open for less ‘risky’ cutting, quaintly called a ‘ritual nick’, to be condoned by the organisation.

Most importantly they put community sensitivities and the desire “to build trust” with those who promote this practice, above the rights of the girls who do not and cannot give their consent to a human rights violation being performed on them. This not only affects the individual girls physically, but feeds into their status within their family and community and more broadly the hyper-negative view of female sexuality and genitalia.

This is not to underplay the massive task of eradicating FGM in the developing world. Locally based organisations need to work long-term to change attitudes and address the various different justifications that are given to this practice. Using human rights language in these contexts would often be counter-productive. However, within the context of the AAP’s position, we are dealing with a developed country with immigrant communities and the evidence that ‘compromise’ positions need to be sought does not seem to exist – as actually admitted by the AAP in their paper:

“In some countries in which FGC is common, some progress toward eradication or amelioration has been made by substituting ritual “nicks” for more severe forms. In contrast, there is also evidence that medicalizing FGC can prolong the custom among middle-class families (eg, in Egypt). Many anti-FGC activists in the West, including women from African countries, strongly oppose any compromise that would legitimize even the most minimal procedure. There is also some evidence (eg, in Scandinavia) that a criminalization of the practice, with the attendant risk of losing custody of one’s children, is one of the factors that led to abandonment of this tradition among Somali immigrants.”

(links are to the statement’s original references)

So there is good evidence against this position and a complete failure to address structural and cultural discrimination against women and girls.

There has also been scathing coverage of the research of Dr Dix Poppas at Cornell University where he was performing clitoroplasty, the removal of part of a clitoris that was deemed “too big”, on young girls. There is other information that these procedures were specifically being performed on ‘intersex’ children, which is still highly controversial. Given that the details of this research remain unclear, I will return to it when I have more information. In the meantime, this article from Alice Dreger and Ellen K. Feder goes into the ethics of the use of vibrators on the girls/intersex children undergoing this surgery. Details on contacting Cornell University here. Jolene has also covered this story here.

Comments From You

Julie // Posted 20 June 2010 at 7:48 pm

Sexism is part of US society and its culture. Female genital multilation is a crime against girls and should not happen under any circumstance. We should campaign against FGM.

But rather than frame this article in terms of ‘cultural relativism’ we should see this as one more example of US laws and medical practices being used to oppress women, wherever they are from. US states with predominantly white communities also have sexist laws and practices The bill passed recently in Oklahoma requiring women seeking an abortion not only to be given an ultrasound, but to be shown the ultrasound image as well as listen to a detailed description of the image. Florida passed a similar bill, while Louisiana is considering doing the same. This is as unacceptable as FGM.

Gina // Posted 21 June 2010 at 12:52 am

The sexual stimulation of five year old children is sex abuse pure and simple. Justifying it on the basis of scientific investigation or medical necessity is an attempt at applying a veneer of respectability to outrageous behaviour. Where are the infant welfare people, where are the police? Where was the ethical standards board at Cornell university?

Laura // Posted 21 June 2010 at 1:25 pm

@ Julie, I don’t think comparing the relative acceptability of different sexist practices is particularly helpful; both FGM and anti-choices practices are unacceptable, but they are different issues.

Melony // Posted 21 June 2010 at 4:31 pm

Now, where to start with the problems with this? Firstly, the language used in the document is upsettingly subversive. Changing the term ‘female genital mutilation’ to ‘female genital cutting’ is a down-playing of this offensive act of violence towards girls.

I am opposed to all forms of FGM, but it’s my understanding that some people prefer to call it female gential cutting out of respect for the women who have been cut but would rather not be described as “mutilated”. Seems fair enough to me.

Amy Clare // Posted 22 June 2010 at 11:33 am

This is a great post, thanks for raising the subject.


There is no shame in having been a victim of genital mutilation, and to say ‘I was mutilated’. If there are some victims who shrink from that word and want to sanitise it, this is imo a manifestation of the shame and disgust that society projects onto victims of abuse, and that abuse victims feel although what happened to them was not their fault. It is the same shame and disgust that leads some people (for example, journalists) to replace ‘raped’ with ‘had sex with’. I’m sure there are many rape victims out there who don’t want to think of themselves as rape victims… but we still need to call it rape.

Only by consistently calling these crimes what they are will people react to them for what they are, and blame the perpetrators, not shame the victims. Cutting is what I do to my vegetables when I’m preparing my dinner. Removing chunks of genitalia from children without their consent is mutilation.

frankie // Posted 23 June 2010 at 10:48 pm

I don’t think it’s cultural relativism too far.

I remember reading an article a few years ago about the practice in Iran I think, where it was being medicalised and done in hospital under anaesthetic, which more or less removed all of the usual risks of the procedure. They then had to stop performing these offically because of international pressure and people just returned to community practioners with all the attendent risks for the girls. Also when its medicalised people are more informed about the risks of the procedure eg possible future problems in pregnancy and childbirth, which can make them more likely not to choose that option for their kid. IMO you could never ban FGC by outside pressure – its something people have to come to by themselves.

I’m also not keen on the ‘mutilation’ descriptor, because not all people who have undergone it will feel multilated or consider themselves victims and to force that descriptor on people is abusive in itself. I remember watching a documentary (perhaps it was an episode of the tribe with bruce parry) that featured young teenage girls who had been cut and it was a big source of pride for them. They also talked about how much sex they had and how much they enjoyed it.

frankie // Posted 23 June 2010 at 11:33 pm

To clarify my previous post was about the practice internationally.

In the UK I think the current policy is similar to scandinavia, where social services will check up on children who are at risk eg if an older sibling has been cut, and remove them if necessary. And importantly they educate at risk girls about FGC much like forced marriages warn them to be suspicious of their parents intent if being sent abroad to visit their extended families at certain ages. I think this is the right tact with children of immigrants.

coldharbour // Posted 24 June 2010 at 12:22 pm

It’s an insult to the the NGO’s and medical staff in East Africa who are working tirelessly on scant resources to end the practice of female circumcision when the richest country ( and the richest medical establishment) in the world can’t seem to legislate properly on this. What kind of example does this set?

Melony // Posted 24 June 2010 at 4:53 pm

Amy Clare:

“Mutilated” has connotations of shocking, grotesque disfigurement. The term Female Genital Cutting is not intended to downplay the inhumanity of this practice, it’s about being respectful to women who have been cut by not using such a gruesome word to describe their genitals.

Borrowing your rape analogy, to me the use of the word mutilated is equivalent to describing a rape victim as ‘defiled’. I understand that “cutting” may sound distressingly neutral in this context, but it is still a completely accurate way to describe this practice.

Jenna // Posted 28 June 2010 at 11:00 pm

Culture cannot be used as an excuse for abuse.

In the 20’s, the world decided that making little boys into eunuchs was a dangerous and inhumane practice and outlawed it worldwide. Some countries argued that it was a cultural practice and fought against the ban to no avail. The practice was ended for the most part and, as far as I know, has been relagated to the past.

Why can’t the same be done for FGM and male “circumcision”? There is no compelling reason for either practice and altering the bodies of young children without their consent is just plain wrong. Why can’t the world put it’s collective foot down about this as it did with the practice of making eunuchs and castratos?

Culture is no excuse. You simply cannot justify the torture and maiming of another in the name of cultural integrity. Cultures are not static and unchanging and it doesn’t denigrate a culture to insist that certain practices be ceased in the name of human rights and decency.

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