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Female Genital Mutilation: The Cultural Relativism Argument Just Doesn’t Fly

Some things are indefensible.

19/06/2017 8:40 AM IST | Updated 19/06/2017 3:20 PM IST
Ajay Verma / Reuters

According to the World Health Organisation, female genital mutilation (FGM) refers to "the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to female genital organs whether for cultural or any other non-therapeutic reason."

It involves cutting away the labia minora, labia majora, vulva and clitoris of a female, and sewing the remaining area together; a small opening is maintained for urination and menstruation. This disfigurement is often carried out without anaesthesia, and some of those subjected to it do not survive the pain. Globally, 200 million girls across 30 countries have undergone FGM, and about 2 million girls are subjected to it every year. In India itself, 500,000 women are at risk of FGM.

Those arguing in favour of cultural sovereignty... must consider that cultures and religions often remain stagnant, shielding themselves from the impact of market and economic developments, as well as the human rights discourse.

Even though FGM constitutes a violation of Article 25 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is no explicit restriction on it in India. The movement here gathered traction after the first FGM trial in Australia in 2015, where a young girl of 11 spoke out against her mother, and older woman who had carried out the procedure, as well as a senior clergy member of the Dawood Bohra Shia Muslim community, leading to the conviction of all three accused.

The issue has come to the fore once again with the recent release of a report by Lawyers Collective and Speak out against FGM, exploring the ills of the practice and seeking a comprehensive legal framework including sensitisation programs and whistle-blower systems to eradicate it. Speak Out against FGM is a collective of women protesting this practice, and has seen women from the Dawoodi Bohra community in Mumbai recalling their horrific experiences and campaigning against the oppressive practice. In early June, advocate Sunita Tiwari also filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on the practice, on which the Apex Court has sought a government response.

Impact of FGM

While the health impacts of FGM are known and widely discussed, the psychological impact, depression and loss of self-worth women go through post-FGM warrant attention too. FGM has come to exercise such a strong hold in certain cultures due to women being viewed and treated as an inferior group, and is the epitome of sexual objectification and stereotyping.

Women are perceived as childish, incapable of controlling their own sexuality and desires, which warrants external and forcible control. FGM leaves women incapable of experiencing sexual pleasure, having healthy, intimate relationships and renders her autonomy and agency subservient to the sexual pleasure of males.

It is believed that a woman left in charge of her sexual agency shall bring dishonour and disrepute to the family. At the same time, it is seen as their duty to keep their husbands fulfilled and satisfied. When spousal relationships emanate from internalising this characterisation of women, the male inevitably emerges as the dominant superior in the marriage, which undermines any equality, intimacy or expectations of mutual fulfilment in the relationship.

Most young girls have no choice in the matter, and many have internalised it as tradition. Those refusing to undergo it or speaking out against it are ostracised.

Debunking defences of the practice

The fundamental societal motive for FGM stems from a belief held by several cultures; cutting away a woman's genitals leads to stable marriages. The rationale is that if the woman is incapable of experiencing sexual pleasure, she will not be tempted to seek it outside her marriage, and devote herself to satisfying her husband. Other rationales range from preserving the chastity of young girls, to identification with a particular cultural heritage or religion, to aesthetic and hygienic reasons.[1]

FGM leaves women incapable of experiencing sexual pleasure, having healthy, intimate relationships and renders her autonomy and agency subservient to the sexual pleasure of males.

In defence of FGM, it is widely contended firstly, that FGM is the most appropriate method to introduce young girls to womanhood; and secondly, that it is the only way (or at the very least, the best way) to ensure stable, dependable marriages.[2]

In my opinion, the first defence elevates womanhood to a physical status rather than a symbolic one, and seeks to justify inhumane mutilation of a woman's body, and stripping her of her bodily integrity. Other cultures exemplify the symbolic nature of this transition; the quest American-Indian boys are sent to pursue and the Jewish bar and bat mitzvahs demonstrate the same. Further, being able to understand and achieve sexual pleasure often marks the transition to womanhood, and FGM deprives women of that opportunity altogether.

The second defence can be debunked by considering relationships where partners repose mutual trust in each other's fidelity, and each partner is viewed as capable of remaining faithful, which in turn motivates them to do so. Far from promoting fidelity, FGM may facilitate promiscuity due to non-fulfilment of a woman's sexual wants. Moreover, in my opinion, being identified and controlled by her identity as a "wife" in every aspect of her life makes any relationship emotionally unfulfilling for a woman. This identity along with other socially constructed roles, if taken as exhaustive of her personality, instils a sense of insecurity and diminishes her self-worth.

Those arguing in favour of cultural sovereignty and respect for relativism must consider that cultures and religions often remain stagnant, shielding themselves from the impact of market and economic developments, as well as the human rights discourse. This is evidenced by the testimony of several mothers who are unaware of the import and implications of the practice, and follow it in the name of custom. Cultural sovereignty must yield to universal human rights when some basic, objectively vital rights such as life, health, bodily integrity etc. (which most cultures do, or should, value) are violated. The argument is one in favour of universal rights, not identical practices, and hence, the diversity and uniqueness of cultures will continue, which is the essence of multiculturalism.

In conclusion...

FGM is an oppressive practice, seeking to control and destroy a woman's sexuality and desires, and violates her bodily integrity on account of her membership in a particular social group. While there may be contentious issues such as voluntary and informed consent to FGM, the practice by and large involves deprivation of human capabilities and basic individual rights of life, health, bodily autonomy and even the right to equality, and must be done away with.

[1] Naomi Mendelsohn, At The Crossroads: The Case For And Against A Cultural Defense To Female Genital Mutilation, 56 Rutgers L. Rev. 1011 (2003).

[2] Roksana Alavi, Female Genital Mutilation: A Capabilities Approach, 26 Auslegung: a Journal of Philosophy 16 (2003).

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