The third rail of feminism

Why isn't the media interested in the facts about the controversial practice of female genital mutilation?
Michael Cook | 11 December 2012
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It’s hard to think of a more reviled practice than female genital mutilation. In many countries, it is a crime. A United Nations human rights committee has just passed a resolution calling upon the General Assembly to condemn it. The vote could take place as early as this month.

A spokesman for Amnesty International summed up Western outrage and disgust: "FGM is an indictment of us all that a girl or young woman can be held down and mutilated is a violation of her human rights and, shockingly, an estimated 3 million girls are at risk each year.”

However, believe it or not, there is another side to this story. For instance, Sudanese migrant women in Melbourne recently asked why the government allows Australian doctors to advertise cosmetic genital surgery but bans their own traditional practices. A health adviser to the vice-president of Sierra Leone, Fuambai S. Ahmadu, supported complaints like these in an address to the American Anthropology Association in San Francisco last month:

“How can Western public health officials, global health institutions and feminist organizations maintain a straight face in condemning African female genital surgeries as FGM and yet turn a blind eye, even issue guidelines for the performance of very similar and sometimes more invasive female genital surgeries on Western women under the guise of cosmetic surgery?”

FGM is the ultimate hot potato. In developed countries it is regarded as the most barbaric and oppressive practice imaginable. Expressing the mildest scepticism about the wisdom of a worldwide ban invites a torrent of abuse.

But why? Most people don't even know that there are several degrees, some of which are relatively harmless. 

One advantage of living in developed countries is that we have the luxury of poking a stick at conventional wisdom. The opinions of UN human rights commissions and the General Assembly are often described as loopy in the Anglosphere. Why should we take the word of the United Nations for on this controversy?

As an example of a double standard on human rights at work, about half of the prominent signatories on an open petition to the UN General Assembly to ban FGM are Belgian. They include the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, a number of senators and the Vice-President of the European Parliament. Belgium is a country of such elevated ethical standards and delicate moral instincts that it has legalised euthanasia, including euthanasia for organ donation and euthanasia of prisoners. Don’t Sudanese women have a right to question the moral authority of politicians who allow their own citizens to be medically murdered but insist on banning minor surgery in distant countries?

Not for one minute would I support FGM. The very thought of it makes me shudder. However, if governments denounce it, they need to be consistent in applying their logic. I suspect that most of them are merely mindlessly echoing the views of well-meaning lobby groups. The outrage has a lot in common with the buzz over Kony 2012, the YouTube sensation exhorting college students to shake a fist at a brutal Ugandan warlord. Many Ugandans were outraged at American ignorance of the facts.

A leading bioethics journal, the Hastings Center Report, recently published a report which tries to sift facts from ideology. Without in any way endorsing FGM, a group called the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa vigorously rebuts allegations of sexism, oppressive patriarchy, torture and mutilation.

The authors’ aim is to "move the coverage of the topic from an over-heated, ideologically charged, and one-sided story about 'mutilation,' morbidity, and patriarchal oppression to a real, evidence-based policy debate governed by the standards of critical reason and fact checking."

The claims and counter-claims in the article are too long to list in full. But the authors – about 15 of them, mostly from Western countries – make the following points about FGM (or “female genital surgery”, as they call it as even the terminology is a hot potato):

  • Does FGM rob women of sexual pleasure? Medical research has found that a high percentage of women who have had genital surgery have rich sexual lives.
  • Does FGM cause medical complications? The authors claim that reproductive health and medical complications are uncommon. Criticism in The Lancet of an influential 2006 WHO study  about "deadly consequences" has been ignored. There is little evidence to support sensational media claims.
  • Should it be called “mutilation”? Many women (as in the rooms of Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeons) view it as aesthetic enhancement.
  • Does it symbolise an oppressive patriarchy? In almost all societies where female genital surgery is performed, male genital surgery also takes place. Women are not singled out. Women manage and control female genital surgery in Africa and groups that fight against female genital surgery weaken the power of women.

If ever there were an open debate over FGM, Western opponents would be tangled in contradictions – perhaps that is why there has been so little effort to establish the facts. On the one hand, they support the struggle of Egyptians for democracy. Yet it is possible that if FGM were put to a vote, Egyptian women would support it. On the one hand, they applaud the rise of African feminism. Yet a practice which millions of African women regard as enhancing their femininity is condemned.

Professor Richard A. Shweder, of the University of Chicago, is a vocal critic of one-sided coverage of FGM. His analysis at the anthropology meeting in San Francisco is thought-provoking. One reason, he told MercatorNet, is that Western fantasies about the barbarism of the “Dark Continent” makes activists feel cosy and self-congratulatory.

“This denigrating, arousing and widely marketed representation of African savagery, is notably disproportionate to reality, and as fanciful in character as the content of its projected representation is horrifying. Indeed I would like to suggest that if one strives to honor facts rather than factoids … this particular representation of the African other should be a source of embarrassment for those of us who value critical reason. It should not be embraced as a charter for a civilizing project.”

Abe Rosenthal, one-time editor of the New York Times, once rhapsodised that eliminating FGM was the dream cause – it would cost no American lives and almost no American dollars. “And at the end of the dream, when it had become reality, half of humanity would bless us and so would all who truly love them.” What did African women think about his patronising proposal? Rosenthal never asked.

Shweder also points out that African traditional practices challenge Western notions about sexuality. In the clinics of Beverly Hills, femininity is about sexual pleasure. In many African societies, it’s about motherhood.

“A slogan such as ‘Make love, not babies’ does not compute; it might well be viewed as excessively hedonistic and even immoral. In such societies the expression ‘Reproductive Health’ implies that it is healthy and self-enhancing to become the matriarch of a large family.

“In such societies the expression ‘Reproductive Health’ does not imply what it is meant to suggest in our own sub-culture, namely, don’t get pregnant very often and liberate your self to the extent possible from the burdensome duties associated with thick and extensive family ties.”

To reiterate, to me and to most Western critics, FGM is utterly unacceptable. But before self-righteously slapping bans on a practice which millions of women believe to be an essential part of their femininity and motherhood, shouldn’t we respect them by examining the facts? Ethics should always be based on evidence.

As Nawal M. Nour, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, writes in a sympathetic response to the advisory group’s observations:

“Speaking as both an African woman and an obstetrician-gynecologist, I hope that this practice ends during my lifetime. However, the impetus to abandon female genital cutting must come from within each community; a ban on it cannot be imposed by outsiders”.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

This article is published by Michael Cook and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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