The Campaign to Eradicate ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ in the UK: Moral Progress or Moral Hypocrisy?
Brian D. Earp at the Conway Hall Ethical Society on 20 July 2014
The orthodox position concerning ‘female genital mutilation’ (‘FGM’) is that it is so profoundly harmful and/or oppressive that it must be considered both morally and legally impermissible, not only in ‘Western’ contexts such as the United Kingdom, but also in the cultures in which—under a different description—it is traditionally carried out. However, in recent years, a competing discourse has emerged which suggests that the harms and/or problematic meanings that have been associated with ‘FGM’ may not be as straightforward as is typically assumed, and may even be comparable to those of a number of ‘Western’ practices that have failed to attract the same degree of censure. Such potentially comparable ‘Western’ practices raised by various critics include female genital ‘cosmetic’ surgery, intersex genital ‘correction’ surgery, and infant male circumcision. If these practices are in fact comparable along the relevant dimensions, then it would raise the possibility of a cultural or moral double standard on the part of ‘Western’ governments and agencies with respect to this very controversial practice. In this talk I assess these competing positions and propose an ethical framework for evaluating ‘FGM’ that both acknowledges the genuine harms of the practice and yet which avoids the charge of moral hypocrisy.
The presence of so many scare quotes in the title and abstract of this talk and of phrases like “competing discourse” point up a couple of distancing mechanisms this speaker used effectively to deal with this subject. They also contributed to the talk being less fluent than it might otherwise have been, which wasn’t helped by Earp overshooting by 25% of his allotted hour.
Earp studies the ritual modification of the bodies of children for non-medical reasons. (Modification for a medical reason might be heart surgery to repair a faulty valve, which is generally assumed to be less morally controversial.)
The need for moral caution is greater when children are involved, especially if the surgery depends on a norm or a value that the child might grow up to reject. It’s not always easy to distinguish medical from cultural, religious and aesthetic reasons, but the further away the surgery is from being needed for the child’s well-being or survival, then the more non-medical the reason. The extreme example is female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widely assumed to confer no benefits and to cause only harm.
FGM is often held up as a counterexample to the charge of moral relativism, since it is thought to provide a universal claim we can all sign up to: that it is always wrong, wherever it is carried out in the world. That FGM is morally wrong has been adopted as policy by the WHO and the UN, which says that FGM “violates the right to physical integrity of the person.” Many regard this as an advance in social justice; for others it is suggestive of cultural bias.
According to critics, this policy smacks of moral hypocrisy: the specific moral principles used to condemn FGM are not being applied to practices that are common in Western countries, and what appears to be a universal standard turns out in fact to be a relativistic double standard. In his talk, Earp contrasted the merits of these two perspectives.
FGM involves the removal of part of the female genitalia. There are no known health benefits; indeed, in both the short and the long term it’s thought to be harmful. FGM is so clearly barbaric that it’s become a knockdown argument against any charge of moral relativism. The danger is that Western literature on the subject has become less critical, more constrained and predictable, producing a standardized discourse as if in an echo chamber.
It has been said that Western observers gaze between the legs rather than at a woman’s beliefs. Women who participate come from a range of backgrounds, and in some communities this rite of passage is a cause for celebration. [On the BBC a few days after the talk there was moving testimony from a woman who recalled her experience of FGM, and it was not good. It was also carried out in secret, and she had no idea what was coming, which argues against it being a rite of passage and more of it being -- mistakenly -- thought of as a necessary operation, believed to ``preserve'' women for marriage. See also Parents who allow female genital mutilation will be prosecuted.]
These women who support FGM are not given any standing in international debate, where there is often an appeal to patriarchy — it’s assumed that FGM is done on the orders of men. However, there’s a diversity of cutting practices, which are done for many reasons, and there’s no consistent relationship between the status of men and women. Indeed, FGM can be done against the wishes of men and it isn’t only girls who are initiated — boys are also cut at the same time. It is often thought to prepare young men and women for adult roles. Nelson Mandela wrote about his own trial of bravery and stoicism, about how an uncircumcised Xhosa man is a contradiction in terms.
The foreskin is seen as a “female” part of the penis. Conversely, FGM involves the removal of the “male” part of the female genitals. Many African men and woman are perplexed by the Western focus on the female ritual, while ignoring the male ritual.
Infibulation is both extreme and rare, but there are also rare and extreme forms of male circumcision.
A common view is that female circumcision removes the clitoris and so desexualizes a woman, while the removal of the foreskin has no equivalent effect on male sexuality. This much seems obvious but it’s not the case that all forms of FGM remove the clitoris, which is mainly under the skin anyway. In any case, many circumcised women experience orgasm and many uncircumcised women do not experience orgasm — sexual satisfaction is not entirely determined by specific tissue.
Many African women see the clitoris as an unattractive male appendage and they can feel more beautiful and experience a positive effect on their sexuality after surgery. This is not unlike clitoral reshaping or labial trimming undergone in the US (so-called designer vaginas).
If a British girl who feels her genitals are deformed can be considered for surgery that is legal (although we may prefer she try some kind of counselling first), doesn’t ethnic society have a similar right to bodily modification?
The symbolic meaning of different body parts depends on the culture. Since sex is associated with penile penetration, the removal of the clitoris to Africans is both feminizing and an assertion of matriarchal power. The meaning of the clitoris is not determined by its anatomy and not reducible to bundles of nerves.
Vaginal rejuvination is not dissimilar to reinfibulation.
The so-called Seattle compromise outraged opinion. African parents were perplexed — the Somali women couldn’t understand why a simple pinprick to the clitoris was illegal while male circumcision was widely practiced. Indeed, prominent figures in the US like Kellogg had promoted circumcision as a “cure” for masturbation, and for a whole range of other illnesses. As a result of this kind of thinking, the majority of American males are circumcised. It’s considered normal in the US to perform this operation on healthy infants.
Earp’s hypothesis is that the Westerner always thinks of the most extreme form of FGM, carried out in the least sterile environment by the most medically untrained and least compassionate practitioners; the opposite is the case for male circumcision, which is a minor procedure carried out in well-staffed Western hospitals by fully trained doctors always for excellent cultural and medical reasons. This can lead to the impression that these two interventions are totally different, a distinction not helped by the fact that the female procedure is carried out in Africa (culturally lacking in power) while the male procedure is familiar in the US.
Earp doesn’t think the relevant moral principles have been consistently applied, and that the UN–WHO argument is not universal. There are three strands to this argument:
- FGM is harmful
- it still involves discrimination even if it’s not harmful
- it’s a violation of fundamental human rights
1 It’s not the case that all forms of FGM are painful or traumatic, and although some forms are excruciatingly painful the pain experienced is sometimes seen as instrumental.
The removal of tissue interferes with the normal functioning of body: this applies to the male more than to the female in many cases, but UN–WHO has not taken a position on male circumcision, of which there has been no universal prohibition.
WHO asserts that there are benefits of medical male circumcision but not for female circumcision, and refers to FGM’s negative effects as typical of all forms, while only the positive effects of male circumcision are presented. WHO funds research looking only for harm.
2 FGM is seen as symptomatic of society’s control over women, but this is not always the case, and we need to avoid grand narratives that smooth out diversity.
3 Here UN–WHO is on the strongest grounds re physical integrity, but rights are not absolutely inviolable. If there’s a valid medical reason then it’s not a form of mutilation. The problem is saying exactly what a disease is or what functional disability is, so there’s no universal consensus.
Imagine a bacterial infection in a child’s leg: in violation of the principle of physical integrity it’s in the best interests of the child to saw off the leg. This can’t be put off to the age of consent. If that much is right, then the operation promotes the real goal of advancing the child’s best interests. It is permissible for parents to enhance their child with an operation that is instrumental to their child’s overall well-being, all things considered.
Or consider orthodontics. Having straight teeth is seen as desirable in the US, where braces are put on many children by parents concerned over cosmetic appearance. The child is of course unlikely to object to having straight teeth once they have reached adulthood.
We should be cautious about any procedure that
- is irreversible
- or can be delayed until the age of consent
- or results in an enhancement that is not settled in society.