As both an American and a women’s liberation advocate, I firmly believe that the practice of female genital cutting should be eliminated worldwide. I am not unlike most people in this belief, but just having the majority of people agree with me is not enough, nor is it enough to create foreign legislation which simply forbids it. To be able to fully abolish this practice, we must first thoroughly research it by studying its implications both physically and culturally, then work to educate everyone, including those cultures which still perform such surgeries, about our findings. It is through this educational process that we can teach people why it should be abolished rather than just insisting that it stop. Hopefully, by distributing accurate information to those cultures which still practice FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), they will choose to stop the practice on their own, lest the practice move to a black market creating even more risks for the women involved.
While eradicating the practice of FGM seems like an easy answer to us on the outside, given the fact that there are no medical benefits to this painful procedure, we must consider the cultural context in which this procedure occurs, a term called “cultural relativism”. This term, as stated by dictionary.com, implies that beliefs and values stem from the culture in which they are born and thrive. Thus, the cultural relativism in these societies in reference to FGM states that women who have experienced circumcision are more feminine than women who have not received this procedure and also believes that women will be more able to protect and maintain their purity by reducing the female’s sexual drive and by hindering a would-be rapist from fulfilling his crime.
As long as the men in these countries find “modified” women to be more attractive and fit for marriage, then the women in these countries will have to justify their rejection of FGM against possible social problems. Women from these cultures rely on men for their financial support. If a woman cannot marry she would continue to be a burden on her family of origin because they would have to continually support her well into adult-hood, a burden that is supposed to be alleviated upon marriage Therefore, it is imperative that education for everyone within these cultures be a part of the FGM eradication process.
But wait. Before we run over to Africa, research in hand, to tote our position on FGM, we should also consider what our motives are for seeking change. Is it specifically to stop almost a million young women from having this procedure performed each year, or is it based more on our own egocentric attitudes about what should be appropriate practice and what should not? We are very quick to point our fingers at them, saying that they are performing brutal acts towards women, but we need to be careful not to condemn them based on our own egocentric beliefs. Egocentrism, or the belief that one’s way of life is superior to others and the tendency to view other cultures as relative to one’s own, is a very natural occurrence which we are all guilty of. We need to consider this prior to trying to fix the problem for fear that we might sound hypocritical to the people we are trying to reach. An example of this hypocrisy might be the fact that so many people have piercings and tattoos, oddly colored hair, or other forms of body modification such as breast implants. These things that are some-what commonplace in America are just as likely to be scoffed at there as FGM is here. In fact, they could just as easily take an ethnocentric stance about our culture and the promiscuity of our women. Hence, we need to be extremely tactful in dealing with other cultures and their ways of doing things. Change takes time, patience, and persistence, and to change a tradition that dates back to Ancient Egypt over 3,000 years ago would certainly be no exception.
Yet another hypocrisy that we Americans face is the frequency of male circumcisions which still occur daily in our own back yard. Contrary to popular belief, there is no known medical benefit to this procedure, much like cases of FGM, but is commonplace here no less. Should we stop performing unnecessary male circumcisions here before jumping on our soap boxes about the urgency of stopping FGM procedures? To me, the answer would be a simple but firm “yes”. Unfortunately, as we have seen, tradition dies hard. Such is the case here in the United States concerning male circumcision and will likely be the case in reference to cultures that still practice FGM.
The topic of Female Genital Mutilation is a tricky subject. What seems horrific and absolutely necessary to put an abrupt end to actually has very deep roots, predating Islam and Christianity. Much like the phrase “They didn’t build Rome in a day”, the practice of FGM cannot be stopped in one quick swoop. Instead, we must carefully plan every move including raising awareness about its occurrence, education for people everywhere about both the benefits and risks involved with FGM (and male circumcision), and encourage the people who still practice it to find beauty and acceptance in the whole, “in-tact” female body. In addition to this, we should provide a safe haven for people wishing to escape the threat of such extreme forms of body modification. This is a matter that will undoubtedly take many years to eradicate, but through worldwide education and support, this change can and will happen, saving millions of little girls in the future.