Cultural Relativism vs. Human Rights

There is serious disagreement about whether the practice of FGM is an issue of cultural relativism or an issue of human rights. Some Western anthropologistshave equated the practice of FGM with such Western practices as breast augmentation and tattooing. This agrument is flawed, however, for at least two important reasons. The first is that in both the examples given, the subjects making these decisions must, by law, be adults. This is not the case with FGM, whose subjects are often as young as three. The second flaw in this argument is that neither breast augmentation nor tattoing impede natural body functions, in the way FGM can. The argument has also been made that FGM is analogous to male circumcision, which is a common practice in the West. While it is true that both procedures are cultural traditions that have no real health benefits, there are major differences between the two. The most important difference between FGM and male circumcision is that, again, FGM impedes the natural functioning of the female body in ways that male circumcision does not.

There has also been serious debate within the African American community about FGM. While some African American women see the West’s attack on FGM as “ethnocentric,” African American novelist Alice Walker has written about her oppostion to the practice. Walker has produced a documentary and published a book, both entitled “Warrior Marks,” based on her experiences investigating FGM in Western Africa. In the following footage from the documentary “Women Under Attack,” Walker shares an interview from her “Warrior Marks” documentary. If you want to see this video click here.

Many human rights organizations agree with Alice Walker, and view FGM as a violation of human rights, calling for its eradication. In a meeting in Geneva this year, three UN agencies announced efforts to end FGM. These agencies, The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and UNICEF, asked for world support for their goal, calling FGM an “unsafe and unjustifiable traditional practice.” Amnesty International has also come out against FGM, saying “the practice is a form of violence and a violation of boldily integrity.” Non-Western organizations such as the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation (EOHR) have also joined this capaign. Egypt has been a battleground in the struggle to eradicate FGM, where the practice is currently banned. The goal of EOHR is to teach Egyptians “the harms of the operation to both individuals and society and to clarify that this pagan custom has no connection with Islam.”

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