It has been contested whether certain practices are inherently wrong, or whether it is cultural hegemony that dictates moral standpoints on various issues. Some cultural practices that are condoned in developing countries such as Nigeria are harshly frowned upon by Western societies, and vice versa. One such practice is female genital mutilation, or female circumcision. There is debate as to whether this practice can be considered a human rights violation, or if it is cultural imperialism that allows us to pass judgment on a ritual that seems essential to various African, Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. What seems imperative to this discussion, though, is the realization that cultural issues that create gender inequality are the root cause of female genital mutilation, and that unequal treatment of the sexes in any circumstance is wrong. Female genital mutilation is a controlling patriarchal practice that irreversibly harms young women. Despite the fact that it is culturally accepted and promoted by many African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, it is a definite human rights violation that can only be stopped by changing the structures of gender inequality that promote patriarchy from within the society itself.
First, it is important to explore the facts of female genital mutilation. The methodology of the procedure, the social and cultural reasons behind it, and the consequences for women who have undergone FGM are pertinent to its examination in the context of human rights rhetoric. In 2013, an estimated one hundred and forty million girls and women worldwide had female genital mutilation performed on them, and most of these surgery recipients were between the ages of infancy and fifteen. FGM is practiced for entirely non-medical reasons, and has been linked to cysts, chronic bladder and urinary tract infections, infertility, and an increased risk for childbirth complications and newborn deaths. The surgery has four classification levels: 1) clitoridectomy- the partial or full removal of the clitoris or the prepuce, 2) excision- the partial or full removal of the clitoris and labia minora, 3) infibulation- the narrowing of the vaginal opening with or without removal of the clitoris or labia, and 4) the “other” classification- any other harmful procedure done for non-medical reasons such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping or cauterizing the female genitalia. FGM is performed for non-religious reasons, despite the belief that it is connected to Islam in some way. The purpose of female circumcision is entirely cultural and social; women and girls are considered “unclean” until the surgery is performed, and once their genitals have been circumcised, they are considered women and ready for marriage. The belief in many cultures is that the clitoris heightens a woman’s libido and by removing it, the chance of infidelity is lowered, making her a suitable wife. In the case of infibulation, women will avoid intercourse due to the fear of pain caused by stretching of the narrowed vaginal opening. Overall, it is reasonable to conclude that female genital mutilation is performed so that other individuals, specifically husbands, can control the sexual experience of girls and women.
One argument used frequently by those in support of FGM is that women also frequently undergo cosmetic surgeries to augment the appearance of their genitals, and that this is no different from the practice of female circumcision. Surgeries and procedures performed on women’s genitalia include labiaplasty (the reduction of the labia minora), genital piercings, and hymenoplasty (the reconstruction of the hymen). However, female genital mutilation and cosmetic surgeries and procedures are simply incomparable due to their separate cultural purposes and medical legitimacies. Firstly, cosmetic surgeries are intended to be at the will of the women undergoing the operation. They must sign a consent form acknowledging their awareness of the risks and implications of surgery. If the woman seeking surgery is under eighteen years of age, she requires parental consent. However, teenaged women account for only two to three percent of all plastic surgery patients, whereas female genital mutilation recipients are almost always under the age of eighteen. Therefore, cosmetic surgeries and FGM differ completely in terms of consent and autonomy of the women. Cosmetic surgeries are performed by certified medical doctors who are trained in their field whereas FGM is usually performed with knives, razor blades, broken glass, or scissors. Cosmetic surgeries are much more regulated than FGM performed by traditional circumcisers.
Women’s rights are an undeniably vital issue and it is not surprising that the practice of female genital mutilation seems a horrific and brutal practice to many. However, when examining what appears to be a gross human rights violation, it is pertinent to keep it in cultural context and avoid using comparative ideals to judge right and wrong. In the case of female genital mutilation, one must not impose Western ideologies to attempt to eradicate the practice. The decision to end FGM must come from within these communities themselves, from the voices who are subject to it, and not from outsiders wishing to press their own ideologies. A significant change from within these cultures to the patriarchal system of oppression that reigns is the only way to eradicate female genital mutilation permanently.