The highly controversial practice
of female genital cutting (FGC) has sparked widespread discussion between in-
and outsiders, all with different stances. In February 2017 the European
Commission has reaffirmed its position to eradicate FGC globally. This essay
will discuss possible consequences of this position on FGC and put the silence
of the European Commission on male circumcision (MC) under scrutiny.
In general, FGC is a human rights issue.
In 1993, The Declaration on the Elimination of
Violence against Women clearly states in Article 2 that any woman has the right to be
free of any kind of violence, inflicted for whatever reasons. Since human
rights are made to be universal, every state ought to respect, protect and
fulfil these rights. On the other hand there are many states which would argue
that human rights are not universal, but encompass a Western standard, which is being forced upon
certain states (Arosemena, p. 312).
FGC is present all over the world, but it is
most dominant in African cultures. In Article 4 of the African Charter of human
rights state that human beings have the right to their integrity. Critics of
these charters, like Fuambai Ahmadu, argue that studies are biased and not
understanding of the intricacies of the practice because they have mostly been
conducted by outsiders, who have either not undergone the procedure or are from
external societies. Due to that, she argues, they cannot possibly understand
what this ritual means for insiders. For her FGC means the right of passage,
the translation from human to a full woman.
On the other hand, many reason in favour of
the practice, like tradition, religion or myths are simply not justifying the
practice and are outweighed by the arguments against it (Slack, pp. 458-461). Allison
Slack emphasises negative medical consequences, but also argues against the other
reason justifying the practice. She strongly discourages the practice, while
also acknowledging the deep traditional embedment of this practice in certain
societies. Furthermore she argues that outside values might result in a
disruption of this delicate cultural balance. Therefore she suggests a
multidisciplinary approach, containing legislation and educational programs.
Through this she means to achieve the eradication of FGC.
Nevertheless often interventions result in counterproductive
results. Jonneke Koomen argues that anti-FGC campaigns oversee why these
procedures are so dominant in these cultures. Reasons for this dominance are
anti-colonial resistance and efforts to defend land and autonomy. Furthermore
he argues that if we demonize FGC all together, and legally restrict it, it
could result in a severe backlash. He further argues that education is
embroiled in politics, and therefore cannot be characterized as local
knowledge, which then would help to stop the practice. He thus labels out the
importance of translation, from big hostile interventions to small sensitive
campaigns. But even initiatives, defined as culturally sensitive inevitably
encounter limits of translation. Interventions as small as they may be, will
invariably invoke far-reaching contestations of the meaning of bodily
integrity, the relationship between community and the individual and the
boundaries of community membership.
these reasons the statement of the European Commission cannot be referred to as
wholly or effective, and thus is not yet justifying interventions against the
Considering the vehement position of the
European Commission on FGC, one might ask why only selected practices are in
the aim of the European Commission and not every harmful practice, containing
FGC and MC altogether. In Amelie Barras
and Dia Dabby’s paper Only Skin Deep,
it is put into question to why MC is not seen the same as FGC. Freedom of
religion seems to be the most present reason. In contrast to FGC, which is
considered to be not “religious enough”, in that sense degrading it to a
cultural and traditional practice. They argue that as soon as a cultural
practice is not lenient with Western standards it is not acceptable.
Furthermore they argue that MC has become to be associated with a secular,
modern, and healthy body, ultimately seen as a ritual, a sort of humane
process. Even though they label out that both, FGC and MC, have started out as
practices to battle illnesses, they have been differentiated. First it is said
that historically speaking men were made to endure more pain, secondly the
foreskin was seen as feminine and thirdly it was used to distinguish the rich
from the poor. All of these reasons do not seem to satisfy contemporary views
on MC. Though MC remains to be seen as “harmless ritual” while FGC is described
as “negative traditional practice”. This is mostly due to the religious
connection of MC, which then raises the question of religious boundaries.
If human rights were as universal as they
claim, any violation of bodily integrity should be condemned, due to any
reason. Even though MC is deeply intertwined with certain religions, it is not a
valid reason for European Commission to not condemn this with the same efforts.
The statement does encourage the
eradication of FGC, but nowhere even mentions MC. That could be interpreted as
a relativistic religious focus, which would undermine the universality of human
rights. Therefore a more unified stance on defending any violation of human
rights also deepens the universality of human rights.
Marks article Human Rights and Root
Causes, she discusses possible underlying patterns of injustice or harm that
cause human rights violations. Additionally she exemplifies how sometimes
reports completely forget to address root causes of these violations. She proposes
that human rights should not only address “symptoms”, but also underlying
causes of these violations (Marks, p. 59). That suggests that often violations
of human rights point to other deeper causes, other wrongs deeply entrenched
with enabling conditions. While human rights put an emphasis on technical problems
on technical problems and solutions, the issues are far more complex than they
appear (Marks, p. 71).
FGC and MC, this suggests that we need to look at the underlying patters of
these practices, being religious or traditional.
The point this
statement seems to dismiss, is that whether the reason for these practices are
religious, traditional or communal, they have certain gravity in a person’s
life. Speaking from a Western perspective, it seems almost parochial that supposed
‘grass-roots level’ initiatives should fundamentally change societal, political
and educational structure. We oversee the complexity, while we speak of the enforcement
of human rights. FGC and MC should be treated no different, but ought to be
dealt with the utmost respect.