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1. According to the moral theory called “cultural relativism” or “ethical relativism,” when are actions morally wrong in some culture? When are they permissible in that society?
2. What are some of the most important arguments against “cultural relativism” or reasons to think the theory is false?
3. Why might someone accept “cultural relativism”? What arguments or motivations might incline someone towards at least saying things that sound like they might accept relativism?
4. What are some of the considerations raised for and against polyamory and monogamy?
5. What are some of the considerations raised for and against infant (or child) genital cutting, both for females and for males?
1. According to the moral theory called “cultural relativism” or “ethical relativism,” when are actions morally wrong in some culture? When are they permissible in that society? 2. What
7/13/2021 Are male and female circumcision morally equivalent? | Aeon Essays https://aeon.co/essays/are-male-and-female-circumcision-morally-equivalent 1/9 Photo b y M an an V ats y a ya n a/A FP/ G ett y B oys an d g ir ls a li k e An u n-c o n se n tin g c h ild , a n u nneces sa ry , i n va siv e su rg ery : i s t h ere an y mo ra l d i ma le an d f e ma le cir c u mc is io n ? B ria n D Earp is a n a ss o cia te d ir e cto r o f t h e Y ale -H astin g s p ro g ra m me i n e th ic s a n d hea lt h p oli c y a t Y ale U niv e rs it y a n d a r e se a rc h f e ll o w i n t h e U eh ir o C en tr e f o r P ra ctic a l E th ic s a t t h e U niv e rs it y o f O xfo rd . P ub li s h ed i n a ss o cia tio n w it h O xfo rd U eh ir o C en tr e f o r P ra ctic a l E th ic s a n A eo n P artn er 7/13/2021 Are male and female circumcision morally equivalent? | Aeon Essays https://aeon.co/essays/are-male-and-female-circumcision-morally-equivalent 2/9 I t r y n ot t o t a lk a b ou t m y r e se arc h a t d in ner p artie s. I ’l l s a y ‘ m ed ic a l e th ic s’ i f p re sse d , w hic h w ill so metim es tr ig ger a n u n w elc o m e f o llo w -u p : ‘ B ut w hat a b ou t m ed ic a l eth ic s? ‘I st ud y l o ts of t h in gs,’ I ’l l sa y – a n d t h at’s t r u e, I d o. ‘ B ut I f o cu s o n m ed ic a lly u n nece ssa ry su rg erie s perfo rm ed o n c h ild re n .’ ‘ Li ke w hat? ’ Li ke w hat, i n deed . I t ’s ra re ly a s m ooth r id e f r o m t h ere . su rg erie s, sp eci ru le , I t h in k t h at h ea lt h y c h ild re n – w hate ve r t h eir s e x o r g en der – s h ou ld b e f r e e fr o m h av in g p arts of t h eir m ost i n tim ate s e x u al o rg an s r e m ove d b efo re t h ey c a n u n derst an d w hat’s at st ak e i n s u ch a p ro ce d ure . c o m e t o h old t h is vie w , b ut i n s o m e w ay s i t ’s p re tty s im ple . ‘ P riv a te p arts ’ a re p riv a te . a d dre ss (fo r w hic h su rg ery i s th e m ost c o n se rv a tiv e o p tio n ), t h ey s h ou ld p ro b ab ly b e le ft a lo n e. In t h e 1 990s, when t h e Ca nad ia n e th ic is t M arg are t S om erv ille b eg an t o s p ea k a n d w rit e c rit ic a lly a b ou t t h e n on -t h era p eu tic c ir c u m cis io n o f i n fa n t b oys, s h e w as atta ck ed f o r e ve n a d dre ssi ng t h e s u b je ct i n p ub li c . I n h er b ook , sh e sa ys her c rit ic s accu se d h er o f ‘ d etr a ctin g f r o m t h e h orro r o f f e m ale g en it a l m utila tio n a n d w ea k en in g t h e c a se a g ain st i t b y s p ea k in g a b ou t i t a n d i n fa n t m ale c ir c u m cisi on i n t h e sa me c o n te x t a n d p oin tin g o u t t h at t h e s a m e e th ic a l a n d l e g al p rin cip le s ap pli e d t o b oth ’. S he w asn ’t a lo n e. h er u n iv e rsi ty l e ctu re s, pro vo k in g a r e a ctio n t h at w as ‘ i m med ia te a n d h ostile … Ho w dare I m en tio n t h ese t w o e n tir e ly d i co m pare t h e i n nocu ou s an d b en e m utila tio n s en acte d a g ain st f e m ale s i n o th er s o cie tie s!’ 7/13/2021 Are male and female circumcision morally equivalent? | Aeon Essays https://aeon.co/essays/are-male-and-female-circumcision-morally-equivalent 3/9 eve ry on e of t h em i s u n tr u e o r s e ve re ly m is le a d in g It ’s ea sy t o se e w here t h ese r e a ctio n s a re c o m in g f r o m . O ne f r e q uen t c la im i s t h at F G M i s an alo g ou s to ‘ c a st ra tio n ’ o r a ‘ t o ta l p en ecto m y’. P ut t h at w ay, a n yo n e w ho tr ie d t o c o m pare t h e t w o o n e th ic a l ( o r o th er) g ro u n ds w ou ld b e m ak in g a s e rio u s m ist ak e – a n ato m ic a lly , a t t h e v e ry l e a st. Y ou o ft e n h ea r t h at g en it a l m utila tio n a n d m ale c ir c u m cis io n a re very di . F G M is barb aric a n d c rip pli n g ( ‘a lw ay s t o rtu re ’, a s t h e G uar dian co lu m nist T an ya G old w ro te r e ce n tly ), w here a s m ale c ir c u m cis io n i s c o m para tiv e ly i n co n se q uen tia l. M ale c ir c u m cisi on i s a ‘ m in or’ i n te rv e n tio n t h at m ig h t e ve n c o n fe r h ea lt h b en e FG M i s a d ra st ic i n te rv e n tio n w it h n o h ea lt h b en e ‘p rim e m otiv e ’ f o r F G M i s to c o n tr o l w om en ’s s e x u ali t y ; i t i s i n here n tly s e x is t a n d disc rim in ato ry a n d i s an e x p re ssio n o f m ale p ow er a n d d om in atio n . t r u e f o r m ale c ir c u m cisi on . U nfo rtu n ate ly , t h ere ’s a p ro b le m w it h t h ese c la im s. A lm ost e ve ry o n e o f t h em i s u n tr u e, o r se ve re ly m isl ea d in g. F G M a n d m ale c ir c u m cisi on ; a n d t h ey a re i n co n sis te n t w it h w hat s c h ola rs h av e k n ow n a b ou t t h ese p ra ctic e s fo r w ell o ve r a d eca d e. I t ’s t im e t o r e -e x am in e w hat w e ‘k n ow ’ a b ou t t h ese c o n tr o ve rsi al c u sto m s. T h e W orld He alt h O rg an iz a tio n ( W HO ) d e of t h e g en it a li a o f w om en a n d g ir ls . W hat t h is i s l i k ely t o b rin g t o m in d i s t h e m ost e x tr e m e v e rsi on o f su ch ‘ a lt e ra tio n ’, w hic h i s t h e e x cis io n o f t h e e x te rn al p art o f t h e cli t o ris fo llo w ed b y a n arro w in g o f t h e v a g in al o p en in g, s o m etim es u sin g s tit c h es o r th orn s. I t i s ra re ly u n derst ood t h at t h is n oto rio u s f o rm o f F G M i s c o m para tiv e ly r a re : it o ccu rs in a su bse t o f t h e p ra ctis in g c o m mun it ie s, a n d m ak es u p a b ou t 1 0 p er c e n t of c a se s w orld w id e. M ore p re va le n t, b ut m uch l e ss f r e q uen tly d is c u sse d i n t h e m ed ia , is a r a n ge o f l e ss ex te n si ve a lt e ra tio n s, s o m etim es p erfo rm ed u n der a n aesth esia b y m ed ic a l p ro fe ssi on als an d w it h s te rile s u rg ic a l e q uip m en t. o th er i n te rv e n tio n s, so -c a lle d r it u al ‘ n ic k in g’ o f t h e c li t o ra l h ood ( c o m mon i n M ala y si a), a s w ell a s non -m ed ic a lly -in dic a te d l a b ia p la sty a n d e ve n p ie rc in gs t h at m ig h t b e d on e f o r p erc e iv e d c o sm etic e n han ce m en t. 7/13/2021 Are male and female circumcision morally equivalent? | Aeon Essays https://aeon.co/essays/are-male-and-female-circumcision-morally-equivalent 4/9 Male g en it a l c ut tin g i s p erfo rm ed at d i ag es, i n d i to ol s, b y d i It sh ou ld b e c le a r t h at t h ese d i deg re es of h arm , w it h d i ch an ce s of d eve lo p in g a n i n fe ctio n , a n d s o o n . A nd y e t al l f o rm s of n on -t h era p eu tic f e m ale g en it a l a lt e ra tio n – n o m atte r h ow s te rili s e d o r m in or – a re d eem ed t o b e m utila tio n s in ‘ W est ern ’ c o u n tr ie s. Al l a re p ro h ib it e d b y l a w . w hen y o u g et r ig h t d ow n t o i t , i s t h at c u ttin g i n to a g ir l’s g en it a ls w it h ou t a m ed ic a l d ia g n osi s, an d w it h ou t h er c o n se n t, i s e q uiv a le n t t o c rim in al a ssa u lt o n a m in or u n der t h e l e g al c o d es of m ost o f t h ese s o cie tie s. A nd, m ora lly , I t h in k t h e l a w i s c o rre ct h ere . I d on ’t t h in k t h at a s h arp o b je ct s h ou ld b e t a k en t o a n y c h ild ’s v u lv a u n le ss it i s to sa ve h er l i f e o r h ea lt h , o r u n le ss s h e h as g iv e n h er f u lly i n fo rm ed p erm issi on t o u n derg o su ch a n o p era tio n , a n d w an ts t o t a k e o n t h e r e le va n t r is k s a n d co n se quen ce s. In t h at c a se , o f c o u rse , sh e w ou ld n ’t b e a ‘ c h ild ’ a n ym ore , b ut r a th er a n a d ult w om an , w ho c a n m ak e a d ecisi on a b ou t h er o w n b od y. th e p ra ctic e p ro h ib it e d , a n d i n m an y i t i s n ot e ve n r e str ic te d . I n s o m e c o u n tr ie s, in clu d in g i n t h e U nit e d S ta te s, a n yo n e, w it h a n y i n str u m en t, a n d a n y d eg re e o f m ed ic a l t r a in in g ( in clu d in g n on e) c a n a tte m pt t o p erfo rm a c ir c u m cis io n o n a n on – co n se ntin g c h ild – so metim es w it h d is a str o u s c o n se q uen ce s. F o r a r e ce n t e x am ple , lo ok u p ‘ G ood lu ck Ca ub erg s’ o n t h e i n te rn et; s im ila r c a se s h ap p en e ve ry y e a r. A s t h e b io eth ic ist D en a D av is has poin te d o u t, ‘ S ta te s c u rre n tly r e g u la te t h e h yg ie n ic p ra ctic e s of t h ose w ho c u t o u r h air a n d o u r g en it a ls? ’ Ju st l i k e F G M , h ow eve r, c ir c u m cis io n i s n ot a m on oli t h : i t i s n ’t j u st o n e k in d o f t h in g. m in or. I t i n vo lv e d c u ttin g o o ve r t h e e n d o f t h e g la n s – t h ere b y p re se rv in g ( m ost o f) t h e f o re sk in ’s p ro te ctiv e a n d se xu al f u n ctio n s, as w ell a s re d ucin g t h e a m ou n t o f e ro g en ou s t is su e r e m ove d . ‘ m od ern ’ f o rm i s m uch m ore i n va siv e : i t r e m ove s b etw een o n e-t h ir d a n d o n e-h alf o f 7/13/2021 Are male and female circumcision morally equivalent? | Aeon Essays https://aeon.co/essays/are-male-and-female-circumcision-morally-equivalent 5/9 th e m ova b le sk in sy stem o f t h e p en is ( a b ou t 5 0 s q uare c e n tim ete rs o f r ic h ly i n nerv a te d t issu e i n t h e a d ult o rg an ), e li m in ate s t h e g li d in g m otio n o f t h e f o re sk in , an d e x p ose s th e h ea d o f t h e p en is t o e n vir o n m en ta l i r rit a tio n , a s i t r u b s a g ain st c lo th in g. M ale g en it a l c u ttin g i s perfo rm ed a t d i di cir c u m cisi on s are d on e w hile t h e b oy i s f u lly c o n sc io u s, b etw een t h e a g es o f e ig h t, a n d so metim es la te r. A m eric a n ( n on -r e li g io u s) c ir c u m cis io n s a re d on e i n a h osp it a l, i n t h e M etz it z ah b ’p eh , d on e b y so me u lt r a -O rth od ox J e w s, i n vo lv e s t h e s u ck in g o f b lo od f r o m t h e cir c u m cisi on w ou n d, a n d c a rrie s t h e r is k o f h erp es i n fe ctio n a n d p erm an en t b ra in d am ag e. S ub in cisi on , se en p rim arily i n a b orig in al A ustr a li a , i n vo lv e s s li c in g o p en t h e u re th ra l p assa ge o n t h e u n dersi de o f t h e p en is f r o m t h e s c ro tu m t o t h e g la n s, o ft e n a u rin atio n a s w ell a s se xu al f u n ctio n . A nd c ir c u m cis io n a m on g s o m e t r ib al g ro u p s i n A fr ic a i s don e a s a r it e o f p ass ag e, i n t h e b ush , w it h s p ea rh ea d s, d ir ty k n iv e s, a n d oth er n on -st erile i n st ru m en ts. S im ila r t o f e m ale g en it a l c u ttin g r it e s p erfo rm ed u n der co m para b le c o n dit io n s (a n d o ft e n b y t h e v e ry s a m e g ro u p s), t h ese o p era tio n s fr e q uen tly c a u se h em orrh ag e, i n fe ctio n , m an gli n g, a n d l o ss o f t h e s e x u al o rg an . I n fa ct, b etw een 2 008 a n d 2 014, m ore t h an h alf a m illi o n b oys w ere h osp it a li s e d d ue t o b otc h ed c ir c u m cisi on s in S ou th A fr ic a a lo n e. M ore t h an 4 00 l o st t h eir l iv e s. B ut e ve n ‘ h osp it a li se d’ o r ‘ m in or’ c ir c u m cis io n s a re n ot w it h ou t t h eir r is k s a n d co m pli c a tio n s, an d t h e h arm i s n ot c o n d oze n i n fa n t b oys w ere t r e a te d f o r l i f e -t h re a te n in g h aem orrh ag e, s h ock o r s e p sis a s a r e su lt o f t h eir n on -t h era p eu tic c ir c u m cis io n s a t a s in gle c h ild re n ’s h osp it a l i n B ir m in gh am , E ngla n d. S in ce t h is in fo rm atio n r e q uest ( a n d o th erw is e w ou ld n ot h av e b een p ub li c k n ow le d ge), i t h as t o b e m ult ip li e d b y o rd ers of m ag n it u d e t o g et a s e n se o f t h e t r u e s c o p e o f t h e p ro b le m . W hen p eo p le t a lk a b ou t ‘ F G M ’ t h ey a re u su ally t h in kin g o f t h e m ost s e v ere f o rm s of fe m ale g en it a l c u ttin g, d on e i n t h e le ast ste rile e n vir o n m en ts, wit h t h e m ost dr asti c co n se quen ce s li k eli e st t o f o llo w – e ve n t h ou gh r e se a rc h s u ggests t h at t h ese f o rm s a re th e e x ce p tio n r a th er t h an t h e r u le . W hen p eo p le t a lk a b ou t ‘ m ale c ir c u m cis io n ’, b y co n tr a st , t h ey a re ( a p pare n tly ) t h in kin g o f t h e le ast se v ere f o rm s of m ale g en it a l cu ttin g, d on e i n t h e m ost s te rile e n vir o n m en ts, wit h t h e le ast drasti c c o n se quen ce s 7/13/2021 Are male and female circumcision morally equivalent? | Aeon Essays https://aeon.co/essays/are-male-and-female-circumcision-morally-equivalent 6/9 li k eli e st t o f o llo w – p erh ap s beca u se t h is i s t h e f o rm w it h w hic h t h ey a re c u lt u ra lly f a m ili a r. O ne r e cu rre n t c la im , r e ce n tly u n derli n ed b y t h e U S C en te rs f o r D is e a se C on tr o l (CD C), i s th at m ale c ir c u m cisi on c a n c o n fe r a n um ber o f h ea lt h b en e sm all r e d uctio n i n t h e a b so lu te r is k o f c o n tr a ctin g c e rta in s e x u ally t r a n sm it te d in fe ctio n s. Ho weve r, b oth p arts of t h is cla im a re m is le a d in g. C erta in ly t h e m ost e x tr e m e t y p es o f F G M w ill n ot c o n tr ib ute t o g o od h ea lt h o n b ala n ce , b ut n eit h er w ill t h e s p ea rh ea d s- a n d-d ir ty -k n iv e s ve rsi on s of g en it a l c u ttin g o n b oys. W hat a b ou t o th er f o rm s o f F G M ? I ts defe n ders (w ho t y p ic a lly r e fe r t o i t a s ‘ f e m ale c ir c u m cis io n ’) r e g u la rly c it e su ch ‘ h ea lt h b en e pra ctic e . I n deed , t h e v u lv a h as all s o rts o f w arm , m ois t p la ce s w here b acte ria o r vir u se s co u ld g et t r a p p ed , su ch a s u n dern ea th t h e c li t o ra l h ood , o r a m on g t h e f o ld s of t h e l a b ia ; so w ho i s to sa y t h at r e m ovin g s o m e o f t h at t is su e ( w it h a s te rile s u rg ic a l to ol) m ig h t n ot r e d uce t h e r isk o f v a rio u s d is e a se s? on e re le va n t h arm w ou ld b e t h e i n vo lu n tar y l o ss of a h ea lt h y, f un ctio n al , an d e ro to g en ic g en it al s truct ure Fo rtu n ate ly , i t ’s im possi ble t o p erfo rm t h is t y p e o f r e se a rc h i n t h e W est, b eca u se a n y sc ie n tist w ho t r ie d t o d o so w ou ld b e a rre ste d u n der a n ti- F G M l a w s ( a n d w ou ld n eve r g et a p pro va l f r o m a n e th ic s re v ie w b oard ). S o w e s im ply d o n ot k n ow . A s a c o n se quen ce o f t h is, eve ry t im e o n e s e es t h e c la im t h at ‘ F G M h as n o h ea lt h b en e – a c la im t h at h as beco m e so meth in g o f a m an tr a f o r t h e W HO – o n e s h ou ld r e a d th is as sa yin g, ‘ w e a ctu ally d on ’t k n ow i f c e rta in m in or, st erili se d f o rm s o f F G M h av e h ea lt h b en e B y c o n tr a st , a sm all a n d i n si st en t g ro u p o f ( m ostly A m eric a n ) s c ie n tis ts h av e t a k en i t u p on t h em se lv e s to p ro m ote i n fa n t m ale c ir c u m cis io n a s a f o rm o f p artia l p ro p hyla x is ag ain st d ise ase . M ost o f t h ese d is e a se s a re r a re i n d eve lo p ed c o u n tr ie s, d o n ot a t r e a te d t h ro u gh m uch m ore c o n se rv a tiv e m ea n s. N eve rth ele ss – s in ce i t i s n ot ag ain st t h e l a w f o r t h em t o d o s o – a d vo ca te s o f ( m ale ) c ir c u m cis io n a re a b le t o 7/13/2021 Are male and female circumcision morally equivalent? | Aeon Essays https://aeon.co/essays/are-male-and-female-circumcision-morally-equivalent 7/9 co n duct st ud y a ft e r w ell- f u n ded s tu d y t o s e e j u st w hat k in ds o f ‘ h ea lt h b en e m ig h t f o llo w f r o m c u ttin g o M an y E uro p ea n m ed ic a l e x p erts d is p ute t h ese s tu d ie s, a n d d ete ct m ore t h an a w hi of c u lt u ra l b ia s in f a v o u r o f c ir c u m cis io n d ue t o i t s p ecu li a r s ta tu s a s a b ir th r it u al i n A m eric a n so cie ty . a u gu st o rg an isa tio n c o n te n ds t h at t h e b en e w here b y ‘ r isk ’ t h ey a p pare n tly m ea n ‘ r is k o f s u rg ic a l c o m pli c a tio n s’. B ut i n m ed ic a l e th ic s, th e a p pro p ria te t e st f o r a n on -t h era p eu tic s u rg ery p erfo rm ed i n t h e a b se nce o f d ise ase o r d efo rm it y i s n ot b en e but r a th er b en e har m. I n t h is ca se , o n e r e le va n t h arm w ou ld b e t h e in vo lu n ta ry l o ss of a h ea lt h y, f u n ctio n al, a n d e ro to g en ic g en it a l s tr u ctu re t h at o n e m ig h t w ish t o h av e e x p erie n ce d i n ta ct. I m ag in e a r e p ort b y t h e C D C r e fe rrin g t o t h e b en e dra w back t o su ch a p ro ce d ure w as d esc rib ed a s t h e ‘ r is k o f s u rg ic a l c o m pli c a tio n s’. It i s oft e n sa id t h at F G M i s desi gn ed t o ‘ c o n tr o l’ f e m ale s e x u ali t y , w here a s m ale g en it a l c u ttin g i s le ss symboli c a lly p ro b le m atic . B ut a s t h e s o cio lo g is t L is a W ad e h as sh ow n i n h er r e se arc h , ‘ a ttr ib utin g [ th e] p ers is te n ce [ o f f e m ale g en it a l a lt e rin g rit u als] t o p atr ia rc h y g ro ssl y o ve r-s im pli f u n ctio n s’ i n t h e d iv e rse so cie tie s i n w hic h t h ey a re p erfo rm ed . A fr ic a , f o r e x am ple , g en it a l c u ttin g ( o f w hate ve r d eg re e o f s e ve rit y ) i s m ost c o m mon ly p erfo rm ed a ro u n d p ub erty , a n d i s d on e t o b oys a n d g ir ls a li k e. I n m ost c a se s, th e m ajo r so cia l f u n ctio n o f t h e c u ttin g i s t o m ark t h e t r a n sit io n f r o m ch ild hood t o a d ult h ood , a n d i t i s t y p ic a lly p erfo rm ed a s p art o f a n e la b ora te c e re m on y. In deed , i n n ea rly e ve ry so cie ty t h at p ra ctic e s s u ch c o m in g o f a g e r it u als , t h e f e m ale h alf o f t h e i n it ia tio n i s ca rrie d o u t b y w om en ( ra th er t h an b y m en ) w ho d o n ot ty p ic a lly v ie w i t a s bein g a c o n se q uen ce o f m ale d om in an ce , b ut w ho i n ste a d s e e t h eir g en it a l- a lt e rin g p ra ctic e s as bein g b ea u tif y in g, e ve n e m pow erin g, a n d a s a n im porta n t r it e o f p assa ge w it h h ig h c u lt u ra l v a lu e. ‘ b ra in w ash ed ’ i s an th ro p olo g ic a lly i g n ora n t. A t t h e s a m e t im e, t h e ‘ r it e o f p assa g e’ ce re m on ie s fo r b oys in t h ese s o cie tie s a re c a rrie d o u t b y m en ; t h ese a re d on e i n p ara lle l, u n der si m ila r c o n dit io n s, a n d f o r s im ila r r e a so n s – a n d o ft e n w it h s im ila r co n se quen ce s fo r h ea lt h a n d s e x u ali t y ( a s i llu str a te d e a rli e r w it h t h e e x am ple o f S ou th A fr ic a ). 7/13/2021 Are male and female circumcision morally equivalent? | Aeon Essays https://aeon.co/essays/are-male-and-female-circumcision-morally-equivalent 8/9 Eve ry p are nt w ho r eq uests a gen it a l- al te rin g surg ery f or t heir ch ild – f o r w hate ve r r e as on un der t he s un – t h in ks t h at t h ey ar e ac tin g i n t h e ch ild ’s b est i n te re sts In t h e U S c o n te x t, m ale c ir c u m cis io n w as a d op te d b y t h e m ed ic a l c o m mun it y i n t h e la te 1 800s in a n e si nce p ersi st ed a s a r a tio n ali se d h ab it , l o n g p ast t h e t im e w hen i t w as e a b an don ed b y o th er d eve lo p ed n atio n s. O f c o u rs e , i t i s p ro b ab ly t r u e t h at m ost c o n te m pora ry W est ern p are n ts w ho c h oose c ir c u m cis io n f o r t h eir s o n s d o n ot d o s o o u t o f a d esi re t o ‘ c o n tr o l’ t h eir s e x u ali t y , b ut t h is i s a ls o t r u e o f m ost A fr ic a n p are n ts w ho c h oose ‘ c ir c u m cisi on ’ f o r t h eir d au gh te rs . A s t h e r e n ow ned a n ti- F G M a ctiv is t Ha nny Li gh tfo ot-K le in h as st ate d : ‘ i n A fr ic a a n d f o r r o u tin e m ale c ir c u m cis io n i n t h e U nit e d S ta te s a re e sse n tia lly t h e sa me. B oth p ro m ise c le a n li n ess a n d t h e a b se n ce o f o d ou rs a s w ell a s g re a te r a ttr a ctiv e n ess an d a cc e p ta b ili t y .’ G iv e n t h at b oth m ale a n d f e m ale f o rm s o f g en it a l c u ttin g e x p re ss d i n orm s dep en din g u p on t h e c o n te x t, a n d a re p erfo rm ed f o r d i di w e a sse ss th e p erm issi bili t y o f e it h er? D o w e n eed t o i n te rv ie w e a ch s e t o f p are n ts t o m ak e su re t h at t h eir p ro p ose d a ct o f c u ttin g i s i n te n ded a s a n e x p re ssio n o f acc e p ta b le n orm s? I f t h ey p ro m is e t h at i t i s n ’t a b ou t ‘ s e x u al c o n tr o l’ i n t h eir s p eci c a se , b ut r a th er a b ou t ‘ h yg ie n e’ o r ‘ a esth etic s’ o r s o m eth in g l e ss s y m boli c a lly p ro b le m atic , sh ou ld t h ey b e p erm it te d t o g o a h ea d ? B ut t h is is bou n d t o f a il. E ve ry p are n t w ho r e q uests a g en it a l- a lt e rin g s u rg ery f o r t h eir c h ild – f o r w hate ve r r e a so n u n der t h e s u n – t h in ks t h at t h ey a re a ctin g i n t h e c h ild ’s b est i n te re st s; n o o n e t h in ks th at t h ey a re ‘ m utila tin g’ t h eir o w n o f e m ale o r m ale ). S o i t i s not t h e re aso n fo r t h e i n te rv e n tio n t h at d ete rm in es i t s p erm issi bili t y , b ut r a th er t h e co n se q u en ce s o f t h e i n te rv e n tio n f o r t h e p ers o n w hose g en it a ls are a ctu ally o n t h e l i n e. A s th e so cia l a n th ro p olo g ist S ara J o h n sd otte r h as p oin te d o u t, t h ere i s n o o n e-t o -o n e re la tio n sh ip b etw een t h e a m ou n t o f g en it a l t is su e r e m ove d ( in m ale s, f e m ale s, o r 7/13/2021 Are male and female circumcision morally equivalent? | Aeon Essays https://aeon.co/essays/are-male-and-female-circumcision-morally-equivalent 9/9 in deed i n i n te rse x p eo p le ), a n d e it h er s u b je ctiv e s a tis fa ctio n w hile h av in g s e x , o r a f e eli n g o f h av in g b een p erso nally h arm ed b eca u se o n e’s ‘ p riv a te p arts ’ w ere a lt e re d b efo re o n e c o u ld e w hate ve r d eg re e o f se ve rit y – w ill a e a ch i n div id ual’s re la tio n sh ip t o t h eir o w n b od y i s u n iq ue, i n clu d in g w hat t h ey aest hetic a lly a p p ea li n g, w hat d eg re e o f r is k t h ey f e el c o m fo rta b le t a k in g o n w hen i t c o m es to e le ctiv e su rg erie s on t h eir r e p ro d uctiv e o rg an s, a n d e ve n w hat d eg re e o f se xu al se nsi tiv it y t h ey p re fe r ( fo r p ers o n al o r c u lt u ra l r e a so n s). a re b eg in nin g t o a rg u e t h at i n div id uals s h ou ld b e l e ft t o d ecid e w hat t o d o w it h t h eir o w n g en it a ls w hen i t c o m es to i r re ve rs ib le s u rg ery , w hate ve r t h eir s e x o r g en der. P rac tic al Eth ic s w eb sit e . Li nks t o s u pp ort in g r e se a rc h c a n b e f o u nd i n t h e o rig in al e ssa y, av ailab le h ere . 1 3 January 2015 aeon.co
1. According to the moral theory called “cultural relativism” or “ethical relativism,” when are actions morally wrong in some culture? When are they permissible in that society? 2. What
What’s Culture Got to Do with It? Excising the Harmful Tradition of Female Circumcision Source: Harvard Law Review , Jun., 1993 , Vol. 106, No. 8 (Jun., 1993), pp. 1944-1961 Published by: The Harvard Law Review Association Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1341791 JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at https://about.jstor.org/terms The Harvard Law Review Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Harvard Law Review This content downloaded from 188.8.131.52 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms WHAT’S CULTURE GOT TO DO WITH IT? EXCISING THE HARMFUL TRADITION OF FEMALE CIRCUMCISION* The film was graphic and riveting. A baby girl was being admin- istered to by a traditional medical practitioner. As he tattooed a lizard on the abdomen of the child, the little girl wailed plaintively: “Maami, maami, maami!” But there was no ‘maami’ to rescue her. Marks had already been engraved on her cheeks which were covered by a black substance. As the traditional medical man worked, he would stop periodically to wash the area of operation with water from a nearby basin and he would inspect his work, oblivious to the wails of the child. The tattoo completed to his satisfaction, the traditional practitioner then turned to the next task. He sharpened a crude, circular blade on a grinding stone which he had earlier washed off with water from the same basin. The girl was thrust to him with her chubby legs spreadeagled in front of him. He quickly grasped and excised her clitoris, a part of the external female genitalia. The wailing that had taken place earlier was mild compared to the screams that erupted from the little girl’s mouth at that point. Re- ceiving the crying child, the mother looked at her baby apprehensively but also with some measure of pride. Her child, it would appear, had passed some milestone.1 This film of a traditional medicine man scarring and circumcising an infant girl does not depict a fictional event or a birth ritual per- formed centuries ago and long since discontinued. The videotaped event took place recently in Ajegunle, an impoverished community in Lagos, Nigeria.2 If all went “well” with the procedure, the little girl in the film will grow up blissfully unaware of the trauma and pain she experienced at such a tender age. She will be regarded in her village as a “normal” girl and a ‘virtuous woman. When she is old enough, her parents will be offered the appropriate “bride price,” and she will marry a man who will expect that she has been circumcised in accordance with this deeply entrenched tradition.3 If complications develop, however, the little girl might become one of the thousands of African children who die annually from tetanus infections as a result of such procedures.4 If she survives, she may * Field research in Nigeria for this Note was funded in part by a grant from the Harvard Law School Reginald Lewis Fund and by the Civil Liberties Organization in Lagos, Nigeria. 1 Harriet Lawrence, Excising a HarmJful Tradition, GUARDIAN, June II, I992, at 9. 2 See id. 3 See OLAYINKA KOSO-THOMAS, THE CIRCUMCISION OF WOMEN: A STRATEGY FOR ERAD- ICATION 9 (I987yf . 4 See Lawrence, supra note I, at 9. I 944 This content downloaded from 184.108.40.206 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I993] FEMALE CIRCUMCISION I945 suffer severe hemorrhaging or experience dysuria (painful urinationyf and dysmenorrhoea (painful menstruationyf G X H W R S H O Y L F F R Q J H V W L R Q 5 By the time she is ready to bear children, scar tissue may block the birth canal or cause other complications during labor, possibly result- ing in an intrauterine fetal death.6 Despite the frequency and seriousness of these complications, the traditional practice of female circumcision7 has received scant atten- tion from the Nigerian government or from the governments of the other twenty-five countries on the African continent where female circumcision is practiced.8 Policymakers remain indifferent to this “silent emergency that continues to menace at least eighty million women and young girls.”9 Although statistical data on morbidity and mortality from female circumcision is difficult to procure, the known side effects and complications are severe enough to merit government intervention.10 Due to the lack of authoritative governmental inter- vention, non-governmental organizations, such as the Inter-African 5 See EFUA DORKENOO & SCILLA ELWORTHY, FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION: PROPOSALS FOR CHANGE 8 (3d ed. I992yf . 6 See id. at 8-9. Although statistical verification of complications that result from female circumcision in Nigeria is currently scarce, in Sierra Leone, where the practice is comparable in many ways to female circumcision in Nigeria, a study indicates that 83yb R I F L U F X P F L V H d women are likely to require medical treatment at some time to alleviate a condition arising out of the practice. See KOSO-THOMAS, supra note 3, at 29. 7 Throughout this Note, the term “female circumcision” refers to several different operations performed on external female genitalia. Although for some of the procedures the term female circumcision is medically inaccurate, this Note uses this term rather than make repeated refer- ences to each specific procedure or adopt the alternative popular term, “female genital mutila- tion.” This latter term implies a deliberate intent to mutilate that has not been offered explicitly by its proponents as one of the reasons for the practice and which may offend many readers, thereby defeating the purpose of this Note, which is to communicate, not to alienate. 8 See Berhane Ras-Work, Traditional Practices That Inflict Disability, in WOMEN AND DISABILITY 23, 23 (Esther Boylan ed., I99Iyf , Q D G G L W L R Q W R 1 L J H U L D I H P D O H F L U F X P F L V L R Q L s practiced in countries on the west coast of Africa from Cameroon to Mauritania, as well as in Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Mali, Mozambique, Somali, Sudan, and Tanzania. The practice is also prevalent among Muslim groups and some African and Asian immigrants residing in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. See Koso-THOMAS, supra note 3, at I7. Anti-circumcision campaigns have led to the criminalization of the practice in Sudan and in at least one European country, France. See Boran Badri, Amna el Sadik Badri & Balghis Badri, Female Circumcision: Attitudes and Practices, in WOMEN, LAW AND DEVELOPMENT IN AFRICA 2I7, 22 2-23, 230-32 (Margaret Schuler ed., I990yf G L V F X V V L Q J O D Z V L Q 6 X G D Q W K D W S U R K L E L t female circumcision and punish doctors and midwives who perform ityf 0 D U O L V H 6 L P R Q V ) U D Q F e Jails Woman for Daughters’ Circumcisions, N.Y. TIMES, Jan. II, 1993, at A8 (reporting on the ruling of a French court that sentenced a Gambian woman to five years’ imprisonment because she had her infant daughters circumcised and thereby violated a law that prohibited the wounding and mutilation of minorsyf . 9 Ras-Work, supra note 8, at 23. 10 See O.M.T. Odujinrin, C.O. Akitoye & M.A. Oyediran, A Study on Female Circumcision in Nigeria, 8 W. AFR. J. MED. I83, I83 (I989yf . This content downloaded from 220.127.116.11 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I946 HARVARD LAW REVIEW [Vol. I06:I944 Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IACyf K D Y H X Q G H U W D N H Q F R Q F U H W H H I I R U W V W R D E R O L V h female circumcision, as well as other harmful practices such as body scarring, early-childhood marriage, and nutritional taboos.12 Informed by first-hand accounts of the personal experiences of women in Nigeria, this Note presents the devastating health conse- quences of female circumcision, but analyzes the practice primarily from a human rights perspective. It argues that, although human nature is necessarily defined by cultural contexts, the decisions re- garding which customs will be preserved in the name of culture or tradition must be oriented toward the promotion and protection of universal human rights in order to have legitimacy in any contem- porary society. Part I introduces the types of circumcision commonly practiced and discusses their post-operative effects. Part II presents and critiques the prevalent reasons for the continuation of the practice among certain ethnic groups in Nigeria. Part III argues for the legal eradication of female circumcision, and uses the Nigerian Constitution and selected international human rights instruments as a foundation. Part IV addresses the theory of cultural relativism as it applies to female circumcision and concludes that the promotion of universal human rights is not a mutually exclusive alternative to the mainte- nance of cultural identity and tradition. I. TYPES OF CIRCUMCISION AND THEIR EFFECTS The term “female circumcision” refers to several genital operations that entail incision, and usually removal, of part or all of the female external genitalia, which is composed of the clitoris and the clitoral prepuce, the labia majora (large lips of the vaginayf D Q G W K H O D E L a minora (small lips of the vaginayf & O L W R U L G H F W R P W K H I R U P R I I H P D O e circumcision that is most comparable to its male counterpart, involves removal of the clitoral prepuce or tip of the clitoris.13 In Muslim countries, this “mild” form of circumcision is also known as “sunna,” which means tradition. 14 In excision, the entire clitoris and the labia minora are removed, which leaves the labia majora intact and the 11 The IAC was created in I984 at the Dakar African Regional Seminar. See Ras-Work, supra note 8, at 23-24. 12 Nutritional taboos are customs prescribing that certain foods should or should not be eaten. For example, in parts of Nigeria, it is taboo for children to eat certain meats or fish. Because these foods are expensive, it is believed that if children eat them they will be inclined to steal. See Skwaila P. Maigoge, Nutritional Taboos, YOUR TASK, Vol. i, No. 2, at 9, IO (I99Iyf 6 L P L O D U W D E R R V S U H Y D L O U H J D U G L Q J S U H J Q D Q W Z R P H Q D Q G Q X U V L Q J P R W K H U V 6 H H L G $ O – though there is no scientific explanation for most nutritional taboos, the taboos are so widely embraced that any attempt to improve nutrition through their eradication is likely to be resisted. See id. 13 See Odujinrin, Akitoye & Oyediran, supra note iO, at I84. 14 See DORKENOO & ELWORTHY, supra note 5, at 7. This content downloaded from 18.104.22.168 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I993] FEMALE CIRCUMCISION I947 remainder of the vulva unsutured.15 In “pharonic circumcision” or infibulation, the sides of the labia majora are sewn together with thorns after the clitoris and the labia minora are removed. The woman’s legs are then bound together from thigh to ankle for several weeks to allow scar tissue to form. 16 Complete occlusion is prevented by inserting a splinter of wood or a matchstick, which preserves a small orifice through which urine and menstrual fluid can pass.17 Introcision refers to a procedure in which the perineum is cut to enlarge the vaginal opening. 18 These “gishiri” cuts, typically per- formed in early childhood, are intended to facilitate sexual penetration of young girls in communities where child marriage is widely prac- ticed. 19 Female circumcision is usually performed by “traditional sur- geons,” or “traditional birth attendants.”20 In parts of northern Ni- geria, the procedure may also be performed by the village barber, although typically the practitioner is a woman.21 The surgical instru- ments used include razor blades, iron knives, and pieces of cut glass, or similarly constructed home-made tools.22 Usually the operations are performed without anaesthesia and under conditions that are not sterile. Indeed, “[m]any of the traditional practitioners handle several babies in succession using the same blade.”23 After the operation, the incision is treated daily with a native soap, palm oil, vaseline, kero- sene, or even engine oil.24 In Nigeria, the over 250 ethnic groups differ in their use of the methods described above.25 Similarly, there is widespread variation in the age at which the operation is performed.26 Regardless of the age at which circumcision is performed, the consequences of the op- eration are often more severe than expected. The degree of hygiene under which the operation is performed, the expertise of the practi- 15 See Odujinrin, Akitoye & Oyediran, supra note io, at I84. 16 See DORKENOO & ELWORTHY, supra note 5, at 7. 17 See Odujinrin, Akitoye & Oyediran, supra note io, at I84. 18 See id. 19 See FRAN P. HOSKEN, THE HOSKEN REPORT: GENITAL AND SEXUAL MUTILATION OF FEMALES I95 (3d ed. I982yf . 20 See Robert A. Myers, Francisca I. Omorodion, Anthony E. Isenalumhe & Gregory I. Akenzua, Circumcision: Its Nature and Practice Among Some Ethnic Groups in Southern Nigeria, 2I Soc. SCI. & MED. 58I, 585 (I985yf . 21 See DORKENOO & ELWORTHY, supra note 5, at 7. 22 See Myers, Omorodion, Isenalumhe & Akenzua, supra note 20, at 586. 23 See Lawrence, supra note i, at 9. 24 See Myers, Omorodion, Isenalumhe & Akenzua, supra note 20, at 586. 25 See id. at 585-86. 26 In some groups, circumcision is performed on babies, and in others it is part of the pubescent rites of passage. See id. at 584. Among the Esan, Etsako, and Ijaw groups of the Bendel state, excision is a pre-marital ritual. See id. at 587. Among the Urhobo and Isoko of the Delta state, circumcision is performed during a woman’s first pregnancy. See Sam Eferaro, Why We Circumcise Our Pregnant Women, VANGUARD, Jan. I9, I993, at io, I0. This content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I948 HARVARD LAW REVIEW [Vol. I06:I944 tioner, the general health of the girl or woman being circumcised, and the amount of struggling she does will all influence the outcome.27 Immediate effects can include intense pain, shock, hemorrhage, reten- tion of urine and menstrual discharge, fever, tetanus, and genital infection.28 The girl or woman may die if a major blood vessel is cut and she cannot reach a medical facility equipped to deal with such emergencies. 29 For many women, however, the detrimental effects of circumcision do not immediately appear. Thus, the parents, patient, or medical practitioner may see no causal connection between the procedure and the post-operative ailments that can materialize intermittently during later years. These include reproductive tract infections that sometimes are severe enough to cause infertility,30 urinary tract infections, cysts, and the formation of obstructive genital scar tissue.31 Inevitably, the consummation of marriage or the occasion of first intercourse is a painful ordeal for an infibulated woman. If the va- ginal opening is too small for penetration, another incision must be made to enlarge the opening.32 The small opening and scar tissue create even more difficulties during childbirth. Obstructed labor may result in hemorrhaging, tearing of perineal tissue, and eventually a prolapsed uterus.33 For the baby, such a prolonged and difficult delivery is life-threatening; the infant may be stillborn, or if it sur- vives, it may suffer brain damage from a lack of oxygen during the difficult delivery.34 Female circumcision also inflicts psychological wounds.35 Indeed, it is traumatizing to read about, let alone experience, the suffering of a woman or young girl whose “life-giving canal is stitched up amid blood and fear and secrecy, while she is forcibly held down, and told that if she screams she will cause the death of her mother, or bring shame on her family.”36 Although ceremonial circumcision is typically preceded by singing, dancing, and celebration,37 adolescent girls often 27 See Koso-THOMAS supra note 3, at 23, 25. 28 See id. at 25-26. 29 See Lawrence, supra note i, at 9. 30 See REPRODUCTIVE TRACT INFECTIONS: GLOBAL IMPACT AND PRIORITIES FOR WOMEN’S REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH 307 (Adrienne German, King K. Holmes, Peter Piot & Judith N. Wasserheit, eds., I992yf > K H U H L Q D I W H U 5 ( 3 5 2 ‘ 8 & 7 , 9 ( 7 5 $ & 7 , 1 ) ( & 7 , 2 1 6 @ . 31 See KOSO-THOMAS, supra note 3, at 26. 32 See id. at 26. 33 See id. at 27. 34 See id. 35 See DORKENOO & ELWORTHY, supra note 5, at IO. 36 Id. at io. For a fictional account of the psychological and emotional effects of female circumcision, see ALICE WALKER, POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY 3-5, I8-20 (I992yf . 37 See KOSO-THOMAS, supra note 3, at 22 (referring to the “[l]oud drumming, singing, dancing and shouting [that] . . . drown the cries of the initiates” during ceremonial circumcision among the Mende of Sierra Leoneyf 5 R E Q & 6 P L W K ) H P D O H & L U F X P F L V L R Q % U L Q J L Q J : R P H Q V 3 H U – This content downloaded from 126.96.36.199 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I993] FEMALE CIRCUMCISION I949 suffer severe pre-operative anxiety, experience traumatizing terror dur- ing the procedure, and feel betrayed afterwards by the mother or female relative who urged or forced them to undergo the operation.38 II. JUSTIFYING FEMALE CIRCUMCISION IN NIGERIA Proponents of female circumcision in Nigeria offer several reasons for the continuation of the practice.39 Such reasons include the main- tenance of tradition, the promotion of social and political cohesion, the enhancement of fertility, the fulfillment of religious requirements, the prevention of promiscuity, the preservation of virginity, the main- tenance of feminine hygiene, and the pursuit of aesthetics.40 Identical or closely related justifications are offered by those who adhere to the tradition throughout Africa.41 A. Tradition In Nigeria, the practice of female circumcision has persisted for numerous reasons, “not the least of which is the insistence by elderly females in the various communities that the tradition must be contin- ued.”42 Tradition – the reluctance to break with age-old practices that symbolize the shared heritage of a particular ethnic group – is the most frequent reason that diverse ethnic groups cling fiercely to a practice that inflicts significant pain and suffering on women and children.43 In some communities, circumcision is the traditional ritual that confers full social acceptability and integration into the community upon the females.44 The ability to identify with one’s heritage and to enjoy recognition as a full member of one’s ethnic group, with just claim to its social privileges and benefits, is very important to most African families.45 For many women and young girls, circumcision satisfies this deep-seated need “to belong” and ensures that they will not be ostracized.46 For example: spectives Into The International Debate, 65 S. CAL. L. REV. 2449, 2460-64 (I992yf G H V F U L E L Q g the elaborate pre-circumcision rituals of the Kikuyu of Kenyayf . 38 See DORKENOO & ELWORTHY, supra note 5, at I0. 39 It is estimated that at least 50yb R I W K H Z R P H Q L Q 1 L J H U L D K D Y H X Q G H U J R Q H V R P H I R U P R f circumcision. See REPRODUCTIVE TRACT INFECTIONS, supra note 30, at 307. 40 See Myers, Omorodion, Isenalumhe & Akenzua, supra note 20, at 584-85; Odujinrin, Akitoye & Oyediran, supra note io, at I84. 41 See HOSKEN, supra note I9, at 3I-32. 42 Lawrence, supra note i, at 9. 43 See, e.g., Odujinrin, Akitoye & Oyediran, supra note I0, at I87 (documenting statistical responses among a sample of ethnic groups in Nigeriayf . 44 See KOSO-THOMAS, supra note 3, at 8. 45 See id. 46 See id. This content downloaded from 188.8.131.52 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I950 HARVARD LAW REVIEW [Vol. I06: I944 In Akwa Ibom [State] and in villages in the Calabar area of Cross River State, uncircumcised women face derision when they quarrel with their more numerous circumcised sisters. A woman will make a particular clicking sound with her tongue during a disagreement, im- plying that the woman she is arguing with is uncircumcised. If the woman is indeed uncircumcised, she is shamed by the act. But so serious is the insult that if a woman is circumcised then the woman who insulted her would be fined.47 Thus, in some communities, female circumcision is a prerequisite for women to be accepted as members of their ethnic group. Although the maintenance of a group’s cultural identity and the promotion of social and political cohesion are legitimate objectives, the right to belong – to contribute to and participate in one’s com- munity as a full member – should not be conditioned on a price of human suffering. Such a requirement puts women and young girls in the unjust position of having to jeopardize either their right to health and bodily integrity or the esteemed privilege of social acceptance. The entitlement of Nigerian women and girls to full social integration in their ethnic communities should not be conditioned on the waiver of their constitutionally guaranteed rights to life, health, and the dignity of their person.48 If the people of Nigeria are to live up to their constitutional ideals, women and girls cannot be required to secure their honor at the price of becoming active or even acquiescent instruments of their own impairment. B. Enhancement of Fertility In the Isoko and Urhobo communities of the Delta state, women are circumcised during the advanced stages of their first pregnancy.49 The legend behind the tradition of circumcising pregnant women is that if the first-born baby’s head touches the clitoris during childbirth, the child will die.50 A related myth is that, if left uncircumcised, the clitoris will “cause symbolic or spiritual injury to the baby.”’51 When confronted with the fact that uncircumcised women carry their babies to term and have normal, unobstructed deliveries, tradi- 47 Lawrence, supra note i, at 9. 48 See infra p. I954. 49 Circumcision is deferred until the woman is seven months pregnant, “‘when the baby is strong in the womb.”‘ See Eferaro, supra note 26, at ii. Often, this rite of passage is performed by the woman’s husband, who can then “‘boast to his mates that he not only disvirgined his wife but that he also had the honour of circumcising her as well.”‘ Id. at io. 50 In the Bini village of the Bendel state, female circumcision is said to have begun in the fifteenth century, when it was decreed by an Oba (Kingyf D I W H U F R Q V X O W D W L R Q Z L W K D Q R U D F O e regarding his wives’ stillbirths and infant deaths. See Myers, Omorodion, Isenalumhe & Ak- enzua, supra note 20, at 587. 51 Id. at 584-85. This content downloaded from 184.108.40.206 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I993] FEMALE CIRCUMCISION I95I tional birth attendants who perform clitoridectomies still insist that these procedures are a prerequisite to a safe delivery.52 When they are informed that medical reports confirm that circumcision often causes infertility and is even more dangerous during pregnancy, some traditional practitioners retort, “Modern doctors may say what they like. We have never experienced any problem whatsoever with this thing.”53 Furthermore, they claim that “‘this is what our culture demands. It was handed over to us by our forefathers. We cannot afford not to circumcise our women.”’54 In light of the compelling veracity and force of the medical argu- ments against female circumcision, the above responses from adher- ents to the practice seem to be at odds with the facts. Moreover, their responses lead to one question: can ethnic groups that are gen- uinely concerned about cultural continuity afford to adhere to a tra- dition that endangers the fertility of women and young girls, the life- giving sources of society? Probably not. C. Religion Adherence to religious doctrine is another widely given but mis- placed justification for female circumcision in Nigeria. The dominant formal religions practiced in Nigeria are Christianity and Islam.55 Although the Bible discusses male circumcision,56 neither Christian nor Islamic doctrine requires female circumcision.57 Religious leaders who advocate the practice seem to adopt an ill-conceived transitive rationale in which religious ideals are displaced onto the medical procedure. The argument begins with the premise that modesty and virginity are highly valued in traditional African societies and that the same virtues are prescribed by the Bible and the Koran. Next, pro- ponents argue that female circumcision is intended to prevent prom- iscuity and to preserve the chastity of young girls until they marry by removing an organ that is believed to cause women to become over- sexed. Therefore, female circumcision is required by tradition, and more importantly in this context, by religious doctrine.58 Not sur- 52 See Eferaro, supra note 26, at ii. 53 Id. 54 Id. at Io. 55 See HOSKEN, supra note I9, at I97. Indigenous religions are also practiced. See id. 56 Compare Genesis I7:IO (King Jamesyf 7 K L V L V P F R Y H Q D Q W Z K L F K H V K D O O N H H S E H W Z H H n me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.”yf Z L W h Galatians 5:6 (King Jamesyf ) R U L Q – H V X V & K U L V W Q H L W K H U F L U F X P F L V L R Q D Y D L O H W K D Q W K L Q J Q R r uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.”yf . 57 In fact, female circumcision is not required by any formal religious doctrine. See Alison T. Slack, Female Circumcision: A Critical Appraisal, io HUM. RTS. Q. 437, 446, 457-59. 58 This argument typifies my discussions with some Nigerians on the subject of religious justifications for female circumcision. This content downloaded from 220.127.116.11 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I952 HARVARD LAWREVIEW [Vol. I06:I944 prisingly, those who insist that the practice is a religious requirement never cite textual verses that verify the alleged religious requirements. Aside from the fact that the religious justification for female cir- cumcision rests on an insufficient doctrinal foundation, the argument ultimately misuses religion as an instrument of fear, oppression, and exploitation. A religion that is authentic in the principles it represents “aims at truth, equality, justice, love and a healthy wholesome life for all people, whether men or women.”59 In contrast, the argument that circumcision is a religious requirement casts religion in the role of mandating mutilation, amputation, and infirmity of otherwise healthy female reproductive organs.60 The latter characterization is the complete antithesis of the ideals that religion should promote. D. Preventing Promiscuity In addition to the religious arguments in favor of chastity, advo- cates point to the prevention of promiscuity as a separate and distinct reason to continue the practice of female circumcision.61 Because the clitoris is believed to provoke women to make uncontrollable sexual demands on their husbands – demands that will drive a woman to seek extra-marital affairs if her husband does not meet them – re- moval of the clitoris is presumed to be beneficial for women and for society.62 This justification is flawed in that it incorrectly assumes that the sexual control and subjugation of women is beneficial to them and necessary for a harmonious society. It also implies that men have no responsibility or control over their own sexual behavior. Although the so-called promiscuous female certainly has multiple male partners in any traditional African society, custom does not dictate varying degrees of male circumcision, from circumcision in its mildest form to castration, as a means of ensuring male fidelity.63 At best, the practice of circumcising women and young girls re- inforces the mistaken notion that women should see their sexual im- pulses in terms of what suits men. In reality, female circumcision is a life-threatening form of subjugation when performed on women and a form of child abuse when performed on an infant or child. Super- stition regarding the elimination of sexually promiscuous behavior is an unacceptable justification for subjugation and abuse. 59 NAWAL EL SAADAWI, THE HIDDEN FACE OF EVE: WOMEN IN THE ARAB WORLD 4I (Sherif Hetata ed. & trans., 1980yf . 60 See id. at 4I-42. 61 See Koso-THOMAS, supra note 3, at 8. 62 See id. 63 Regarding the “need” to circumcise females in order to curb promiscuity, “[i]t must be pointed out that the ‘need’ for sexual control of males is very much greater; rape and sexual assault are increasing all over the world; male excision certainly would take care of that. Furthermore, male excision would quite eliminate the ‘need’ for female excision.” HOSKEN, supra note I9, at 36. This content downloaded from 18.104.22.168 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I993] FEMALE CIRCUMCISION 1953 E. Cleanliness and Aesthetics Supporters of female circumcision also offer feminine hygiene and aesthetics as justifications for the practice.64 These arguments are no more persuasive than those based on the enhancement of fertility. Circumcision simply does not make women and young girls cleaner. To the contrary, circumcision’s post-operative health consequences such as urine retention and the accumulation of menstrual blood in the vagina lead to discomfort, infection, and odors more offensive than those caused by normal hormonal secretions.65 Furthermore, the idea that circumcision makes the vulva aesthetically more appealing – that circumcision should be performed as a type of cosmetic surgery – is at best arbitrary, and at worst absurd. If, as the saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” then the post-operative scari- fication that results can hardly be perceived universally as beautiful. The keloid stump that develops after the clitoris has been excised and the long scar that seals the vagina after infibulation are in fact, in the eyes of some individuals, extremely unattractive.66 This is not to say that Western notions of physical beauty should be the standard for the rest of the world,67 but instead to challenge the sincerity of those who insist that “true” conceptions of beauty and femininity necessarily exclude the woman who is not circumcised, excised, infibulated, or introcised. III. THE LEGAL MANDATE TO ERADICATE FEMALE CIRCUMCISION In any argument against a practice as deeply embedded in a culture as female circumcision is in Nigerian society, the strategic thrust of the argument should be based on texts that Nigeria has adopted and endorsed. Arguments and solutions based on such texts are likely to be heeded and enforced, because these texts were affirmatively – and in some instances democratically – approved by the Nigerian people. In contrast, suggestions that local traditions should be abandoned in order to comply with external norms are likely to be counterproductive and to elicit indignation and resistance to change.68 Thus, the Con- stitution of Nigeria,69 as well as international instruments endorsed 64 See Koso-THOMAS, supra note 3, at 7. 65 See id. at io. 66 See Koso-THOMAS, supra note 3, at io. 67 Such a standard can be particularly damaging for women of color in the Western world and around the globe. For a fictional account of the potential psychological damages, see TONI MORRISON, THE BLUEST EYE I50-58 (I970yf . 68 See, e.g., Badri, Badri & Badri, supra note 8, at 230 (noting that a law banning infibu- lation enacted in Sudan during colonial times was “seen as a threat against national solidarity and cultural and social values”yf . 69 CONSTITUTION OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIG. (ENACTMENTyf $ & 7 F K , 9 , f. This content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I954 HARVARD LAWREVIEW [Vol. I06:I944 by Nigeria, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights70 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,71 can and should be drawn upon to provide the basis for a legal mandate to eradicate female circumci- sion. 72 A. The Constitution of Nigeria Chapter IV of the Constitution of Nigeria delineates the “funda- mental rights” of Nigerian citizens. It states that “[e]very person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life.”73 Further, “[e]very individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly – no person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.”74 In light of the explicit lan- guage in these provisions, Nigerians need look no further than their own constitution for an injunction against female circumcision as a violation of women’s and children’s constitutional rights. Female circumcision “should also be considered a violation of the right to life from the perspective of reproduction. When the very organs that allow human beings to reproduce and to give life to future generations are mutilated, there has been a violation of one of the fundamental human rights.”75 A painful and traumatic surgical op- eration that is performed without anaesthesia and that necessitates the forcible restraint of the patient is precisely the kind of torture and 70 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, June 27, i98i, 2I I.L.M. 58 [hereinafter African Charter], reprinted in BASIc DOCUMENTS SUPPLEMENT TO INTERNATIONAL LAW 509 (Louis Henkin, Richard C. Pugh, Oscar Schachter & Hans Smit eds., I987yf > K H U H L Q D I W H U % $ 6 , C DOCUMENTS]. 71 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, G.A. Res. i8o, U.N. Doc. A/34/I80 (I980yf L , / 0 H Q W H U H G L Q W R I R U F H 6 H S W L L f [hereinafter CEDAW], reprinted in BASIC DOCUMENTS, supra note 70, at 425. 72 The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the African Child also contains language that could be interpreted to mandate the eradication of female circumcision. See Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the African Child, July ii, I990, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/24.9/49 [hereinafter Charter on the African Child], reprinted in AFRICAN NETWORK FOR THE PREVEN- TION AND PROTECTION AGAINST CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT, CHARTER ON THE RIGHTS AND WELFARE OF THE AFRICAN CHILD I2 (Peter 0. Ebigbo ed., I99Iyf > K H U H L Q D I W H U $ 1 3 3 & $ N PUBLICATION]. Specifically, the Charter requires member states of the Organization of African Unity (OAUyf W R D E R O L V K F X V W R P V D Q G S U D F W L F H V K D U P I X O W R W K H Z H O I D U H Q R U P D O J U R Z W K D Q d development of the child and in particular: (ayf W K R V H F X V W R P V D Q G S U D F W L F H V S U H M X G L F L D O W R W K e health or life of the child, and (byf W K R V H F X V W R P V D Q G S U D F W L F H V G L V F U L P L Q D W R U W R W K H F K L O G R n the grounds of sex or other status.” Id. art. 2I (iyf U H S U L Q W H G L Q $ 1 3 3 & $ 1 3 8 % / , & $ 7 , 2 1 , supra, at 24. Unfortunately, Nigeria, which is an OAU member state, had not signed the Charter on the African Child as of April 2, I993. See List of Countries Which Have Signed, Ratified, Accepted to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/I53. 73 CONSTITUTION OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIG. (ENACTMENTyf $ & 7 F K , 9 ” , f. 74 Id. ? 3I(Iyf D f. 75 Slack, supra note 57, at 466. This content downloaded from 126.96.36.199 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I993] FEMALE CIRCUMCISION I955 inhuman treatment proscribed by the provision guaranteeing respect for human dignity. Moreover, the concept of controlling female sex- uality by depriving a woman of her natural sexual desire and her gender-identifying characteristics is both degrading and dehumaniz- ing.76 B. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights The practice of female circumcision also contravenes the spirit and substance of many international instruments to which Nigeria is a signatory. In I983, Nigeria ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights,77 which contains several articles that can be interpreted to proscribe female circumcision. Article 4 declares that “[e]very human being shall be entitled to respect for his life and the integrity of his person.”78 Article 5 prohibits “[a]ll forms of exploita- tion and degradation of man particularly . . . torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment.”79 Article i6 proclaims that “[e]very individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health,”80 and article I8 requires the state to “ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of the woman and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions.”‘8′ Significantly, the African Charter also recognizes the importance of African culture and tradition. Article I7 states that “[e]very indi- vidual may freely take part in the cultural life of his community. The promotion and protection of morals and traditional values recognized by the community shall be the duty of the State.”82 In addition, article 29 establishes the duty “[t]o preserve and strengthen positive African cultural values in . . . relations with other members of the society.”83 Although it is possible to construe these provisions as a directive to respect the tradition of female circumcision, such an in- terpretation flatly contradicts the tenor of the document’s preamble.84 It strains logic to argue that, in the name of “tradition,” a document whose purpose is to “promote and protect human and peoples’ rights”85 76 See id. 77 See INTERNATIONAL COMM’N OF JURISTS, HUMAN AND PEOPLES’ RIGHTS IN AFRICA AND THE AFRICAN CHARTER 94 (i986yf > K H U H L Q D I W H U + 8 0 $ 1 $ 1 ‘ 3 ( 2 3 / ( 6 5 , * + 7 6 @ . 78 African Charter, supra note 70, art. 4, reprinted in BASIC DOCUMENTS, supra note 70, at 5II. 79 Id. art. 5, reprinted in BASIC DOCUMENTS, supra note 70, at 5II. 80 Id. art. i6(iyf U H S U L Q W H G L Q % $ 6 , & ‘ 2 & 8 0 ( 1 7 6 V X S U D Q R W H D W , . 81 Id. art. I8(3yf U H S U L Q W H G L Q % $ 6 , & ‘ 2 & 8 0 ( 1 7 6 V X S U D Q R W H 2 D W . 82 Id. art. I7(2yf f, reprinted in BASIC DOCUMENTS, supra note 70, at 5I4. 83 Id. art. 29(7yf U H S U L Q W H G L Q % $ 6 , & ‘ 2 & 8 0 ( 1 7 6 V X S U D Q R W H D W , . 84 Id. pmbl., reprinted in BASIC DOCUMENTS, supra note 70, at 509-IO. 85 Id., reprinted in BASIC DOCUMENTS, supra note 70, at 510. This content downloaded from 188.8.131.52 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I956 HARVARD LAW REVIEW [Vol. I06:I944 would endorse a practice like female circumcision – a practice that results in the torture and mutilation of half of the population that the document aims to protect. Indeed, traditions to be preserved should be limited to those that embody “positive African cultural values.”86 C. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women Nigeria has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAWyf & ( ‘ $ : L V D n important human rights instrument in the international anticircumci- sion campaign, because it calls for an end to both gender discrimi- nation in general88 and to social and cultural customs based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes.89 A docu- ment such as CEDAW, which aims to eliminate gender-based discrim- ination in all societies, enables opponents of female circumcision to contest the practice on gender equality grounds. Specifically, CEDAW guarantees women the right to the protection of reproductive capac- ity,90 the right to adequate care and nutrition during pregnancy,9’ and the right to access to health care.92 These rights are violated each time a woman is circumcised, excised, introcised, or infibulated. Arguments based on health-related rights notwithstanding, Profes- sor Karen Engle insightfully points out that it is dangerous to frame the opposition to female circumcision exclusively as a health issue. The risk is that, “[i]f the practice could be done without negative health consequences, international law might actually become com- plicit in the practice, obligating states to ensure that it is performed under better health conditions.”93 Such an approach would overlook the physical, emotional, and psychological pain that circumcision in- flicts on women, and would ignore the fact that the sexual myths and gender-based inequalities from which the practice derives its primary justifications are outmoded and patently incorrect. 86 Id. art. 29(7yf U H S U L Q W H G L Q % $ 6 , & ‘ 2 & 8 0 ( 1 7 6 V X S U D Q R W H D W , H P S K D V L V D G G H G f. The African leaders who drafted the African Charter intended for it to “respect traditions and customs that are judged to be worthwhile . . . in order to promote and protect individual and collective rights.” HUMAN AND PEOPLES’ RIGHTS, supra note 77, at 25-26 (emphasis addedyf . 87 Nigeria ratified CEDAW in I985. See UNITED NATIONS, MULTILATERAL TREATIES DEPOSITED WITH THE SECRETARY-GENERAL, I990, at i65, U.N. Doc. ST/LEG/SER.E/g, U.N. Sales No. E.9I.V.8 (iggiyf . 88 See CEDAW, supra note 7I, art. 2, reprinted in BASIC DOCUMENTS, supra note 70, at 427. 89 See id. art. 5(ayf U H S U L Q W H G L Q % $ 6 , & ‘ 2 & 8 0 ( 1 7 6 V X S U D Q R W H D W . 90 See id. art. ii(iyf I f, reprinted in BASIC DOCUMENTS, supra note 70, at 430. 91 See id. art. I2(2yf U H S U L Q W H G L Q % $ 6 , & ‘ 2 & 8 0 ( 1 7 6 V X S U D Q R W H D W , . 92 See id. art. 14(2yf E f, reprinted in BASIC DOCUMENTS, supra note 70, at 432. 93 Karen Engle, Female Subjects of Public International Law: Human Rights and the Exotic Other Female, 26 NEw ENG. L. REV. I509, I515 (I992yf . This content downloaded from 184.108.40.206 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms 993] FEMALE CIRCUMCISION I957 E. Domestic and International Law vs. Culture and Tradition The law can be a powerful instrument of social and cultural transformation.94 By their prescriptive and injunctive character, both domestic and international laws have the potential to proscribe harm- ful traditions such as female circumcision.95 In reality, however, in- ternational human rights laws are difficult to enforce. Claims to positive human rights are typically countered by arguments based on cultural relativism, a theory which posits that rights violations in one culture may be viewed as morally just in another culture.96 The foregoing interpretations of domestic and international legal instruments obviously are not embraced by women who advocate, acquiesce, and voluntarily participate in female circumcision in Ni- geria or in other African societies. Recognizing this fact, Professor Engle has coined the term “Exotic Other Female” to “signify collec- tively those women within a culture that practice clitoridectomy, who through their action (or inactionyf F R Q G R Q H W K H S U D F W L F H ‘ H V S L W e the offensiveness of the terminology “Exotic Other Female” – a term that invokes various images of female objectification – the fact re- mains that there are women, in Nigeria and elsewhere (henceforth referred to as “Traditionalist Females”yf Z K R ] H D O R X V O G H I H Q G W K e practice of female circumcision in the name of culture and tradition.98 Therefore, in an instance such as this in which the enforcement of domestic and international legal instruments seems to be absent or fading, it is imperative to examine the basis of the cultural arguments offered by the Traditionalist Female. IV. ENGAGING THE TRADITIONALIST FEMALE’S CULTURAL ARGUMENT In her critique of the ways in which women’s human rights ad- vocates have addressed the issue of female circumcision, Professor Engle complains that “doctrinalists” (meaning those who use legal doctrines to argue against circumcision in the foregoing manneryf K D Y e failed to engage, and in the process to understand, the Traditionalist Female.99 Instead, Professor Engle argues, doctrinalists approach fe- 94 See Ayodele Oyajobi, “Women and Law Reform in Nigeria,” in WOMEN, LAW AND DEVELOPMENT IN AFRICA, supra note 8, at I67, I69. 95 See id. 96 See Engle, supra note 93, at I5I3-14. 97 Id. at I5I2. 98 See Badri, Badri & Badri, supra note 8, at 220; Eferaro, supra note 26, at ii. 99 See Engle, supra note 93, at I5I4-15. This content downloaded from 220.127.116.11 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I958 HARVARD LAW REVIEW [Vol. I06: I944 male circumcision primarily as a health issue in an attempt to avoid taking an overtly “political” stance.100 Part of the difficulty in engaging the Traditionalist Female is that she is not simply one woman who speaks with one voice. Instead, the Traditionalist Female represents several women who speak with myriad voices and who offer complex and sometimes conflicting ex- planations for their shared viewpoints. In other words, once the Traditionalist Female is engaged, “she will become they – many and complex.”‘0’ The task is further complicated when they becomes us, and us is we, and we is the collective me, and me is I, an individual who feels a sense of attachment and responsibility as her sister’s keeper. Based upon a belief in the persuasive power of global sister- hood, this Note endorses the culture of resistance to the ongoing practice of harmful traditions. It is from this perspective and this political stance that this Note respectfully engages, and attempts to understand, the Traditionalist Female. This Part addresses the pro- ponents of female circumcision who invoke claims of cultural relativ- ism and ethnocentrism in defense of the practice and is informed by actual personal observations of and conversations with Traditionalist Females in Nigeria (and their male counterpartsyf 2 The Nigerian Traditionalist Female argues that what is held to be a fundamental right at a given time in one society may be regarded as anti-social at a different time or in a different society. Moreover, those persons who are opposed to a particular practice or custom have no right to impose their value judgments on autonomous individuals who have different viewpoints and values. This relativist argument, however, is less convincing in the context of human rights.’03 The premise that the morality and the personality of an individual are shaped by the culture and the history of a given society does not negate the philosophical theory that human rights, defined literally as the rights to which one is entitled simply by virtue of being human, are universal by definition. 104 So although human nature is necessarily 100 See id. at I515. 101 Id. at I5I2. 102 The purpose of the critique that follows is not to manipulate the sexual subjugation of women in Africa into a tool for opportunistic comparison by those who strongly advocate gender equality in the Western part of the world. Nor is its objective to persuade those who question the very need for a feminist movement to retreat from their position. Instead, this Part attempts to inspire a dialect of resistance in which the voices and diverse views of African-American women are respected as experientially and theoretically valid. 103 In response to the relativist argument, Rhoda Howard says the following: The argument that different societies can have different concepts of rights is based on an assumption that confuses human rights with human dignity. . .. Concepts of human dignity do indeed vary. They are embedded in cultural views of the nature of human beings, which in turn reflect the social organization of particular societies. RHODA E. HOWARD, HUMAN RIGHTS IN COMMONWEALTH AFRICA 17 (I986yf . 104 See id. at i6. This content downloaded from 18.104.22.168 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I 993] FEMALE CIRCUMCISION I959 culturally relative in that it is determined to some extent by social rules and mores, human rights are universal entitlements that are grounded in cross-culturally recognized moral values. Incidentally, the cultural argument advanced by the Traditionalist Female uncomfortably parallels the invocation of culture or ethnicity as a “defense” or excuse for violence, injustice, and a host of other social ills. When cast in this light, the cultural argument is patently offensive, but this misrepresentation is directly analogous to the Tra- ditionalist Female’s use of African culture to defend human rights abuses. There is nothing inherently “ethnic” or specifically Nigerian about injustice or violence, and this is also true for human rights abuses that are unjust or violent, whether they take the form of arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, or the circumcision of girls and women. Thus, “culture” and “ethnicity” should not be used as defenses to human rights abuses, because “[c]ultural values and cul- tural practice are as legitimately subject to criticism from a human rights perspective as any structural aspect of a society.”‘105 Even well- established and ongoing cultural practices are subject to universal human rights limitations. Of course, the cultural relativist will object to the theory of uni- versal human rights, so it is important to examine what is meant by “culture” when it is used as a defense for harmful traditions. Most advocates of female circumcision appear to equate culture with history and tradition, but they fail to recognize the many ways in which their present actions and lifestyles reinforce a notion of culture that com- prises not only the traditional, but the contemporary as well.106 This concept of culture, which this Note adopts, is a dynamic notion, not a static one.107 African culture incorporates things pre-colonial, co- lonial, and contemporary, as well as things social, economic, and political, and things both individual and collective.108 If culture is the group identifier and cohesive element that ethnocentrists profess it to be, culture must be inherently dynamic in order to bond several generations of an ethnic group. Due to the dynamic nature of culture, changes must be channeled so that they do not result in the extinction of the traditional culture. On the other hand, practices, beliefs, and lifestyles passed down 105 Id. 106 For example, although the Traditionalist Female professes allegiance to traditional com- munities and customs, there is a paradoxical resemblance in her and in her male counterparts to certain, albeit superficial, aspects of the Westernization that they are urging others not to adopt. It is worth noting that many individuals who, instead of speaking in tribal languages and wearing traditional headdresses and colorful robes, speak with British accents and wear mini-skirts or double-breasted suits and suspenders, persistently assert claims to African tribal identity and cherished traditional values. 107 See HOWARD, supra note 103, at 23-27. 108 See, e.g., id. at 23-25. This content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I960 HARVARD LAW REVIEW [Vol. I06:I944 through several generations of an ethnic group need to be re-examined periodically in light of contemporary values and knowledge, in order to ascertain whether the customs deserve to be perpetuated. During the discussions that preceded the drafting of the African Charter, several African leaders commented on the ability to “find inspiration in those . . . traditions that are good and positive” and the desire to reflect “traditions which deserve to be preserved . . . in order to complete the global international effort made to reinforce respect for human rights.”109 Perhaps the best reason to maintain a given tra- ditional practice is that the original justifications for its existence continue to validate its persistence today. This paradigm lends a sense of contemporary legitimacy to those traditional practices that have been preserved. One custom that is still readily apparent in Nigerian society today is the tendency of Yoruba women to kneel and men to prostrate as a sign of respect when greeting an elder. Another custom involves mothers suspending their babies on their backs in a pouch of wrapped cloth in a manner which enables them to carry out their work routines while they maintain constant physical- association with the child. Tra- ditional engagement and wedding ceremonies, which frame the mar- riage not only as a contract between the two individuals, but also as a contract between the families of the marrying pair, are also custom- ary. Each of these customs, although it manifests adherence to tra- ditional beliefs and lifestyles, also has contemporary legitimacy be- cause of its practical utility and because it reinforces shared values in modern society in a manner that is neither physically nor mentally injurious. Conversely, those practices that have neither factual, historical validity nor contemporary legitimacy in terms of societal values, and that furthermore inflict harm and injury on their adherents, must be abandoned. Consider for comparative purposes the racial and reli- gious discrimination that has been widely practiced around the world but that is not widely defended today.”10 The reasons which may have once justified these practices are no longer accepted as valid. Specifically, the once widely held belief that Africans were brought to America from an uncivilized continent and were sub-human savages fit to be nothing more than slaves, as well as the belief that Jews in Nazi Germany were less human and less deserving of the rights 109 HUMAN AND PEOPLES’ RIGHTS, supra note 77, at 25 (emphasis addedyf L Q W H U Q D O T X R W D W L R Q s omittedyf . 110 Admittedly, there are fundamental differences between oppressive cross-cultural practices such as slavery and anti-Semitism and arguably oppressive indigenous traditions such as female circumcision. However, these distinctions do not negate the need for periodic evaluation of both inter- and intra-cultural beliefs and practices to determine whether they have contemporary legitimacy and are consistent with the universal values of human rights. This content downloaded from 126.96.36.199 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms I993] FEMALE CIRCUMCISION I96I endowed to all human beings than non-Jewish German citizens, are and always have been myths. The depth of the tradition of chattel slavery in American history or anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany would be no defense for the maintenance of these atrocities today. Similarly, the fact that female circumcision is an age-old custom practiced for generations by several ethnic groups does not legitimate its persistence today. Arguments based on the control of female sex- uality, aesthetics, and cleanliness do not reinforce ideals and beliefs that are widely held in modern society.11′ The arguments that espouse the adherence to religious requirements and the enhancement of fer- tility are based on myths that cannot validate either the initial exis- tence or the continued persistence of an undeniably harmful tradi- tion.112 Thus, although in other contexts there are legitimate claims to ethnicity and cultural continuity, arguments along these lines in defense of female circumcision more likely cloak pretextual justifica- tions based on manipulations of a dying, lost, or even mythical cul- tural past. Within a dynamic notion of culture, women’s health is an integral part of the society’s well being. Moreover, women’s reproductive freedom is absolutely essential to cultural survival and continuity. Now is the time for women to speak out on behalf of themselves and to engage the Traditionalist Female: Women Speak Out Must I continue to suffer And die in silence? No I must speak out, and it is now. I am a woman Who suffers all the health consequences of: Female circumcision Child marriage Teenage pregnancy . . . Male child preference and a host of other traditional practices. I know what I go through as no man does. I therefore have to speak for myself. . .. And hate anything that will hurt me. – Anonymous” 3 I” See supra pp. 1952-53. 112 See supra pp. 1951-52. 113 Women Speak Out, YOUR TASK, Vol. i, No. 2, at 9. This content downloaded from 188.8.131.52 on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 04:46:48 UTC All use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms