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Rights Versus Rites June 28, 2009

Posted by Afflatus in World Affairs.
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Female genital mutilation is a topic that is discussed too little. To some the practice is a human rights violation, to others it’s their culture’s core ritual. Doctors have clearly documented the negative health effects seen in the women that undergo genital mutilation. Michelle Goldberg does a fantastic job portraying the issue and analyzing the tricky policy situation. The article especially hit home as she uses a senior at GW, Ahmadu, as an example of a woman who willingly returned home to undergo the custom of her ancestral village. It’s a great article that’s definitely worth a read!


Rights Versus Rites

Michelle Goldberg

On Feb. 6, 2007, two women, both of whom had been circumcised in Africa, met in the conference room of a small foundation on Fifth Avenue in New York City for a highly unusual debate. It was the fourth annual International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, an occasion for events across the globe dedicated to abolishing the practice. The gathering drew about 30 women, half of them African immigrants from countries including Senegal, Sudan, and Kenya, where female circumcision is common. Several of them were shocked to realize that, despite the name of the event, this wasn’t so much a discussion about how female circumcision can be eradicated as about whether it should be.

The custom of cutting off all or part of girls’ external genitalia — deeply ingrained in large swaths of Africa and parts of Asia and the Middle East — obviously has its defenders, as evidenced by how tenaciously it has endured in the face of a global campaign to eliminate it. Indeed, as the anthropologist Richard Shweder argues in a much discussed 2003 paper, “It is a noteworthy fact that in at least seven African nations 80-90 percent of the popular vote would probably vote against any policy or law that criminalizes the practice of genital modification for either boys or girls.” Yet apologists for female genital mutilation (FGM) don’t interact much with the global women’s movement, which is generally no more inclined to debate the merits of the practice than it is to ponder the upside of rape or wife beating.

That’s what made the New York event so unique, and so charged. At first glance, the two speakers seemed to symbolize the dichotomy between modernity and tradition, cosmopolitanism and cultural authenticity.  (more…)