"Circumcision" or "Mutilation"? Voluntary or Forced Excision? Extricating the Ethical and Legal Issues in Female Genital Ritual

Article excerpt

I.   INTRODUCTION
II.  RECONSTRUCTING THE DEBATE
III. CULTURAL RELATIVISM AND FEMALE GENITAL RITUAL
IV.  FGM: AN EVIL OR SOMETHING ELSE?
V.   SOME ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
VI.  HUMAN RIGHTS PROHIBITIONS: ARE THEY SUFFICIENTLY
     ANTIDOTAL OR WARRANTED IN ALL CASES?
VII. CONCLUSION

I. INTRODUCTION

The genesis of the procedure most commonly described as female circumcision (FC) or female genital mutilation (FGM) is rooted in antiquity. (1) The ritual has existed for centuries amongst different cultures but is currently practiced primarily in twenty-eight African countries, parts of the Middle East, and increasingly among immigrant populations in Europe, North America, and Australia. (2) The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women have undergone the procedure, (3) out of which 91.5 million are in Africa. (4) Of these 91.5 million girls and women, more than half are in three countries ranking amongst the highest in prevalence rates: Egypt, Ethiopia, and northern Sudan. (5) Desegregated figures show that the prevalence rates vary dramatically amongst practicing nations, from as high as 96% in Egypt to as low as 0.6% in Uganda. (6) Globally, around two million girls are at risk of undergoing the procedure annually. (7) Because FGR is inextricably embedded in the cultural ethos of practicing nations, outsiders' attempts to reconceptualize the practice as unnecessary, unjustifiable, or harmful have proved largely unfruitful. Even in countries that have been successfully goaded into criminalizing the procedure, often by external forces, compliance has not matched expectation. (8) For centuries, the practice, like many others that are culture-driven, was not a subject of international concern--that is, until recently. There is a growing consensus that the influx of Africans and Arabs into Western countries contributed to international involvement in what, heretofore, was generally regarded as a legitimate cultural practice worthy of deference and respect. With escalating conflicts and internal strife in many African and Middle Eastern countries, an appreciable number of inhabitants are forced to seek refuge in Western countries. One of the more visible results of this tragic exodus was that the aftermath of a cultural ritual, once confined to distant lands, began to be seen in social welfare offices and health clinics in Europe and North America. And this, not surprisingly, raised some eyebrows.

In a move reminiscent of the scramble for the partition of Africa, commentators of various disciplines are, with the publication of each new "finding," edging closer to unanimity in their strident denunciation of the ritual. (9) Their condemnations fall under three broad strands: the ritual is extremely hazardous to the physical and mental health of affected girls and women; the ritual violates their human right to bodily integrity insofar as fully informed consent was neither sought nor obtained; and the ritual perpetuates gender inequality and subjugation in practicing communities. (10) Although there are stark differences between FGM and FC, there has been a tendency to lump them together and proceed, on the basis of the conflation, to prescribe the same response to the two procedures: eradication. (11)

This Article is a repudiation of the one-size-fits-all approach. It argues that owing to several factors, particularly the unbridled passion surrounding the subject, several important issues have fallen prey to intensely misguided pejoration, mischaracterizations, and distortions; yet, extricating and coherently realigning these issues in a meticulously nuanced way is a key component of resolving what is already a highly-charged polemic. Unlike previous discourse on the subject, this Article will not defend either procedure, will not lump the procedures together, and, as has previously been achieved, perhaps unwittingly, will not contribute to further obfuscation of the subject. …