Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Rights and Wrongs: Intercultural Ethics and Female Genital Mutilation

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Rights and Wrongs: Intercultural Ethics and Female Genital Mutilation

Article excerpt


Female genital mutilation is a cultural practice affecting the lives of millions of women. Because of its multi-faceted nature, the issue frustrates conventional theoretical frameworks such as feminism or human rights. Contemporary academic discussion of female genital mutilation tends to centre around two positions: outright condemnation and a cultural-relativist laissez faire approach. This paper critiques such treatments on the grounds that neither provides for an intercultural exchange through which alternatives can emerge. The debate regarding rights and female genital mutilation is at an impasse. I attempt here to develop the premises of that debate beyond the rigidity of theoretical models. For those who would see female genital mutilation eradicated, it is not enough to have a clever, defensible argument. The debate needs instead to expand its parameters with ideas that can engage with the cultural complexities in which this practice operates.

'It is still possible to say that practices such as female genital mutilation are simply wrong, which means ... that any code which did not condemn such suffering would be unworthy of respect.'

--Chris Brown (1)

'There's a paradox in every paradigm.'

--Ani Difranco (2)


Female genital mutilation is an issue fraught with ethical complexity. It lies at the heart of the contested possibility of a universal human rights, invoking questions of cultural sovereignty, appropriate international and intercultural norms and the place of women's rights in culture. To date, the relationship between various parties to this conversation has not been an equal one. Western commentators have at their disposal a number of established international discourses through which condemnation of female genital mutilation appears to emerge with an incontrovertible logic. Accordingly, Western censure tends to take the form of the value system that produced both the critics and the discourses in which they operate. Given that cultural expression is inherently interconnected with culture itself, such critiques are often interpreted as hostile to the core values of the peoples that practise female genital mutilation. It is not difficult, therefore, to comprehend the accusations of cultural imperialism that arise in this context. We are all bound by the limitations of our own cultural experience, whether in endorsement or in criticism. This very subjectivity constitutes the substance of the debate regarding female genital mutilation, and is also directly implicated in the positions defended therein.

It is already clear that female genital mutilation engenders a larger set of ethical and normative problems than a dualistic moral framework can comfortably contain. In this paper, therefore, I intend to evaluate problems implicit in the intercultural conversation around this issue, largely characterised by its treatment by Western commentators. To a certain extent the article utilises female genital mutilation as a lens through which to assess broader themes of human rights and international relations. I hasten to emphasise, therefore, that the practice is not simply a metaphor to be employed casually in such discussions. On the contrary: it is a painful and dangerous practice that affects the well-being of millions of women. I have chosen to address the issue from a more removed perspective in order to create the conceptual space within which it may be understood in a larger cultural context. This is not to make a relativist defence of female genital mutilation, but rather to insist that value-saturated criticism from outside, itself bound up in a culturally-determined ethics, is neither an appropriate, nor effective, response.

The problem of duality--or, more specifically, of dichotomy--is a recurrent issue in the area of intercultural communication, and it is necessary for me to dwell briefly on its place in this article. …

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