We’re afraid to talk about it. Our prolonged silence, though, is proving more horrifying: it is causing the physical disfigurement, psychological injury and social oppression of women through the practice of female genital mutilation.
According to the World Health Organization, the practice – which endures under the guise of a legitimate, respectable and unchangeable aspect of the culture – is most common in certain regions of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and among certain immigrant communities in North America and Europe. It is routinely performed on girls between infancy and age 15, and occasionally on adult women – rarely with sterile instruments and appropriate medical knowledge but always without anesthetic.
Throughout these areas, female genital mutilation occurs as three procedures, ranging in severity: clitoridectomy, the partial or total removal of the clitoris; excision, the removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and even the labia majora; and infibulation, by far the most drastic example. It is the narrowing of the vaginal opening by cutting and sewing together of the labia minora, and in some cases the labia majora, with or without removal of the clitoris. Infibulation is so extreme that its victims must have surgery to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. After that, some victims are stitched closed again.
Supporters who justify the practice as “female circumcision” – a gravely misleading term – offer a number of explanations for engaging in it: to conform to what others in the community are doing, to make a woman “clean” enough to prepare meals or to limit a woman’s sexual desire. Some even believe the procedure ensures a woman’s sexual passivity and marital fidelity.
In the simplest terms, social pressure, outrageous misogynist views and blatant sexism are passing as a reputable, normal and acceptable part of the culture. Furthermore, this supposedly inoffensive tradition can cause death, infection (including HIV transmission), loss of sensation through nerve damage, hemorrhaging, cysts, infertility, a need for later corrective surgeries and an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths – in addition to the obvious physical and psychological torture of the experience it is in the first place.
To their credit, certain international organizations have acknowledged the act as a violation of human rights, condemning its brutality. In 1997 and again in 2008, the World Health Organization, along with the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Population Fund, issued a joint statement against female genital mutilation.
But because the practice has not ended, because millions of girls and women are and will eventually be the victims of female genital mutilation, these efforts are not enough. People cannot let social concepts silence their conversation about the issue.
For the sake of justice and compassion, we can no longer practice our distorted form of libertarianism and neglect to interfere when human rights violations are not only occurring but also persisting in communities throughout the world.
We can no longer yield to our hypersensitive political correctness. It has evolved into such a dominant aspect of contemporary society that it threatens to preclude sincere discussions of human rights issues because those issues are allegedly – and so conveniently – off-limits, protected by the tenet of cultural sensitivity.
The destructive mindset that first devised female genital mutilation, then implemented it, socially mandated it and finally continues it, is a form of oppression that cannot be ignored altogether or worse, casually and thoughtlessly dismissed as tradition any longer. In fact, the mistreatment, judgment and control of women are problems that the world must address now and address assertively at that.
Victims of the practice must know that, outside of their community, there exists a society that values women, that does not subject them to such harmful practices and that does not ostracize them because of their natural bodies.
This debate is not simply a precarious balancing act between cultural sensitivity and human rights obligations: culture never excuses or validates abusive and unethical behavior. Therefore, it is the moral responsibility of the international community to first see past its delusion of cultural sensitivity and then speak up and act out for the movement against female genital mutilation.
Raquel Ronzone is a junior communication major from Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected]