There’s much discussion on social media of a piece in the Journal of Medical Ethics by Kavita Shah Arora and Allan J Jacobs that urges ‘compromise’ on the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). Just cut off a little bit of girls’ genitals, as opposed to shaving everything off and sewing the hole closed.
By the same token we could throw just a little bit of acid in women’s faces, and throw just a few stones at women accused of sex outside marriage, and rape just a few altar boys when no one is looking.
Arora and Jacobs argue that progress on the elimination of FGM has been small (a debatable and disputed claim) and that therefore “alternative approaches should be considered”.
To accommodate cultural beliefs while protecting the physical health of girls, we propose a compromise solution in which liberal states would legally permit de minimis FGA in recognition of its fulfilment of cultural and religious obligations, but would proscribe those forms of FGA that are dangerous or that produce significant sexual or reproductive dysfunction.
The proposed compromise solution would ban those forms of FGM that produce significant sexual or reproductive dysfunction – meaning it would not prohibit forms that produce insignificant sexual or reproductive dysfunction. A little bit of sexual or reproductive dysfunction is ok in order to accommodate cultural beliefs, then. So if there’s a claimed “cultural and religious obligation” to scald children on their third birthday, that’s ok if the scalding is minor? Parents should be allowed to pull out one fingernail of their pubescent children, while pulling all ten would be a no-no?
Here’s an idea: how about adopting the principle that inflicting physical damage on children for no beneficial reason but only as a “cultural and religious obligation” is a violation of their rights and not ok?
That’s not the kind of principle you want “compromise” on. Instead people should think hard about why they bend the knee to a god who wants them to inflict useless pain and damage on their children. They should wonder why they worship and obey a god who demands that kind of test of loyalty or submission or piety. They should question their devotion to a god who mandates cruelty.
Newsweek quotes Mary Wandia, FGM program manager at the human rights organization Equality Now:
This unfortunate proposal comes at a time when countries and international organizations—including the United Nations and the African Union—have noted the increasing dangers of the medicalization of FGM. It is also a time when FGM prevalence is in fact falling significantly in many countries.
Arora and Jacobs however say that “Policies that attempt to suppress all forms of FGA that alter female external genitalia are culturally supremacist.” That is one way of looking at it, to be sure, but then policies that attempt to suppress all forms of genocide are culturally supremacist too. The struggle against apartheid was culturally supremacist from the point of view of Afrikaner nationalists. Putting an end to some practice can always be seen as culturally supremacist, but the necessary work of evaluating different practices still remains.
And the reality of course is that cultures are never monolithic, and there are always rebels and critics within them. It’s a mistake to assume that everyone in a given culture is a fan of all the practices of that culture, yet it’s a mistake that people keep on making. We know there are dissenters in our own culture, but we think of those exotic different other cultures over there as if they were like porridge, the same sort of thing all the way through. We’re sophisticated and can see beyond our own customs, they’re innocent and have no idea how to think critically. That’s more insulting than anything the opponents of FGM could say.
M Zuhdi Jasser expressed his outrage on Facebook:
Both as a bioethicist of 20 years and as a lifetime anti-Islamist Muslim dedicated to reform I am beyond horrified by the position of these so called ‘ethicists’ based in the US (Cleveland and NYC).
There is NO compromise against the immorality and barbarism of FGM. To give some utilitarian explanation or excuse gives the Islamist supremacists and theocrats a pass and sets the clock back hundreds of years upon the movement for Womens’ rights in Muslim communities.
Jasser doesn’t want the tender concern of Arora and Jacobs toward “cultural beliefs,” and it’s not clear why the ethicists sympathize with the beliefs of the conservatives rather than those of the reformers. Why be sensitive toward the culture of people who cut up children’s genitals, and not toward the culture of people who try to end the practice? Why not see that both practitioners and critics are part of the culture, and that it’s permissible – and, indeed, better – to side with the critics?