Fgc and human rights

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FGC conflicts with the notion of 'human rights' in multiple ways. Several well known publications, such as the Hosken Report (1993) and Warrior Masks (Walker 1993), generated international outrage and calls for intervention to eradicate the practise of FGC on the basis that it is a violation of women's (and children's) rights. A number of international declarations have implicitly or explicitly denounced FGC as a violation of human rights, such as The Beijing Platform for Action (1995), The International Conference on Population and Development (1994) and The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979). It has been argued that FGC constitutes a violation of the right to life, the right to freedom from cruel and degrading treatment and the right to bodily integrity as set out in Articles 3 and 5 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) on the grounds that the practise is not medically necessary and that it is potentially life threatening (Slack 1988, Hayes 1972, Hosken 1993). Slack (ibid) also argues that the majority of women and children do not have the opportunity to refuse FGC and, moreover, that any traditional practise which harms individuals is a human rights violation and should be stopped. Furthermore, it is frequently claimed that the 'real' aim of FGC is to attenuate (and control) female sexual desire and thus prevent illicit extramarital sex (Hayes 1975, Lightfoot-Klein 1989). That women's sexuality should be regulated by anyone other than the woman herself gives rise to FGC as a further infringement of fundamental human rights (Walley 1997).

However, objections to FGC on the basis of human rights are inextricably linked to wider debates concerning the nature of 'universal' human rights and their potentially exclusionary nature (Van de Kwaak 1992, Zabus 2001). These prompt two key questions for analysis. The first question concerns the constitution of ostensibly 'universal' values which are employed to justify interventions in such practises. Of particular interest is whether an acceptance of culturally-specific traditional practises, such as FGC, is compatible with principles of gender equality and the fundamental rights of women and children (Teigen and Langvastbraten 2009). The second question concerns the plausibility of an objective analysis of traditional practices from differing epistemic standpoints. Both questions are mired in conflicting values paradigms such that a consensus appears elusive. As we shall see below, the same problem besets ....

Defence of fgm on the grounds of cultural rights.

The practise of FGC has frequently been defended upon grounds of a given ethnic or religious group's right to traditional cultural practises. Notably Jomo Kenyatta saw the imposition of a British colonial prohibition of FGC as an attack on Kikuyu cultural integrity and self-determination to be resisted (Stanlie 1999).

Some African Feminists such as ... have argued that although they would like to see an end to FGC, they reject western feminist interference on the basis that western feminist opposition to such practises is constituted within an implicit post-colonial cultural hierarchy, which contributes to the subordination of African women (Shell-Duncan and Hernlund 2000). Western notions of gender equality and simplistic misrepresentations and misunderstandings of gendered power dynamics in African societies may in some cases serve to demonize the culture of 'Other' (Spivak 1981, Phillips2005). That western-notions of universal values may have subordinating effects for both men and women challenges the justification for intervention in such practises.

Arguments against cultural rights.

However it can be argued that all culture is implicitly gendered in favour of male dominance and the subordination of women. Calls for the preservation of gendered practises such as FGC are often articulated through a discourse of cultural rights and postcolonial resistance; however by assuming homogenous values of any given group, such discourses potentially silence discordant voices, in particular those of women (...).The fact of male dominance in most, if not all, cultures (Ortner 1972) means that men occupy the hegemonic political centres from which cultural representations may be defined and legitimated and in turn subordinate the voices and subcultures of women (Phillips 2005). Whilst acknowledging that the human rights agenda may well have emerged from a patriarchal and (post)colonial social order, the rights agenda is not unique in this respect. All instruments and institutions of social policy can be argued as subject to the same paternalistic and patriarchal underpinnings (Nussbaum 2007). The defence of FGC as cultural right may be tantamount to the legitimisation and continuation of culturally specific practises which subordinate women (Okin 1999).

Cultural and individual rights need not be in conflict.

Phillips suggests that gender equality and cultural rights need to be understood as interrelated, rather than in opposition to one another. Notions of justice are formed in particular historical contexts and therefore an inadequate reference point as to what values and norms ought to be. Drawing on Benhabib (2002), cultures cannot be conceptualised as delineable wholes, congruent with population groups. Instead culture and identity are practises arising out of dialogue between groups across 'imagined' boundaries (Benhabib 2002, Hekman 2006). Thus it becomes unclear as to who may or may not legitimately speak for and intervene in any given culture.

Nussbaum (2007) posits 'capabilities' as a supplement to a rights based approach to intervention in potentially harmful cultural practises. The capabilities approach posits "functional capabilities" as essential aspects of human life, such as longevity, bodily integrity, emotional, affective social and mental development and the ability to engage in practical reason and choice (Charlesworth 2000). The emphasis is not just on the outcome of bodily integrity for example, but on the ability to achieve or preserve it if one so wishes. Whereas a rights framework might state that everybody has the right to bodily integrity and thus FGC is a violation of this right; a capabilities approach would argue that everybody should have the capability to retain bodily integrity and to make decisions which may compromise it if they so wish; leaving the option of FGC open.

Capability deprivation occurs in a variety of ways, e.g. through lack of financial resources, political oppression lack of education or false consciousness. In recognising that preferences are formed and choices made within differential power relations and subject to dominant cultural values; an individual's ability to form their own preferences becomes a critical human capability. Therefore the focus is not on deciding whether FGC is or is not universally acceptable, but instead establishing the conditions under which 'authentic' consent or refusal may take place. Nussbaum (2007) condemns the practice of FGC, as a form capability deprivation, in the risks it presents to health, sexual functioning and women's autonomy; emphasising that FGC is carried out on young girls without their (authentic) consent. However implicit to Nussbaum's argument is the idea that women cannot authentically consent to discriminatory practises that diminish their capabilities. The inherent danger remains of assuming that African women's decision to participate or advocate for the practise of FGC must be inauthentic in some way. Although the capabilities approach seems to generate a more flexible space for individuals to articulate and realise their interests for themselves, extrapolating value judgements from functional capabilities to more specific acts such as FGC would appear to fall foul of the same assumptions and paternalism which we hoped to avoid by breaking away from a purely normative rights based analysis. Furthermore, framing women's consent to FGC as a decision between equality and inequality risks papering over the wider context in which decision making processes occur; deflecting away from a generalised analysis of patriarchy to centre on FGC as a singular manifestation of gender inequality. In the 'developing' world where short term survival might take precedence over the long term rewards of greater gender equality, a more nuanced approach might seek to identify the circumstances in which the practise of FGC might be of strategic value in mitigating against the day to day challenges of extreme poverty.

Benhabib posits that a concept of humanity need not assume an essentialist ontology, but instead "communities of conversation" (Benhabib 2007 p.245) in which what determines who and who are not members of a community is the topic of conversation, the task at hand and the problem that is being debated.

The study of a practise which one cannot define as their own is of no value.

Can an outsider even understand the practise of FGM?

Western discursive traditions which identify FGC as signifier for sexual oppression (for example Hosken's), have been criticised, as ethnocentric and reductionist. Such critiques view western denunciations as paternalistic and implicitly racist. It has been argued that Hosken's emphasis on an assumed relationship between FGC and sexual pleasure is constrained by western notions of sexuality and overlooks the wider social and economic basis of women's general oppression (Abusharaf 2001). Smith (1992) contends that because western feminist theories were developed by white western women they tend to universalise and impose features of western societies, and are unable to grasp the heterogeneity of African women's subjectivities and the culturally specific inter-sectionalities with other modes of social stratification, such as race, ethnicity and class. Whilst FGC may increase the value of women in the societies in which it is practised, they are simultaneously regarded as inferior by western onlookers (Van de Kwaak 1992). Stamp (in Stanlie 1998) argues that western feminist and academic discourses subordinate African women by conspiring with sexist colonial representations of African women as passive 'Others'; victims of oppressive practises and structures that only western women are able to perceive and thus save them from (Spivak 1981). However such ideology fosters ethno-centrism and fails to observe the complexity of the subjectivities and experiences of African women (Stanlie 1998). Such a view challenges the rigidity of culturally specific notions of right and wrong and disputes whether a full understanding of FGC can be gained from within the framing assumptions of the epistemology of the observer (Gunning 1991/1992).

To return to Luke's (1974) third dimension of power, such notions of authentic decision making and genuine interests are problematic in that they assume the existence of a transcendent standpoint outside of the realm of power where people's real interests can be empirically defined. The methodological problems implicit to identifying genuine interests, do not necessarily mean an absence of substantive interests.

Foucault's perspective emphasizes that knowledge is subject to the realm of power in which it is defined; making a transcendent and authoritative standpoint appear elusive. Such a notion would suggest that where to place the dividing line between 'insider' and 'outsider' perceptions of a practise is seemingly arbitrary. Benhabib (2007) argues that cultural groups and their associated practices are neither homogenous nor hermetic, but constituted of heterogeneous elements which intersect within and across perceived cultural boundaries. Whilst a foucauldian perspective might imply subjects empty of reflexivity, Benhabib posits that the dynamic nature of social norms and cultures is in fact enabled by the flux and fusion of different cultures and epistemological perspectives. Social actors simultaneously participate in and observe their social environs and challenge normative standpoints as contact between different cultural systemst epistemologies.


The universal rights framework is problematic in that it is subject to differing cultural interpretations as to what inalienable rights ought to consist of. Under conditions of patriarchal cultural hegemony, cultural rights, where the greatest patriarchal dividend can be reaped, are bound to take precedence over women's rights; however interventions (not least by former colonial powers) into practises safe-guarded within a cultural rights discourse are likely to be contentious and resisted.

It is my view that the presence of such values conflicts and impassioned views regarding FGC, highlight it as an area of study, due to, rather than despite the methodological and moral complications. Values conflicts inherent to scholarly analysis can perhaps come closer to a resolution and foster positive change in social practise through 'inter-cultural' dialogue as opposed to the efforts of dominant values systems to extend and universalise themselves. As opposed to the simplistic dichotomy of cultural relativism's abdication of responsibility and the potential moral imperialism of universalism, efforts need to be extended to expanding democratic dialogic processes to values conflicts. This requires opening up spaces for the perspectives and experiences of subaltern voices. Furthermore an analysis of traditional practises must be informed by an understanding of the macro relationships between western and non-western cultures. If western perceptions of non-western cultures are framed within a negative racial ideology informed by colonialism, any analysis must attempt to unravel its potential power effects and contain a self-conscious critique of one's own culture. Whilst westerners may perceive FGC as morally unacceptable, there are aspects of western culture which appear as culturally challenging to non-westerners. It is my view that analysing and denouncing the cultural practices of another need not necessarily be an assertion of moral supremacy or cultural imperialism and may in fact shed light on the subordinating practises of one's own culture. The analysis of FGC amongst the Afar to follow will provide both an analysis of the direct motivations and impacts of the practise as well as its situation in patriarchal social order.

Spivak (1982) posits an analysis of FGC across global gender hierarchies. Spivak questions the assumption that FGC is exclusively imposed on African women, suggesting that FGC is a metonymy for the general social and economic oppression of women. FGC is conceived of as the 'symbolic repression of female sexuality', which through the objectification and control of women's reproductive bodies, (re)produces patriarchal power. Aside from the historical practise of FGC in the west, Gunning (1991/1992) highlights cosmetic surgery, anorexia and bulimia as current western cultural practises which may draw a parallel with FGC, in that they are culturally specific manifestations of patriarchal social order, which produce uncertainties surrounding female identity and are located in a wider struggle for gender equity.