Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fuambai Ahmadu on Female Circumcision

In Darwinian Natural Right, I have a long section on female circumcision (149-60). I use the debate over whether female circumcision should be condemned as a violation of human rights to illustrate the dangers of multicultural relativism in denying human nature and moral naturalism. From the perspective of Darwinian natural right, we can judge that female circumcision is an unjustified interference with the natural functioning of women's bodies in a way that denies their natural desires for health, sexual identity, and sexual mating. But if the multicultural relativists are right that human sexuality is a purely cultural construction, and different cultures choose to practice female circumcision as part of their cultural construction of female sexuality, then there is no natural biological standard of female sexuality that we can use to condemn female circumcision. On the one hand, many feminists support a global campaign to abolish female circumcision as a violation of the universal human rights of girls and women. On the other hand, multiculturalists denounce this campaign as cultural imperialism, because the Western feminists are imposing their cultural biases about female sexuality on African women who have embraced female circumcision as part of their cultural identity.

So what has happened to this debate since I wrote about it in 1998? First, we need to clarify what is meant by female circumcision. Here we can go to a fact sheet of the World Health Organization (WHO) on "female genital mutilation" (FGM).

The use of the word "mutilation" points to the fundamental issue. The idea of "mutilation" evokes moral emotions of disapproval, because it suggests some harmful distortion of the normal human body. WHO declares: "FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls' and womens' bodies." This language of "natural functions" implies a biological standard of normal human functioning, so that to interfere with that biological functioning can elicit moral emotions of repulsion.

With a Darwinian/Westermarckian understanding of moral experience, we can see the importance of both cognition and emotion in the WHO's moral condemnation of female circumcision as "mutilation." There's a cognitive assessment of what constitutes the "natural functions" of a healthy, normal human body. Then, there's an emotional response of moral disgust when we perceive that female circumcision interferes unjustifiably with the natural functioning of a woman's body. To counter that moral judgment, the multicultural relativists must deny the cognitive assessment of natural bodily functioning and allay the emotional response of moral disgust.

But what exactly are we talking about here? WHO distinguishes four major types of FGM. 1. Clitoridectomy is the partial or total removal of the clitoris. 2. Excision is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, sometimes also the labia majora, which are the "lips" surrounding the vagina. 3. Infibulation is the sewing up or sealing of the vaginal opening, either with or without removing the clitoris, leaving a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. 4. The fourth category of "other" includes all other kinds of cutting or scraping of the genital area.

As the WHO fact sheet indicates, there are rough estimates that 100 to 140 million girls and women in the world today have had undergone this. Most of them are in central and northeastern areas of Africa. But some are in areas of the Middle East and Asia.

This practice exists as a "social convention" or "cultural tradition." People can believe that this is a necessary part of becoming a mature woman. Sometimes, it is part of the initiation rituals for girls to become women. It is associated with ideas of feminine modesty, cleanliness, and beauty. Typically, mothers have this done to their daughters. The most common justification is that female circumcision is necessary for a girl to become marriageable, because no man will consent to marry an uncircumcised woman. Men and women believe that uncircumcized women cannot properly control their sex drive, and thus they cannot be faithful wives and good mothers.

Many international agencies and non-governmental organizations have joined together in the attempt to abolish all forms of female circumcision. Some governments have adopted laws against it. Under a 1996 federal statute of the United States, it is a crime for girls under the age of 18 to be circumcised. In Canada, it is even a crime for parents to take their daughters to Africa for the purpose of circumcising them.

One notable development over the past decade is that some circumcised African women have taken opposing sides in debating this issue. For example, on one side, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was circumcised as a girl in Somalia, has become internationally famous for denouncing the practice of circumcision as an abhorrent mutilation of girls sanctioned by fundamentalist Islam. She has condemned the multicultural argument for tolerating this as a cultural tradition. My earlier post on Hirsi Ali can be found here.

On the other side of this debate is Fuambai Ahmadu, who was born in Sierra Leone and reared in the United States, and became an anthropologist who has studied female circumcision among her native Kono ethnic group in Sierra Leone. At age 22, she decided to travel back to her native village so that she herself could be circumcised. She now provokes intense controversy by writing and lecturing in which she criticizes the feminist campaign against female circumcision as Euroamerican cultural imperialism and ethnocentrism. She claims that she herself has not felt any impediment to her sexual life or any other harm from her circumcision, which was an excision of her clitoris. Moreover, she insists that most circumcised African women find deep satisfaction in their circumcision, which refutes all of the reports about the supposed harms from female circumcision.

When I was at the University of Regina, in Canada, a few weeks ago, I heard about a lecture that Ahmadu gave there last April. The professors I spoke with said that her lecture was explosive, because the feminists were outraged that any woman would say what she was saying, and some even questioned whether she should be permitted to speak. Those sponsoring the lecture rightly (I think) argued that a university should be open to such controversial speakers.

The best statement of Ahmadu's position is her book chapter--"Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision"--in Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund, eds., Female "Circumcision" in Africa (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000). Two short statements from her can be found here and here.

In the "TierneyLab" statement, Ahmadu protests the "vilification of female circumcision." "Much of the horror expressed seems to be based on erroneous presumptions about the clitoris and female sexuality." So, to allay the emotional "horror," she must challenge the cognitive assessments of the functioning of the clitoris in female sexuality. She notes the variability in women's sexual experiences. Many circumcised women--like Ahmadu herself--report that circumcision has not impeded their sexual pleasure and orgasms at all. But some circumcised women report, on the contrary, that their circumcision has diminished their capacity for sexual enjoyment. The same is true for uncircumcised women, because some enjoy orgasms, while others don't have that experience. From this, Ahmadu concludes: "(female) sexuality is as much a cultural construct as ideas about sex and gender." If female sexuality is a "cultural construct," then different cultures can construct different patterns of female sexuality. The Kono can construct a culture in which women find their deepest satisfaction as women in circumcision. There is, then, no universal, natural standard of female sexuality to which one can appeal in judging culturally constructed standards of female sexuality, and therefore any condemnation of one culture by those in another culture is cultural imperialism. As she says in her Patriotic Vanguard article, each culture should be judged by its own cultural interpretation of female sexuality and not by some "Euroamerican universal prototype."

Ahmadu argues that the cosmetic surgery sought by many people in Western societies is not that different from African female circumcision. Some Western women are even undergoing genital surgery in the quest for "designer vaginas."

And yet Ahmadu exposes the weakness in her cultural relativist position by showing that she can't consistently adhere to her fundamental assumption that female sexuality is a "cultural construct" unconstrained by biological nature. She admits that some circumcised African women oppose the practice of circumcision, which suggests that at least some members of African cultures with circumcision can escape from their "cultural construct." Still, Ahmadu insists, that "the vast majority of circumcised women" find their cultural traditions to be satisfying. If so, then one might assume that Ahmadu is arguing for preserving female circumcision wherever it exists, because it is fully satisfying and not at all harmful for at least the vast majority of women. On the contrary, Ahmadu proposes that the most serious forms of circumcision should not be imposed on children by their parents. Instead, women should be free to decide whether they want to be circumcised, once they have reached a proper age of consent. Moreover, Ahmadu suggests, African women should be free to organize themselves collectively to ban all forms of circumcision. So, now it seems that Ahmadu sees something in human experience across cultures that allows people to call into question a practice like female circumcision, even when it has been a deeply rooted cultural tradition.

In the Patriotic Vanguard essay, Ahmadu observes: "I have written about the differences (as well as similarities) between western cultural interpretations of female sexuality and the symbolic/psychological meanings associated with the external clitoris noting that these meanings have nothing to do with its actual biological functioning in sexual pleasure and orgasm in women." It certainly is true that women's sexual pleasure can't be reduced to the "biological functioning" of the clitoris. Vaginal orgasms might be possible even without the clitoris at work. And the most powerful human sexual organ is the brain, with all the "symbolic/psychological meanings" that it can create, and these "meanings" are certainly influenced by cultural learning. But is it really true that female orgasm has nothing at all to do with the "actual biological functioning" of the clitoris?

Ahmadu reports: "the bulk of the clitoris is beneath the vaginal surface and along with other parts of the genitals and other areas of women's bodies remain very sensitive and perfectly functioning for most women after excision." Now we see a likely explanation for why some circumcized women like Ahmadu feel no lessening in their sexual pleasure. There is such a wide variation in excision that in many cases, most of the clitoral tissue remains and thus, along with other parts of the genitals, it can be "very sensitive and perfectly functioning."

So while Ahmadu begins by assuming that female sexuality is a purely "cultural construct" with no connection to "biological functioning," she concludes by recognizing that sexual pleasure really does have something to do with "perfectly functioning" genitals.

The clitoris seems to be the only human organ that has no purpose other than pleasure. And yet evolutionary theorists disagree about the evolutionary history of the clitoris. Some (like Sara Hrdy) stress the importance of clitoral orgasm as a functional adaptation in the evolution of female sexuality, which suggests that interfering with that part of female nature will frustrate women in ways that can only be harmful to men as well as women. But even if one agrees with those evolutionary theorists (like Donald Symons and Elisabeth Lloyd) who think clitoral orgasm is not an evolutionary adaptation for the female but an incidental effect of penile orgasm as a functional adaptation for the male, this would not change the fact that clitoral organism is now a potential of female nature that cannot be denied without emotional cost. Even if circumcised women are capable of vaginal orgasms, few women would find this to be sufficient compensation for the painful consequences of clitoridectomy or excision.

Perhaps because she does recognize the importance of "perfectly functioning" genitals for women's sexual happiness, Ahmadu ends up proposing the abolition of female circumcision in contradiction to her initial defense of the practice. At the end of her book chapter, Ahmadu suggests that "ritual without cutting" might be a "reasonable middle ground"--that is, African women might be persuaded to continue traditional practices of ritual initiation into womanhood, but without any actual physical cutting of the girls' genitals. She also proposes educational programs that would include information about the "possible negative health effects" of cirumcision, which would be directed to "preparing young girls to make informed choices about their futures and the futures of their own female children" (308-309).

In the last sentence of her book chapter, Ahmadu concludes: "through more culturally sensitive and appropriate 'education' as well as limited medicalization strategies, the 'death' of female 'circumcision' could be more gradual, more natural, and a lot less painful for millions of future African women and girls" (310).

As I indicated in Darwinian Natural Right, I agree with this strategy of allowing women to discover for themselves that there are alternatives to circumcision, and that by collectively organizing themselves to abolish circumcision, the women can change their cultural practices. This strategy--which Ahmadu seems to accept--has been well worked out by Gerry Mackie, and it has already succeeded in some parts of Africa. That will be the subject of another post.


Unknown said...

I think that I understand your point about how some natural moral sentiments, especially those about unfairness and concern for the well-being of other humans, serve as the basis for the emergence of "natural rights" as a potent concept in human societies, and one that is potentially uniform across cultures. However, I am mystified that you don't appear to recognize as moral emotions any others than those concerned with caring for other human beings and a sense of outrage at injustice. Feelings of disgust and awe(especially towards what has been called divine) as well as strong preferential feeling towards one's own family are all moral emotions. If the cultural relativists are wrong, then none of those emotions, which are present in various forms in all societies, are also all part of a Darwinian moral naturalism. So those societies which force women to have circumcisions are acting on the basis of natural, moral emotions, just as much as Westerners are acting on the basis of natural moral emotions when they condemn female circumcision.

I am not saying that the Westerners aren't right. I think the fact that delegations from all over the world were able to agree on a universal declaration of rights shows that human beings can agree about the significance of their intuitions or sentiments about fairness, injustice, and their desire to prevent human beings from harming other human beings. And for a lot of people, mainly liberals(take a look at the work of Jonathan Haidt of U.Va.), that is all that they consider to be within the purview of ethics and morality. For others, one's relationship to holiness, one's purity or impurity and the purity of those around you, your membership in a group(maybe a polis?) and your loyalty to its values and institutions, all of these are considered part of morality and ethics. They are considered to be a part of morality and ethics because they spring from natural moral sentiments, sentiments which are likely still felt by liberals but dismissed or ignored as not worthy of attention or cultivation.

It is cultural imperialism for Westerners not to recognize that reprehensible acts like female circumcision are rooted in natural moral sentiments, just because some Westerners have decided that only some moral sentiments should determine what is moral and what isn't. To dismiss the concerns of non-Westerners about the purity of themselves and their society, about the loyalty of its members to its core values, and about the relationship of societies and individuals to the Gods raises a question; are all of our natural moral emotions compatible with each other? And if not, how do we go about choosing which ones to emphasize and which to de-emphasize?

Larry Arnhart said...


Thank you for this instructive comment.

I agree that in societies where parents force their daughters to be circumcised, the parents are expressing their natural desire to care for their children and do what is best for them as they understand it. That's why I suggest the best strategy for reform is not to condemn them, as if they were intentionally abusing their children, but to arrange for them to learn about the consequences of female circumcision and that there are alternatives. Where this has been done--in Senegal and elsewhere--villages have made collective decisions to eliminate female circumcision.

It is true that our natural moral sentiments and desires often come into conflict with one another. We then learn by trial and error how to resolve those conflicts or how to manage the tensions. Sometimes we face tragic moral conflicts that cannot be resolved without great pain.

There is plenty of evidence that many of the people who enforce female circumcision abhor the practice, but they force it on their daughters because they fear their daughters will be socially ostracized and unable to marry.

The moral concerns for purity and holiness are connected with what I call the natural desire for religious understanding. Female circumcision is sometimes associated with religious belief, but sometimes not.

As Ahmadu suggests, adopting "rituals without cutting" or with only minor nicking of the genitals would be a way of preserving the symbolism of ritual purity but without the harm from the severe forms of female circumcision.