When I first wrote about female circumcision in 1998 in Darwinian Natural Right, my thinking was decisively influenced by some writing by Gerry Mackie, who is now a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego. Now, twelve years later, one can see that developments in Africa have confirmed Mackie's analysis--both of the causal origins of female circumcision and of the practical strategy for abolishing it.
Most of Mackie's writing on female circumcision can be found at his webpage.
Mackie's original insight was seeing the similarities between Chinese footbinding and female circumcision. Both involve disabling young women physically so that they are believed to be less likely to be unfaithful to their husbands. Consequently, both have to do with marriageability--men are unwilling to marry women whose feet are unbound, in the one case, or who are not circumcised, in the other. Both became deeply rooted social traditions, such that any individuals who rejected the practice would be punished by society, because the daughters who had not undergone the procedure could not be married; and in these societies, unmarried women could not live successful lives.
Remarkably, although Chinese footbinding persisted for almost a thousand years, it was abandoned within two decades at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. In 1996, Mackie suggested that female circumcision could be abandoned in the same way with the same strategy used with footbinding. Within a few years, his prediction seemed to be confirmed by the success of women in Senegal abandoning female circumcision through the strategy recommended by Mackie.
Mackie reasons that both Chinese footbinding and female circumcision are examples of self-enforcing social conventions, in which individuals cannot overturn the practice without punishment unless they can persuade a large number of others to join them in a collective commitment to stop the practice. Many individuals might recognize that footbinding or female circumcision is harmful to women. But if women have to be married to be successful, and if having bound feet or being circumcised is the condition for marriage, then women cannot resist the practice without suffering an unbearable cost. That's why parents who love their children will force them to undergo what they know is harmful because they see no good alternative if their daughters are to have a good life.
In the Chinese case, opponents of footbinding joined the "Natural Foot Society" and other groups campaigning against the practice. They took a pledge not to bind the feet of their daughters and not to allow their sons to marry girls with bound feet. These groups were large enough so that they could intermarry, and thus their daughters were not punished by being excluded from the marriage market.
Mackie surmised that the same could be done with female circumcision. Those recognizing how harmful female circumcision is could form groups of like-minded people who would pledge not to circumcise their daughters nor allow their sons to marry circumcised girls. If these groups then created marriage networks among themselves, their daughters would find mates without having to be circumcised.
Within a few years of publishing his analysis, Mackie discovered that what he predicted had actually happened in Africa, as some Africans discovered on their own with no knowledge of Mackie's work how collective action could allow them to abandon female circumcision.
Tostan is an international nongovernmental organization with headquarters in Senegal. (The word "tostan" means "breakthrough" in the West African language of Wolof.) Originally founded by a young woman who first came to Senegal as an American exchange student, Tostan organizes informal educational programs in hundreds of villages in Senegal and other parts of Africa. These programs allow women of the village to talk about their hopes for the future and how they might improve their lives. An important part of the education is instruction in human rights and conceptions of democracy. In 1997, the women who had participated in Tostan's classes in the village of Malicounda Bambara decided to apply what they had learned by organizing themselves in opposition to female circumcision. They publicly announced their pledge to abandon the practice for the good of their daughters. Initially, there was opposition from surrounding villages, but they persuaded these other villages to join them in the pledge. Eventually, thousands of villages have joined this movement. Consequently, girls in these villages can intermarry without being forced to be circumcised.
The remarkable story of Tostan is told in various documents available at the Tostan website.
What is crucial here is how the Mackie/Tostan strategy for reforming harmful traditional practices respects the people who live in these societies and allows them to act for themselves. Mackie writes: "Parents love their children and want to do the best for them. That is why parents arrange FGC for their children: in the circumstances they encounter that is how they advance the marriageability and future welfare of their daughters. Once it is discovered that a community can be organized to collectively abandon the practice, most parents would be happy to do so, again, out of love for their children."
So we should assume that parental care is a universal desire of evolved human nature. Parents around the world want to do what is in the best interests of their children. The naturalness of family life of human beings allows us then to formulate the human rights of parents and children. But the cultural diversity in the circumstances of marriage and family life can create social situations where parents are caught in a cultural trap, and they have to enforce harmful practices on their children for what they perceive to be their greater good. In such cases, parents can escape their cultural trap only if they understand the true costs of their practices and if they can organize themselves collectively to reform their cultural traditions.
But how do societies get caught in cultural traps like Chinese footbinding or female circumcision? Mackie suggests that in the case of footbinding, the practice originated in ancient imperial practices of polygynous hypergamy--that is, powerful men at the top of highly stratified societies controlled the resources that made them attractive mates for women from the lower strata of society. Such men worried about the faithfulness of their multiple wives, because men can never be completely confident of the paternity of their children. They devised various methods to cloister and guard their wives. Footbinding seemed to provide them such security, because women with bound feet were less able to stray. This created pressure on lower-status women to compete in footbinding to win the best mates in their effort to marry up the hierarchy. Although this original cause for footbinding disappeared, the practice continued.
Similarly, Mackie surmises that female circumcision might have originated in central Africa in highly stratified societies where women competed to marry up the pyramid. The practice could then have diffused across Africa as female circumcision was perceived to be a sign of status, faithfulness, and purity.
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