Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Fall in Female Genital Cutting

In Darwinian Natural Right, I have a long section on female circumcision (pp. 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, feminist 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.

As I indicated in Darwinian Natural Right, I agree with the strategy of allowing women to discover for themselves that there are alternatives to circumcision, so that by collectively organizing themselves to abolish circumcision, the women can change their cultural practices. This strategy has been well worked out by Gerry Mackie, and it has already succeeded in some parts of Africa.

Recently, an article in the New York Times reported a gradual fall in female genital cutting in Africa based on a report issued by the United Nations Children's Fund.  This is good news.  But it's disappointing that that the fall has been so gradual.  One possibility, however, is that many women have moved away from the most severe forms of genital cutting (cutting off the clitoris and sewing up the vagina) to less severe forms (such as scratching the clitoris), which might be a prudent way to appear to conform to a bad custom while minimizing the harm.

Some of my previous posts on this can be found here and here.

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