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Cultural relativism and female genital mutilation

The Guardian newspaper has today launched a campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM). This coincides with evidence that, despite being illegal, a significant number of young women from the UK undergo the practice. Globally, more than 125 million living women have had some form of FGM performed.

Female genital mutilation is a classic example of a practice that is proscribed in some cultures, but permitted in others.  The historian Herodotus described the contrasting practices of two cultures towards their dead. The ancient Greeks cremated their dead, while the Callatian Indians would eat the bodies of their deceased fathers. Members of both cultures were horrified when they learned of the other’s apparently barbaric way of treating their dead.

Contrasting world views, like those of the Callatians and the Greeks, are sometimes thought to support a particular view about morality – that of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism notes that cultures vary in what they regard as right and wrong, standards vary from place to place and over time, there is no universal standard, and consequently it is mistaken to criticize the practices of another culture. According to cultural relativism, FGM is neither right nor wrong. It is wrong according to western standards, but may be permissible according to the values of other societies.

There are a number of arguments against cultural relativism. As powerfully and persuasively argued by philosopher James Rachels, the basic argument in favour of cultural relativism is logically flawed. The conclusions do not follow from the premises. Furthermore, relativism would give us no ability to criticism anti-semitism in Nazi Germany, nor any reason to think that society had made any moral progress over time (for example in banning slavery). That is utterly implausible.

However, there is another form of cultural relativism that is relevant to debates about FGM. One question that arises when FGM (or other controversial socially variable practices) are discussed is how much weight we should give to the “cultural value” of a particular practice. In some cultures FGM is an important rite of passage for young women. Similar arguments are sometimes given in favour of fox-hunting, the killing of seals by the Inuit, or Metzizah B’Peh (a variant of male circumcision involving oral suction and imposing a risk of herpes), or the inclusion of hereditary peers in a parliamentary democracy. The idea is that certain practices have value by virtue of their practice over a long period of time, their inclusion in historic texts and art forms, their association with cultural identity. If we were to ban FGM or fox hunting or Metzizah B’Peh something of cultural value would be lost.

How important a factor should cultural value be in ethical debates? According to cultural relativism we should give cultural value just as much weight as other factors. It would justify allowing FGM, if that is important to a culture. It is just a question of how much weight a culture puts on tradition compared with the rights of women, for example. However, I have already suggested that cultural relativism is mistaken. A second, more credible, view is that we should give some weight to cultural value. On this view it may depend how important to a culture a particular practice is. Sometimes, the cultural value will outweigh other ethical considerations (as it seems to in Canadian law on seal hunting), sometimes it won’t. Yet, there is a third possibility. I believe that we should give no weight to cultural value in ethical debate. When we are weighing up the moral reasons in favour or against fox-hunting or FGM, seal hunting or the Lords, cultural value has no place at all. Why should we take this view? Although morality is not relative, culture is relative. Cultural value does change from place to place, and over time. It is not immutable. It is entirely contingent whether or not something is valued, or how it is valued. Moreover, it is entirely possible to deliberately change the rituals. We can keep parts of rituals that connect us with our forebears, while rejecting others. In the Guardian, Sarah Tenoi describes an alternate rite of passage that she and other Maasai women have developed that involves all of the traditional ceremonial elements, but without genital cutting. Similarly, it is possible to adjust cultural practices to avoid risk of herpes for male infants.

Accepting this point does not put an end to debate. There could be other persuasive reasons to allow fox-hunting or FGM or hereditary peerage (though I doubt it). However, when we are considering the morality of a particular practice, culture value is of no significance.






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21 Comment on this post

  1. “However, when we are considering the morality of a particular practice, culture value is of no significance”

    Your conclusion is true only from absolute non-utilitarian ethical perspective. If you take utilitarian considerations into account, you have to give some weight to cultural value. At least if you reasonably assume that cultural value is a part of people´s utility functions. The overall consequences of FGM are much worse for a girl living in secular europe than they are for a girl living in Somalia.

  2. Perhaps I misinterpreted. My comment was targeted to any particular act of FGM. If considering morality of FGM as a practice/phenomena, you´re definitely right also from utilitarian perspective.

  3. I find it odd that you chose metzitzah bpeh (MBP) as your example. The obvious and perfect comparison to FGM for this argument is male genital mutilation (MGM), euphemistically known as circumcision.

    Practically speaking, since this is a practical ethics blog, MGM is a million times larger and more salient problem then MBP.

  4. I find it odd that you chose metzitzah bpeh (MBP) as your example. The obvious and perfect comparison to FGM for this argument is male gen*tal mutilation (MGM), euphemistically known as c*rcumcision.

    Practically speaking, since this is a practical ethics blog, MGM is a million times larger and more salient problem then MBP.

  5. Dominic, does an utilitarian approach not solve most of the issues you raised? It seems rather straightforward to me that the cultural value or rituals become of less important or completely irrelevant when we attend to the most palpable and objective consequences of such practices, such as emotions like pain in a defenseless human being, health risks, future inability to perform certain sexual activities, having one’s fundamental rights as a person ignored, and so on.

    I may be missing something, of course, but this seems easier to defend than arguing that morality is not relative, or that it is at any rate not influenced from culture.

  6. Thanks

    Rogue – you are right that one reason in favour of these practices is that people *value* them. So, from a preference utilitarian perspective, the preferences of the Inuit, or of the fox-hunters, or of those who favour FGM would count. However, that makes it clear the type of consideration that we are weighing against the suffering of women, or the suffering of animals. (Matheus, I agree that these other factors would/should be regarded as much more significant). The point is that cultural value per se, has no additional value.

    Kevin – you re right that cultural value is sometimes cited in defense of male circumcision. If the arguments above hold against cultural value for fox-hunting or FGM or MBP, they would also hold in the more common circumcision case.

  7. @Dominic, ironically, calling the male version of forced genital cutting “circumcision” while referring to the female version as FGM is an example of cultural bias that plays heavily into the ethical arguments you are discussing.

  8. Even when cultural value is not specifically cited in defense of MGM (note: this is actually very common), it is always implied. For example, people in Western countries will cite spurious so called “medical benefits” to defend MGM forced on children. Yet they would not dream of citing “medical benefits” to defend FGM, because they view it as an indefensible practice and totally incomparable to MGM due to cultural bias.

  9. I had this argument with a professor who was teaching multiculturalism in grad school. He asked us to come up with an example of a human rights violation. I raised my hand and said “the way women are treated in Iran.” He said “that is cultural” it is “not a human rights violation.” I replied that it then is also a cultural issue that south africans like to own slaves. He said “no – that is a human rights violation.”

    My argument was that it depends on whether someone is allowed to choose it. Culturally, in America, we put up Christmas trees and eat lots of cookies in late December. But, I am not thrown in jail if I don’t. I am not forced to do so by law, threat or actual violence or loss of property. Swimming upstream of your culture may get you hairy eyeballs or shunned – but not jailed or tortured.

    So, my yard stick of whether something is “cultural” or “ethical” is whether the person has the freedom to choose it willingly without fear of institutionalized (legal) violence, incarceration or loss of property.

  10. To take your central premise -that morals are absolute, not relative, I disagree. For example it is usually morally wrong to kill a person, but it’s not morally wrong if that person is threatening your life, and you have to kill them to avoid being killed yourself. Our legal system recognises and codifies moral relativity, in our laws.

    If that’s the case, then your argument doesn’t support banning FGM. In fact to justify banning FGM (which incidentally in my view is equivalent to male castration, and is a form of torture of women and girls), you have to also accept a number of ethical principles that are NOT accepted in many African societies. One of these is that women have human rights (e.g. the right to health and sexuality), and that their rights are equal to those of men. Further, FGM is fundamentally linked to the underage marriage and dowry system in the countries practising it. You won’t eliminate FGM unless/until you convince those societies (a) to treat women as valued citizens, and (b) to get rid of dowry and early marriage.

    The only programmes that to my knowledge have been moderately successful in reducing FGM, are those which have gone into the tribal society, targeting its respected elders within the community as ‘agents of change’, and have suggested replacing FGM initiation of girls with an alternative rite of passage that doesn’t involve mutilating their bodies. The Government imposing it by law from on high hasn’t worked, and won’t work, either in Western societies with immigrants, or in tribal African societies.

    1. Susan, please explain how FGM, which often consists of cutting the clitoral hood, is “equivalent to male castration.” That is a mind-boggling and bizarre assertion.

      1. Kevin, I always find it slightly amusing when a stranger online ‘demands’ that I explain something, and in this case I’m going to decline, simply because a description of ‘infibulation’ would be graphic, and probably make me (and others on this blog) feel physically sick. I suggest you do some research on Types II and III FGM (including photos), and then come back and repeat your statement that the comparison with male castration is ‘bizarre’. Cheers.

        1. I know all about infibulation, unfortunately. I suggest *you* do some research into various types of male and female genital mutilation, for example look up “bifurcation,” the slicing of a penis lengthwise like splitting a hot dog.

          The equivalent of male castration is female castration: removal of the ovaries. The equivalent of FGM, in its various forms and range of damages, is MGM, in its various forms and ranges of damages.

          If you think MGM cannot be harmful, please explain the 825 boys who have died from it in Eastern Cape, South Africa alone in the last 20 years. Better yet, explain the survivors who had their entire penises amputated.

  11. Hi Susan,

    there are two different ways that morality might be relative rather than absolute. You argue that moral laws (and criminal laws) are relative to circumstance – it is permissible to kill someone in self defence, but not for other reasons, for example because you dislike them. So the norm against killing is relative.
    However, the relativism that I was targetting in my post is a different type of moral relativism. That view says that moral rules (even when the circumstances are the same) are relative to culture. According to cultural relativism, killing someone because you do not like them is wrong in our culture, but it might be fine in another culture. Such a view, I argued, and other philosophers have argued, is untenable.
    The fact that certain ethical principles are not accepted in some African (or other) societies does not mean that they do not apply. If another culture accepted paedophilia or child slavery, we would not (and should not) think that the ethical arguments against paedophilia or child slavery are merely a matter of custom or convention. There are strong objective reasons for thinking that a culture that accepted child slavery was mistaken.

    However, even if cultural relativism is false, your second point may still be valid. It may be that the most effective way of eliminating FGM is to work with communities to modify their cultural practices, rather than imposing by fiat from above. However, the reason for intervening at all, is because we think that there is something wrong with FGM, even if other cultures accept it.

    1. Dominic, I do understand what cultural relativism is -I’ve studied both Philosophy and Anthropology at university level. I was challenging your thesis that morality is absolute across different cultures, and your use of that thesis as the basis for your argument that FGM should therefore be universally banned (at least that’s how I interpret your argument -correct me if I’m wrong).

      I was challenging the assumption that morals are absolute by citing one example of a moral that may be thought to be universally accepted (that killing is morally wrong), but is not applied in an absolute way across cultures. If you don’t like the self-defence analogy, then consider ritual sacrifice (which still occurs in some tribes), or infanticide (which occurs in others). These are instances where the ‘death is wrong’ more has been qualified in certain situations, and rendered acceptable in those particular contexts.

      Back to FGM and cultural relativism for a moment. Practitioners and supporters of FGM in Africa and in immigrant communities that have ‘imported’ FGM, do not view FGM in the same way we do. Call this cultural relativism if you like – but it’s a version that goes far deeper than the practice itself – it goes to the very principles and assumptions underlying the practice. They would challenge almost everything we say is wrong with FGM. For example we say it’s cruel and inhumane torture. They say it’s a rite of passage that women accept, and that is necessary to turn them into women and render them marriageable. They say it would be cruel and inhumane to *deprive* a woman of the cut, and to make her an outcast in her own community. I’m not saying I agree with this argument, but consider something that might be an equivalent in our society. Suppose a group of African intellectuals came out to the USA, and tried to argue that it is cruel and inhumane for women to have to wear bras, and cover their tops in public. Some white women come to accept this view, and insist that their daughters appear in public without a bra or top. Imagine the reaction those girls would get in our community. That (as I understand it) is the type of reaction ‘uncut’ girls get in some African communities where FGM is the norm. Viewed in that way, campaigners are fighting not just an isolated practice, but rather an entire way of life and worldview about the place of women in the community and society.

      And that is why FGM campaigners are getting a backlash – because the African communities feel that their whole way of life is under threat and criticism from ‘outsiders’ who don’t really want to help – merely to stop them doing something they have done for centuries/millenia.

      Nailing my colours to the mast, I oppose FGM and wish it didn’t happen, but I don’t think the current campaigns are the way to stop it. They are paternalistic and patronising, and I’m not surprised there has been a backlash.

  12. Hi Susan,

    the fact that supporters of FGM view it differently from the way that I do, or you do, does not mean that we have to accept cultural relativism. The notion that there are (some) universal moral norms does not mean that everyone understands them the same way, or that everyone accepts them. Clearly they do not.
    The question is whether there is are some underlying moral principles by which it is possible to criticise the views of those who think that FGM, or child slavery, or paedophilia, or anti-semitism are acceptable, etc etc If there are no such moral principles then there is no way to criticise alternate views, nor, in fact any reason to.
    It is way beyond the scope of this blog post to articulate them in detail, but there are good reasons for thinking that at least some moral norms apply universally. One important reason why FGM is morally wrong (and equally morally wrong in the UK or in Africa) is because it causes significant pain, physical harm and distress. It is in this way different from norms about how much clothing female members of society wear. Those norms are indeed culturally relative. However, we should not jump from the fact that some norms are relative, to conclude that all are…

    1. Dominic: Whether or not there is a fundamentally objective set of ‘mores’, that applies universally across all cultures, is a perennially debated issue in philosophy and has been since Aristotle’s ‘Ethics’! For the list you’ve cited, I could challenge almost every one of these with a counterexample of a society which has deemed the practice acceptable, and has produced strong justifications to support their different approach. Because of this, I suspect that there are actually far fewer ‘universal moral truths’ than we assume there to be. Let’s take a couple of those you cited:

      Child slavery: this has problems of definition, to the extent I’d argue that it’s very difficult to extract a universal moral principle against child slavery. Views on this issue range on a wide spectrum from that of the Western neo-liberal who will argue that every child has a “right to a proper childhood” which includes food, shelter, clothing, education, love, play time, etc etc, through to many societies in the Third World, who for reasons of economic necessity, must insist their children do not pursue any or more than basic schooling, but rather pitch in to work and help support the family as soon as they are physically able. Is that child slavery because there’s an element of compulsion? Or is it only slavery if the child is actually ‘sold’ by the family into a life of slavery? Even in the latter instance, the justification is often that without ‘selling’ the child into slavery, many others in the family will starve. That doesn’t make it right, but does it detract from an argument that child slavery is ‘universally wrong’ (wrong in all situations)?

      Paedophilia: the purist view (codified into law in virtually all Western societies) is that sex with a child under a specified age is paedophilia, and is morally wrong and criminal. However in many non-Western countries, it is not only legal, but also morally acceptable, to marry a girl we would consider a ‘child’ (e.g. Yemen, many African countries, Afghanistan, etc). We say that’s wrong – children should not enter such relationships until they reach a certain age. However the countries which practice child marriage do it for a couple of reasons that at face value sound convincing in those particular cultural contexts: (1) life expectancy: in these countries it’s roughly 20 years less than in Western countries. If a woman is expected not to live beyond say 55, then they argue she should start her reproductive life earlier. (2) economic reasons: reduction of a woman’s dependency on her family of origin, and dowry (bringing wealth into her family of origin). Even amongst Western countries there is no consensus on what the age of consent is (or should be). For some countries it’s 14, others 16, others 15, etc. It may be possible to extract a principle that states sex with a child under (say) 12 is *always morally wrong*, but hopefully my arguments illustrate the complexities.

      In my view campaigns against FGM should be based not on trying to convince those communities which practice it that all of their values about women are totally wrong, but rather by sensitively convincing them that FGM is harming their women, and therefore making it more difficult for them to fulfill the important roles prescribed for them. For example campaigns which target the effect of FGM on the happiness of marriages, tend to be quite successful, because they bring both men and women into the framework.

  13. I agree with Dominic’s notion that some moral principles must apply across cultures. When Susan says that it is a rite of passage that “women accept” – she is not talking about grown adults – but about children. Children are not of an age of proper consent and are so easily manipulated that it is not possible to really accept that they are making this decision clearly or without total dependence on their elders.

    There are also pedophiles who will argue that the “child liked it.” And often, children will be manipulated to act in ways that may look like “consent.” But, we all know this is not really what is happening.

    Childhood is a different category and must be treated as such. Children are dependent on the adults around them to do the right things and do not typically have the same level of free will as adults nor the experience and freedoms to choose properly for themselves.

    I also do not believe wearing a bra is equal in nature to getting your genitals cut up without anesthesia…..

    Susan, you may be right about how to best approach it – but I think it is a human rights violation worthy of outside intervention just like slavery, ethnic cleansing, etc. I know slave owners “view” slavery differently too – they think it is fine and the slaves “like” being slaves….. doesn’t make it “okay.”

    1. Lori: My statement was “they would say it is a rite of passage women accept” -I wasn’t suggesting I agree with that view. I was using it to illustrate the fact that the African communities practising FGM and other harmful practices challenge the very Western moral principles underlying our opposition to it. Where you get a clash of values, and no basic agreement on what values apply to the life of a woman, it’s then very difficult to change a practice which stems from those very different values. In a sense you have to go about changing the values themselves. Let me cite some examples.
      We say that FGM is a painful, harmful form of ‘abuse’. However the infliction of pain in the name of ritual, or initiation, is a fundamentally accepted part of life in many tribal societies (not just for women, but also for men). Some of these tribes practice not only FGM and male circumcision without anaesthetic, but also facial cutting which leaves deep scars (this is seen as a mark of beauty), but it’s painful and dangerous. Take another example of a practice we would find repugnant, but is perfectly ‘acceptable’ in the context of Sub-Saharan tribal life: women are expected from a very early age to marry and bear children (when they are barely into puberty and not fully formed). They are also expected to walk miles to fetch and carry water on their back – carrying loads which many men in Western societies would be unable to bear. All of this is considered normal and acceptable in the life of a tribal woman.

      My point? The war on FGM in the West is conducted in the mistaken assumption that it is feasible (or even possible) to reach a consensus of views between white Western, middle class liberals, and Africans living in Africa, on the morals and values applying to a woman’s life and role in society, and what rights she does, or does not have, in her own community. Without such consensus, campaigns against FGM in the West will simply be seen as an attack on the fundamental values and way of life of these communities, forged over centuries.

      Currently those families and tribes who adhere strongly to FGM for their girls see it as an act of love, not of hate or abuse. They understand it hurts the girls, but they argue that the rite is necessary to make the girl accepted for marriage in her own society. Until those values change, I don’t believe you will see much of a decrease in the practice of FGM. It’ll simply be driven underground – away from prying eyes.

      I’m not sure exactly what the answer is (although it may seem I’m advocating FGM, I’m not -I’m simply explaining the difficulties faced in trying to eradicate it). I am convinced though that the answer is NOT found in holding a big stick over parents who circumcise their daughters and throwing them in jail.

  14. Susan,
    You write that « The war on FGM in the West is conducted in the mistaken assumption that it is feasible (or even possible) to reach a consensus of views between white Western, middle class liberals, and Africans living in Africa, on the morals and values applying to a woman’s life and role in society, and what rights she does, or does not have, in her own community. »
    The evidence refutes this view. There are many, many women’s groups in African countries that are actively fighting FGM, as well as child marriage and other forced marriage.
    You are right to state that FGM is rooted in some cultures, but to conclude that nothing can be done until the culture changes is to counsel inaction. We can eradicate FGM without changing an entire culture, and the organisations that are working to do so don’t just advocate using the « big stick ». Besides, they are not trying to change the whole culture, just those parts that oppress women.

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