Ending Female Genital Cutting: Is Political Correctness Getting in the Way?

Discussions about female genital cutting have been controversial because they are embedded in moral universalist and cultural relativist positions

By Mary Nyangweso|January 15, 2015

Isnino Shuriye, a Kenyan woman, recounted to a New York Times journalist her pride as a female genital exciser. She explained: “I was full of pride….I felt like I was doing the right thing in the eyes of God. I was preparing them for marriage by sealing their vaginas” (see Lacey in Resources below). 

Shuriye is not alone in feeling this way. In the US, Fatima Mohammed, a 45-year old immigrant, is faced with a question most American parents never worry about: “Should my daughter be circumcised?” She strongly opposes the idea of cutting her 11-year old daughter, an American-born Somali girl.

Though “cutting” is illegal in the US, Mohammed knows that not every family in her African community in Massachusetts feels the same way. She explains. “Some think I’m disrespecting my own culture…. Others say you act like an American now. You forgot about who you are.” According to data collected in 2000, an estimated 228,000 women in the US have been cut or are at risk of being cut (see Chen in Resources).

Female genital cutting (FGC) is a sociocultural practice that involves the pricking, piercing, stretching, burning, or excision, clitoridectomy, and/or the removal of part of or all tissues around a woman’s reproductive organs and in some cases infibulation (the stitching together of the vulva in order to narrow the vaginal opening). Referred by some, like the UN, as female genital mutilation (FGM), it is often used in some African communities to define gender as a social status.

I use the term female genital cutting to avoid assumptions and biases associated with the terms female circumcision or female genital mutilation. Although practiced worldwide, FGC is particularly prevalent in Africa, where it occurs in approximately twenty-eight countries and is estimated to have affected about 132 million girls and women. In some communities only a minority are affected. In others the affected population ranges between 50 to 90 percent.

Discussions about female genital cutting have been controversial because they are embedded in moral universalist and cultural relativist positions. While moral universalists argue against the practice in favor of the right to agency, health, integrity and freedom for the girls affected by the practice, cultural relativists have argued for the need to respect the values associated with the practice and the function of the practice in the communities in which it is embraced.

While compelling, some of the discourses on this issue have obscured critical questions regarding the welfare of women in excising communities. Health and social implications associated with female genital cutting include severe pain, urine retention, shock, hemorrhage, and infection, damage to the genitalia, and the frequent need for episiotomies during childbirth, not to mention death in some cases.

Efforts to curb these practices both in local and industrialized countries like the US have been challenging. From my research, I have learned that female genital cutting is not just a matter of human rights violations. It is about the cultural values of the communities that embrace it, the identity associated with the practice and general social status of those involved. Understanding what it means in the communities where it is practiced is crucial if attitudes are to be changed. The social pressure to abide by the tradition and to secure a sense of belonging for those who embrace this practice can sometimes override health and moral concerns.

Although the Bible, and the Qur’an do not say anything about female genital cutting, these practices have been reported in Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities (See Nyangweso in Resources). Because some religious leaders in these communities have embraced the practice and recommended it, some have automatically assumed it has religious support. For this reason, it is particularly important to integrate faith-based organizations in community based initiatives aimed at curbing the practice.

Cultural and religious values associated with the practice must be debunked at the community level in order to promote the well-being of women and general welfare—the central goal of various religions.

My research has also shown that these efforts are undermined by an attitude of “political correctness;” the need to acknowledge cultural diversity at the expense of women’s welfare (See Nyangweso in Resources).

A good case in point is that of Leyla Hussein, a 32-year old Londoner who conducted a study to test the influence of “political correctness” on attitudes towards this practice. With a signed petition supporting female genital cutting, she approached shoppers and told them that she wanted to protect her culture, traditions and rights. To her dismay, nineteen people signed the petition after only thirty minutes.

Some of those who signed the petition admitted that FGC was wrong but agreed to sign because “it was part of Ms. Hussein’s culture.” Hussein’s conclusion to the study was “many were scared to speak out against FGM because they worried about criticizing another culture” (see Davis).

But should political correctness undermine basic rights to health, integrity and freedom of choice? This is the fundamental moral question. In my opinion, cultures should be respected as long as they grant individual basic rights to health, freedom and choice to all. 

Lacey, Mark. “Genital Cutting Shows Signs of Losing Favor in Africa.” New York Times, June 8, 2004, Africa. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/08/international/africa/08cutt.html.

Chen, Stephanie. “Pressure for Female Genital Cutting Lingers in the U.S.” CNN. Accessed January 8, 2015. http://edition.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/05/21/america.female.genital.cutting/.
Davis, Anna. “Londoners Sign Fake Pro-Female Genital Mutilation Petition Out Of ‘Political Correctness,’ Anti-FGM Advocate Says.” TheWorldPost: A Partnership of The Huffington Post and Berggruen Institute on Governance, October 28, 2013. Updated January 23, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/29/female-genital-mutilation-petition_n_4169844.html.
Strochlic, Nina. “America's Underground Female Genital Mutilation Crisis.” The Daily Beast, June 11, 2014, Changing Traditions. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/11/america-s-underground-female-genital-mutilation-crisis.html.
Nyangweso, Mary. Female Genital Cutting in Industrialized Countries: Mutilation or Cultural Tradition? Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2014.
Wangila, Mary Nyangweso. Female Circumcision: The Interplay between Religion, Gender and Culture in Kenya (Women from the Margins). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis books, 2007.

Image: Road sign near Kapchorwa, Uganda (2004); Credit: Amnon Shavit / Wikimedia Commons (although this photograph is a derivative work of the illustrations on the sign, this is permitted by freedom of panorama in Uganda).

 Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud

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Author, Mary Nyangweso, (Ph.D. Drew University) is Associate Professor and J. Woolard and Helen Peel Distinguished Chair in Religious Studies at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. Her research focuses on religion and the rights of African women especially in the areas of HIV/AIDS, politics and circumcision communities. She has received several honors including a Fulbright Award. Nyangweso's most recent monograph is Female Genital Cutting in Industrialized Countries: Mutilation or Cultural Tradition? (2014).