Clinton says “culture” is no excuse for female genital mutilation

At the first State Department event marking the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that there is no cultural justification for female genital mutilation/cutting.

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on a new UN report, which found that FGM/C is on the decline in Africa. This conversation always elicits complicated arguments about cultural sovereignty and in her remarks, Secretary Clinton came down on one side of the issue.

“We cannot excuse this as a cultural tradition.  There are many cultural traditions that used to exist in many parts of the world that are no longer acceptable.  We cannot excuse it as a private matter because it has very broad public implications.  It has no medical benefits.  It is, plain and simply, a human rights violation”

Importantly, UN leaders pointed out that this is an issue beyond Africa, as well. Nafissatou Diop, Director of the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF joint program against female genital mutilation, informed the day’s attendees that FGM/C is not limited to the African continent — the Middle East, Colombia, Indonesia, the Philippines , Northern Iraq and in some of the immigrant communities in Western European countries.

Zeinab Eyega, the Executive Director of the Sauti Yetu Center for African Women in New York City,  addressed the question of immigration:

“We can’t assume that because they have emigrated, they have brought the same social norms here.  How do parents make decisions about marriage?  What is the transnational connection between here and back home, and how is the information being shared?  Dialogue about what values and social norms do they want to continue and which ones do they want to let go?”

At the State Department event, Clinton said the Obama administration is joining the University of Nairobi to establish a Pan-African Center of Excellence to advance African strategies to address female genital cutting.  It will focus on developing local solutions and to offer medical training on how to support women who have experienced it.

According to Secretary Clinton, there are many cultural traditions around the world that we should respect — but this isn’t one of them. I think she’s right – using cultural or national sovereignty to obfuscate human rights violations happens in every country all over the world, and we’re not going to take it anymore. I think perhaps this lens should be turned upon the US as well: death penalty, anyone?

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  • Wren Fair

    While I am certainly impressed that Clinton and the Obama administration have been coming out so strongly against other nations on issues like gay rights and female genital mutilation, I have to wonder how we can admonish the”cultural” aspect of female genital cutting while easily accepting the mutilation of infant male genitals in this country. The circumcision of males usually happens without their consent, and though it may have some medical benefits in deterring STDs, is ultimately a cultural and religious practice. I’ve often wondered why mutilating female genitals is viewed so horrendous while mutilating male genitals is often a cause for celebration. Cutting off a boy’s foreskin reduces his sexual pleasure and deprives him of the right to make such a personal decision himself. However, I’m glad the issue of female genital mutilation is being addressed on a national stage. Go Hillary!

    • Sarah

      Wren Fair – I think there are a lot of people opposed to the practice of male cicumcision (for babies who cannot consent) and the degree to which it is accepted in our society. The reason the practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM, is treated as more serious is because it involves verying degrees of actual mutilation of the female genitals, whereas male circumcision is the removal of foreskin only. The purpose of FGM is to remove any pleasure a female would receive from sex, by cutting or completely removing the clitoris. I’ve read some graphic descriptions of how the procedure is often done and it is sickening. This is done by parents/families so that a girl will be seen as a desirable bride in the future. While I do agree with you that it is not right to perform unnecessary and invasive procedures on baby boys, I feel that FGM is on an entirely different level and does not even compare to male circumcision.

      • unequivocal

        The reason the practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM, is treated as more serious is because it involves verying degrees of actual mutilation of the female genitals, whereas male circumcision is the removal of foreskin only.

        What? Just… no. What working definition of “mutilation” are you using? Lopping off parts of people’s genitals without their consent is mutilation, full stop. Can you seriously be arguing that cutting off someone’s foreskin isn’t mutilation?

        I feel that FGM is on an entirely different level and does not even compare to male circumcision.

        You know, if we cut off the fingers of 50% of our children and the arms of the other 50%, I don’t think it would be okay to claim “no comparison, we should only be focusing on the poor kids who had their arms cut off.”

        Let me put it another way – if FGM only involved snipping off 25% of the labia majora (making it more physically comparable to MGM), would it really be that much less of an abomination? Are we really going to rank order the importance of how much of a child’s genitals we slice off? Can’t we just say that this is absolutely, unequivocally horrible in all cases?

      • Dan L

        I think Sarah has it right, the two are hard to compare when you look at the degree of destruction done to the person, even if the nature of the procedure is similar. That said I don’t think they’re as far apart for a few reasons.

        First, the definition of mutilation: “an injury that causes disfigurement or that deprives you of a limb or other important body part”. This leaves room for interpretation of “important body part”, when you say it “removes the foreskin only” you’re dismissing that many would view that as an important body part. The foreskin absolutely plays a role in protecting a man’s genitals even if it’s less critical to function than what is removed during FGM. And I think likewise if some group was going around lopping off infants ears, we’d be hard-pressed to say “well they’re just ears, not genitals”, it would still be horrific.

        Secondly there are lesser forms of FGM according to the WHO classification, even if they’re less popular. Some remove labial skin or the clitoral hood, which are procedures a little more comparable to male circumcision. Likewise there are circumcisions for males with complications that can lead to permanent pain during sex, the inability for the penis to function, or destruction of the penis altogether. So there are instances of FGM which arguably don’t rise to the level of mutilation, and there are instances of male circumcision which do rise to that level. Both of those groups may be the minority of cases but regardless current law intrinsically protects half of our infants against even minor procedures while opening the door for potential catastrophic consequences for the other, often in the name of “tradition” as Hillary is now criticizing.

        And related to the above I believe the CDC or a similar group at one point recently was seeking public opinion on the legalization of “ritual pricking”. The concept as I recall was that people from cultures that practiced FGM would be able to perform a small “prick”, a tiny incision on the surface of an young female’s genitals that wouldn’t result in any permanent disfigurement. The hope would have been that these families would prefer to perform that ritual here rather than take their children out of the country to have the traditional and destructive procedure performed. It was quickly dismissed after rightful public outcry but it does reinforce that we view some of out children’s bodies as sacred, at least at young ages, but not others.

        If I could magically end one of the practices tomorrow I’d obviously opt to end FGM. Male circumcision obviously has far fewer consequences and roots in oppression (although it’s roots do stem from sexual control and reduction of pleasure, just not destruction of it). I think it’s something our culture will grow out of and I think that’s an okay solution for it. FGM is not something I think we can wait for the world to grow out of, the consequences are too serious and severe and campaigns and laws actively seeking to end it are important, as are backers of those programs such as Hillary Clinton.

      • Thomas Carney

        Sarah, I know you do not mean it personally, but comments like that make me personally very angry, and is one of the single most impermeable obstacles between feminists and MRAs.

        As a women, what possible qualifications do you have on what’s like to have or not have a foreskin/penis? Isn’t there an acute similarity between an all male panel discussing female health issues, and a female explaining why male circumcision “isn’t that bad?” Of course it’s easy for you to trivialize and marginalize male circumcision, as it never happened to you. You have no idea what its like to know that you’ve been mutilated for LIFE- that know matter what you do, you will never experience natural sexual pleasure.

        See, the foreskin actually has 20,000 nerve endings (compared to the clitoris’s 8,000) The most dense sexual tissue is lost, include the frenulum, which by self causes a drastic and devastating (and permanent) loss in sensation….and it gets worse. Once the foreskin is sliced off, the exposed glands keratinize, which is parallel to bone calcification. Keratin builds over the top of the glands causing a gradual numbing of sensation which gets worse with age, explaining why the United States and Israel have the highest usage rates of “male enhancement” pills.

        I feel mutilated for life. As stated above, would you agree that slicing off hands qualifies as mutilation, even though slicing off the entire arm is worse? I’m sick of being bullied into silence whenever I bring up male circumcision’s horrible effects just because some women from the United States who never experienced genital mutilation in her life has an issue with it. The fact remains: I was mutilated, you were not, and the factor of difference is gender.

    • natasha

      While I don’t agree with male circumcision, FGM is much, much more dangerous. Many women die, or have their health permanently damaged due to the procedure. Not only does it reduce female pleasure, it’s meant to make sex as painful as possible for the woman, for the rest of her life, to ensure she doesn’t cheat on her future husband. I know circumcision can also be dangerous for male infants, but it’s nowhere close to being on the same scale.

      I think the biggest step toward ending circumcision in this country is more information being made available to patients. My sister had her son circumcised because her doctor told her it was the best thing for his health, so hopefully doctors will stop telling parents this stuff, though that doesn’t combat the religious aspects of it.

  • nasheen

    I agree with Secretary Clinton and the author that culture is no excuse for FGM. But if culture is no excuse for this practise in Africa and beyond, why is our culture that so rigorously polices women’s bodies and sexuality a legitimate excuse for FGM in North America? When women are so shamed as to “voluntarily” submit to genital mutilation, we should call it what it is, condemn it and work to stop it rather than calling it “vaginal rejuvenation” when it is a product of our culture but “female genital mutilation” when it is a product of the Other’s.