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Isabelle R. Gunning
In the spring of 1990, I reencountered a practice that for many years I had found distressing, female genital surgeries. 1 In their essence, the surgeries involve the cutting or burning away of the female sexual organ, the clitoris, as well as the removal, in whole or part, of the other external female genitalia. As I started my research, I continued to feel anger and revulsion at the practice and a strong desire to see it eradicated as quickly as possible. In thinking about eradicating the practice, I confronted two major problems: (1) what right did I, a Western feminist, have to criticize as right or wrong the practices of an entirely different culture? and (2) should and can law, with its attribution of right and wrong, exoneration and punishment, be used to eradicate a cultural practice? This chapter will use the culturally challenging practice of genital surgeries as a way to explain and analyze my proposed method for understanding culturally challenging practices. In addition, the piece argues that the law, specifically human rights law, can be used in the eradication of such practices but, I argue, the development of such laws must be the result of a multicultural dialogue and consensus.
FEMALE GENITAL SURGERIES
Genital surgeries encompass a range of operations performed on the female genitalia. There are generally three types of operations: (1) pharaonic or infibulation, (2) intermediate, and (3) sunna.? The pharaonic type is the oldest, most prevalent, and most drastic of the operations. In both its classical and modernized forms it involves the removal of the entire clitoris along with the labia minora and labia majora. The intermediate and sunna forms are less radical procedures that allow more of the genitalia to remain intact. The practice of female genital surgeries is explained in
in research." Concerns have also been raised on sexual health grounds. there is no basis for shared values or perspectives . If "I" and the "other" are totally independent. I con~to criticize should and shment. The distance that arrogance creates must be bridged. 5 hygienic reasons. be geries as a trally chalman rights opmenr of THE WORLD-TRAVELING METHOD OF UNDERSTANDING Culturally challenging patriarchal practices like genital surgeries require a complex vision of independence 11 and connectedness. I 're to see it . is not devoid of similarity. there is a pitfall of too much independence. (2) lent. ARROGANT PERCEPTION AND DISTANCE genitalia.Arrogant Perception. The distance. involves ora." 12 For the arrogant perceiver there is distance between oneself and the other that makes her different. WORLD-TRAVELING AND INTERCONNECTEDNESS One feminist scholar has described a method by which feminists of various colors can learn to identify their interconnectedness even as they respect independence: . 3 birth 4 initiation into and celebration of womanhood. and . many of which are health-related. and Multicultural Feminism / 353 ways: ensuring the virginity of a woman before marriage and inducing for divorced women or married women whose husbands are away. The ~e of the ained in The negative impact of universalism or ethnocentrism in the analysis of culturally challenging practices has been characterized (in a different context) by one feminist scholar as "arrogant perception." Concerns about and objections to genital surgeries have been raised on a number grounds. At the time of the surgery children "complications [like] hemorrhage. retention of urine or " and deaths have occurred. and one might intuitively presume that female genital surgeries. as a result of the surgery. especially the more severe forms that involve removal of the clitoris.l? Critiques of the practice have also addressed the broader sociological role it plays in the subordination of women-that the physical (and concomitant psychological) attack on female sexuality serves as part and parcel of a patriarchal plan of control over women's reproductive and productive powers. World Traveling. would rob a woman of all sexual sensation and pleasure.tice. Feminist scholars who have focused on the dependent hierarchical relationship between men and women have concentrated on extending the distance in an effort to break the dependence and "defectiveness" of the "other": a loving eye is required to replace the arrogant perception so as to preserve and accentuate the independence of the "other. septicemia. I had found e the Cutting removal. ition. but the interconnectedness built must be complex and must preserve independence. 6 and rell100l1Srequirements." 13 While it is appropriate to understand and respect the separateness of the "other" by rejecting arrogant perception. intercourse childbirth can be both painful and difficult. infections. either or both requiring some tearing or cutting of the infibulated tissue. while it emphasizes dissimilarity.f In addition.
TRAVELING METHOD AND GENITAL SURGERIES SEEING ONESELF IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT The most interesting aspect of seeing oneself (meaning a Westerner) in historical context is exploring a fact that is often omitted. and conditions one is observing in the "other. influences. I suggest a three-pronged approach to creating that recognition. to see the self as the "other" might see you. THE WORLD. In addition to understanding the new relationship between Western and non-Western cultures and appreciating that the non-Western perspective on Western cultures is almost always . 16 Two important points emerge from an examination of genital female surgeries in our own historical context." Recognizing interconnectedness requires two additional approaches. But the "difference" is part of a coherent whole. The first is the recognition that the practice of reconstructing female genitalia through surgery is a universal one and crosses cultural boundaries. The first is to understand one's historical relationship to the "other" and to approach that understanding from the "other's" perspective. In order to understand the independence of the "other" one needs to be clear about one's own boundaries. The second is that. It is a part of our own history. ranging from "an incomplete visionary utopia" to a subculture or community within a larger dominant community to a "traditional construction of life. This requires understanding oneself in one's Own historical context." 15 "Traveling" is the shift from being one person in one world to a different person in another world. if not actually denied: that genital surgeries have been performed in Western countries as well. Gunning "Worlds" are any social situation. that is. one does not act or pose as someone else.354 / Isabelle R. the attitudes and assumptions about gender roles that provide the justification for female genital surgeries remain largely in place in our contemporary Western culture. although the specific American version of genital surgeries has largely been discontinued. Ben Barker-Benfield's article Sexual Surgery in LAte Nineteenth Century America is fascinating because he places genital surgeries-both clitoridectomies and female castration-firmly within their historical and social contexts. world-traveling. with an emphasis on the overlaps.TRAVELING MODIFIED TO METHODOLOGY The recognition of both independence and interconnectedness is essential for crosscultural understanding. Second.l" WORLD. SEEING YOURSELF AS THE "OTHER" SEES YOU In an examination of how Westerners are perceived by women in Third World nations. the two most important issues are imperialism and racism. one must see the "other" in her own cultural context as she sees herself.
The question then is. women in cultures where genital surgeries are performed find that "their social status and economic security [derive] from their roles as 'wives and mothers." 18 Aside from the bad (often "economic") consequences that will likely befall one if one remains uncircumcised. can the law respect and accommodate the complexity of these issues and the required multicultural dialogue and remain an effective tool for change? .. When one sees that "other" within her own context. or other girls in the area of the same age group. for the Western feminist. Different women struggle for their own vision of what is best and possible. supporting the surgeries can be viewed as rational and empowering.l? "The mosr difficult part in understanding female genital surgeries as an outsider is comprehending how women within the cultures can support such procedures.ee the self 'n cultural historical iat genital -Benfield's )ecause he nly within l examinaie recogniI universal second is ~gely been . Clearly there are a lot of coercive pressures ." 23In this context. Not unlike Western societies.. her sisters. Seeing yourself as the other sees you involves appreciating the fact that just as a Westerner may view the surgeries as a cultural challenge. although performed largely on young girls. one could explore any number of cultural practices. one would be essentially bad or unclean.'21 A young girl often has the surgery performed along with other youngsters. one sees women making a number of choices within the context of their complex social fabric. largely midwives 20and are a part of the creation of a special and exclusive 'women's space. It is important to point out that within many of the cultures that continue to perform female genital operations. both within and against the constraints of their culture. The surgeries are performed by women. one must take the micro view and see oneself as the other sees one. and experiencing "the most important day of a girl's life.Arrogant Perception. World Traveling.ovide the temporary ird World ddition to ltures and ost always In taking a fresh look at one's own cultural norms and assumptions. constitute a central part of a celebration of womanhood.never alone during the ceremony. like the Sudan. The practice that seems especially relevant in a discussion of genital surgeries is the practice of cosmetic surgeries. for crossIt recognieds to be one's own titions one additional ither" and . But there are also positive ways of viewing the procedure that cause many women to embrace it. The easy part of understanding female genital surgeries in their own organic social environment.22 She is . and Multicultural Feminism ncomplete ommunity being one :erence" is / 355 influenced by prior negative racial and colonial policies.. particularly breast augmentation... the surgeries. is understanding them as part of a complex system of male domination of women. becoming clean. Whatever pain is endured by the girl has to mingle with the joy of being like the other women.'? How bizarre and barbaric must a practice like implanting polyurethane-covered silicone into one's breasts be perceived by one not accustomed to the practice.. the street runs two ways: non-Westerners too can view Western practices as culturally challenging. SEEING THE "OTHER" IN HER OWN CONTEXT .
mentally. Because the surgeries are performed on young girls. human rights norms that protect the rights of children are often cited as a basis for arguing that the surgeries constitute a human rights violation. adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in I959. the language refers to prohibiting arbitrary detention and arrest. A second human rights argument against the practice has been described as the right to sexual and corporeal integriry" Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states. "everyone has the right to liberty and the security of person. In some of the treaties that give any elaboration of what "security" might mean. The rhetoric of the human rights treaties regarding security of one's person on which the right rests is quite broad. entrusted with their children's care.r" Even though young girls. They could argue that by circumcising their daughters they are enabling the~ to "develop physically.356 / Isabelle R." 30 However. and shall be given opportunities and facilities." 28 Such a perception impedes the multicultural dialogue that is necessary to address this issue. could easily interpret the language in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child as supporting the surgeries.F The singular focus of this approach on the physical harm. How might African women (the "other") perceive the presentation of the children's rights argument? One reasonable suggestion has been made that African women (in particular) are likely to feel that they are being called "incompetent and abusive mothers. Gunning WORLD TRAVELING AND THE USE OF LAW INTERNATIONAL HUMAN GENITAL SURGERIES RIGHTS AND FEMALE There are no international treaties that directly address the issue of female genital surgeries.P On the other hand. mentally.25 one can still argue that a child is too immature to knowingly consent. that is. states. may want to be circumcised and even pressure their mothers to have some operation done. morally. it is clear that many parents. Two other unsuccessful arguments rest on the international prohibitions against torture and slavery. However. while compelling. this argument is not supported by the Ianguage of the treaties. several human rights norms have been suggested as the basis for a law that might currently outlaw the practice. This section will review the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments. not one-dimensional. The prohibition against torture is most clearly enunciated in the ! . ridiculed by their friends for being uncircumcised. spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in condition of freedom and dignity. morally. by law and other means. [T]he child shall enjoy special protection. to enable him to develop physically. raises issues exposed by the world-traveling analysis: culturally challenging issues are complex and organic. physical seizure as opposed to invasion. Principle 2 of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner" in accordance with the dictates of their culture.
The first is the argument that the way the human rights system has preserved mutual cultural respect has been to avoid criticiz. The current human rights doctrine is only one cultural way. and that it is inappropriate to think it ever could.f freedom Convention against Torture and Other Cruel. The existing human rights approach centers on the individual's rights. and Multicultural Feminism / 357 male genital the basis for he strengths norms that the surgeries he Rights of tes.P Relativism questions the universality of the existing human rights norms. One is not stuck between choosing "universal standards" and "everything is . For human rights proponents there are two major responses to the relativism critique. morally. If human rights law does affect cultural activity and impose values. ing cultural activity.26 On Idren's care. it does not address the more communal nature of many.+' would it be appropriate to use the human rights system to outlaw or even criticize a specific culture's norm? Again one must confront the issues of whether human rights law is representative of multicultural or shared values and whether the punitive aspects of the system as a legal system preserve multicultural respect. The result would be that the surgeries would be done in hospitals by trained doctors.32 The final and most popular human rights objection to the surgery is that it violates the right to health.31 The slavery argument rests on the international norm against slavery. of ensuring and preserving what all cultures value: human dignity. the Western way.'? The world-traveling methodology suggests that there is not an "either/or" proposition." 30 The rhetoric ich the right ion of what etenrion and eclaranon tions against . since all cultures are equally valid and to be respected.27 elling. . it would seem that retreat is in order. the positivist view. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration provides that "[e]veryone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself.Arrogant Perception. not eliminated. and faally. universalism. World Traveling. One." One major drawback of focusing on health is that proponents could avoid the hard problems of changing cultural norms and focus very narrowly on health issues.J" The other.t" The relativism perspective is one that has enjoyed renewed popularity this century because it provides a pointed criticism of Western colonialism. The second is that the human rights system has never avoided the imposition of one set of cultural values. especially African. may operation msent. the Child as ughters they and socially eir culture. raises ues are comie n he children's women (in and abusive 1S necessary :ribed as the of )f person. Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Western values. simply contradicts the notion that there can be no universal norms that transcend all cultures. cultures. states that as long as diverse nations sign and ratify human rights treaties they have willingly consented to be governed by the enumerated standards and cannot exempt themselves whenever it suits them.ciated in the There are two ways of reformulating the problem of preserving respect for different cultures in the human rights law context. should it continue to criticize any single "other" culture or retreat from doing even as much as it currently does? From the perspective of cultural relativity. Even if one could choose the "right" human rights norm. WEAKNESSES AS STRENGTHS IN HUMAN RIGHTS LAW rncised. that is. given the world-traveling analysis's concern with cultural complexiry.
358 / Isabelle R. with a tone that incorporates world-traveling concerns and respects cultural diversity. when do we know we have such a shared norm against the surgery that punishment and ceercion can be used? There is no easy. Attitudes and Attitude Difference to Female Genital Mutilation in the Sudan: Is There a Change on the Horizon. it may be wise not to pressure or embarrass national governments to pas~ laws at the domestic level. is designed to aid in the process of respecting independence and interconnectedness. can we be more assured that the norm is shared." I use the term "genital surgeries" in an effort to strike a neutral tone. I2 Soc. But through dialogue. (2) seeing oneself as the "other" might see you. L. Sci. Woman. where the process of dialogue leads to a firmer and more broadly shared value against the surgery. abstract answer to the question." Only after nations have introduced or reintroduced domestic legislation. punishment of individuals for violating shared norms would be apt when punishment of cultures for violating external norms was not. Lowenstein. Improvement in the quality of women's lives and in their status in all the world's cultures must be coordinated with respect for the diverse views among women on how these goals will be achieved. and we must understand that as people and cultures interact they do change and learn from each other. Gunning relative. NOTES I. is. we will know "after the fact." It is not that there are "universals" out there waiting to be discovered. A dialogue. From that dialogue a consensus may be reached. The difficult question regarding my preferred scenario. In practical terms. The process by which these universal standards are created is important. Culturally challenging practices like female genital surgeries represent crucial areas of multicultural dialogue for feminists applying international human rights law to the specific concerns of women. . and (3) seeing the "other" within her own complex cultural context. The range of excisive operations performed on the female genitalia described infra are characterized either as "female circumcision" or "genital mutilation. (I) seeing oneself in historical context. The process of creating shared values could (hopefully) lead to a firmer and more widely held norm against the practice. and their citizenry largely abide by and welcome it. Why Do You Weep: Circumcision and Its Consequences I-5 (1982). Even if an international treaty banning the practice can be realized. My three-pronged analysis. We may want more open health or educational efforts that allow African feminists and women to continue the process of change within their own cultures. 4I7 (1978) (citing anthropological studies involving surveys/interviews with primarily Sudanese people). F. 2. 3. In this situation one could imagine that the use of law in its traditional form with punitive and coercive measures would be appropriately invoked. Asma El Dareer. shared values can become universal and be safeguarded. is essential. In this scenario. & Med.
N4354 (1959). See Kay Boulware-Miller. 27. Sisters in Affliction: Circumcision and Infibulation of Women in Africa 26 (1982). supra note 5. 25. Female Circumcision: Challenges to the Practice as a Human Rights Violation. Gruenbaum. Allison Slack. 5. Reproductive Ritual and Social Reproduction: Female Circumcision and the Subordination of Women in Sudan. 155. which was adopted by the U. Marilyn Frye. See Boulware-Miller. an feminists er and more ine that the s would be or violating ernal norms cess of diary. 20. Maria Lugones. at 311. 19. 10-15 February. Nov. D. 1988). 11. Sexual Surgery in LAte Nineteenth Century America. at 73. at 166. at 75. 9·Id. 12. The lalogue. Women's L. Female Circumcision: A Critical Appraisal.g. Id. Playfulness. at 72-73. Id.A. 8. See. Both report frigidity in circumcised women. Female Sexual Mutilations. 6. Abdalla. and Multicultural Feminism :covered. is t understand other. and (2) it focuses on physical harm to the exclusion of issues of social acceptance. at 311. dowry deaths. G. 469-70 (1988). L. Khartoum. and clitoridectomies). Taba). Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted 20 November 1959. at 161. 141.2. These sentiments are underscored in the Draft Convention on the Rights of the Child. A. But uarded. Gruenbaum. at '-10. Ruth Rosen. 15. 10 Hum. Id. d infra are ·m "genital uences 1-5 tion in the anthropo- 4·Id.N. World-Traveling and Loving Perception.. World Traveling. Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children: Female Circumcision. 437. Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into Female Genital Circumcision in Africa 81 (1989).N. See G. Zwang. Techniques and Results (1979). in Economy and Class in Sudan 310 (Norman O'Neil & Jay O'Brien eds. 23. Doc. with I diversity. Id. supra note 5. 10. Nutritional Taboos. Childhood Marriage. Here. Draw the Line at the Knife. supra note 5. cited in Hanny Lightfoot-Klein. I use the term "independence" to suggest enough distance between oneself and the "other" so that the "other" is recognized as engaged in and entitled to the same process of self-definition as oneself.Arrogant Perception. Times.hts law to ives and in ect for the ee-pronged ie "other" al context. may be wise mestic level. 28. Lightfoot-Klein. Reprint of a Seminar.A. e.J. can / 359 ucial areas . 18. Id.. at 310. supra note 25. Rts. 26. supra note 10. 2 Hypatia 3 (1987). 24. 167 (1985).. in The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory 52-83 (1983). at 313. when shrnenr and In practical or reintroome it. Technical Publication NO. Bouleware-Miller discusses two problems with the children's rights approach: (I) it ignores the parents' desires and ideas of child-rearing. Q. !ctedness. 7·Id. Id. Lightfoot-Klein. 21. Res 1386 (XIV) U. 1979 at 44 (presentation by Dr. Etc. 5 Int'l J. 8 Harv. is. supra note 10. Gruenbaum. H. at 166-67. World Health OrganizationlEastern Mediterranean Regional Office. 1991. Raqiya H.. In and Out of Harm's Way. at M5 (comparing breast implants with footbinding. 13. 17. 14. . Open-Ended Working Group on the Question of a Convention on the Rights of the Child: 1979-1988. Health Services 279 (1975)· 17. Ben Barker-Benfield. Ellen Gruenbaum. 16. 22.
30. No. . 33· In addition to the concerns raised by the world-traveling analysis.. at 71 31. J. T.N. Res. 370 (1989). 36. 253 (entered into force Mar. Article 2. 217A (III) U. Id. Patterns of Culture 45-46 (1934). Gunning 29. at 169.A.S. 1926. 35· Katherine Brennan. U. at 372-73.S. The Influence of Cultural Relativism on International Human Rights Law. Doc N39/708 (1984). Ruth Benedict. concluded Sept. Slavery Convention. 37.T. 2183. Female Circumcision as a Case Study. 778. Doc. Id. at 371-72.46 Stat. G. (1948). 7 Law & Ineq.360 / Isabelle R.1927). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 60 L. 32. 9.N. 367. N1810. there is also the issue of self-determination guaranteed by several human rights treaties. 25. Id. 34.N.
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