Even proponents of cultural relativity realize in their heart of hearts
that some cultures are better than others.
You are walking down the street when suddenly you hear the screams of a child coming from inside a house. Troubled and curious, you peer through the window. You see a group of women forcefully restraining a young girl to a table, as the girl struggles desperately to free herself. To your horror, you realize they are cutting into her flesh. Blood is everywhere.
What should you do? You may decide, “This is family business and no concern of mine. I’ll walk away.” Or you might try to intervene. Or you might call the authorities to save the child.
Is this scene a fantasy? No. It happens every day in much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It happens in Western countries due to the influx of immigrants from non-Western regions. Most girls are cut before the age of five. This is an ancient practice that, in the West, is called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Last year UNICEF estimated that 200 million girls and women in 30 countries have undergone FGM.1
Female Genital Mutilation
What exactly is FGM and why is it done?
FGM is the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. At a minimum, the practitioners of FGM remove the clitoral hood and part or the entire clitoris. In some countries, like Somalia, FGM is more severe. The clitoris, as well as the labia minora and the labia majora are removed. The cut edges of the wounds are then stitched or the girl’s legs are bound together for a period of time until the cut tissues bind to one another. Only a small opening is left to allow for urination and menstruation. Later in life, the scarred tissues will be torn by sexual intercourse and yet again by childbirth.
Traditionally, cutters use knives, razors, scissors, sharpened rocks and fingernails. No anesthetic is used. The procedure is done under non-sterile conditions and medical complications often result.
Female relatives do the cutting. They are following ancient social norms. A girl who is not cut is looked down upon. People believe that uncut girls are unclean and unattractive. They will not be socially accepted or marriageable. Cutting helps to guarantee the virginity of girls prior to marriage. Feminists, largely in the West, have argued that FGM is rooted in patriarchal culture and that it subjugates and controls women.
Until the 1970s, FGM attracted little attention beyond Christian missionaries working in undeveloped regions of the world. In 1979, feminist Gloria Steinem wrote an article in Ms Magazine condemning FGM.2 Since then, FGM has attracted wide attention in the West. It is now illegal in the West and many countries, such as Great Britain, have extensive legal prohibitions designed to curb the practice.
Justifying Female Genital Mutilation
Early feminists universally condemned FGM. But incredibly, a few of today’s feminists defend (or at least justify) the practice and condemn groups in the West that work to save little girls from being cut.3 They are FGM justifiers.
According to FGM justifiers, Western societies that restrict FGM deny girls and women the right to bodily autonomy, that is, the freedom to make decisions about their own bodies. Thus, prohibitions against FGM violate the right of families to make private decisions, free from government coercion.
Justifiers argue that restrictive laws deny the equality of women—-under these laws, men are allowed to make decisions about their bodies while women are not. According to justifiers, feminists against FGM have erroneously transformed traditional social custom and practice into mutilation, that is, a form of child abuse and a human rights crime. Thus, a long-standing cultural practice is wrongly criminalized. Ultimately, the justifiers argue, restrictive laws disrespect others’ culture and traditions.
Under current British law, a parent’s passport may be canceled if the parent is likely to take the child to her country of origin to undergo FGM. Social benefits of the parents may be withheld. And girls who are “at risk” of FGM may be subjected to mandatory genital examinations by government authorities. FGM justifiers say that anti-FGM feminists are therefore colluding with government in restricting parents’ and children’s rights.
The FGM justifiers believe that the objections of feminists to FGM are based on a long history of Western racism and ethnocentric prejudice. Justifiers note that laws against FGM apply not only to girls but also to adult women. Therefore, these laws infantilize women. Furthermore, laws against FGM ignore the fact that circumcised girls come from loving homes. Providing safe houses for these girls takes them away from the families that love them and the communities that nurture them.
I am not an expert on FGM. So I won’t try to rebut the above justifications for the practice. But I do have some observations.
Moral Relativism and Cutting Little Girls
I believe that people in the West who justify FGM have lost their humanity. We are all wed to our ideas of right and wrong and we view the world through the particular culture in which we were raised. But in the final analysis, this is about the moral breach in allowing children to be hurt.
FGM justifiers adhere to a moral relativism. Rather than follow the universal value that adults should not harm children, they seem to believe that notions of right and wrong depend on the cultural values of the person making the judgment. In this view, there is no good and evil. What we judge as good or evil is an opinion rather than a standard. It varies from person to person and from society to society.
This view assumes that all cultural values are equal and should be respected as such. Although this is a popular notion in our politically correct era, I believe it is a false idea. Even proponents of this cultural relativity realize in their heart of hearts that some cultures are better than others. So, for example, few feminists would want to live in a conservative Muslim country. Although they might not want to admit it, Western values of freedom, gender equality and individual rights are superior to the values of traditional cultures such as the prohibition of free thought, women’s subjugation to men, and clan loyalty.
There is an irony in the moral relativism of the FGM justifiers. They are quick to belittle the values of their own Western culture, yet they readily adopt the values of non-Western cultures. Their self-identity has been weakened by their moral uncertainty and their reluctance to name some values as better than others. To them, “If it is different, it must be better.” This stance is a form of virtue signaling in which they communicate to themselves and others that their non-judgmental stance is proof of their human goodness.
I believe that the value of protecting children from harm takes precedence over the values of social conformity and cultural relativism. In the final analysis, the little girl pinned to the table, writhing in pain, does not think about moral arguments.
She just wants someone to save her.
- Female Genital Mutilation, Wikipedia. Retrieved April 6, 2017 from:
- Steinem, G. The International Crime of Female Genital Mutilation. Ms Magazine, March, 1979, p. 65.
- Dickerson, D.J. Crazy as They Need to Be: Circumcised Women Who Support the Practice. Mother Jones. December 3, 2007. Retrieved July 16, 2018 from: