Cultural Relativism and women’s rights: ending FGC in Senegal

Sare Harouna, in southern Senegal, is one of more than 5,000 villages where female genital cutting has been abandoned. (Credit: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

Right now, there’s an excellent series going on over at the Gender Across Borders blog called “Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Excuses for Gender Based Violence.”

I will be following the posts in this series, but I also wanted to bring up discussion about the topic over here. Cultural relativism is used worldwide as an excuse for human rights violations, and particularly violence and discrimination against women. To quote the blog:

Throughout the world culture is employed to justify discrimination and violence against women. ‘Culture’ is used to impose control over women’s bodies, sexuality, emotions, decisions and actions, preventing them from expressing their own free will and enjoying their fundamental freedoms and human rights.  Regardless, of who we are, where we are, we are all under the ‘control’ of ‘culture.’

A more specific example: In my undergraduate Amnesty International group, I remember a discussion we held about FGM/FGC and the cultural arguments for and against the practice. To me, FGM/FGC seems undoubtedly to be an extremely painful, unsafe practice that violates the rights of children who cannot choose for themselves. FGC is frequently done without medical instruments, without painkillers, and without the true consent of young girls. It has severe lifelong medical and health consequences, and to me it seems clear that the practice, especially when not done with proper medical equipment, is a violation of the basic human rights of girls.

Yet, culture is often used as a reason to excuse violent practices such as FGC. While I do believe that each culture has a different set of behaviours, beliefs, attitudes, and traditions — and should be deeply respected — we should not use culture to justify practices that infringe on basic human rights. The bottom line is that culture is not static. It changes over time. Some time ago in the U.S. we had a culture that accepted that women could not vote, and that African-Americans were considered nothing more than property. How much our “culture” has changed in the past two hundred years! Today, we have an African American president, and women working at high levels in the government, corporate, and non-profit sectors. Certainly, we still have a long way to go. I am not implying we are a post-racial or post-discriminatory society, but our “culture”? It has undoubtedly shifted over the years to a more equitable one.

Culture is not static. I was born in India, but economic development and growth has shifted culture and women’s rights and opportunities in my motherland too.  And the same thing is happening in Senegal, thanks in large part to the innovative efforts of a non-profit called Tostan. An amazing NYT article discussed the growing movement to end FGM:

The movement to end genital cutting is spreading in Senegal at a quickening pace through the very ties of family and ethnicity that used to entrench it. And a practice once seen as an immutable part of a girl’s life in many ethnic groups and African nations is ebbing, though rarely at the pace or with the organized drive found in Senegal.

A young woman holds up a sign that advocates the abandonment of circumcision as Senegalese gather for a panel discussion and celebration the day before an abandonment ceremony in the village of Niaming, in southern Senegal's Kolda region, May 28, 2011. (Credit: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

Specifically, Tostan, which means “breakthrough” in Wolof, has pioneered an education program on the danger of FGM for the health of young girls. At the same time, they are careful not to “denounce it as barbaric as Western activists have been prone to do.” So, they are being respectful of culture — while also educating people on the topic.

The method Tostan uses to build the movement to end FGC is through a collective commitment. Tostan encourages entire villages to become educated on the risks of the practice, and then come together to make a commitment to end the practice. The collective pledge and concept of public declarations has proven to be an incredibly powerful tool for uniting villages for a common cause:

The only way, he said, was to persuade villages whose young people intermarried to abandon the practice simultaneously — the defining idea for Tostan. “Even though our villages seem small, behind each village are many other villages,” Mr. Diawara said in an interview.

So Mr. Diawara, 77, visited the 10 intermarrying villages of his extended family. He won over the village chiefs and convinced imams that there was no religious requirement for cutting, which predates Islam by centuries. He was tactful, never using the term “female genital mutilation,” but he explained its consequences. At his family’s annual council, the villages agreed to give up the tradition and in 1998 held what is believed to have been Africa’s first collective abandonment.

This deeply inspiring movement has proved to me that culture is not static– things can change significantly in just one generation. Of course, we must continue to respect cultural diversity worldwide. Cultural relativism still remains an important lens to view social issues, but we also cannot use that as justification for what we know to be basic human rights. It’s a thorny path fraught with difficult questions, but we must navigate it if we are to make progress on women’s rights.

What are your thoughts on cultural relativism and women’s rights? You can also join the discussion through GAB’s blog posts in the series here and here.

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2 Responses to Cultural Relativism and women’s rights: ending FGC in Senegal

  1. tatiana says:

    I think cultural relativism is fascinating because I find that American feminists project their American ideas of feminism onto other countries, which I think is grossly inappropriate. Some time ago, a Middle Eastern country gave its women the right to vote, and yet those women can’t leave the country without male permission. And for a really long time, I was seeing news articles about “yay! Afgan* woman drive now!” (* – I am not sure if this was the country in question). America is a testament to “car country” so it stands to reason that most Americans would push for other countries to have American values – like driving. (This isn’t to say that driving isn’t important PER SE, but it’s imperative to look at WHAT American media chooses to highlight and chooses to ignore when we talk about human rights activism in non-western countries).

    Is there another word for this? Cultural imperialism?

    Anyway – I am glad that the Senegalese women are finding things wrong in their own country and standing up for them. I think, especially as Westerns/Americans, more activists should support other non-American/western countries in their fight for independence/human rights/etc, and highlight what they’re doing.

    I feel that Americans often overstep boundaries and won’t say, “I don’t know how to help you because I’ve never been you. So tell me how you want to help yourself.” At times I feel activism dis-empowers people more than helps; even within the confines of American culture. I think countries need to be looked at within the context of their own history and what’s going on, and less so as a comparison to what it’s like to there vs USA/western country.

    Great post! :D As always.

    • Akhila says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Tatiana! I do agree that often the problem with ignoring, I suppose, cultural relativism, is projecting the values of our own American society onto other countries. For example the discussion of – a woman should be able to wear anything, even a short skirt, without being harassed or targeted or worse. But if you go to India or Bangladesh or Afghanistan and try to make that argument it would be horrible and useless, you would just be projecting your own ideals of the western world into a country and culture that would not understand that perspective. I think driving is a similar thing but I think the key is really to go to different countries and ask women there: WHAT DO YOU WANT?

      Right now we’re just speculating and neither of us has ever been to Saudi Arabia or talked to women there. Someone who is living and working in Saudi has better access and should talk to women there and find out their opinions and then act by that.

      On the other hand there are some things that I think are BASIC human rights. Health/medical care. Education. The right to food. Sanitation. Water. Right to be free of torture. All these and more we can draw from the human rights conventions. And these I believe should not be infringed on. That is why I have a problem with things like FGC.

      When you come to something like FGC though, it is clearly painful and has longstanding health risks for women and girls. But if you ask women what they want, they will say they want their children to go through the procedure. So what do you do in that situation? Tostan’s education program seems to have done the trick by educating, not forcing their viewpoint on others. Still it is a confusing path to navigate!

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