Human Exceptionalism

Female Circumcision: A Denial of Intrinsic Human Dignity

There is a brutally honest essay in the New York Times Magazine about the dismaying number of young girls in Indonesia whose parents force them to undergo the genital mutilation that goes by the euphemistic term, “female circumcision.” It is an awful story of the worst kind of misogyny, and in my view, amounts to slavery. From the story:

When a girl is taken–usually by her mother–to a free circumcision event held each spring in Bandung, Indonesia, she is handed over to a small group of women who, swiftly and yet with apparent affection, cut off a small piece of her genitals. Sponsored by the Assalaam Foundation, an Islamic educational and social-services organization, circumcisions take place in a prayer center or an emptied-out elementary-school classroom where desks are pushed together and covered with sheets and a pillow to serve as makeshift beds. The procedure takes several minutes. There is little blood involved. Afterward, the girl’s genital area is swabbed with the antiseptic Betadine. She is then helped back into her underwear and returned to a waiting area, where she’s given a small, celebratory gift– some fruit or a donated piece of clothing–and offered a cup of milk for refreshment. She has now joined a quiet majority in Indonesia, where, according to a 2003 study by the Population Council, an international research group, 96 percent of families surveyed reported that their daughters had undergone some form of circumcision by the time they reached 14.

Don’t let a squeamish stomach deter you. Look at what is done to these poor girls squarely and without flinching:

Female circumcision in Indonesia is reported to be less extreme than the kind practiced in other parts of the globe–Africa, particularly. Worldwide, female genital cutting affects up to 140 million women and girls in varying degrees of severity, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. The most common form of female genital cutting, representing about 80 percent of cases around the world, includes the excision of the clitoris and the labia minora. A more extreme version of the practice, known as Pharaonic circumcision or infibulation, accounts for 15 percent of cases globally and involves the removal of all external genitalia and a stitching up of the vaginal opening.

This isn’t about not respecting cultural differences. This is about condemning the treatment of female human beings as if they were somehow defective for having normal sexual feelings–which is what mutilating genitalia is all about. The entire world should condemn the practice unequivocally and put pressure on Indonesia and other countries where it occurs to put an end to it.

Some, however, prefer a kinder, gentler approach to opposing the mutilation of girls:

Nonetheless, as Western awareness of female genital cutting has grown, anthropologists, policy makers and health officials have warned against blindly judging those who practice it, saying that progress is best made by working with local leaders and opinion-makers to gradually shift the public discussion of female circumcision from what it'[s believed to bestow upon a girl toward what it takes away. “These mothers believe they are doing something good for their children,” Guarenti, a native of Italy, told me. “For our culture that is not easily understandable. To judge them harshly is to isolate them. You cannot make change that way.”

Imagine if they’d said that about Apartheid; Mandella would still be in jail. Sometimes terrible injustice has to be confronted squarely. Can anyone say boycott?

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