Female Rights Violations or Human Rights Violations?

Last Sunday, The Washington Post published a story about female genital mutilation in Kurdistan. The story is disturbing, as one should expect when dealing with FGM. The pictures – particularly number seven – show the violence involved. I’m going to let most of the story speak for itself, but I have a few comments on the larger topic.

…. In at least one Kurdish territory, 95 percent of women have undergone the practice, which human rights groups call female genital mutilation.

Any regular reader will know that I use the term “female genital mutilation”. Rarely will I use any other, and then it’s likely to be diminished only to “female genital cutting” if I reference a voluntary action an adult undertakes on her body. But many people incorrectly get caught up in the terms and miss the issue highlighted in the last sentence of that excerpt. Human rights are at stake. It’s critical to describe our world as accurately as possible, but it is more important to prevent further violations. To the extent that focusing on terminology helps, let’s focus on terminology. But where it prevents us from addressing the correct issue, we need to let it rest.

When I write about male circumcision, I generally prefer to label it “male genital mutilation”, its more accurate term. However, I don’t use that when I think it will distract from the core message. Being semantically correct helps move the discussion closer to the solution, but being stuck on semantics is stupid if I’m not connecting on the human rights issue.

The Kurdish region’s minister of human rights, Yousif Mohammad Aziz, said he didn’t think the issue required action by parliament. “Not every small problem in the community has to have a law dealing with it,” he said.

This brings up the prominent argument too many libertarians deploy. (Read through the comments on the story at Hit & Run.) Notice the use of an adjective to dismiss the need to protect each individual. This is a common tactic among libertarians and non-libertarians alike. The speaker means to convert the subjective into an objective based solely on the his or her opinion. “Small” problem to whom? Clearly not the 7-year-old now-mutilated girl described in the article, Sheelan Anwar Omer.

But she became more animated when asked whether it was worth it to have the operation so her friends and neighbors would be comfortable eating food she prepared. “I would do anything not to have this pain, even if meant they would not eat from my hands,” she rasped slowly.

“I just wish that I could be the way I was before the procedure,” she said.

The issue is individual rights. All tastes and preferences are subjective, a core lesson a libertarian must understand. It is not enough to suggest that parents are acting in what they believe to be their child’s best interests. Objective standards exist for evaluating parental behavior. The article describes an elderly (mutilated) women describing how genital mutilation makes a woman “spiritually clean so that others can eat the meals she prepares.” Our ability to reason suggests that’s ridiculous. In the unlikely event that it’s true, it is subjective. Each individual should decide for herself.

The struggle against all genital mutilation, female and male, is primarily about the violation of forced cutting where no medical need exists for the victim’s genitals. That’s a basic human rights concept. It transcends nationality, culture, gender, and degree of harm. Either we defend the principle or we don’t. A selective defense based on nationality, culture, gender, or degree of harm is also a selective endorsement of the underlying violation.

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From the article, a complication in the flawed “FGM is always perpetrated by men on women” argument:

… The circumcision is performed by women on women, and men are usually not involved in the procedure. In the case of Sheelan, her mother informed her father that she was going to have the circumcision performed, but otherwise, he played no role.

The article stated that one of the reasons it’s performed is to control the female’s sexuality. Of course. Arguing as I have in the past that FGM is not always performed for this reason is not a denial that control is the dominant excuse in most cases. I merely highlight this fact from the article because the issue is more complicated than what too many anti-FGM activists argue.

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From the blog entry at Hit & Run:

As readers of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel, can attest, among the most disturbing elements of such practices are the explicit urge to violently control female sexuality (even when the act is mostly┬ásymbolic, that’s the function it performs) and the way it is enforced by other women. (Read Reason’s interview with Hirsi Ali here). Say what you will about widespread male circumcision in the West (and elsewhere, for that matter), but it is not performed as a ritual of punishment defined to rigidify unequal standing in sexual, cultural, economic, and political matters.

I’m only arguing here against the violation of cutting a healthy individual without that individual’s consent, not the physical damage caused or the excuses used to justify the violation. The violation is a universal principle. In that context, the argument in that paragraph – particularly its last sentence – is problematic factually and ethically, the latter being embraced with the myopic, haphazard application of individual rights too many libertarians use. (The entry’s author, Nick Gillespie, doesn’t exhibit that flaw here, in my opinion. But it is pervasive in the comments.)

Circumcision in America has been a tool to rigidify unequal standing in sexual matters, in males and females. (We could debate the other matters, but that’s unnecessary here.) The surgery gained its acceptance in America – for male and female children – in the late 19th century as a tool to prevent masturbation. Regardless of how unsuccessful that’s been, that is its origin, both medically and theologically. The lingering effect from that is essential to understanding the complete issue.

Then there are the parents who circumcise their sons because mom prefers circumcised partners. Would we accept fathers forcing breast implants on their daughters because dad likes large breasts? The revulsion at the mere hint is obvious. The conclusion with respect to male circumcision is also obvious.

There is little comparison in the degree of inequality typically imposed by male and female genital mutilation. I readily concede the point. But both involve placing the individual’s desires below that of another who has physical power over him or her. That is the flaw, the violation of a universal human right.

For reference, Ms. Hirsi Ali states in this documentary that male circumcision is genital mutilation. Again, I’m not equating the typical degree of mutilation. They are different. But the core issue is the violation. That is the same. It’s possible to focus on FGM without minimizing MGM.