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The ideological quagmire that is female circumcision

By Liz Conor - posted Tuesday, 1 August 2006

At first Australians were bemused by over half of the Sierra Leone Commonwealth games team “doing a runner”. However, the chortles were silenced when their stories of privation and despair came to light, along with the very real threats these young men and women face if returned to their homeland.

But there was another silence that will continue to prove difficult to broach, surrounding the fate of the young women in particular. It has its origins in the inherent conflict between universal human rights and cultural difference. It has proved divisive and irreconcilable for feminists around the globe.

The three young women seeking refugee status, Isha Conteh, Sarah Turay and Marion Bangura, alleged they would be subjected to genital mutilation if forcibly repatriated by our immigration department. Two of them have lost sisters who haemorrhaged to death after the procedure, allegedly performed by their aunts without anaesthetic, as is mostly the case.


Female genital mutilation occurs in more than 40 countries, 26 in Africa. About 5,500 procedures are carried out each day. They vary from removal of the clitoral hood, to excision of the clitoris, to removal of the labia minora and majora as well, which are then stitched together and the girl’s legs bound for several weeks while the wound heals.

For western women, instilled in the values of sexual consent and agency, along with reproductive and therefore bodily self-determination, genital mutilation can be profoundly confronting and distressing, and unimaginable suffering to inflict mostly on girls of three to ten years.

While this practice has been associated with Islam, authors such as Ronald Niezen have argued it is in fact an indigenous practice more than 6,000 years old that has assumed secondary religious justification.

For women around the world, it is a complex issue mired in ethical and political ambiguity.

It throws into doubt the universality of human rights. When states, historically the oppressors of indigenous peoples, intervene legally to suppress this practice they invoke the long shadow of colonial assimilation, wherein initiatory and ceremonial practices which identified a people as distinct were repressed. And how can states require their indigenous peoples to cease female genital mutilation, where they are themselves frequently engaged in their ongoing violent abuse, including the sexual misappropriation and trafficking of indigenous women and girls? How can states, which grant their indigenous peoples none of the rights of sovereignty, then require that they assume responsibility in applying an imposed state law to end female genital mutilation?

Human rights, as developed in response to the state oppression of minorities exemplified by the holocaust by the newly formed UN, enshrine the rights of individuals and are as such in many ways incompatible with the collective-based rights of traditional cultures. In addition settler colonial descendents have an entrenched perception of minority peoples as victims of human rights violations and certainly not as perpetrators.


In this complex and contradictory scene the insistence of white feminists, most of us the beneficiaries of colonialism and its destruction of indigenous peoples, to put an end to female genital mutilation harbours the ring of paternalism, especially while indigenous peoples make claims to cultural preservation through traditional practices.

What about the Western medical intervention on children born of “indeterminate” sex? What of plastic surgery and labioplasty, not to mention psychiatric operations ranging from lobotomy to removal of ovaries? What of unnecessary birth interventions such as episiotomy and some caesarian sections?

And speaking of the violations of indigenous children, should we not be focussed on our countrymen travelling to third world countries to rape trafficked children? How can these practices be reconciled against any demand to end female genital mutilation? Are there any politically tendentious feminist claims that are global, and when it comes to violation of children's human rights - girls between three and ten years - is it a question of who is better placed to speak, or of whether anyone should be silent?

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About the Author

Liz Conor is a research fellow in the Department of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Read her blog Liz Conor: Comment and Critique here.

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