In the time it takes you to read this article, over 50 young girls will have their clitoris hacked out. What are you going to do about it?
Each girl will be pinned down, with no anaesthetic, whilst 8,000 nerve endings cringe at the touch of an unclean scalpel. Each girl will scream and writhe and howl – but you won’t hear them. Each girl will be irreversibly, unbearably, agonisingly mutilated.
“I heard it,” described Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat. A piercing pain shot up between my legs”. Skin rips, blood pours, cries screech. But it wasn’t over for her just yet: next “came the sewing… the long, blunt needle clumsily pushed into my bleeding outer labia,” thread weaving through thread to leave behind only a miniscule opening for urination and menstruation.
The scars of this torture, butchery on a factory-line scale – and that is the only way to describe it – will never fade. Premenstrual cramps, traumatic periods, an interminable stench of soured blood (caused by menstrual difficulties), problems with pregnancy and childbirth, pain during sexual intercourse, psychological damage and the risk of fistula are but a few of the long, long list of health complications that will haunt every girl’s adulthood. That’s if they survive the immediate blood loss, infection and severe trauma. It’s an experience from which a child may never fully recover.
Conservative estimates suggest that over 100 million women worldwide have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). Article Five of the UN Declaration of Human Rights decrees that no one “shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. And surely such human rights are universal; or else they are nothing.
Yet it is so easy to fall into the relativist quicksand, to jettison logic and lose perspective. Dr Richard Shweder is convinced that “many African women view [the clitoris] as an unbidden, unwanted, ugly and vestigial male-like element that should be removed”. In the guise of ‘tolerance’ for the beliefs and practices of other cultures, what is revealed is a shameless double standard, a prescription for inaction and indifference in the face of the most horrendous cruelty, a blank cheque for tyrants and oppressors. We mustn’t let the wool be pulled over our eyes.
It was Isaiah Berlin who acknowledged the undeniable truism that “human being must have some common values or they cease to be human” at all – and truisms have a knack of remaining true. How can gruesome and unjust practices be ring-fenced from criticism just because others practise them? Is it really a form of respect to abstain from criticism, or a form of infantilisation? How can the rights of someone born in Luxor differ from those of someone born in London?
The excuse of ‘it’s their culture’ has surely run its course. According to Maryam Namazie, such myopia only “legitimizes and maintains savagery”. When the rhetorical gift-wrap is discarded, relativism is no more than a hollow shell of reality. When you put culture first and human beings second, the only result is violations of human rights. But a culture can only consist of human beings, and by its very nature, can’t espouse beliefs, can’t endorse barbarism, can’t think for itself. Only human beings can.
Far too often in dialogues of this sort, we’re topsy-turvy from the outset. Our perception of a culture is more often than not defined by whichever groups from within shout the loudest – hegemonies that usually comprise, coincidentally, the executors of persecution, those in positions of power and authority. Our understanding (or, more accurately, our misunderstanding) of culture, in the opinion of leading political theorist Bhikhu Parekh, “tends to essentialize identity and impose on the relevant groups a unity of views and experiences they do not, and cannot, have. Not all women, gay people, black people and Muslims take the same view of their identity, or manifest it in the same way”. The marginalised and the disempowered rarely, if ever, get the chance to assert what their culture might be.
But quite frankly, girls know that FGM is wrong simply because it hurts. “I thought,” said Boge Gebre, an Ethiopian woman, “how can this be my culture, if it kills me?… I knew I was not a cow, a chattel, and I did not want to be treated like one. No woman wants to be abducted or cut up. This is true whatever your culture”. When the culture of the oppressor is privileged over the culture of the oppressed, we begin to flounder in a very perilous sea indeed.
Every time we flinch in debates over the universality of human rights, another girl flinches at the sight of the razor blade or shard of glass that may well ruin her life, or end it. In every part of the world, there are costs incurred for every human right that is breached: in the lives lost to brutality; in the extinguishing of views that would give so much to communities; in the potential progress that could have been made by those who have been and continue to be rendered too scared to speak out, let alone to pursue their dreams. As Salman Rushdie observes so astutely, “Everybody wants the same thing: to be free, to choose their own futures, to feel that there is a future. This is universal”.
You can sign Avaaz’s petition against the FGM in the UK online. Go to http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Stop_female_genital_mutilation_in_the_UK/