IMAGE:  October 2002 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
 
OCTOBER 2002
Volume 95, Issue 1
 
 
   
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GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueLetters
"…so one-sided it falls off my bookshelf."

Callous multiculturalism?
I was chagrined to come across the summary of Richard Shweder's study of American Islamic communities - at least those portions of the summary that reveal how ignorant Shweder's education has left him. No doubt Shweder believes he is taking a brave stance in support of forcible women's circumcision and the Taliban's brutal suppression of Afghani women, all in the name of "multiculturalism." The Harvard-educated Shweder has, I assume, never experienced such physical and political attacks on his own person, nor is he ever likely to.

His callous disregard of the human cost of these policies reminds me of earnest graduate school conversations I was drawn into as to whether it was proper for a scholar to condemn the ancient Hindu practice of sati-the often forcible immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. Shweder reflects the distorted ideals that are too often developed behind the leaded-glass windows of the Ivory Tower, where other peoples' pain and suffering can be safely reduced to cultural patterns and social processes, the better to ignore them. If, though, Mr. Shweder were to find a wife or daughter subject to the multicultural influences he is so quick to defend, he would no doubt change his tune, for then he would at last be forced to stop being a scholar and become a human being.

Mark Diller, AB'87, PhD'97
Seattle



Late in "Keeping Their Religion" is the following statement: "He [Shweder] contributed an essay on female circumcision, arguing that Western liberals have been quick to label the practice 'mutilation,' though some medical and demographic evidence suggests otherwise." As a pediatrician, I cannot let that statement go unchallenged. No citation is given to back up this insinuation that female genital mutilation is harmless. I would like to cite an avalanche of articles, medical and non-medical, African as well as Western, that document the serious medical, social, and psychological consequences of female genital mutilation, and the worldwide effort to eliminate it.

The best medical discussion is presented in a special article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1994. The African author is a physician who has had extensive clinical experience in Sudan. She documents the early and late complications of female genital mutilation, which are often severe, irreversible, and life-threatening. She also discusses what little has been documented about the sexual and psychological effects of the practice. In countries where female genital mutilation is common, such as Sudan, there is tremendous social pressure on young, uneducated girls to overcome their fears and accept the procedure in the interests of social conformity. They are told they must have their genitals mutilated to become acceptable women in their community and to find a husband-in other words, to survive.

There is a vast gulf, however, between getting a young girl to accept mutilation under social pressure and having outsiders suggest that such a procedure is somehow good for her. No less global authorities than the World Health Organization and the World Conference on Human Rights have called for the elimination of female genital mutilation. As of 1994 the practice is explicitly illegal in Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and legislation has been introduced in the United States.

It is also important to emphasize that female genital mutilation is not supported in any major religious texts. It is not a requirement of religious practice in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism. The custom apparently has been handed down from African tribal rituals whose origins are no longer known.

Tolerating female genital mutilation in the name of "engaging cultural differences" would be similar to accepting the burning of Hindu women on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands or ignoring the murders of young Muslim women to protect the "honor" of their fathers or brothers. One has to draw the line somewhere. Some "customs" are crimes against humanity (or at least the half of humanity who are female) and should be condemned as such.

Sarah K. Weinberg, SM'65
Mercer Island, Washington



Richard Shweder responds: I welcome the opportunity to respond to Mark Diller and Sarah Weinberg and to invite readers of the Magazine to learn more about the significance of customary genital surgeries in Africa. [Full references to cited sources below]. Cosmetic modifications of both the male and female body are endorsed by large majorities of women and men in many East and West African ethnic groups. By local lights the surgery is aimed at several goals, such as promoting "normal" gender identity, the aesthetic improvement of the body, and fostering a sense of belonging and solidarity with one's ethnic group. In locations where female genital surgeries are the social norm it is almost always the case that male genital surgeries are customary as well. African parents are not picking on women; they are inducting their sons and daughters into mature social adulthood in parallel ways. They love their children and display considerable respect for the courage of their daughters as well as their sons.

Nevertheless the practice of female (although not male) genital modification has been condemned as a moral outrage by first-world feminists and by several international organizations, including the World Health Organization. The condemnations are not well grounded in evidence. They are inconsistent with the best medical and ethnographic research available on the health consequences and local meanings of these genital modifications in Africa (see, for example, Ahmadu 2000, Kratz 1994, Morison et al 2001, Obermeyer 1999). In 1999 Carla Obermeyer, a Harvard epidemiologist and medical anthropologist, published a comprehensive review of the relevant medical literature. She writes: "On the basis of the vast literature on the harmful effects of [female] genital surgeries, one might have anticipated finding a wealth of studies that document considerable increases in mortality and morbidity. This review could find no incontrovertible evidence on mortality, and the rate of medical complications suggest that they are the exception rather than the rule.… In fact, studies that systematically investigate the sexual feelings of women and men in societies where genital surgeries are found are rare, and the scant information that is available calls into question the assertion that female genital surgeries are fundamentally antithetical to women's sexuality and incompatible with sexual enjoyment."

Obermeyer's conclusions are reinforced by the findings of the recent large-scale Medical Research Council study of the long-term reproductive health consequences of the practice (Morison et al 2001). The study, conducted in the Gambia, compared circumcised women with those who were uncircumcised. More than 1,100 women (ages 15 to 54) from three ethnic backgrounds (Mandinka, Wolof, and Fula) were interviewed and given gynecological examinations and laboratory tests. Very few differences were discovered in the reproductive health status of the two groups. As the report noted, the supposed morbidities (such as infertility, painful sex, vulval tumors, menstrual problems, incontinence, and most endogenous infections) often cited by anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) advocacy groups as common long-term problems of female circumcision did not distinguish between circumcised and uncircumcised women. The report's authors caution anti-FGM activists against exaggerating the morbidity and mortality risks of the practice.

To date, systematic fact gathering and checking have not been strong suits in the campaign of anti-FGM activists. Instead a global human-rights discourse has emerged that describes African parents as "mutilators" or "torturers" of their own children, a discourse that wittingly or unwittingly represents African adults as either monsters or ignoramuses who don't appreciate the welfare consequences of their own child-rearing customs. That discourse is itself highly vulnerable to criticism, for its factual errors, overheated rhetoric, and lurid depictions of third-world "others." The widely circulated, horrifying, and utterly damning claim that African parents routinely maim, torture, oppress, mutilate, or murder their daughters and deprive them of a capacity for a sexual response is as ill-informed, baseless, and fanciful as it is condemnatory and nightmarish. The rapid spread and popularization of such claims should be distressing to all liberal, free-thinking people who value family privacy, the toleration of differences and who care about the fairness and accuracy of cultural representations in our public policy debates. This is a topic about which it is all too easy for intelligent, well-meaning "good guys" to rush to judgment and get things badly wrong. In a recent essay ("'What About Female Genital Mutilation?': And Why Culture Matters in the First Place," in Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies, Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2002), I have tried to make these points. Have a look and see what you think.



Ahmadu, Fuambai (2000). Rites and Wrongs: Excision and Power among Kono Women of Sierra Leone. In B. Shell-Duncan and Y. Hernlund, (Eds.) Female "Circumcision" in Africa: Culture, Change and Controversy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Kratz, Corinne (1994). Affecting Performance: Meaning, Movement and
Experience in Okiek Women's Initiation. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press.

Morison, Linda, Scherf, Caroline, Ekpo, Gloria, Pain, Katie, West, Beryl, Coleman, Roseland, and Walraven, Gijs (2001). The Long-Term Reproductive Health Consequences of Female Genital Cutting in Rural Gambia: A Community-Bases Survey. Tropical Medicine and International Health 6:643-653.

Obermeyer, Carla M. (1999). Female Genital Surgeries: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 13:79-106.

Shweder, Richard A. (2002). "What About Female Genital Mutilation?": And Why Culture Matters in the First Place. In Richard A. Shweder, Martha Minow, and Hazel Markus (Eds.), Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies. New York, New
York: Russell Sage Foundation Press.



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