Female genital mutilation is a cruel practice during which the private parts of young girls are “cut” toward the primary end of suppressing or eradicating sexual response when they come of age. While some forms of FGM are more invasive than others, it is never medically justified, its purpose is to subjugate women, and the practice is not dogmatically commanded by any major religion.
How bad is FGM? As sickeningly reported by the New York Times:
“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.”
It is thus for very good reason that FGM is a federal felony, under which two Michigan doctors were recently charged. These arrests coincide with an anti-FGM campaign led by the human rights campaigner Ayaan Hirshi Ali to strengthen laws against the barbaric practice at the state level and internationally.
Amazingly, some rationalize FGM as an indigenous cultural practice practiced by a relatively few immigrants. This is the West! FGM is a direct attack on the equal intrinsic dignity of females and hence, an assault on the human exceptionalism philosophy of our societies. Allowing FGM is to treat women as if their natural sexuality is a defect. Moreover, most FGM is inflicted upon young or preteen girls who are powerless to refuse, an intolerable act of child abuse. We should certainly respect diversity, but on this crucial issue our values should prevail.
Some claim correctly that FGM is seen by its participants as a religious practice, and thus should be respected, or at least protected by the First Amendment. No. The free exercise of religion is certainly one of our most cherished rights, but it is not absolute. When there is a compelling state interest, the law can prohibit significantly destructive acts even when motivated by a sincere religious belief. Preventing girls from being mutilated for a lifetime certainly qualifies as “compelling.”
Finally, FGM defenders try to equate it with male infant circumcision, arguing that since we allow babies’ foreskins to be removed, we should also permit what they call, “female circumcision.” This analogy is also made by anti-circumcision obsessives—known as “intactivists”—who don’t support FGM but seek to harness the issue as fuel in their drive to outlaw male infant circumcision.
This analogy fails on several counts: First, unlike FGM, circumcision has deep and explicit roots in the Holy Books of Judaism and Islam. In both religions, circumcision serves as an important welcoming act that ushers the infant into his faith community, and is in no way wielded as a means of subjugation. And since circumcision takes place in very early infancy, the circumcised do not remember the procedure. In contrast, FGM cutting takes place when the victims are fully self-aware, and hence, remember the intense pain.
There are other important distinctions we should also consider. While intactivists obsess on a supposed reduced sexual intensity among the circumcised, circumcision does not inhibit normal male sexual response, which is precisely the point of many forms of FGM. Moreover, unlike FGM, circumcision has modest health benefits, such as reducing transmission of HIV and increased cleanliness—which is why some non-religious parents decide to circumcise their sons and some pediatricians recommend it. (The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “the health benefits of newborn circumcision outweigh the risks,” and perceives the decision to be one of parental choice.) Thus, while there are certainly legitimate arguments that could persuade parents against circumcising infant boys, unlike FGM, these reasons to not amount to a compelling need for the state to outlaw and punish the practice.
This terrible injustice must be confronted. In this age of greater cultural diversity and seemingly intractable political and cultural divides, protecting girls from the mutilation of their most intimate body parts is a righteous cause around which we should all rally.