Female Genital Mutilation
A Case for showing how Socio-Cultural Obstacles hinder the Enforcement of Women's Human Rights (*)

Kristina Touzenis

One of the most violent and humiliating abuses women are subject to is genital mutilation. It infringes upon their physical as well as psychological integrity and it represents a perception of women as beings with no rights.

This paper will have an overall legal-sociological approach to the case of female mutilation. It will examine part of its background and propose ways of ending this practise - or rather point out what may be ways, since changing cultural customs are not easily done.

The paper will start by examining the cultural practices that set the base for FGM - it will especially take into consideration the widespread notion that the practice is sanctioned by Islamic law. In this context it will examine how female mutilation can be seen as robbing women of their sexuality/sexual pleasure and thus of their power as women, taking a brief look at how women are in a difficult position when it comes to changing things because they often see existing power constellations as immutable. Here it will also be contemplated how come women themselves seem to consent to carry on this practice subjecting their daughters to the same mutilation they suffered themselves.

From here the paper will move on to examine how lack of information of rights keep women in a position of inferiority that makes them vulnerable to abuse - naturally with special focus on FGM. The need for focusing on cultural and economic rights when women are concerned will be used as a starting point for a discussion on how women may be empowered and mobilised against harmful customs, taking into consideration that cultural rights must not be neither abused nor violated, and that a total prevalence given to economic rights may also be harmful. In this context the distinction between FGM and female circumcision will be briefly discussed linked with the universalistic and cultural relativistic approaches to human rights.

The analysis will be a theoretical one - not an empirical one - however it is the hope that it may be futile in pointing to how women may be empowered to end such degrading treatment as FGM and that it in doing so will put focus on how women are important for a sound development of society, as whole valuable persons, not inferior beings with no rights.

1. FGM and Social Power

1.1. Islam and female circumcision

It is a common perception that FGM is allowed in the Shari'a - or actually that it is approved by it. FGM has thus often been understood to be an "Islamic" tradition. The practice of FGM receives wide media coverage outside the Islamic world, because of its extreme cruelty and because of its symbolic value as one of the more cruel and inhuman violations against women, and it has been wrongly blamed on Islam. The reasons for this may be many: one is that FGM is manly practiced in Islamic countries and here the distinction between cultural practice and Islam has been overlooked, another reason may be that women's position in Islam always has been a point of conflict ever since the colonial period. The West has used "Islam's" suppression of women to justify it's politics towards Islamic countries for decades, claiming that Islam is the reason for women's inferior status and assessing this as a proof of the "backwardness" or even cruelty, of Islam, that has become viewed as "the other" - in colonial times as well as in post-cold-war times. This exploitation of women in the political sphere has had grave consequences for the promotion of their human rights. As a central point of conflict women's liberation and women's rights have suffered in the hands of political motivated groups, states and persons. Women's rights have been seen as part of western colonialism or imperialism and thus a thing to fight in name of ones identity and independence. At the same time women's suppression - often determined by cultural local practices - has in the west been blamed upon Islam, rendering it increasingly difficult for women in the "Islamic world" to assert their rights within an Islamic context because this western approach has drawn up the frontiers between "us" and "them" exactly where women's rights find themselves. This problematic is relevant to FGM because it renders it more difficult to erase this practice when it is blamed/justified on and by Islam, when the whole discourse on women's rights in Islam are surrounded by and loaded with political over- and undertones.

Actually FGM is not at all an Islamic practice, but a cultural ritual with roots in Africa and goes back to Pharaonic Egypt. One simple, but strong proof that this is a non Islamic tradition is that in areas where it is practised it is done so by Christians and Muslims alike, and that in many Islamic Arabic countries it is not practices at all. The Quran mentions neither male nor female circumcision, but some Hadiths can be seen as related to the subject, the most known of those is where a women was told by Mohammed that if she kept up the practice of circumcision she should "not overdo it because it is more pleasant for the women and better for the man". This Hadith can first of all be seen as a sign that circumcision was practised in pre-Islamic times. Further it does seem that the Prophet even if he did not completely forbid the practice did try to moderate the practice so that it became less drastic, this might be interpreted as a sign that the practice was not one approved by the Prophet but merely tolerated because it was a strong tradition in the society into which Islam was born. Thus it can be deducted that the custom is not one of Islam but one the Prophet tried to moderate since it at that time would have been impossible to eradicate without substantial resistance from the people in certain regions. However the Hadith are considered by many to be false - in fact Abu Dawud the compiler himself classified it as "weak" - and a strong proof of this is the before mentioned fact that female circumcision is practically non-existent in many Muslim countries (1), in fact neither in Iran nor in Saudi Arabia, perhaps the two most strict observers of Islamic law Shiia and Sunni respectively, is female circumcision practice, and affirming that if the practice is still alive it is due to pre-Islamic customs who over time have been associated with the belief of those exercising it, even if this association has no legal or true religious basis.

A principle of the Shari'a is that what is not forbidden is allowed. Since female circumcision is not mentioned in the Shari'a it could then be allowed (which in turn is entirely different from being explicitly permitted). However this approach ignores another fundamental principle of the Islamic law, which is that a custom based on ignorance could and most probably should be abandoned (2). There can be no doubt that the reasons for upholding female circumcision are based in ignorance - some examples are that circumcision is a good hygienic precaution - in the case of infibulation this is clearly opposite of the truth since infibulation causes great problems during urination and menstruation and in the case of clictoridectomy there is no evidence that hygiene is improved. Other motives for circumcision can be that it prevents cancer - no proof of that has yet been seen, or that the clitoris if not removed may either row down to the legs, cause a man to die if it touches his penis during intercourse or cause a baby to die if it comes into contact with it during childbirth. The circumcision is also seen as a rite of passage from childhood into womanhood - as a rite this cannot be said to be "true" or "false", what is true is that one can become a women - with the passage of time and with changes in ones role and responsibilities without being subject to mutilation, and it is sure that the rite of passage is not founded in the Islamic law or belief. One other reason should be mentioned, it has been claimed that circumcision reduces the female sexual instinct - so when, with age, the male instinct reduces they will be on the same level, if the woman was not circumcised, her husband would no longer be able to satisfy her, and this would lead him to drug use to enable him to succeed (3) - female circumcision thus prevents men from using drugs... On this basis it should be clear that a harmful custom based in ignorance as FGM is should be abandoned and not legitimised on the base of Islamic law and principle, furthermore it is evident that Islam's premise of equality between women and men cannot be achieved as long as violence against women persist - and FGM is violence against women. I have here replaced circumcision with FGM because in my opinion any cutting of the genitals that cause permanent harm must be viewed as "genital mutilation" especially when one takes into consideration the highly relevant fact that women who have been circumcised remain scarred for life - on body and soul, and keeping in mind that the strictly medical definition of "mutilate" is to remove definitively and irremediably a healthy organ, which is what is being done when female circumcision - FGM - is being practiced.

The famous Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi has a strong religiously based argument against FGM - "If religion comes from God, how can it order man to cut off an organ created by him as long as that organ is not deceased or deformed? God does not create the organs of the body haphazardly without a plan. It is not possible that He should have created the clitoris in a women' body only in order that it be cut off in early stage of life. This is a contradiction into which neither true religion nor the Creator could possibly fall. If God has created the clitoris as a sexually sensitive organ, whose sole function seems to be the procurement of sexual pleasure for women it follows that He also considers such pleasure for women normal and legitimate and therefore as an integral part of mental health". This is in harmony with verse seven of the 32nd Surah that states that "He perfected everything that He created", a statement that must be understood to mean that God has created men and women as he wants them to be and that any interference with his creation, that is not for e.g. a medical purpose is against Him, further the Quran allows and recommends women's physical and psychological pleasure - contrary to the Bible - as can be seen when it allows women to divorce hen she does not obtain satisfaction from her husband, thus confirming that robbing her of this pleasure cannot be done in the name of religion, but only against it.

It seems clear that circumcision is not sanctioned by Islamic law or faith - indeed a good case can be made for the opposite, a religion based on principles of equity, justice and love cannot sustain a practice of mutilation of children (or human beings in general) - whether boys or girls, and beyond this general principle an examination of the Quran and Hadith shows that there is no foundation for believing that Islam approves of circumcision, on the contrary, the only weak Hadith that exists seem to promote the abandoning of the practice when social and cultural context so allows.

However despite of these facts today's religion does play a role when it comes to FGM. First of all because many people firmly believe that the practice has its roots in religion and that it thus would be contrary to Islam (or Christianity as may be) if they do nor have their daughters circumcised. This is also one of the reasons why women who wee themselves circumcised, and thus remember the pain and live with the psychological and physical scars will continue the practice on their daughters instead of revolt against it - they sincerely believe it to be un-Islamic not to do it. (4) Religion also pays an important role because of the afore mentioned political aspect of women's rights. A case in Egypt shows the importance of this aspect: back in 1994 CNN broadcasted the circumcision of an Egyptian 12 year old girl. Until then the question of circumcision had been treated in women's clinics across Egypt. It is true that attention is needed to change harmful practices and to end human rights violations, what is also true is that circumcision from that point on became a political issue and that when the Egyptian government succumbed to international and national pressure to forbid female circumcision rightwing islamists had mobilised (5) to retain what had become a symbol of identity and faith in the fight against western imperialism - circumcision had become part of Muslim identity in Egypt even if the practice is pre-Islamic. In fact the ministerial decree became overruled by a court decision stating that it violated the rights of the medical profession. It is noteworthy that the Fatwas regarding circumcision in Egypt have varied in accordance with political Islamic movements, in 1949 it was ruled that rejecting female circumcision was ok for parents, in 1981 it was stated in a Fatwa from the Great Sheikh Al-Azhar (a famous university) that parents must follow the lessons of Mohammed and do their duty and have their daughters circumcised. Notably there is no mentioning of the fact that the Prophet did not teach that girls should be circumcised. In the midst of an Islamic tide the explanation that circumcision is a Muslim tradition has found listening ears from a wide public (6) which renders it hard to combat the really un-Islamic tradition, because it is conceived as going against religion and against ones own identity.

1.2. Social reality and FGM

But why do women keep letting their daughters being subjected to the same horrors they have experienced themselves? FGM takes three forms: clictoridectomy (the partial or full removal of the clitoris), excesion (the partial or full cutting away of clitoris and all or part of the labia without stitching) or infibulation (the full removal of clitoris and the labia minore, and the stitching together of the labia majora - sometimes even these are removed and the remaining flesh is stitched together). A number of complications may occur after FGM has been performed: post-operative shock, pain, haemorrhage (in some cases fatale), infections, urinary complications, painful scars, sterility, labial adherences, clictoridal cysts and vulva mutilation are some of the physical consequences that might follow a FGM procedure. Mentioned like this - only words on paper it might already seem a lot - but it does not nearly describe what the girls are going through. Often the "surgery" is done by a midwife, a barber woman of the community. Anaesthetics are rarely used and the instruments are knives, razorblades, for a can-top, scissors or any other instrument deemed sharp enough to perform the "surgery", the girls are held down by force - sometimes it takes five adult women to keep them still and the operation is carried out. Most women suffer for the rest of their lives, not only the physical consequences but the psychological trauma the experience causes. Personal accounts of the experience reveal feelings of anxiety, terror, humiliation and betrayal. Feelings that never leave these women. Women recalling their circumcision have used the following statements: "I wasn't fully comprehending what was happening to me. I wanted someone very much to explain what was being done to me in vain", "I was shocked and never was I able to comprehend until it was over", "Please don't make me remember what happened, I am trying to forget", "I cried and screamed for help and no one helped", "I couldn't believe my mother was with them; they all attacked me one early morning while I was still sleeping" (7)

Then why submit your own daughter to the same terrible experience? Why condone her to a life with the memory of a permanent mutilation, humiliation and physical and psychological suffering?

Because it is custom. Women do not ask themselves whether this is to be done or not, it is simply something that is done because it has been done for generations back. Respect for ancient ways is great and it is hard to change customs that have been part and parcel not only of daily life but of one's identity for more than a thousand years. How this might be done by educating and empowering women will be discussed further below.

Circumcision is identified with the preservation of the girl's virtue and honour. Mothers try to protect their daughters out of love - they try to protect their honour and to make sure that one day they will be able to find a husband. Because the girl's virginity is highly valued and traditionally circumcision is meant to protect her against any possible violation of the code of behaviour associated with her chastity. (8) The operation - or so-called operation - should take place before she reached the "dangerous" age, when her sexual urge can get her into trouble, by performing the operation the family guarantees that her virginity remains intact until marriage. (9) "Behind circumcision lies the belief that, by removing parts of a girls external genital organs, sexual desire is minimised. This permits a female who has reached the dangerous age of puberty and adolescence to protect her virginity, and therefore her honour, with greater ease. Chastity was imposed on male attendants in the female harem by castration which turned them into inoffensive eunuchs. Similarly female circumcision is meant to preserve the chastity of young girls by reducing their desire for sexual intercourse". (10) It is interesting how female chastity and male honour are interrelated in this discourse. The society at base of this whole discourse is a strongly patriarchal one. When a women takes charge of her life - as can be symbolised by the capacity to choose a partner and to have sex, she has escaped the restrictions set upon her sexuality and will. As such she is a menace to the whole patriarchal order on which the local - and global - community is built. But it is highly possible that the community in fact only cares about the honour on the surface (different from how it is on the level of the individual male where "honour" is present in the very depths as well as on the surface) - what the patriarchal social order has done is to, over centuries, make it psychologically impossible for a male relative not to punish a disobedience, that if approved could spread dangerously also to other spheres of life, domestic as well as public. Here it seems legitimate proposing that the strong need for imposing obedience with such severe measures as FGM is an outcome of the menace that the uncontrolled women carry. When a woman takes control over her own life and her own desires, she becomes strong, and if she succeeds in determining the conditions for her life she may feel empowered also to try to influence other spheres of society. The importance of Virginity in this context is total. What is noticeable here is, that there is no cultural attempts to mark the male body as virginal or not, this has no importance. It is as though there is no need for restrictions of the male sexuality. Men obtain their status by controlling women, in a society depriving them of their self-confidence, because the whole system is based, not on achieving, but on degrading others (11). Female circumcision - or FGM - restrains women, it makes them feel that they have no control, that they can be subject to a degrading and humiliating mutilation without being able to do anything, on the contrary they know that the degrading and humiliating treatment is condoned by the society in which they live. Indeed circumcised women who have a behaviour that can be described as more docile and obedient (due to the trauma they have been exposed to and due to the just mentioned fact that they know that their humiliation is society condoned) better fit into the traditional role assigned to them. (12)

Further FGM robs women of their sexual power. A power that in a patriarchal society is dangerous because it symbolises female power in general - and female power is obviously dangerous to a power constellation that rests entirely upon the fragile foundation that men naturally should rule over women. Women are kept at bay by restricting their sexuality, the underlying fear being that if this is let free female power might turn the stabilised social hierarchy up-side down. Obviously female intelligence and female sexuality are seen as two sides of the same coin, a woman could not possibly win over a man in any intellectual context if it was not for her dangerous sexuality. This of course is absolute nonsense. What is however true is that by curbing women's sexuality by means of segregation and FGM women are curbed too - not their intelligence, not their potential but their opportunity to exercise these or their initiatives are strongly and forcefully denied - not only to them but to society as a whole. A woman who since she was a girl has learned that female initiative is punished in the most severe way will be less inclined to take any kind of initiative in society. The trauma of FGM will further follow her for the rest of her life (obviously some will have the courage to stand up and say no - otherwise we would never yet have seen a feminist, neither in Europe nor in Egypt nor anywhere else) so that she will be more subdued more "obedient". In this way the male elite are completely right in their strategy - violating women's bodies, taking part of their identity away from them do curb their "dangerousness" and they are less inclined to claim their place as active citizens in society. However what these men seem to ignore is that they are robbing society itself of a valuable resource. Women's intelligence and initiative is an access in every society - it is so because it is half of that society's reserve of ideas, brainpower and enterprise. It is also another angle to problems facing that society. However it seems that the menace to male power in many cases is considered more important than the progress of society as a whole.

Women have difficulty changing this vicious circle of violations that keep them out of decision making, and keep them from changing harmful practices. Often women see existing power constellations as immutable because they are kept outside the power forum. They do not see the movements and changes that might take place over years and generations because these take place among men. Thus the elite, the ruling group and its movements and decisions to the out-stander, the woman seem immutable. This in turn discourages her from trying to obtain changes - not only because she knows the risks connected with such an attempt - risks that most often from early childhood have taken away even the idea that she might actually propose changes - but also because she does not perceive change as possible. To her the group in power has always been the same since she has never been included and witnessed changes in existing power constellations - changes that inevitably take place in any society on a small as well as on a larger scale. Thus women's initiative can be killed even before it is born. And that is exactly the reason why women's empowerment is so crucial in combating violations of women's human rights.

Mothers know that daughters who do not follow the codex of honour are in danger of being rejected by future husbands, by the family or by society at large, that is why they keep up this tradition. They have been forced to obey and to follow patriarchal traditions that humiliate and physically harm women, but in the end they find it better to continue such practices than to be rejected by your community. This is sustained by the fact that FGM is more widely practised in rural communities than in cities where the stigma may be less. However with the radical Islamistic movement that has chosen circumcision as one of its causes in areas where it is practiced, it might be that this difference will fade out, unless the wave is turned around. Moreover, the ritual plays a significant role in family lineage and tribal relations within the village. Ironically, the practice has been defended most jealously by the women themselves. The elder midwives, a powerful stratum in the village social structure, depend for their livelihood on the income generated by these operations. In a society where there are no rights and few privileges, ancient traditions considered in the "women's sphere" are often the only means of power that a woman can attain. Above all, female genital mutilation is so integrally linked with the economic and social realities of everyday life that its eradication requires a fundamental transformation of the societies where it exists (13).

It might be argued that also the piercing of ears (or other body-parts), plastic surgery etc are equal forms of "mutilation" done to please men or satisfy a certain female ideal. One difference exists though: it rarely takes four to five full grown adults to pacify a women who has decided to have her breasts enlarged or diminished - she might well be under social pressure to live up to some beauty-ideal or other, she might be slave of consumerism, she might be a lot of rather silly or morally condonable things, but she is not literally forced to undergo an operation that will scar her not only physically but also mentally for the rest of her life. She will not forever remember the pain of having part of her body, part of her female identity forcefully cut away without her consent and often without anaesthetics. This woman will not feel that she has been mutilated, assaulted and forcefully pinned down by adults as does a girl who without previous warning is taken to have her FGM performed. (14)

If Islam can be seen as essentially against female circumcision, it should be possible to combat the practice on that account - at least where it is legitimised on this basis - as it often is. It should also be possible to get women mobilised so that they will no longer let their daughters go through the same ordeal that they had to. However this is not an easy task because an equitable society cannot be attained if fundamental human rights of half of human society, i.e. women, continue to be denied and violated. However, the bleak reality is that the harmful traditional practices have been performed for male benefit. Female sexual control by men, and the economic and political subordination of women, perpetuate the inferior status of women and inhibit structural and attitudinal changes necessary to eliminate gender inequality. The next part of this paper will take a look at how the empowerment of women may help - and indeed is a necessary step towards the eradication of this harmful practice. The necessity of including women's rights and human rights in development will be taken into consideration.

Empowerment of women to fight FGM

It is evident that education might help girls avoid FGM - for one it could eliminate the belief that the practice is founded in religion. Secondly it may eliminate some of the highly unscientific motives mentioned above. An example is that better health education might convince women that FGM is not better for girls hygiene - but on the contrary damaging. One way of letting women know how FGM is actually destructive is during childbirth - explaining the circumcised (infibulated) birth-giving woman why and where the child is stuck and what is causing complications - this approach have had success in convincing women not to have their daughters circumcised.

But the fairly obvious statement that education and knowledge will improve the position of women, especially seen in the light of the fact that the Shari'a provides moral and ethic rules in support of equality of sexes, is just a small part of the subject discussed. The fact is that, as indicated above, the true basis for the suppression of women is not only to be found in written legislature, but even more in customary law. The majority of women are thus only peripherally touched by the state-made law that, even when granting women rights, consequently are not being utilised (15) because no one is informed about these rights, who are overshadowed by patriarchal customs. Therefore even when state law is improving the status of women - and that indeed isn't always the case - it by and large is useless in many cases. Enlightening women on their rights would give women an opportunity to use these rights, that they after all have, by giving them an awareness of the small privileges they are entitled to, but do not know now (16). The Muslim woman will with education know that the basic principles of Islam is "fair play" between males and females (17) and will consequently feel stronger when fighting for her rights - with her faith as supporter. Further knowledge of positive state laws can be used in connection with work done by NGOs and progressive feminist lawyers (18).

Another positive aspect of better education in an area with high illiteracy is that the male part of the population may get the confidence to go against customary law, laid down for them by the society's elders, men who are illiterate, and perhaps thus less authoritative in the eyes of young men with their own knowledge of the Law. Education of both sexes may promote the reconstruction of a new common ground for a deeper understanding of women's status in the Quran,(252) and in that way advocate changes on state and customary level as well.

The likelihood of an expansion on larger scale of a public competent educational structure depends almost entirely on the willingness of the State, since voluntary organisations have limited founds, and private schools limited clientele. Apart the fact that in many countries also the State has limited funds, it seems that sadly enough there is also a certain lack of willingness to change the educational level of the population (19). Blind adherence to customs and State inaction with regard to these customs and traditions have made possible large-scale violence against women. States are enacting new laws and regulations with regard to the development of a modern economy and modern technology and to developing practices which suit a modern democracy, yet it seems that in the area of women's rights change is slow to be accepted (20). If the ruling class represented by governmental administrators, supervisors and judges, goes against the established customary patriarchal ideology, it would quite simply have to explain itself in a rather convincing way to avoid a general uproar. But an extensive information about how the laws really are, is synonym to education, and an educated population in itself constitutes a threat to the non-democratic rulers, since it is critical, self-confident and less easily subdued. Intellectuals have always been the first to see the inside of cells when a authoritarian regime felt a threatening wind blowing. Even when mass-education becomes available problems may arise, this time however it is once more linked to the contrast men-women. When the state shows willingness to establish equal educational options to men and women across class boundaries, the men react to this violation of how things "used to be". For centuries femininity was confined to the segregating walls of the house, and now women are invading male space by venturing out, and into the intellectual field. This is offending! Men feeling secured in a century old male dominated society, do not want to share progress with women. These feelings of deprivation and loss, combined with the earlier mentioned fear of fast changes, may have "long-term" political effects, in the creation of fundamentalist and traditionalist movements (21), but on the immediate level it is less fatal for the enlightenment of women - and its possibilities - than the consequences of the class fight. In this case the consequences depend on how strong - and just - the state-apparatus is. If strong enough to calm these feelings, by ways of work and social recognition of men, the quantity of fear-struck males may diminish and give way for a society based on enlightenment and equality. But this requires money and reform, once more the conditions of women, even more than those of men, are conditioned by the socio-economic structures and reality in a certain time and space. Further it should be mentioned that education of women disturbs men, because their traditional sexual identity is altered, the role of virgin or child-bearer becomes if not marginal, no longer singular. Women enters into the sphere of the male, and thus of the male sexual identity when crossing the street to go to university (22). This is highly disturbing! Again the important "antidote" is to create a male population strong enough and self-confident enough to cope with this.

With FGM so firmly established in the local society, simply passing a law to prohibit it has little likelihood of success. When the majority of women of a country practice FGM, and have done so for generations, it is difficult for them to understand why it should be considered a crime. Stopping this practice thus involves radical cultural and social change. Such change requires long-term support involving education and comprehensive training at the field level, as well as legal reforms and programs that empower women (23). This empowerment of women can be accomplished - obviously. It is actually often a question of building upon what rights they may already have in society and construct a strong female community on this basis (this both include and bring education). The need to involve and empower women has been recognised in a variety of international instruments by now, e.g. the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and in the preambles to the Declaration on the Right to Development and the Vienna Declaration, further UNDP and NGOs are aware how women play an important role in development and how they most frequently are the objects of discrimination and oppression. (24) There has been a strong focus on ensuring civil and political rights for people, and on securing economic development for countries with weak economies. This has had some rather grave consequences for marginalized groups - and even if women constitute half the population they are often marginalized. The idea that economic development would automatically lead to an equal distribution of wealth has obviously bitterly failed, and for many women the right to vote is important in principle, but totally void of meaning if the socio-economical context does not let her out of a traditionally confined space and oppression. Therefore it is important to focus on women's socio economic rights when talking empowerment - the empowerment that might help end harmful practices within the local framework and using women's own voices and power. The importance of economic and social rights is not to be understood as the devaluation of civil and political rights - these are important for empowered women too - but they are independent. Before women can stand up for their rights they need to have a position in society with economic rights so that they are independent and with the recognition of their social rights - one of the most important being the right to education. Women with a recognised place in society - especially recognised by women themselves can fight for the elimination of customs that harm them. Obviously the right to health is also important in the context of FGM. Development projects need to take this into consideration because assuming that development assistance without gender distinction was equally distributed, has clearly been proven wrong, (25) institutionalised discrimination against women hit them hard on a wide range of aspects of development, political, economic, social, cultural and legal. It is therefore very important to remember that women do not only need to be helped economically, but involving women in development means involving them in every sphere of life, mostly it is important to emphasise that "recognising economic rights" does not mean handing out a bag of money - but recognising women's rights to independence, to owning land and to making heir own living. The concept of active participation runs through all major international instruments, academic literature, and practical guidelines. (26) Women in development policies are extremely linked to human rights, they have the same purpose, origin and thrust, and thus it can be argued - convincingly - that strengthening women in development, applying human rights can lead to significant progress, this in turn could strengthen human rights when it is seen that they are effectively and successfully applied in development. Women are important bearers of traditional knowledge in society and therefore it is important when talking women in development that we do not promote modernity at the "cost of destroying other possible futures" (27). Involving, or focusing on, women in development is also understanding that women do not only need to "be developed" but can with their participation show us how to assist in development and in what direction. Therefore it must be kept in mind that simply "putting the women in centre" does not in itself dismantle the productionist, economic orientation of development, in fact it could simply promote greater productivity, once again focusing on economic growth as the cornerstone of western thinking/development, and thus not change very much. Putting women in centre means putting human rights in centre, at least if one really wants to pursue this potentially fertile way in development - sustainable fertile that is - and not just changing the direction of economic interests which may lead to no change at all, or at best a more female orientated production. Putting women in the centre of development thus means hearing women voices and learn from them, it also means focusing on human rights not just as the satisfaction of basic economic needs but on equity and participation.

In practice initial women's projects, that is projects aimed exclusively at women as a group, have not had the best of success - generalising of course. Women projects defined women as a homogenous group, and instead of promoting equity it reinforced the notion of differences between the sexes, such an approach may have significant backslashes since it fortify the traditional role and confinement of women, instead of underlining their multiple possibilities. Quite obviously, focusing on women in development is not a magic formula, but needs lots of consideration regarding the approach.

Development projects should not be made for women, women should be in development projects. This does not mean that women do not need special attention and protection, on the contrary. What it does mean is, that launching a project for women in separate projects on e.g. health and nutrition does not help women gain power and influence in their community, on the contrary it separates them once again and confine them to their traditional segregated role. Participating empowered women are those who are present in the decision-making processes and who legally and socially are not standing behind the men. Thus developing projects should involve women in these areas and should let women be advisors not just recipients. A rights-based approach to achieving women's empowerment, sustainable development and ending harmful practices alike, derives its strength from its assumptions of obligation, participation, empowerment, and human dignity. More specifically, a rights-based approach to development presupposes that women, men, and children are not objects of development efforts, but rather actors who are instrumental in bringing about the enjoyment of their rights and in holding States accountable for ensuring that those rights are promoted and protected. At the same time, States are obligated to enact legal measures and policies that contribute to the fulfilment of its peoples' human rights, and put an end to structural and customary barriers to that fulfilment. This paradigm, encompassing rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders, has a significant impact on the manner by which citizens, citizen groups, and States develop, implement, and evaluate programs and legal measures designed to end FGM (28). However it is certain that legal measures alone will not erode FGM - on the contrary it will at most make it an underground practice - education and empowerment is vital tools to support eventual legal responses to the problem.

Empowered women are much more likely to stand up for the rights of their daughters. Educated women will know their rights and the dangers of FGM and will thus be more ready to abandon a custom that can be potentially very dangerous and harmful to their daughters. It is evident that empowerment is not an easy process - it may take generations - but without it harmful practices will continue. A way of bringing it about is working for women's empowerment and human rights within the existing cultural context - this is not cultural relativism but acknowledging that universal human rights are best respected when the people protected by them feel that they are actually part of their identity.

Men working for human rights can play an important role to - addressing the male population explaining that FGM does not enhance their sexual pleasure and that non mutilated women are actually more giving partners. In this context men's role is vital because it is not a subject a women can embark on without infringing upon taboos and customary norms (that are not directly harmful in this case).

Respect for different cultures - mutilation is not culture

Before embarking on a brief discussion on how to promote women's rights and protect them from harmful practices such as FGM it is wise to keep in mind that respecting culture does not automatically mean advocating cultural relativism just as not accepting mutilation does not mean being a cultural imperialist. Another thing to keep in mind is that it is most rarely the oppressed, the tortured or the persecuted that defend cultural relativism. However in the case of FGM often women defend the practice and accuse those who condemn it of cultural imperialism - the answer to this can probably in many cases be found in the fact that FGM is falsely founded on religion (an obstacle better education could combat) and that it is seen as part of ones identity - this objection will most probably disappear when the empowered woman knows that her string cultural identity can be upheld without resorting to practices that harm her human rights. Another premise is that culture cannot be child abuse, people practising child battering, torture and FGM may do so believing it is part of culture just as people used slaves customarily, but slavery is not culture nor is mutilation.

A number of reasons are given for the persistence of traditional practices detrimental to the health and status of women, including the fact that, in the past, neither the Governments concerned nor the international community challenged the sinister implications of such practices, which violate the rights to health, life, dignity and personal integrity. The international community remained wary about treating these issues as a deserving subject for international and national scrutiny and action. Harmful practices such as female genital mutilation were considered sensitive cultural issues falling within the spheres of women and the family. For a long time, Governments and the international community had not expressed sympathy and understanding for women who, due to ignorance or unawareness of their rights, endured pain, suffering and even death inflicted on themselves and their female children (29). Even now when the International community is convinced that FGM is a serious violation of a girls rights the basic challenge of how to implement international norms of human dignity and integrity at a local level remains. The problem is that when cultural, social, and institutionalised norms discriminate women, addressing the cause instead of the consequences of this discrimination, can very easily be perceived as cultural imperialism and meddling where meddling is not welcome nor appropriate, demanding that discrimination be eliminated without taking into consideration local norms and values can seriously damage the relationship between those involved in development projects and local governmental structures. However, the empowerment of women cannot happen without reform and enforcement of law - formal and customary, but making projects that support women sustainable does not necessarily mean tramping all over other people's identity and culture. A useful fact is that human rights implementation constitutes an obligation for governments and thus scrutinising governments behaviour combined with assistance on exactly this point may have extremely useful outcomes. Cultural prejudices can be broken down by education and information campaigns and in this way the clash between those trying to improve women's conditions and those against is kept at the lowest possible level - which of course not always means a low level - importantly it should always be remembered to take into account local customs and traditions as a whole, women should have the right to participate in al areas of public and private life, but reform must be made within the existing social and cultural framework. It is important to emphasise that empowering women, making them active participants does not only benefit women, but society and especially development as a whole. Excluding half the population is saying no to a tremendous offer of ideas, resources and knowledge.

The argument that FGM has been practiced for more than a thousand years - and thus is a "strong" cultural part of society is not a valid objection to its abolition. It may be that cultural relativists will defend the practice on this basis, arguing that it as such is a strong part of a community's identity (as has been shown above - the religious identity argument is definitely not valid) - but such an appeal to tradition would not only justify the existence of any practice - such as infanticide, slavery or other practices even the most extreme cultural relativists condemn - simply on the basis that it occurred in the past. This approach inflicts an unnatural rigidity on society and actually hinders evolution, it tries to make "culture" a stabile, tangible and static thing, unreceptive to natural changes and evolution, even within that society. It is like looking at cultures like fences that divide each little community and makes it immutable and isolated. This is not reality. All societies interact and influence one another in some way - and ending harmful practices that maim and even kill girls is not attacking a cultural identity, it is progress towards a society where all individual are respected and protected. This can be done without harming the values of that particular society. It is fully possible to maintain values and ideas such as passage from childhood to adulthood without continuing the violation of young girls. The proof of this is that many women who have been educated and learned of the risks and lack of religious foundation for the practice do not feel robed of their culture but enriched with a new confidence within their particular cultural framework.

An issue related to cultural relativism-universalism is the use of the word "mutilation". Some prefer to call FGM "Female Genital Circumcision" and avoid the term "mutilation" since it seems offensive. It is as if calling the act an act of mutilation automatically implicates that one is an universalist with no consideration for local tradition and identity. It is true that unless the opposition to FGM grows up from within societies it will always be conceived as a strange norm forced upon a community by western imperialists. It is however also true that reports of how women experience their FGM suggest that these women are not actually very fond of the practice ... FGM cannot be seen as an isolated case but shall be put into the context of patriarchal traditions and the general economic and social conditions that women are exposed to. (30) FGM is one form of many of violence that women all over the world are exposed to. Focusing on FGM and seeing it as a symbol of the barbarism and cruelty of certain Arab and African societies can only damage the attempts to erode the practice. However calling it other than mutilation in an attempt not to offend anyone and to respect culture is not necessarily the way either. Mutilation it is - again the best evidence of this is how women themselves feel about it, and mutilation is not culture. Values, norms, are part of culture but practices harming people within a certain society is not culture in itself - it is only derived from certain beliefs or it is believed to be culture because it has been practiced for a long time. Calling it Circumcision is permitting girls and young women to be subjected to a practice which harms them for life and in the immediate causes great pain and puts them in grave danger. Allowing grave infractions on basic human rights in the name of respect for culture is a misunderstanding of what such respect is. It is entirely possible respecting the identity of a group or society but still respecting human rights. As shown the motives for practising FGM are based in ignorance of health, sexual and religious matters, this ignorance cannot possibly be called culture. It is interesting that human rights relativists have adopted cultural relativism from anthropology at a moment where this movement has more or less lost breath - it seems very much that cultural relativists who do not hesitate to accept violations of women's rights in the name of culture are mostly afraid of being called imperialists. This is a valid preoccupation, because an imperialistic approach will only damage every attempt to erode a harmful practice, and it is very true that human rights and their enforcement must be created from within society, thus however does not rob most human rights of their universal values. It is fully possible to implement respect and protection of every person within different cultural frameworks, FGM is an excellent example of this. Women who before practiced FGM and defended its continuation have, when educated and empowered, and when given opportunity to change this practice within their own culture gladly left FGM behind them, the following quote is the statement of a women who has participated in a community programme - which included education: "I was circumcised when I was 11 years old and will never forget the experience. But I thought it was okay because it is a part of our culture. However, now I'm convinced that it is not a good thing for girls, and I have started talking to many people to change their attitudes. The large number of people who did not agree with the practice but kept silent because they were afraid surprised me. I am no longer afraid, and I talked to my grandmother, a midwife who performs FGC for her livelihood, and convinced her to give up the practice. She has now obtained a loan from the local NGO and sells vegetables". (31) Cultural identity is indeed shaped by the traditions and customs practised in a community - but this identity can be maintained even if some traditions are not, it is only important to keep in mind that when eroding a harmful practice it is emphasised that it is not culture/identity as whole that is being attacked, but only a practice that harms half the society. Especially when advocated by outsiders the abolition of FGM is conceived as an attack on culture - therefore it is vital to collaborate with persons within a community and respecting religion and identity, using programmes that build on how culture and identity can be maintained and evolved by the community itself while this community changes its life to the better. Calling FGM circumcision in an attempt not be accused of imperialism is condoning the suffering of millions of women in the world without even exploring the possibilities of how to change harmful practices and promoting human rights with respect for differences and it is ignoring the voices of women who have had FGM and speak of the consequences - and try to fight it. Not listening to these women is cowardice and it is assigning a reducing rigid role to "culture" that it does not have in reality, and it is being just as insensitive to suffering as strict cultural imperialism is insensitive to differences.

One way of ending FGM with respect for cultural diversity, is having a slightly different approach to the problem - not looking at the root-causes of why it is being done and trying to change the practice from there, but finding persons in the local community who has successfully avoided FGM - family members who have stopped it, individuals who have stopped performing it, and community leaders who oppose it. Looking at how these people have succeeded in derogating from the customary way can help eliminating harmful practices. The force of this approach is that it recognises that the solution may be found within the community itself and is based on active community participation, where people themselves discover solutions to improve their lives. (32)

In any case where NGOs, Human Rights Advocates or other agencies try to end FGM local participation is crucial to avoid the backlash that a feeling of cultural imperialism can cause. A try partnership between community leaders and agencies are extremely important for the successful implementation of human rights standards. An environment of trust and progress where women and men feel empowered to take decisions and change their community in a dynamic way and sound direction creates the possibility for women to become active participants in society, their immediate need for education and information should be met to make way for quiet but steady change in unequal power relations in family and community - and the ending of harmful and degrading practices such as FGM. Even if the Human Rights Approach often have difficulties because accused of being western norms imposed on different cultures, the universal principles of Human Rights can find fertile ground when implemented with respect, not only for the particular local context but perhaps more so for the single individuals in this context. Experience shows that the fundamental idea that all women have the right to promote and protect their dignity (as a base for all human rights) makes possible a new understanding of women's ability to acquire and use knowledge - and to take action. Women who have been empowered on this base feel that they not only can but are entitled to actively changing their community. (33) An example of where to intervene is the health sector - women who know about health risks and have understood that a healthy life is a right are more inclined to stop FGM - especially if practitioners of FGM are given a new role in society - e.g. as health advisors.


It seems clear that Islam is not the culprit when talking FGM - on the contrary Islam can very well be seen as condoning female circumcision given that the only - weak - Hadith that mentions it promotes its diminishment, probably even its abolishment in light of the rule that harmful practices based on ignorance should be abandoned. It can thus be concluded that Islam seen as a religion with an eternal message of equity between the sexes and of love cannot approve of a pre-Islamic practice that harms and actually mutilates women.

A patriarchal social order has allowed FGM to continue over millenniums in order to keep up a society where men are above women. Paradoxically women are some of the main upholders of this social order when it comes to FGM. FGM is used to curb women's sexuality which in many cases are synonymous with her power - a power that in a patriarchal society is to be kept at bay in order to protect the established male power system. (34) When a girl experiences the trauma of FGM she does not only have her sexual desire curbed, her femininity molested, her identity and integrity violated, she does not only feel excruciating pain, she is taught that her submission to society and to the male social order is a must, and if she does not comply her humiliation, her degradation and her suffering is not only condoned by society, but is inflicted by the people she used to trust - her mother, her sister, her family.

Women keep up this practice - even if they know the suffering it causes on their very own daughters - because they try to protect these from the harm they might do themselves if their sexual desire is not curbed, and because if they are not circumcised they will never find a husband. And in the end they also do it because it is tradition, it is custom, my grandmother had it done, my mother had it done, I had it done so my daughters will have it done too - custom is strong. It is extremely important that those women who fight to obtain women's rights work together - that means that the conflict "us"-"them" created on the (international) political level should not be allowed to thwart a common fight. This also means that western "feminists" should understand other feminists' particular context and help them to work within this - this does not mean allowing human rights violations in the name of culture, it means that when Islam is blamed for the maltreatment of women in certain contexts the broader picture should be taken into consideration, and most importantly women should be listened to in order to understand how best to proceed without further drawing up harmful lines of battle and thus playing into the hands of human rights - and women's rights - violators.

Women have a hard time changing the customs that harm them because they have been kept out of the decision making forum for infinite times and thus they see the power constellations as immutable, they are not aware of the mechanisms that move decision makers and they do not see the changes that actually do take place on the power scene, thus perceiving it as immutable. It is incredibly important that women are empowered to participate in society as active members. A way to obtain this is education. Women aware of their rights and their strengths can help bring about progressive change in a community when they are sure of their status and their worth. Especially the elimination of the belief that religion condones FGM in particular and the suppression of women in general is an important tool in granting women a position in society that will benefit not only women but the community as a whole. In the development of respect for women's rights it is important to recognise the role of economic and social rights that may in first instance bring women a more powerful position in society. Obviously it is important that political and civil rights are recognised but to obtain empowerment of women it is vital to recognise e.g. their right to education, to own land, to health and to a decent standard of living. Especially since this does not mean giving them a bag of money but recognising their important role in society as bearers of culture and identity, while empowering them to take action and change their lives in a better direction within their particular cultural framework. Cultural rights should neither be used as an excuse for violating women (human) rights, nor should culture and identity be violated when protecting human rights. Exactly the empowerment of women may help obtaining the balance - respecting culture while implementing human rights. Obviously empowerment of women will have to be followed by a parallel "empowerment" of men, so that they recognise that women are not a threat but an access to society, this is naturally not a job completed overnight but experience has shown that it can be done - creating mini peaceful revolutions in society, changing life to the better for all. Listening to female voices may help us recognise the existing framework for respecting universally recognised human rights and distinguish abuse of cultural relativism, when that which before was defended as part of identity is condemned by empowered women who have not given up their identity, but only practices which denied them their rights and dignity. In this context the use of the term "female genital circumcision" in order to avoid being labelled "cultural imperialist" is contra-productive. It diminishes the suffering these women experience and it ignores the fact that other cultures than the western can be exactly as humane and incorporate human rights just as well while respecting true culture and not only harmful practices. Again education is an important instrument. Avoiding accusations - or the actual practice - of cultural imperialism is important because it only hurts women's rights - therefore a close cooperation between local women, authorities and human rights agencies is extremely important, the erosion of FGM can only come from within - but this does not mean that human rights advocates should not continue their work - only that cooperation with local agencies is extremely important for the successful outcome of the work.


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*. Paper presented at the Conference Gender in the Mediterranean: Emerging Practices and Discourses, organised by the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies, 5-7 March 2004, Nicosia, Cyprus

1. To mutilate in the name of Jehova or Allah

2. Surah 5 verse 104

3. To mutilate in the name of Jehova or Allah

4. ElSafty 24

5. Egypt Women

6. ElSafty 25

7. Epidemiology

8. ElSafty 24

9. ibid.

10. Nawal El-Saadawi. The hidden face of Eve, Women in the Arab World"

11. Touzenis 2004

12. Female Genital Mutilation

13. The Crime of Female Genital Mutilation

14. Female genital mutilation

15. Pluralistisk p 68

16. Price of honour p 71

17. Spiritual autonomy

18. Afkhami p 33

19. Governance p 36-38

20. UN fact sheet no. 23

21. Beyond II intro

22. Beyond II p xxviii

23. Prevalence of the Practice of FGM p 21

24. Governance and Sustainable e.g. p. 2-8

25. Tomaševski p. 192

26. Ibid. p 189

27. Ibid. p 195

28. Breaking the Silence

29. UN fact sheet no. 23

30. Crime

31. Breaking the Silence

32. Breaking the Silence

33. Breaking the Silence

34. Touzenis 2003