Yael Tamir Responds
According to Martha Nussbaum, my argument in "Hands Off Clitoridectomy"
commits me to (one or more of) three theses. I will not discuss the first,
which she concedes to be true, or the second, which, as she acknowledges,
I am not committed to. The third thesis Nussbaum attributes to me is that
"female genital mutilation is morally on a par with practices of dieting
and body shaping in American culture." I obviously take this thesis to
Let me begin, then, by stating my position. Clitoridectomy, I argue, "is
obviously a deplorable practice. It is, among other things, an extremely painful,
traumatizing mutilation of young girls that leaves them permanently disfigured
and deprived of sexual enjoyment. We should express no sympathy toward those
who practice it, and support those who struggle to end it." My opening
statement thus asserts all the objections Nussbaum labors to establish. Moreover,
it makes clear that I do not advocate a hands-off approach to violations of
human rights against women. Instead, I object to the way a particular kind
of argument has been used in recent debates on multiculturalism.
My concern, then, was not whether clitoridectomy is defensible -- it is
not. Nor whether those who object to it should enjoy our support -- they surely
should. Nor whether (as Jessica Neuwrith suggests) it is wise to make reference
to it in a political context in order to shock the conscience and help build
understanding and commitment to change -- perhaps it is. I concentrate instead
on the role references to clitoridectomy play in current political discourse.
Unfortunately, it is easy to ignore this meta-theoretical dimension and shift
the debate back to more concrete and less controversial questions.
Focusing on this meta-theoretical point, I try to understand which of the
many troubling aspects of clitoridectomy -- pain, risks for the girl's physical
and psychological health, mutilation of the body, prevention of sexual enjoyment,
coercion, or social implications -- makes it such a popular example. One may
of course claim that this is the wrong question to ask, that it is precisely
the multi-layered nature of the harm caused by clitoridectomy that accounts
for the frequent reference made to it. There are other examples of abuse and
harm to women but, as Frances Kamm argues, a practice encompassing a cluster
of harmful aspects is far worse than one containing any one of these aspects
and therefore is a powerful example. This inference from the evil of a practice
to its power and usefulness as an example is, I think, shaky. Though extreme
examples can be clarifying, they also tend to artificially break the continuity
between our own faults and those exhibited by the examples. And that discontinuity
seems to free us from the need to reflect on and amend our own vices.
My argument, then, invites us to examine the troubling elements of clitoridectomy
one by one, knowing as we proceed that its injurious nature will not be fully
revealed by such examination. The point of such analysis is not to claim that
each aspect is as
harmful as the whole, nor that a practice that contains several harmful aspects
is no worse than a practice that contains only one. Rather, the aim is to
emphasize continuities between local and "alien" practices. This
method is imperative in cross-cultural comparisons, in which one must compare
practices that seem, at least at first sight, rather dissimilar.
Moreover, a piecemeal analysis of a practice may allow for a far more nuanced
and sophisticated kind of social criticism. Let me give two examples. The
first is offered by Kamm's evaluation of the relative severity of physical
and psychological damage. She writes, "[M]y sense is that, if a culture
limits the mobility of women by binding their feet, this is worse than if
it limits their mobility by house arrest or severe psychological pressure
to stay home." There is, she concludes, something special about physical
intrusions. We may debate this issue: Is the uniqueness of physical harm grounded
in the severity of the harm inflicted or in its easily noticeable effects?
Should we measure harm in terms of restraint on autonomy, devaluation of self-esteem,
pain, the kind of life it allows a person to live? Can Kamm say with assurance
that a woman who is placed under house arrest or is so intimidated that she
never dares to leave her house has a better life than one who has been forced
to undergo clitoridectomy?1 I cannot address these questions here. But notice
that they would not even have arisen if we were looking in shocked horror
at the phenomenon of clitoridectomy as a whole, not separating its psychological,
personal, and communal harms.
The piecemeal comparison offered in my paper also encourages a second kind
of debate concerning the different ways social norms and institutions mold
women's expectations of themselves and their bodies. It was in this context
that I used the example of dieting and body shaping. It is not uncommon, I
argued, to find American women who suffer from misconceptions about their
bodies. I still hold this claim to be true, and am somewhat puzzled by Nussbaum's
response, which reflects satisfaction with her own society. She notes, with
a certain pride, the popularity of The Beauty Myth. But that popularity reflects
the severity of the problems it described, and it would be naive to think
that its success has dramatically changed the nature of things.
Where does such social criticism lead? Certainly not to refraining from
criticizing other societies as long as our own society is imperfect. Americans
shouldn't have avoided criticizing either Apartheid or the extermination of
the Jews because their own society exhibits a measure of racial discrimination
or anti-Semitism; but their criticism should be of a particular kind.
If criticizing others makes us more aware of our own defects, then, as Kamm
argues, we should certainly not stop it. "If this opens the way for others
to criticize our own defects, that would also be a good thing."2 I wholeheartedly
agree; my criticism of the way the example of clitoridectomy is used in recent
debates proceeds precisely along these lines. The standard rhetoric leads
us to condemn other societies while minimizing the deficiencies of our own.
Hence it obstructs fruitful cross-cultural criticism, and fosters social hypocrisy,
perhaps even moral obtuseness and parochialism.
Not all self-reflective criticism leads to the same conclusion. George's
judgment of what is defective in our own society differs radically from my
own: I certainly do not think that women's equality should be tied to the
status of the institution of marriage or to sexual chastity. Still, I appreciate
his readiness to engage in such a reflective process. Nor does agreement on
conclusions always rest on the same type of analysis: While I share Nussbaum's
feminist social vision, I think her mode of argument reflects some of the
trends I am warning against. It demonstrates how candid dedication to the
needs of others may blind us to the flaws of our own society, partly as a
way of magnifying the evil we are determined to fight. But the evil of clitoridectomy
is evident and needs no strengthening, and the struggle against it is only
hampered by adopting a posture of cultural superiority.
Nussbaum surely knows that the social and political powerlessness of women
is not restricted to Third World countries or immigrant communities. But,
as she rightly remarks, the position of women in American society is far better
than in societies in which clitoridectomy is performed. She then points to
the basic explanation of that difference -- the high level of female illiteracy
-- but her conclusion that this "suggests limits to the notion of consent"
is dangerously misleading.
I find the theoretical discussion of consent extremely challenging, as I
am hesitant to determine when consent is freely expressed. Politically, however,
we should be very careful not to disqualify the reflective powers of individuals
who find themselves under social, economic, and political stress. Nussbaum
surely would not want women to be deprived, on the basis of her arguments,
of their right to vote or sign contracts.
Nussbaum tends to read my argument as a justification for ignoring the plight
of others. Kamm accuses me of believing that Third World societies are not
as well positioned to solve their problems as we are to solve ours. They are
both wrong: I am neither an isolationist nor an elitist. My argument was meant
to allow for more fruitful theoretical discussion and more pointed political
action: to detect the problems of which clitoridectomy is but a painful illustration,
and direct our efforts against them. If illiteracy is one of the causes, why
are we not fighting it? Why not dedicate time, money, and political influence
to struggling against such a devastating feature of women's lives whose harmful
effects range far beyond clitoridectomy? Why is this issue not discussed as
enthusiastically as clitoridectomy?
The answer, as I suggested in my article, has to do with the extremity of
the example and its sexually sensational nature, which is magnified when we
dwell on its details. Another factor, which I failed to stress in my original
piece, is no less important. Fighting illiteracy demands a generous investment
of money and effort in the afflicted countries, something Western societies
are extremely reluctant to offer. Costless moralizing is easy. It is far more
difficult to start collecting the means needed to educate women, thus empowering
them to defend their stand. n
Originally published in the October/ November
1996 issue of Boston Review