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A Spark for Change

Jessica Neuwirth

A response to Yael Tamir's "Hands Off Clitoridectomy," from the October/November 1996 issue of Boston Review.

Yael Tamir urges a "hands off" approach to clitoridectomy. She argues that it is not so different from many practices tolerated in our own society, and that objections to it reflect a cultural boundary between foreign practices, which we are quick to condemn, and our own, which we are reluctant to criticize.

Tamir is right that the public reaction to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) reveals a cultural boundary. But it does not follow that we should adopt a hands-off approach to FGM. Indeed, the FGM debate may be the cutting edge of women's rights activism: Focusing on the extreme example may force us to look at our own practices in a new way, to rethink our tolerance for the human rights violations against women that occur daily in our own culture.

And FGM is an extreme example-a painful procedure that leads to permanent damage. Though Tamir notes these concerns, she compares FGM to tooth extraction. Because the latter is also painful and potentially damaging, she concludes that painfulness and potential damage are not what make FGM so objectionable. But the severity of both the pain and permanent damage do set FGM apart. Moreover, FGM, unlike tooth extraction, has no positive medical value. Suppose a dentist, or for that matter a parent, was found with a pliers, yanking healthy teeth from a twelve-year-old girl without anesthetic and for no reason other than to show the girl who was in charge. Wouldn't we hope for a public outcry?

Tamir cites the absence of such reaction to body piercing, tattooing, and elongation of lips, ear lobes, and necks as further evidence that hostility to FGM is not driven principally by concerns about physical suffering. Once more, her analogy is flawed. These practices are not as grossly invasive of physical integrity as FGM. There are no statistics about how many young girls die from FGM, either through hemorrhage or infection following the procedure. But every woman who publicly tells her story of genital mutilation seems to recall other girls-close friends and relatives-who died from it. For survivors, the lifelong consequences can be extremely severe, aggravated by sexual intercourse, childbirth, even hot weather. In contrast, other bodily mutilations such as piercing or tattooing are not so deadly or damaging. If ear lobes were not elongated but sliced off in the name of culture, public reaction might be less tolerant.

Tamir correctly observes that conceptions of beauty often encourage self-destructive behavior, and that objectification of the female body in Western culture disempowers women, psychologically if not physically. These methods of controlling women are more subtle than such practices as footbinding or genital mutilation, which-though sometimes cast in terms of beautification-may in fact be closer to the universal practices of domestic violence and rape: Clearly intended to control women, they rely as much on brute physical force as on psychological pressure.

Most troubling about Tamir's analysis of arguments against clitoridectomy is her discussion of the impact of the practice on sexual enjoyment. She notes that women are not "merely sexual agents" and that the quality of their lives "does not depend solely on the nature of their sex life." Tamir implies that we should be suspicious of arguments relating to sexual pleasure because men view women's sexual pleasure as a measure of their own sexual power. But this assumes that the debate over FGM is dominated by men. In fact, much of the outrage provoked by the practice of FGM comes from women around the world. These women consider their sexuality to be of tremendous importance, and they instinctively respond to the notion of clitoridectomy with the same horror evinced by men in response descriptions of castration.

Equality Now, a leading activist force in the international campaign to stop FGM, also campaigns against many other human rights violations, including rape, domestic violence, denial of reproductive rights, and trafficking in women. All these practices, with a severity dependent on circumstance, violate the fundamental human right to equality. Universally, women understand the underlying design of intimidation and control, even if the violation takes a distinctive cultural form. Equality Now has received letters from women, and from girls as young as nine and ten years old, for whom FGM strikes a chord that echoes their own experience of rape or sexual violence.

The solidarity of girls and women fighting violations of their basic human rights is a powerful force that should be mobilized for protection and social reform. Yael Tamir proposes to "hold off" on the use of clitoridectomy as an example of sexual control and inequality because opposition to it involves no commitment to structural change. But such a drastic example may be the key to unlocking the endlessly varied defenses and excuses we hear for our own analogues to FGM. It may be the spark that shocks the conscience and helps build understanding and commitment to change. And even if it does not, every day thousands of girls are subjected to the knife, razor blade, or shard of glass that will permanently scar them physically and psychologically, perhaps kill them. Our efforts may help stop the practice. That is reason enough not to "hold off."

For more information on human rights violations against women , write to Equality Now, PO Box 20646, Columbus Circle Station, New York NY 10023.

Originally published in the October/ November 1996 issue of Boston Review

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