Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links
RSS feed

Search the Web


Double Moral Standards?

Martha Nussbaum

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

Yael Tamir's "Hands Off Clitoridectomy" would appear to commit its author to one or more of the following theses:

  1. It is morally wrong to criticize the practices of another culture unless one is prepared to be similarly critical of comparable practices when they occur in one's own culture.

  2. It is morally wrong to criticize the practices of another culture unless one's own culture has eradicated all evils of a comparable kind.

  3. Female genital mutilation is morally on a par with practices of dieting and body-shaping in American culture.

The first thesis is true, and it is useful to be reminded of it. Tamir does not, however, produce much evidence to show that lack of self-criticism is a grave problem for Americans on such issues. We find no shortage of criticism of the ideal beauty image she describes, or of practices of dieting intended to produce it; indeed, American feminists would appear to have devoted considerably more attention to these American problems than to genital mutilation, to judge from the success of books such as Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth and Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight. Indeed, I am inclined to think that the problem lies in exactly the opposite direction: We indulge in moral narcissism when we flagellate ourselves for our own errors while neglecting to attend to the needs of those who ask our help from a distance.

The second thesis is surely false. (I do not think Tamir means to defend it, but some of her rhetoric may be read as implying it.) It is wrong to insist on cleaning up one's own house before responding to urgent calls from outside. Should we have said "Hands off Apartheid," on the grounds that racism persists in the United States? Or, during the Second World War, "Hands off the rescue of the Jews," on the grounds that in the 1930's and 1940's every nation that contained Jews was implicated in anti-Semitic practices? It is and should be difficult to decide how to allocate one's moral effort between local and distant abuses. To work against both is urgently important, and individuals will legitimately make different decisions about their priorities. But the fact that a needy human being happens to live in Togo rather than Idaho does not make her less my fellow, less deserving of my moral commitment. And to fail to recognize the plight of a fellow human being because we are busy moving our own culture to higher moral ground seems the very height of moral obtuseness and parochialism.

If the third thesis were true, it might support a decision to give priority to the local in our political action (though not necessarily speech and writing): If two abuses are morally the same and we have better local information about one, and are better placed politically to do something about it, that one seems to be a sensible choice to focus on in our actions here and now. But is the third thesis true? Surely not. Let us enumerate the differences.

  1. Female genital mutilation is carried out by force, whereas dieting in response to culturally constructed images of beauty is a matter of choice, however seductive the persuasion. Few parents restrict their children's dietary intake to unhealthy levels in order to make them slim; indeed, most parents of anorexic girls are horrified and deeply grieved by their daughters' condition. By contrast, in FGM small girls, frequently as young as 5 or 6, are held down by force by their mother, and have no chance to select an alternative. Analogously, the line between seduction and rape is difficult to draw; but it is real and crucial, both morally and legally.

  2. Female genital mutilation is irreversible, whereas dieting is, famously, far from irreversible.

  3. Female genital mutilation is
    usually performed in conditions that in and of themselves are dangerous and unsanitary, conditions to which no child should be exposed; dieting is not. Tamir's analogy to the dentist's chair is highly

  4. Female genital mutilation is linked to extensive and in some cases lifelong health problems. These include infection, hemorrhage, and abscess at the time of the operation; later difficulties in urination and menstruation; stones in the urethra and bladder due to repeated infections; excessive growth of scar tissue at the site, which may become disfiguring; pain during intercourse; infertility (with devastating consequences for a woman's other life-chances); obstructed labor. Dieting is linked to problems of this gravity only in the extreme cases of anorexia and bulimia, which, even then, are reversible.2

  5. Female genital mutilation is usually performed on children far too young to consent even if consent were solicited; dieting involves, above all, adolescents and young adults.3

  6. In the US, as many women as men complete primary education, and more women than men complete secondary education; adult literacy is 99%, for both females and males. In Togo, adult female literacy is 32.9% (52% that of men), in the Sudan 30.6% (56% that of men), in Côte d'Ivoire 26.1% (56%), in Burkina Faso 8% (29%). These statistics suggest limits to the notion of consent, even as applied to the mothers or relatives who perform the operation. To these limits we may add those imposed by
    economic and political powerlessness, intimidation, and malnutrition.

  7. Female genital mutilation means the irreversible loss of the capability for a type of sexual functioning that many women value highly, at an age when one is far too young to know what value it has or does not have in one's own life.

  8. Female genital mutilation is unambiguously linked to customs of male domination. Even its official rationales, in terms of purity and propriety, point to aspects of sex hierarchy. The ideal female body image purveyed in the American media has multiple and complex resonances, including those of male domination, but also including those of physical fitness, independence, and boyish non-maternity.

These differences help explain why Vogue is not illegal, whereas FGM is illegal in many of the countries where it occurs (including the Sudan, Kenya, Egypt, Côte D'Ivoire, Burkina Faso), as well as in Western nations such as the United Kingdom and France. (In the Sudan, the practice is punishable by up to two years' imprisonment.) Such laws are not well enforced, but their existence is evidence of a widespread movement against the practice in the countries implicated. They also explain why Fauziya Kassindja, a woman from Togo about to be coerced by her relatives into undergoing genital mutilation, was recently able to win political asylum in the United States. Kassindja's case is unusual in that she was 19, and her father, a wealthy progressive businessman, had vetoed the operation until his death, when her aunt took over; note that even in the case of a 19-year-old there was no question of consent. The case was also unusual because Kassindja had access to enough money to get a flight to the United States, something rarely true of women facing FGM. The immigration Appeals Court ruling quoted from a report prepared by the immigration service on the practice of FGM: "It remains particularly true that women have little legal recourse and may face threats to their freedom, threats or acts of physical violence, or social ostracization for refusing to undergo this harmful traditional practice, or attempting to protect their female children."4 We shall not see similar arguments for political asylum for American women who have been urged to read Vogue, or women whose mothers tell them to diet-however much it remains appropriate to criticize the norms of female beauty displayed in Vogue (as some advertisers have begun to do), the practices of some mothers, and the many covert pressures that combine to produce eating disorders in our society. Similarly, whereas the prospect of foot-binding of the traditional Chinese type (in which the bones of the feet were repeatedly broken and the flesh of the foot became rotten5) would, in my view, give grounds for political asylum, the presence of advertisements for high-heeled shoes surely would not. Even the publication of articles urging women to undergo FGM should be seen as altogether different from attempts to force a woman to undergo the procedure.

A secondary theme in Tamir's article is an assault on the human value of sexual functioning; she believes that hedonistic American feminists have ascribed too much value to pleasure, and she suggests that it is men, above all, whose interests are being served by this, because female sexual enjoyment in our society is "seen as a measure of the sexual power and achievements of men," and because men find women who do not enjoy sex more intimidating than those who do. I am prepared to agree with Tamir to this extent: The attention given FGM seems to me somewhat disproportionate, among the many gross abuses the world practices against women-lack of equality under the law, lack of equal access to education, sex-selective infanticide and feticide, domestic violence, marital rape, rape in police custody, and many more. Unlike Tamir, I believe that the reason for this focus is not a fascination with sex but the relative tractability of FGM as a practical problem, given the fact that it is already widely resisted and indeed illegal; how much harder to grapple with women's legal inequality before Islamic courts, their pervasive hunger, their illiteracy, their subjection to battery and violence. Surely Tamir is right that we should not focus on this one abuse while relaxing our determination to make structural changes that would bring women closer to full equality worldwide.

I find her denigration of sexual pleasure flawed, however, by the failure to make a crucial distinction: that between a function and the capacity to choose that function. Nobody in this debate seems to me to be saying what Tamir suggests-that celibacy is bad, that Mother Theresa has a starved life, that orgasms are the be-all and end-all of life. I know of no opponent of FGM who would not agree with Tamir's statement that women "are not merely sexual agents, that their ability to lead rich and rewarding lives does not depend solely on the nature of their sex life." But there is a great difference between fasting and starving; just so, there is also a great difference between celibacy and FGM. Celibacy involves the choice not to exercise a capability to which even Mother Theresa herself, insofar as she is an orthodox Roman Catholic, ascribes considerable human value. Its active exercise is thought good for all but a few of those humans, and even for them it is the choice not to use a capacity one has (as in the case of fasting) that is deemed morally valuable. (A Catholic should hold that a survivor of FGM cannot achieve the Christian good of celibacy.) FGM, by contrast, involves forgoing altogether the very possibility of sexual functioning-and, as I said, well before one is of an age to make such a choice. We all know that people who are blind, or unable to walk, can lead rich and meaningful lives; nonetheless, we would all deplore practices that deliberately disabled people in those respects, nor would we think that critics of those practices are giving walking, or seeing, undue importance in human life.

Can even the mothers of these girls make an informed choice as to the value of female sexual pleasure? They have been immersed in traditional beliefs about women's impurity; lacking literacy and education, as a large proportion do, they cannot search out alternative paradigms. As the immigration report points out, their situation is made more difficult by fear and powerlessness. Equally important, their own experience of sexual life cannot have contained orgasmic pleasure, if they themselves encountered FGM as girls; even if they did not, they are highly likely to have experienced marriage and sexual life largely as a series of insults to their dignity, given the ubiquity of domestic violence and marital rape in these nations. Such facts do not show that women who have had a more fortunate experience of marriage and sexuality are making a mistake when they hold that the capacity for sexual pleasure should be preserved for those who may choose to exercise it. There is certainly something wrong with any social situation in which women are viewed only or primarily as sex objects; but criticizing such perceptions has nothing to do with defending FGM.

Nor does Tamir give us any reason to suppose that the importance of women's sexual pleasure is a mythic construct of the male ego. Many women have reported enjoying sex a good deal, and there is no reason to think them all victims of false consciousness. It is probably true that some men find women who don't enjoy sex more intimidating than those who do; but it would be more than a little perverse to deny oneself pleasure simply in order to intimidate men. Moreover, in the case of FGM, the operative male fear is surely that of women's sexual agency, which is a sign that she is not simply a possession and might even experience pleasure with someone other than her owner. It would be highly implausible to suggest that African women can gain power and intimidate men by undergoing FGM. The attack on FGM is part and parcel of a more general attempt by women to regain control of their sexual capacities; it is thus a relative of attacks on rape, marital rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. It is precisely this challenge to traditional male control that many men find threatening.

Tamir imagines a country called Libidia, where women with unnaturally enlarged clitorises find they cannot do anything else but have sex, and therefore seek to remove the clitoris in order to have better lives. In this way she suggests that sexual pleasure undermines other valuable human functions-so one might plausibly deem its removal a helpful thing, rather like a trip to the dentist to get rid of a diseased tooth. She here expresses a Platonic idea about the relation between continence and intellectual creativity that may be true for some individuals at some times, but is surely not a universal datum of human experience. Plato did indeed hold in the Phaedo that mental life would be much better if bodily appetites could be put to one side insofar as possible-though even he did not maintain this position with absolute consistency, nor did he suggest genital mutilation as a remedy.6 Aristotle, on the other hand, held that someone who was insensible to the full range of bodily pleasures would be "far from being a human being." We do not need to decide who is right-or indeed for which people each of them is right-in order to decide sensibly that FGM is not like an appendectomy, and that it involves the removal of a capability for whose value history and experience have had a great deal to say. Individuals may then choose whether and how to exercise it, just as we also choose whether and how to use our athletic and musical capacities.

Approximately two million girls a year encounter female genital mutilation-approximately, then, 6,000 per day. Overall, there are in today's world between 85 and 114 million women who have suffered FGM.7 Many of the women and men in relevant nations who are struggling against this practice are impoverished or unequal under the law or illiterate or powerless or in fear-and often all of these. There is no doubt that they wish outside aid. There is no doubt that they encounter domestic opposition-as is always the case when one moves to change a deeply entrenched custom connected with the structures of power. The presence of this opposition-eager, of course, to brand their opponents as Westernizers, colonialists, and any other bad thing that may carry public sentiment-should not intimidate outsiders who have reasoned the matter out, at the same time listening to the narratives of women who have been involved in the reality of FGM. In the United Nations, in Human Rights Watch, and in many organizations throughout the world, the issue has been debated, and the help of the powerful solicited. Even the not very progressive INS has been swayed by the data it collected. In short, international and national officials who have been culpably slow to recognize gender-specific abuses as human rights violations are beginning to get the idea that women's rights are human rights, and that freedom from FGM is among them. Without abandoning a broader concern for the whole list of abuses women suffer at the hands of unjust customs and individuals, we should continue to keep FGM on the list of unacceptable practices that violate women's human rights, and we should be ashamed of ourselves if we do not use whatever privilege and power has come our way to make it disappear forever.

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

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2007. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |