In 1996, a 17-year-old girl named Fauziya Kassindja arrived at Newark
International Airport and asked for asylum. She had fled her native
country of Togo, a small west African nation, to escape what people
there call excision.
Excision is a permanently disfiguring procedure that is sometimes called
“female circumcision,” although it bears little resemblance to the Jewish
ritual. More commonly, at least in Western newspapers, it is referred to
as “genital mutilation.” According to the World Health Organization, the
practice is widespread in 26 African nations, and two million girls each
year are “excised.” In some instances, excision is part of an elaborate
tribal ritual, performed in small traditional villages, and girls look forward
to it because it signals their acceptance into the adult world. In other
instances, the practice is carried out by families living in cities on young
women who desperately resist.
Fauziya Kassindja was the youngest of five daughters in a devoutly
Muslim family. Her father, who owned a successful trucking business,
was opposed to excision, and he was able to defy the tradition because
of his wealth. His first four daughters were married without being
mutilated. But when Fauziya was 16, he suddenly died. Fauziya then
came under the authority of his father, who arranged a marriage for her
and prepared to have her excised. Fauziya was terrified, and her mother
and oldest sister helped her to escape. Her mother, left without
resources, eventually had to formally apologize and submit to the
authority of the patriarch she had offended.
Meanwhile, in America, Fauziya was imprisoned for two years while the
authorities decided what to do with her. She was finally granted asylum,
but not before she became the center of a controversy about how
foreigners should regard the cultural practices of other peoples. A series
of articles in the New York Times encouraged the idea that excision is a
barbaric practice that should be condemned. Other observers were
reluctant to be so judgmental—live and let live, they said; after all, our
practices probably seem just as strange to them.
Suppose we are inclined to say that excision is bad. Would we merely be
applying the standards of our own culture? If Cultural Relativism is
correct, that is all we can do, for there is no cultural-neutral moral
standard to which we may appeal. Is that true?
There is, of course, a lot that can be said against the practice of
excision. Excision is painful and it results in the permanent loss of sexual
pleasure. Its short-term effects include hemorrhage, tetanus, and
septicemia. Sometimes the woman dies. Longterm effects include
chronic infection, scars that hinder walking, and continuing pain.
Why, then, has it become a widespread social practice? It is not easy to
say. Excision has no obvious social benefits. Unlike Eskimo infanticide, it
is not necessary for the group’s survival. Nor is it a matter of religion.
Excision is practiced by groups with various religions, including Islam
and Christianity, neither of which commend it.
Nevertheless, a number of reasons are given in its defense. Women who
are incapable of sexual pleasure are said to be less likely to be
promiscuous; thus there will be fewer unwanted pregnancies in
unmarried women. Moreover, wives for whom sex is only a duty are less
likely to be unfaithful to their husbands; and because they will not be
thinking about sex, they will be more attentive to the needs of their
husbands and children. Husbands, for their part, are said to enjoy sex
more with wives who have been excised. (The women’s own lack of
enjoyment is said to be unimportant.) Men will not want unexcised
women, as they are unclean and immature. And above all, it has been
done since antiquity, and we may not change the ancient ways.
It would be easy, and perhaps a bit arrogant, to ridicule these
arguments. But we may notice an important feature of this whole line of
reasoning: it attempts to justify excision by showing that excision is
beneficial— men, women, and their families are all said to be better off
when women are excised. Thus we might approach this reasoning, and
excision itself, by asking which is true: Is excision, on the whole, helpful
Here, then, is the standard that might most reasonably be used in
thinking about excision: We may ask whether the practice promotes or
hinders the welfare of the people whose lives are affected by it. And, as
a corollary, we may ask if there is an alternative set of social
arrangements that would do a better job of promoting their welfare. If so,
we may conclude that the existing practice is deficient.
But this looks like just the sort of independent moral standard that
Cultural Relativism says cannot exist. It is a single standard that may be
brought to bear in judging the practices of any culture, at any time,
including our own. Of course, people will not usually see this principle as
being “brought in from the outside” to judge them, because, like the rules
against lying and homicide, the welfare of its members is a value internal
to all viable cultures.