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Dec 14 2012

No, There Is No ‘Balanced Look’ at Female Genital Mutilation

I was emailed a link to this appalling article on female genital mutilation by a sociologist named Lisa Wade, which is mostly just a bunch of cultural relativism bullshit. I thought about writing a response to it, but Zinnia Jones has already written one that says most of what I would have said. So I’ll just link to her.

For instance, the report criticizes a New York Times columnist for describing the mutilation as “the sewing or pinning together of both sides of the vulva, by catgut or thorns, and the obliteration of the vaginal entrance except for a tiny passage”. They contend that this “is not factually correct”. The report goes on to explain how three subtypes of mutilation are performed.

Type I is ”restricted to procedures involving reduction of either the clitoral hood (the prepuce) or the external or protruding elements of clitoral tissue, or both.” Type II “involves partial or complete labial reductions and partial or complete reductions of the external or protruding elements of clitoral tissue.” In type III, infibulation, “the operation is concluded by shielding and narrowing the vaginal opening with stitches or other techniques of sealing, which forms a smooth surface of joined tissue that is opened at the time of first sexual intercourse.”

The authors then point out that “infibulations amount to approximately 10 percent of cases across the continent” and are sometimes performed using sutures under hygienic conditions in hospitals or clinics. Yes, what a relief that only one in 10 girls subjected to FGM have their vaginal opening sewn shut before later being torn open, whereas the other nine in 10 must only endure having their labia or the visible portion of their clitoris cut off.

Yeah, those other 90% should just stop their whining, amirite? Jesus, this is infuriating. And it would be so easy to write exactly the same thing about other monstrous evils, like slavery or the holocaust, and the only ones who would find that anything but appalling are apologists for those things.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    The details of the mutilation are a side-issue (and a great big side-issue, at that) compared to the question of consent. Don’t even talk to me about how bad it is or isn’t until the question of consent is addressed.

  2. 2
    eric

    Marcus – Zinnia’s piece sewers them on exactly the point you’re making. Here is a bioethics organization that is refusing to discuss the ethics of performing unnecessary surgery on an unconsenting patient. They just don’t discuss it. They’ll discuss the details of a technical description of the procedure until the cows come home, but only its description. The normative question is not discussed at all. In a bioethics organization.

  3. 3
    Marcus Ranum

    @eric – yeah, I read the post at Zinnia’s blog and it left me so angry that I went and browsed failblog for a while instead of posting anything.

  4. 4
    Sastra

    Marcus Ranum #1 wrote:

    The details of the mutilation are a side-issue (and a great big side-issue, at that) compared to the question of consent.

    Iirc, in her book Infidel Ayan Hirsi Ali talks about how, before she was forceably circumcised, she was taunted, insulted, and teased by the other children at school because her pubic area was “ugly.” It made her feel dirty and ashamed. In a society with a high and consistent level of peer pressure, you might very well get “consent” even from the child/teen herself.

    What you won’t get, of course, is a wider and more enlightened understanding of the real issues involved — as seen from a perspective which is not bound up with the idea that women are property and their sexual desires therefore dangerous.

  5. 5
    Pierce R. Butler

    … Zinnia’s piece sewers them …

    Bonapropos typo of the day!

  6. 6
    Bronze Dog

    Lisa Wade:

    Yes, what a relief that only one in 10 girls subjected to FGM have their vaginal opening sewn shut before later being torn open, whereas the other nine in 10 must only endure having their labia or the visible portion of their clitoris cut off.

    Ed’s sane response:

    Yeah, those other 90% should just stop their whining, amirite? Jesus, this is infuriating. And it would be so easy to write exactly the same thing about other monstrous evils, like slavery or the holocaust, and the only ones who would find that anything but appalling are apologists for those things.

    Ugh. As I call it, settling for second worst:

    That’s where “Settling for Second Worst” comes in. It’s an attitude of moral laxity. It’s the idea that we shouldn’t strive to be better people or improve our society because the satisfaction that we’re better than the worst example should be all we need. I don’t think we’re one literally one step away from being the worst, but the attitude sounds like an effective way for a second worst to salve his conscience without actually doing anything or making any progress. It’s an argument for maintaining the status quo.

  7. 7
    Bronze Dog

    Oh, and thumbs up for discussing the lack of informed consent aspect of the horror show. That’s always one of the core issues.

    One thing that disgusts me about a lot of people who appeal to cultural relativism is that they often side against people who want their birth culture to change. It’s like they think people are born with a duty to respect their culture, not that their culture has a duty to help and protect people. It’s like they prioritize preserving the quaintness of exotic cultures (so they can be entertained by juicy documentaries and tour guides) over human life and freedom.

  8. 8
    democommie

    Is this like the Sean Hannity waterboarding thing? Will this nice lady give the “procedure” a try to make sure it’s not all hurty and demeaning?

  9. 9
    lofgren

    I thought Zinnia’s post was a hysterical overreaction. She criticizes a piece whose purpose is to educate for failing to condemn. That wasn’t its intent. It’s purpose was to dispel western myths about the practice.

    I think people are reacting to the word “balance” and assuming that this word is a reference to the faux-journalism style of “balance.” In fact I believe it is a far more useful – in fact crucial – form of balance, that of the dispassionate, disinterested scientist. For example, Jones criticizes the report for not calling FGM “mutilation,” bat rather relies on less emotionally-charged and values-laden terms. This is absolutely appropriate for anybody who is trying to assess the effects of FGM with a critical eye.

    Frankly I find the headline of this piece rather appalling. Of course there is a “balanced look” at FGM. There must be. The only people who don’t want to take a balanced look at a subject are those who secretly do not believe that their position will withstand scrutiny. In fact, a balanced look at FGM most definitely reveals that it is wrong. But if we want to oppose it effectively and rationally, then it is incumbent upon us to understand it, and the values of the people who do it.

    I see no evidence that Lisa Wade approves of FGM. Rather, she is only trying to cut through the powerful emotions and look at the practice in a rational, skeptical, and reasonable fashion. All things we should be in favor of. She does discuss appropriate language which some might see as a semantic game, but to me it looks as though she is doing it out of a genuine desire to diminish the language barrier between us and those we wish to help. Again, we can’t do anything about this if we don’t know how to talk about it. Or if we come across as imperialist westerners enforcing our culture on those who are brave enough to resist it. In fact, knowing how to talk about this in a “balanced” fashion allows us to make the most effective steps towards eliminating it: educating the local women who perform the operation. The fact that the more educated people are, the less likely they are to embrace FGM should be a clear indication that we have nothing to fear from a balanced look at it. Because on the balance, it’s clearly wrong.

    I felt that Skepchick had a much more – dare I say it?– balanced response than Ed and Jones’ knee-jerk bellowing.

  10. 10
    eric

    Lofgren:

    She criticizes a piece whose purpose is to educate for failing to condemn.

    The Hastings Center is a bioethics organization. They are not a public education group; their entire purpose is to reasearch and make recommendations on medical ethics issues. Here’s the first line in their mission statement:

    The Center’s mission is to address fundamental ethical issues in the areas of health, medicine, and the environment as they affect individuals, communities, and societies.

    But they don’t address this fundamental ethical issue. They seem to go out of their way to avoid addressing it. Hell, they even give an award named after Henry Beecher, who they describe as “a distinguished physician in the field of anesthesiology who, in the 1960’s, courageously shed light on ethically questionable practices in human subjects research.” Seems they are not courageous enough to win the very award they administer.

    Given this, I think Zinnia’s criticism is spot on.

  11. 11
    eric

    Just to be clear, I am not complaining that the Hastings Center ought to have agreed with Zinnia et al. in every detail. But I am complaining that they completly failed in their mission by remaining scrupulously silent on the ethics of FGM. One can hope they believe it to be wrong. But even if they believe it to be ethical, they should have the courage to actually say that.

  12. 12
    maddog1129

    Does anybody ever offer, in terms of “balance,” what the supposed reasons are for the practice? I can’t think of any / can’t imagine why it would have occurred to anybody that such a procedure should be done.

  13. 13
    lofgren

    The Hastings Center is a bioethics organization.

    That does not mean that every article they publish must be about that and only that. You sound like all of those trolls who used to drop by Ed’s blog to complain about how he was writing about politics on a website called ScienceBlogs.

    And frankly I think dispelling common myths about FGM IS an ethical matter. Both Zinnia and Ed’s posts come across, to me, as endorsing hyperbolic misinformation and denigrating facts in favor of ideological purity. The day that facts and figures are anathema to freethought is a sad day indeed.

    Opposition to FGM is in the moral right here. We need not fear the light.

  14. 14
    lofgren

    Does anybody ever offer, in terms of “balance,” what the supposed reasons are for the practice?

    Um, yes? FGM has been written about extensively. The arguments in favor are:

    Aesthetic appeal
    Social conformity
    Reduces promiscuity
    Cultural tradition
    Religious belief
    Safety/health considerations

    Note that none of these are based on facts. In fact in some cases they are in outright defiance of facts. Which is precisely why opponents of FGM should have nothing to fear from being accurate in their portrayal of the practice. The more this discussion is solidly grounded in science and facts, the more we win.

  15. 15
    Ichthyic

    That does not mean that every article they publish must be about that and only that. You sound like all of those trolls who used to drop by Ed’s blog to complain about how he was writing about politics on a website called ScienceBlogs.

    …and you’re comparing an entire public organization with a specific mission statement to a private blog.

    fail.

  16. 16
    lofgren

    …and you’re comparing an entire public organization with a specific mission statement to a private blog.

    Only insofar as both are obligated to adhere to their mission statement only to the degree that they choose, not to the degree that random assholes on the internet demand they do.

  17. 17
    freemage

    Lofgren: One thing you’re ignoring (and that Heina also gave a pass on) is that the article itself contains a considerable load of shoddy phrasing and poor logic, which often leads very much to the conclusion that it’s attempting to minimize the harm done by FGM. Most notably is the bolded item in Wade’s article about the impact of FGM on sexual function. It’s missing some key words, like, “SOME [women]” and “WITH THERAPY”. These aren’t small issues or oversights.

  18. 18
    lofgren

    freemage:

    Criticism of the article on the grounds that it was poorly worded are fair. But if those are the criticisms that Ed and Zinnia intended, why didn’t they make them? If Zinnia and Ed had criticized Wade for factual inaccuuracies, that would not only be acceptable, it would be productive and laudable. Instead both of their posts consist almost entirely of overwrought emotion, in my opinion imputing nefarious intent to the authors in several places where it is not warranted.

    Zinnia does tackle a few of those illogic leaps, but almost all of her post consists of impugning the motives of the writers, emotionally manipulative freakouts, and callous disregard for the culture and beliefs of those whom she seeks to convince. Don’t get me wrong, the misogynistic aspects of those cultures deserve criticism. But we cannot have the moral standing to presume that our standards are superior to theirs until after we have given theirs a fair hearing.

    I would also add that those of us who have long frequented freethoughtblogs and scienceblogs probably do not have the misconceptions that the article seeks to address, because FGM has been tackled in (DEARGODNO!) a fair and balanced way by several posters in the skeptical/atheist community. For that reason as well, the article might seem excessively deferential. But it was written for a wider audience who (at least, the article writers and Wade believe) are more likely to have a skewed understanding of what exactly FGM is. Nevertheless, greater education and awareness is something that we should always be in favor of.

  19. 19
    Raging Bee

    Calling a woman “hysterical” because she wants a medical ethics organization to take an ethical stand on a medical procedure? Yeah, way to show how mature and rational you are.

    It’s purpose was to dispel western myths about the practice.

    Which “myths,” exactly, did the article dispel? All I saw was a lot of talk about how the people who condoned the practice justified it. As Zinnia said, the article revealed the totally non-startling news that certain people think their decisions make sense. What Western myth got busted?

  20. 20
    Ichthyic

    Only insofar as both are obligated to adhere to their mission statement only to the degree that they choose, not to the degree that random assholes on the internet demand they do.

    uh, one ADVERTISES BASED ON THEIR MISSION STATEMENT, the other does not.

    I’ll let you figure out which.

    take your time.

  21. 21
    dingojack

    Did you miss this bit:

    The main source of distortion has been the mass media. Aiming to encourage journalists to think twice when covering the topic, the Hastings Center has released a report by the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa. In the rest of this post, I briefly discuss some of the things they want journalists — and the rest of us — to know and add a couple of my own
    [emphasis mine]:

    So who is the villain here – Dr Lisa Wade or the Hasting Institute or Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa?
    And what is the crime? Providing more balanced information on a contentious subject so that we can base our criticism on actual facts?
    How dare she (no mention of the organisations) publish such a thing on a blog page (that isn’t about ethics but sociology)!
    The horror! the horror! The horror!
    Dingo

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