Culture Is No Excuse

May 12, 2011

I hereby decree…

Your cultural traditions are NO excuse for harming others!

In the New York Times today was a piece by Nick Kristof about female genital cutting, and after glancing at Feministing’s mention of it, found a piece from two years ago in American Prospect, Rights Versus Rites.

Rights Versus Rites is about the debate about female genital cutting. That’s right. Debate. As in there’s a side that’s all for it. Seriously, go read it. It’s long and horrifying, but read it.

Okay, seeing as the practice is still going throughout Africa, despite little victories here and there where small areas decided “meh, let’s not do this anymore, seems harmful”, of course it has supporters and lots of them. How do they defend it? Why, with the well-worn: “It’s our culture!”

And there’s this bit from Rights Versus Rites:

For Ahmadu, the time came when she was a 22-year-old senior at George Washington University. When her family decided to bring her and her 8-year-old sister to be initiated in their ancestral village, she went willingly. It was a discombobulating, sometimes thrilling and physically agonizing experience, and one that she now values deeply. Ahmadu reminds us that what public-health officials call “harmful traditional practices” are in fact the very texture of life for many people, the rituals and norms that imbue existence with order and purpose. To talk to her is to begin to understand why a practice that causes so much pain nevertheless remains so entrenched and so zealously defended by its ostensible victims.

All the same, for Ahmadu circumcision was a choice, one she made as an adult. For the overwhelming majority of girls who undergo it that is not the case. Most only have such options when a cluster of deeply rooted values, beliefs, and hierarchies begin to deteriorate, a process that causes anguish and panic for some and offers the promise of liberation to others. The fact remains that, in general, the more alternatives girls have and the more exposure to the outside world, the less likely they are to opt for these old ways.

Ahmadu was quoted throughout this thing talking about how awesome FGC is and that the snotty Western world needs to butt out of their traditions… yet here it is revealed that she CHOSE to undergo it even though she was in a position to very easily escape it. Vast majority of those subjected to genital cuttings are children and have no real choice. Ahmadu was 22 and chose it. That’s an important difference.

Then look at the next part there. “The more exposure to the outside world, the less likely they are to opt for these old ways.” See, that’s the thing. While many of these girls may be okay with going through this, despite the torture and severe bodily destruction, as far as the only lives and culture they have ever known, this is pretty much the only way to do things. If they’ve been exposed only to their own little village, only to their own people, and know absolutely nothing else, that this and only this is the path to womanhood and honor and whatnot, that to not do it means shame and isolation, of course they’ll want it. Yet the girls who are aware that there are other traditions and values in the world, that not everyone does this and that there’s no real benefit to it, they aren’t so keen on the idea. With Ahmadu being an obvious exception.

What does that mean? It means that these apparently sacred cultural traditions seem to only survive through… keeping children ignorant and forcing violent rituals upon them whether they want it or not. Now, call me a privileged white American liberal preaching from my comfy ivory tower here, but if you can only keep your cultural traditions alive through the violent coercion of children, I’m not so sure it’s in the world’s best interest to keep that cultural tradition alive at all. Traditions are only healthy if everyone is participating willingly, knowledgeably, free of harm, and able to opt out without being socially destroyed. I’m not at all claiming that “western cultures” are in the clear here, HELL no! I’m not saying that worrying about one’s culture being phased out due to the influences of bigger ones isn’t a valid concern. But if you believe that maybe dropping or altering ONE troublesome ritual seems to mean dropping it all, then what’s really so great and strong about your culture that makes it worth preserving? Want to hang onto it because it’s yours and therefore dear to you? Fine. But in that case… slice your OWN damn genitals if you want to so badly and leave those of others (your children count as others) alone!

2 thoughts on “Culture Is No Excuse”

  1. Agreed. Culture is great and all, but if it involves hurting innocent people, fuck your culture, it needs to end.

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