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Analysis of Western Discourse Surrounding Female Genital Mutilation

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“Female Genital Mutilation” (FGM), a term coined in 1976 by American feminist and social activist, Fran Hosken, is defined by the World Health Organization as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. FGM has the potential of causing severe health complications such as recurring infections, bleeding, difficulty urinating and/or menstruating, and even death, especially when performed by inexperienced individuals in unsanitary conditions. FGM is predominantly practiced in central African countries, as well as the middle-East and certain Asian countries. Estimates show that FGM has been performed on over 200 million girls and women around the world, in over 30 countries. FGM is a contemporary human rights violation and must be addressed by the international community.

In this essay, I will call for the reframing of Western discourse surrounding FGM, ultimately to move away from a culturally imperialistic perspective to an intersectional feminist perspective. An analysis on previous Western scholars’ discourses will show how various approaches and perspectives taken to discern FGM may not be as well-suited for a transnational feminist and human rights approach. The ideological frameworks that I will examine include the extremist feminist perspective, and a legal and cultural absolutism perspective. Using this analysis, I hope to unveil the ways in which Western discourse unintentionally applies a cultural imperialist frame, and how this creates an impasse in discussions with the capacity for intervention and solution.

FGM, when performed on unconsented and minor-aged individuals is a contemporary human rights violation, as it is a harmful and irreversible procedure that could cause major health problems. Human rights, particularly the ‘freedom from torture’ and the ‘freedom to liberty’ are violated in the forced practice of FGM, and must be defended especially in the case pertaining to oppressed and marginalized women in communities where human rights are not explicitly guaranteed or honoured. As a human rights issue, there is a struggle between individual rights and national sovereignty in the right to practice FGM. The practice has gained attention over the last few decades within the international community, with February 6th being designated the “International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation”. International bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly have taken strides to create a Sustainable Development Goal (Goal 5) to eliminate all harmful practices, included FGM/Female Genital Cutting, by the year 2030.

While I am a strong advocate for empowering young girls and for human rights, I believe that as a citizen of the Western world, it is important to be cognisant of the phrasing and articulation of discourse surrounding FGM. It is easy to only consider the apparent etic perception while overlooking the emic experiences and perspectives. In the past, many Western scholars have used harsh connotations when engaging in discourse, using words that suggest that practicing countries are ‘barbaric’, ‘savage’, and ‘malicious’. Such discourse has drawn the attention of the international audience. This is a positive outcome since it creates dialogue and encourages social development, however, this discourse has perpetuated a viewpoint that suggests cultural inferiority. It is important to consider cultural differences when discussing practices conducted in other nations, as ethnocentric value-based arguments can be easily repudiated and invalidated.

Firstly, we must begin by understanding the motivations behind, and the implications of, the use of an extremist feminist perspective in the argument against FGM. Since Fran Hosken created the term “FGM” in the late 70s, Western scholarly engagement has seemingly landed on the extreme opposition side of the argument. Hosken was inspired by an idea of “global sisterhood”, which ideology “emerged during a period in US feminist history characterized by a commitment to the notion that women around the world are united by patriarchy”. Hosken’s work and mobilization of Western feminists suggests that FGM is a symbol of the extreme nature of gendered oppression and patriarchy in Africa. In The Hosken Report, the author contends that FGM is meant to “assure female sexual inferiority, and thus, her submission to males”. This lends towards the ‘sexism as the root of all evil’ dominant activist paradigm. Stories revealed by extremist-feminist scholars tend to mischaracterize the practices: “the most extreme versions receive disproportionate attention and negative health consequences and effects on sexuality are overstated or, at least, unproven” (Ahmadu, et al.). Arguments then tend towards hyperbole, which is difficult for the average Western audience member to discern and develop an individual opinion upon. This ultimately results in misrepresented and misinformed arguments. Furthermore, attributing the persistence of FGM with patriarchy “grossly oversimplifies their social, cultural, and economic functions”, which become obscured in rigid Western perspectives. Classifying FGM as a tool of oppression used against females, which may be true in certain situations, reifies the notion that Western women see African women as ‘objects of intervention’. Extreme feminist perspectives reinforce transnational power imbalances as Western women feel the obligation to defend and buttress the rights of their non-Western counterparts. Oftentimes, this results in derogatory arguments presented with a lack of substantial un-biased knowledge or acknowledgement of the opposing party, which complicates conversations with those who practice FGM. Olga Khazan, an anthropologist who studied practicing communities in Kenya, states that Female Genital Cutting (which she believes is the more appropriate term) has many misconceptions in the Western world. This includes the misconception that the practice is forced on women by men, while in fact it is perpetuated mainly by older women. Khazan reveals that despite the commonly narrated story of “African girls [being] held down and butchered against their will, some of them voluntarily and joyfully partake in the ritual”. The extremist feminist framework fails to recognize that the practice is preserved by women and homogenizes the perspectives of all females who undergo the practice as anti-FGM. The failure to recognize these perspectives, which are equally as important as the perspectives of African women who do not support FGM, infantilizes non-Western women and confines their rights and freedoms despite the Western women’s strive towards reifying their rights and freedoms.

FGM is a violation of human rights and international laws (with mutilation being the key word). Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979, defines discrimination against women as:

“any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.

According to CEDAW, FGM is an act of discrimination against women. However, the document fails to recognize the intersectionality between historical context, law, and culture. A failure to contextualize and understand FGM from a local, grassroots perspective reifies the global power imbalance in policy and law creation and oversimplifies the issues at hand. Since FGM is a practice that involves many different communities, genders, policies, health considerations, and the experiences of individuals, it is crucial that scholars and the international audience use structural intersectional analysis. In its contemporaneous state, current policies suggest cultural absolutism and disregard cultural relativism, but scholars suggest that “a local feminist praxis is necessary, in addition to understand[ing] the local in relation to larger, cross-national processes” (Collins, et al. 307). Many argue that FGM should be referred to as Female Genital Cutting, as it emphasizes the same bodily changes that males undergo through foreskin circumcision. Furthermore, various scholars contend that negative discourse surrounding FGM is undue, as it is equally relative to cultural essentialism as veiling, foot binding, arranged marriage, and widow immolation, all of which are conclusively accepted as cultural differences, and not practices of cultural inferiority. From a strictly legal perspective, Elizabeth Philipose, Professor of Women’s Studies at California State University, ascertains that:

“Through and through, international legal systems are imperial and racialized and supremacist. To not take on the task of decolonizing these systems that govern and regulate international behaviour is to reproduce … the violence … against those whom we aim to protect. It is not a question of working within the parameters of the existing systems, but of revolutionizing those systems through our advocacy and activism, and creating analytics that refuse to be complicit in recolonizing the world” (Collins, et al. 308).

As members of the ‘colonizing’ world, it is imperative to recognize the dynamics of global power imbalances in the global human rights establishment. Philipose’s statement effectively applies the post-colonial theory in understanding the implications of international law, and identifies flaws in its applications within the colonized world. Due to the ethnocentric nature of the creation of international human rights bodies and laws, application on a local level becomes almost impossible due to the various structural inefficiencies that arise at each level of application (e.g. continental, national, regional, community-level). The issue lies within the neo-institutionalization of laws, which focuses on international creation and application without regard to cultural concerns on a national or local level. Western scholars must recognize these predicaments in their arguments. A lack of this recognition results in the denigration of countries and communities that practice FGM, identifying them as major human rights anti-activists who must be condemned. This understanding must also stem from the recognition of our tendency as the Western world to perpetuate the ‘rescue narrative’. This widespread narrative is prevalent in many US and European laws and public policies that “fall under the rubric of human rights”, and is “deeply entrenched in the problematic binary of ‘First World freedoms’ and ‘Third World oppression’” (Collins, et al. 306). Many Western scholars overlook this binary in their call for international action and the enactment of law, which only amplifies their unintentional imperialist standpoint on the situation. In order to remove the imperialist notion from discourse, people must become educated on the historical context of the creation of international governing bodies who create laws, and how historical context related to colonialism creates a climate in which activism is masked by Western hegemony. By adopting a transnational and intersectional perspective in the application of law, Western scholars will shift away from the intention to ‘liberate’ non-Western women, but rather to work in solidarity with the affected women.

Overall, through analyzing the extremist feminist framework, and the legal and cultural absolutism framework, I argue that Western scholars portray a cultural imperialist view. The extremist feminist framework, while aiming to liberate and empower the rights of women, ultimately undermines the experiences and opinions of the FGM-experiencing women. A rigid legal standpoint that lacks an acceptance of cultural and historical relativism only further perpetuates the impasse that exists in the translation of international law and policy into enactment on a grassroots level. Scholars are better suited incorporating an intersectional and transnational framework, which ultimately has a better chance of translating into development and progress for women’s rights within FGM-practicing countries. It is important for Western scholars and the international audience to consider the implications of unintentional derogatory innuendos in their arguments, and that their arguments are predisposed to be interpreted from a Western hegemony standpoint. While the Western world is rightfully just in opposing FGM and supporting its abolition, it is essential to adopt a prudent approach in addressing cultural differences, which will ultimately aid in empowering human rights, strengthening international relations, and overcoming historical hegemonies.

Works Cited

  1. Ahmadu, Fuambai, et al. ‘Female ‘circumcision’ in Africa: culture, controversy, and change.’ Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision, 2000, pp. 283-312.
  2. Collins, Dana, et al. ‘New Directions in Feminism and Human Rights.’ International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 12, no. 3-4, 4 Dec. 2010, pp. 298-318.
  3. ‘Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a Human Rights Violation.’ International Planned Parenthood Federation, 22 Aug. 2018, www.ippf.org/blogs/female-genital-mutilation-fgm-human-rights-violation.
  4. ‘Female Genital Mutilation.’ WHO (World Health Organization), 31 Jan. 2018, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation.
  5. Khazan, Olga. ‘What Many People Don’t Understand About Female Circumcision.’ The Atlantic, 8 Apr. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/female-genital-mutilation-cutting-anthropologist/389640/.
  6. Leonard, Lawrence E. ‘Interpreting female genital cutting: moving beyond the impasse.’ Annual review of sex research, vol. 11, 2000, pp. 158-90.
  7. Rafti, Phyllis. ‘The Hosken Report: Genital/Sexual Mutilation of Females. Fran P. Hosken.’ Medical Anthropology Newsletter, vol. 11, no. 1, 1979, pp. 19-20.
  8. ‘Sources of International Human Rights Law on Female Genital Mutilation.’ Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence Against Women and Girls, 25 Feb. 2011, www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/645-sources-of-international-human-rights-law-on-female-genital-mutilation.html.
  9. Wade, Lisa. ‘Learning from “Female Genital Mutilation”: Lessons from 30 Years of Academic Discourse.’ vol. 12, no. 1, Feb. 2012, pp. 26-49.

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