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Female Genital Mutilation & Cultural Relativism

I have been reading about the practice of female genital mutilation as a rite of passage in some cultures and have some questions:

1) What is the rationale for this practice?

2) Why is it that anthropologists do not apply cultural relativism here?Wouldn't it be better if they did?

3) Are there any genital mutilation practices in the U.S.? (because I can't think of any but am wondering if they do exist). Is circumcision considered this? Why are so many boys in the U.S. circumcised immediately after birth?

Solution Preview

Dear Student,
Hello once again. Since these are questions that you need advise on in terms of discussion value, this solution will not follow the usual format. Think of this as a Q&A answer.

First off, let's discuss cultural relativism. What is it? I am not quite sure if I have written solutions on this topic for you but if I haven't yet, let me paraphrase a discussion I have written on it previously -

"In anthropology, the perspective of cultural relativism is an anchor in this field of study where cultural immersion and observation is necessary to build knowledge and details of a culture. It is a mechanism that negates subjectivity and judgement based on one's own experience and socialization as it allows for neutrality and objectivity and 'science' to happen. Personal feelings and other elements of personhood that can influence judgement within an anthropologist is battled by this perspective allowing for the 'scientist' in the anthropologist to follow ethnographic and anthropological methods without 'tainting' the results of his/her study in an attempt to study particular cultures in their own terms."

Now, let's go to your first question on female genital mutilation (FMG) & its rationale. Clearly this is a rights vs. rites question. For pundits of Human Rights and Female Welfare, FMG is morally, legally and socially unacceptable. Female circumcision is practiced in Indonesia, the Middle East but most predominantly in Africa. It is the process by which female outer genitalia is removed totally or partially for cultural or religious purposes. The problem and abuse of women in certain African tribes are so severe that it prompted response from the World Health Organization. There are various categories from removal of outer skin to stitching up of the entire genitalia, at times with the use of nothing more than thorns. The death rate from this practice are high and is by no doubt an abusive tradition that needs to be stopped. What then is the social and religious rationale behind this? Nawal El-Saadawi speaking to ReligiousTolerance.org (with Nawal being a victim of the practice herself) explains -

"The importance given to virginity and an intact hymen in these societies is the reason why female circumcision still remains ...

Solution Summary

The solution is an extensive discussion and advise on the topic of female genital mutilation (FMG) as a rite of passage in several cultures. The discussion includes the rationale for the practice of FMG and the application/non-application of a cultural relativistic view on the practice by anthropologists (including moral, ethical and legal positions). Additionally, FMG as practiced in the US is also discussed presenting advocacy groups and sections of society (plus their reasons) that practice FMG in the American social landscape (i.e. circumcision). A word version of the solution is attached for easy printing and download. The solution lists online references and resources to give students venue for further research on the topic.

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