Devastating abuse or cultural norm?

By Aida Sadr

On any continent, at any given time, a woman is being unfairly treated in the name of culture–a set of shared, learned behaviours and ideas constructed by a group of people, presumably to enhance/ensure their survival. How ironic that such a concept is used to endorse the mutilation, beating and murder of many women worldwide.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a ritual practiced in 28 countries, predominantly African ones. One hundred and thirty million women worldwide have undergone genital mutilation, and most of these women will ensure that their daughter experiences the same procedure. FGM is performed based on the assumption that “uncircumcised” women, that is women with their clitoris and labia intact, are dirty, ugly, and over-sexed. Uncircumcised women rarely find husbands and are shunned by the community.

As a result of these prevailing cultural beliefs, women undergo the procedure, usually before sexual maturation. The procedure involves fully or partially removing the clitoris, cutting off the labia minora and most of the labia majora, and in the case of infibulation, stitching the vagina shut, often with thorns. The sewing may be repeated after childbirth and in extreme cases, every time after intercourse. Many women die during the process due to excessive bleeding and/or infections.

In some areas of the Middle East, namely in parts of Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Morocco, honour killings are a socially sanctioned practice. Families are given the right to murder a daughter or wife that has somehow sullied or dishonoured the family name. Dishonourment can mean losing one’s virginity pre-maritally, committing adultery, or refusing to marry someone that the family has chosen. The legal systems in countries where this practice takes place are often “forgiving” of the crime, sentencing the murderer (who is usually the father, brother, or husband of the victim) to one or two years, if at all, while all other murders normally carry the death penalty. Those who kill in the name of honour rarely question why the honour of a family lies between a woman’s legs.

When it comes to criticizing cultural practices, one walks a fine line between ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. Admittedly, judging other cultures by the standards of one’s own culture rather than by the standards of that particular culture is a dangerous path to venture down–but so is failing to question any behaviour or idea simply because it would be ethnocentric to do so. A more balanced approach is to question cultural practices and ideas in terms of who accepts them, why, and by whom they harm or help.

In the case of FGM and honour killings, as well as other cultural practices such as wife abuse, bride burnings and bride exchanges, there is a clear oppressor and victim. In each case, the victim is a woman. Is it just a coincidence that so many cultural practices oppress and control women and their sexuality? The defence of such actions in the name of “culture” is just another way patriarchy manages to subordinate women and keep mouths shut. The truth is that such practices violate the basic rights entitled to every human and should be questioned and criticized.

Otherwise, people will continue to commit these unpunished crimes, at the expense of countless women’s lives.


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