Is It Torture Or Tradition?

IN THE AGE OF ISMS, IT IS A CLASH of titans: Western feminism versus multiculturalism.

On the one side, championed by Alice Walker and a prominent newspaper columnist, is the view that women are the sexual equals of men, no longer enslaved to "barbaric" traditions. On the other is the belief that Westerners ought to be more tolerant of customs different from their own. The issue is a procedure that the feminists and other human-rights activists call "female genital mutilation"; the multiculturalists say only "female circumcision." The details aren't in dispute: a girl, sometimes as young as an infant, has all or part of her external genitalia removed. That can mean excision of the clitoris and the labia minora. Then the surgeon--who typically isn't a doctor--scrapes the sides of the labia majora and stitches together the vulva with thread or all while the girls are awake and held down. The purpose, dating to ancient Egypt: to ensure virginity and eliminate sexual sensation, and thereby make women marriageable. The procedure is widespread in Africa and practiced in the Middle East and Southeast Asia as well; estimates say 85 to 114 million women, mostly Muslim, have endured some form of it. With increased emigration from Africa, even some women in the United States have had the procedure; it's not illegal, though two congress women introduced legislation in October to ban it.

Torture or tradition? A violation of human rights fit for Western intervention--as Walker argues--or none of our business? For more than a decade, various political and medical critics in Africa, Europe and occasionally the United States have excoriated the mutilations; some nations have outlawed it as a health hazard. But not until recently has the topic gotten widespread attention in the United States--and not until now has the debate been joined by those outraged at Western hubris. Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and A. M. Rosenthal, a columnist for The New York Times, both have made ending the mutilations a crusade. Walker has coauthored a new book and produced a film scheduled for television next fall, "Warrior Marks," calling for abolition of the practice; last year her best-selling novel "Possessing the Secret of joy" made a similar point. Twice since July, the Times's Rosenthal has weighed in on the "maiming," the "atrocity" and "the world's most widespread form of torture." Rosenthal demands United Nations involvement and international economic sanctions against a procedure that leaves so many small girls "in lifelong pain and sexual deprivation" and "more vulnerable to disease, infection and early death."

But others are coming forward to tell Abe and Alice to butt out. These critics abhor the mutilations but disagree about the means to end them. Under The New York Times op-ed headline THE WEST JUST DOESN'T GET IT, two African women last week decried Walker as a "heroinesavior." Her film "is emblematic of the Western feminist tendency to see female genital mutilation as the gender oppression to end all oppressions" instead of as "an issue worthy of attention in itself," wrote Seble Dawit, a human-rights lawyer born in Ethiopia, and Salem Mekuria, a filmmaker at Wellesley College. Dr. Nahid Toubia, a Sudanese surgeon and adviser to the Population Council in Manhattan, is more cynical. Walker "is a writer whose star is fading," Toubia says. "This is a very sensitive issue that she's trying to sensationalize in order to get the limelight back." Dawit, Toubia and others argue that Westerners ought to work at the grass roots with African women to end the practice instead of grandstanding in the media.

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The Western debate is mirrored in Africa itself. In Kenya, for example, an educated middle class has pushed the female-mutilation issue to the fore in political and medical circles. The struggle pits not just the forces of modernism against those of African heritage but also advocates of intervention against those who say Western do-gooders are guilty of cultural condescension. While the Kenyan government banned the procedure in 1990, it is still widely performed. "Let indigenous people fight it according to their own traditions," says Wilkista Onsando, chairman of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, Kenya's largest and most influential women's rights group. "It will die faster than if others tell us what to do." That may be. But for Westerners like Walker, patience in the face of savagery is no virtue. "Torture," she says, "is not culture." The debate may continue in the West, but for an estimated 2 million African girls next year the injury will be more than intellectual.

Is It Torture Or Tradition? | News