An Examination of Inconsistency Based on Cultural Bias and Making Distinctions Between Religious and Cultural Practices
Within the Western discourse, there is a categorical rejection of female genital mutilation (FGM). It is considered a violation of an individual’s rights and a form of unnecessary violence. At the same time, the topic of male circumcision (MC) is perceived – especially in the US – as much less problematic or even benign. While it may at first sight appear unfeasible to compare FGM with MC, I will demonstrate in this essay that there are certain similarities that are often ignored, and which point to an inconsistency in our categorically different evaluations of FGM and MC. This inconsistency becomes especially evident in philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s account of both practices and potentially points to a cultural bias. A double standard of comparable practices cannot be accepted if we want to develop accounts that are as objective, or minimally biased, as possible. Additionally, if it turns out that we are inconsistently evaluating two comparable practices, we might want to adjust policy and legislation, respectively.
For this reason, I want to examine whether it is justified to evaluate FGM and MC categorically differently. In this essay, I will argue that the inconsistency in evaluating FGM and MC cannot be defended on the basis of harm inflicted nor by the degree of involuntariness. Instead, it might be partially due to a cultural bias which enables us (in this case, Westerners) to perceive our own cultural practices as less harmful than practices from other cultures. In addition, I want to argue that this categorically different evaluation may furthermore be explained by the different treatment of religious practices – which fall under the (legal and social) protection of religious freedom – and cultural practices, which do not receive such an immunization.
In Part 1, I will shortly introduce what the practices of FGM and MC entail and present Nussbaum’s categorically different evaluation of both practices. Part 2 will encompass a contestation of Nussbaum’s account, examining it as an unjustified inconsistency. This analysis follows from applying the very same criteria Nussbaum proposes for rejecting FGM to the practice of MC (namely: harm, involuntariness, and capabilities denied). In Part 3, I will suggest that this inconsistency may be explained by the effect of cultural bias and the differential treatment of religious and cultural practices. Part 4 comprises of proposing an alternative to this inconsistent view, which includes evaluating the practice of genital cutting more independently of its cultural and/or religious origin. This alternative is based on my suggestion that there are sufficient reasons to reject both FGM and MC based on the intersection of harm and involuntariness (which is an extension of Nussbaum’s own criteria).
1 Two Forms of Genital Cutting
1.1 FGM and MC: Two Practices of Genital Cutting
Female genital mutilation (FGM) “involves the partial or total removal of the external genital organs for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons.”1 While it is (still) practiced in many cultures in Africa, Asia, and the Middle-East, the UN vehemently rejects it as a “violation of the human rights of girls and women” and has consistently called for its abolition.2 The European Commission argues that FGM “is a specific form of violence […] [with] severe physical and psychological consequences for the victims.”3 From the perspective of a (Western) culture, in which FGM is not part of an engrained tradition, FGM is often categorically rejected and described as “barbaric”,4 “repulsive”,5 or as “an impermissible “mutilation”.6
Male circumcision (MC)7 is the removal of part, or all, of the foreskin which is often carried out in the very same societies that practice FGM, but is also a widespread practice in the US (as well as in European Jewish and Muslim communities).8 From the US-American perspective, MC is widely considered to be unproblematic and even medically preferable, as it is assumed to provide health benefits.9 The scientific evidence is highly ambiguous regarding these claims, which revolve mainly around the (minor) reduction of risks (e.g. of urinary tract infection and HIV) and improved hygiene.10 These claims are contested and have been refuted by several studies (e.g., showing that the assumed lowering of risk for HIV is not relevant in the US-American context due to better hygiene conditions).11 Moreover, the risks and consequences involved in MC can, in fact, be very similar to those involved in FGM (including impairment of sexual functioning, several medical complications, severe psychological consequences, and even death).12 It has therefore been concluded that, even though the “medical community is unequally divided” on this question, “all […] international medical organizations which have considered the issue have not recommended routine neonatal circumcision.”13 Nonetheless, MC is generally not rejected the way FGM is and the comparison between both practices is often vehemently opposed. An example of this can be found in Martha Nussbaum’s account, which I will introduce in the next section.
1.2 Martha Nussbaum’s Account
“We should be ashamed of ourselves if we do not use whatever privilege and power has come our way to make it [FGM] disappear forever.” 14
In her book, Sex and Social Justice, philosopher and ethicist Martha Nussbaum is very adamant in her rejection of FGM based on “its health risks, its impact on sexual functioning, and the violations of dignity and choice associated with its compulsory and nonconsensual nature.”15 In other words, her arguments are that FGM ought to be combatted because it causes great harm and is involuntary. In terms of harm, it is important to note that for Nussbaum, the harm caused encompasses not only the pain inflicted and the permanent diminishing of a type of sexual functioning, but rather the impairment of what she refers to as a capability: the fundamental opportunity to have this functioning in the first place.16 More specifically, FGM is seen as impairing two of Nussbaum’s capabilities (elaborated in her well-known Capabilities Approach), namely #2, “Bodily Health”, which includes “being able to have good health, including reproductive health”, and #3, “Bodily Integrity”, which includes “having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.”17 The second criterion of involuntariness targets the fact that genital cutting usually occurs “before one is of an age to make such a choice.”18 In terms of capabilities, this means that the child does not have the possibility to make an autonomous choice about losing the capabilities described above.
In contrast to her strong rejection of FGM, Nussbaum regards MC in a very different light and dismisses the comparison of the two practices, asserting that MC is “generally believed to have either no effect or a positive effect on physical health and sexual functioning.”19 It is interesting to note that the decisive argument by which Nussbaum evaluates MC is the (presumed) lack of harm inflicted (and its presumed benefits), but not involuntariness (while for FGM it was both harm and involuntariness).
In the next section, I will argue that Nussbaum’s empirical claim of MC being harmless is highly debatable and therefore does not permit such a categorical refusal of a comparison of both practices. Furthermore, I will show that Nussbaum’s argument of involuntariness applies just as much to MC as it does to FGM.
2 Questioning Nussbaum’s Categorically Different Evaluation
2.1 Comparison of FGM and MC in Terms of Harm
When comparing both practices in terms of harm inflicted, it is important to emphasize that there are vast differences in severity within the large spectrum of different variations of genital cutting. FGM can be classified into four types, ranging from the severe “Pharaonic Sunna” (clitoris, labia minora, inner labia removed and “sutured together”20) to the symbolic ritual of pricking the clitoris which is, in terms of harm, the least invasive21 (and which Nussbaum chooses to leave out in her examination of FGM22). There are also stark differences in severity in global practices of MC, but the Western practice (the focus of this essay) does not represent this variation – it encompasses only a rather “mild” version. More extreme forms of MC (e.g., Australian Aboriginal subincision and Yemeni pubic circumcision) are less common but they demonstrate that there exist forms of genital cutting on boys that are more severe than (most forms of) FGM.23
Though the large variation which exists for both practices make it difficult – if not impossible – to adequately compare FGM and MC in terms of severity, it becomes clear that a categorical distinction between the two in terms of harm is not feasible, especially as someforms of FGM are milder than some forms of MC (and vice versa).24 As Earp puts it,
“[…] when Westerners hear the term “FGM,” they tend to think of the most extreme forms of female genital cutting […]. When people hear the term “male circumcision,” by contrast, they are much more likely to think of the least severe forms of male genital cutting […] because this is the form with which they are culturally familiar.”25
Nonetheless, even the mild form of MC can be very harmful (see section 1.1). To conclude, both practices may involve serious harm and are accompanied by major medical and psychological risks.
Furthermore, with regard to Nussbaum’s argument that MC is assumed to provide medical benefits: if this were a valid argument, we might have to equally apply it to FGM. However, it seems reasonable to assume that any such argument, proclaiming (minor) health benefits provided by FGM (which in fact is what many cultures practicing FGM doargue, e.g., based on the reduction of smegma), would not succeed in convincing Nussbaum to agree with an acceptance of FGM.26 This shows us that health benefits cannot be considered a (sufficiently) valid argument for MC either.
2.2 Comparison of FGM and MC in Terms of Involuntariness
While the Western form of MC is mostly carried out neonatally, FGM is carried out at different ages.27 But if the practices are carried out on children or minors, we may call both practices involuntary as there is no possibility for the child to give informed consent or to object to such an invasive alteration of their genitals.28 It is rather surprising to see Nussbaum defend her adamant opposition towards FGM on the basis of its involuntariness and not realize the similarities to MC. She stresses that FGM is such an objectionable practice because the “children [are] far too young to consent”. A practice that is so “irreversible” and “extensive” cannot be undergone without the “chance to select an alternative”.29 Although it seems to be obvious that this description equally fits to the practice of MC, Nussbaum appears to be entirely unaware of this.30 Stressing this point even further, Johnson notices,
“It is surprising, therefore, that liberals pay so little attention to MGM [MC],31 especially since the children are, in the US and Judaic forms, even younger and less capable of choice than those upon whom FGM is inflicted.”32
To conclude, if we assume the validity of the empirical claim that both practices are not categorically different – in terms of the (potential) harm caused – and if we further agree that both practices are comparable in terms of their involuntariness,then we must conclude that the categorically different evaluation of MC and FGM (of the likes of Nussbaum) is not justified. Moreover, it is with the same criteria that Nussbaum employs to reject FGM that we can illustrate this inconsistency: both FGM and MC are objectionable based on the arguments of harm inflicted and involuntariness. In the following section, I will discuss whether this double standard can be explained by cultural bias and the differential treatment of religious and cultural practices.
3 Possible Explanations for this Double Standard
3.1 Cultural Bias
FGM is a practice carried out (predominantly) in non-Western countries while the practice of MC is (also) widespread in the US. Thus, one may wonder whether philosophers like Nussbaum are so quick in overlooking the similarities between FGM and MC because they are perceiving them through a cultural lens that more easily finds fault in genital cutting practices of other cultures, while trivializing or downplaying the severity of the own culture’s practice. Some of the authors cited in this essay (cf. Earp, 2015; Johnson, 2010; Möller, 2020) have argued that this is in fact the case and Johnson has gone so far as to accuse Nussbaum of “ethnocentric oversight”.33
It is well-known that we are more critical of practices from other cultures than our own and may even perceive foreign practices as “uncivilized” or “primitive”: psychology and philosophy have shown us that we are all products of our socialization and cannot (easily) free ourselves from this perspective.34 Even Nussbaum is aware of this fallacy and attempts to overcome it (e.g., by comparing FGM with oppressive beauty ideals in the US).35 Nonetheless, it appears as if she might have a blind spot when it comes to genital cutting.
3.2 Religious versus Cultural Practices
A second factor that might play a role in the inconsistency of evaluating FGM and MC is the different treatment of religious and cultural practices. Especially in Western countries, religious freedom is protected by rights and laws.36 The same protection does not hold true for cultural freedom.37 Thus, practices that are considered religious are immunized to criticism more than cultural practices. This differential treatment can also be found in Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach, which specifies religious freedom (see capability #438) but not cultural freedom.
From the Western perspective, MC is often understood to be a religious practice – considered an “obligation for Jews and Muslims”39 – while FGM is often (dis)regarded as a cultural practice, as “none of these religions requires it”.40 This difference is regarded substantial enough to, for example, justify treating FGM and MC differently under UK law.41 It is important to note that the association of FGM as cultural and MC as religious is an oversimplification: there are also defenders of FGM who claim it to be inherently tied to religion and there are many cases in which MC is undertaken fully independently of any religious affiliation.42 Nonetheless, this general and widespread distinction may explain the inconsistency in evaluating FGM and MC because:
“It is implied that ‘religious’ circumcision deserves protection and even assistance on the grounds of respect for people’s faiths and own perception of divine commandments, whereas ‘cultural’ circumcision is more like a habit that deserves less tolerance.”43
Interestingly, as Abdulla (2018) argues, many human rights advocates strategically attempt to formulate human rights violations (like FGM) in cultural terms rather than religious terms, as religious practices are more difficult to attack.44 Potentially, our associations of FGM being more cultural than religious may therefore be reminiscent of these attempts.
I would like to add two more thoughts regarding this issue. Firstly, one may wonder whether we are potentially even more reluctant to criticize Jewish religious practices out of fear of anti-Semitic connotations. A (risky) thought experiment here could be to ask ourselves how we would evaluate the practice of MC if it were “only” a Muslim practice and did not have any connection with Judaism. Secondly, without the intention of making an ad-hominem attack (and without anti-Semitic associations), one might also include that Nussbaum herself is not only US-American, but also Jewish. In other words, we can assume that Nussbaum is evaluating practices like FGM and MC not only from the perspective of someone socialized in the US context (of which the majority approves MC as a healthy practice) but also from a Jewish context (of which the majority will regard it as a religious duty).
3.3 Fitting into the Framework of Oppression of Women
“FGM is unambiguously linked to customs of male domination.”45
There is one more factor that might explain the inconsistency in evaluating FGM and MC, which I do not wish to leave out but can only touch upon superficially here, which is the association FGM has with an assumed oppression of women. It is often presumed that FGM is an “expression of oppressive patriarchy”.46 According to Earp and Möller, such an interpretation of FGM “grossly oversimplifies”47 the practice and the different contexts in which it is practiced. In fact, they argue that in most African contexts, FGM and MC are at least superficially egalitarian as they are seen as “complimentary practices” for both sexes.48 Nonetheless, such an association of FGM with oppression of women could offer a further explanation for why FGM and MC are evaluated inconsistently.
4 Proposal of an Alternative Evaluation
In this section, I want to suggest that it would be useful, especially when trying to find (“objective”) criteria for (globally) evaluating the practice of genital cutting, to judge each form as merely the specific practice that it is, completely and utterly independent of its religious or cultural background. Then, we might be less inclined to be inconsistent and fall into the trap of cultural (and religious) bias. There already exist sufficient criteria which enable us to evaluate practices as such. Specifically, Nussbaum’s criteria of harm and involuntariness are very convincing, but they need to be applied consistently so as not to lose their credibility.
My proposal is an extension of Nussbaum’s criteria of harm and involuntariness in the sense that I suggest that the value of both arguments is highest when we apply them in their intersection. With this I mean that both criteria alone do not offer us enough power to renounce practices of genital cutting. For example, if we take harm as the only criterion, we would have to forbid adults to voluntarily undergo a procedure of genital cutting. Whatever we may think of this choice, surely, we must admit that an adult can make this decision for themselves. Similarly, involuntariness as a sole criterion would bring us into trouble because part of parenting is making decisions for children who cannot consent yet, including changes to the body. Thus, the value and strength for evaluation comes from the intersection of both harm and involuntariness, by which we can reject practices that are extensively harmful, and which are performed without consent. It is on the basis of this intersection that we can find a compelling argument against both FGM and MC.
A counterargument to my proposal might include the claim that we cannot evaluate practices independently from their cultural or religious context. And, more importantly, that we want to take the contexts into account in order to respect different religions (and cultures) and honor Nussbaum’s concept of capability #4 (“freedom of religious exercise”). This claim may be somewhat evaded by differentiating between values and practices that are either central or peripheral to the religion (e.g., questioning whether a practice such as genital cutting is seen as a paramount and necessary component of a religion). Since there are people who have decided againstgenital cutting while feeling to be in line with their religion,49 we may be able to argue that a prohibition of genital cutting does not (excessively or unreasonably) oppress the fundamental religious freedom that we value. One may also add here that next to religious freedom, we also value (and wish to defend) fundamental human rights (e.g., the right to bodily integrity) and tolerating religious practices is less convincing when they violate these rights. Additionally, it is important to stress the difference between morally condemninga group and objecting or placing (legal) restrictions on their specific practices. In other words, agreeing to ban such practices does not preclude the possibility of respecting different and cultural heritages.50 Moreover, religions and cultures are not – as is often presumed – fixed, but can adapt and change.51 There remains hope that religious groups will increasingly let go of practices that are deemed unacceptable from the perspective of human rights or arguments of harm and involuntariness.
To conclude, there are sufficient criteria for evaluating practices like genital cutting, regardless of cultural or religious background. In this essay, I have attempted to illustrate the untenability of evaluating FGM and MC categorially differently. This inconsistency may be overcome by applying Nussbaum’s criteria of harm and involuntariness to bothpractices. Based on the comparability of FGM and MC in terms of these criteria, a consistent evaluation would force us to regard both practices as objectionable.
- Female Genital Mutilation,” European Commission, accessed January 14, 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/gender-equality/gender-based-violence/eliminating-female-genital-mutilation_en. ↵
- “Female Genital Mutilation,” World Health Organization, accessed January 14, 2021, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation; “Global Strategy to Stop Health-Care Providers from Performing Female Genital Mutilation,” World Health Organization, 2010, https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/70264/WHO_RHR_10.9_eng.pdf;jsessionid=45C7145D07E09AF998A2C403260504B0?sequence=1. ↵
- European Commission, “Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation.” ↵
- Elizabeth A. Piontek and Justin M. Albani, “Male Circumcision: The Clinical Implications Are More Than Skin Deep,” Missouri Medicine 116, no. 1 (2019): 35. ↵
- Kai Möller, Male and Female Genital Cutting: Between the Best Interest of the Child and Genital Mutilation,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 40, no. 3 (2020): 514, https://doi.org/10.1093/ojls/gqaa001. ↵
- Brian D. Earp, “Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision: Toward an Autonomy-Based Ethical Framework,” Medicolegal and Bioethics, no. October (2015): 90, https://doi.org/10.2147/mb.s63709. ↵
- Here we already see a categorical difference being made in the language: Calling the practice of genital cutting for boys “male genital mutilation” or the practice of FGM “female circumcision” is rejected by the likes of Nussbaum as suggesting a “fallacious analogy” (cf. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 119). I will adhere to this distinction although I reference authors like Johnson, who draw parallels between both practices of genital cutting and therefore prefer the term “male genital mutilation” (as analogous to female genital mutilation). ↵
- Earp, “Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision,” 94. ↵
- Piontek and Albani, “Male Circumcision,” 36. ↵
- Earp, “Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision,” 94–95; Matthew Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation: Beyond the Tolerable?,” Ethnicities 10, no. 2 (2010): 190, https://doi.org/10.1177/1468796810361654; Möller, “Male and Female Genital Cutting,” 517; in which such alteration is conventionally referred to as “female genital mutilation” (or FGMWorld Health Organization, “Male Circumcision: Global Trends and Determinants of Prevalence, Safety and Acceptability,” 2007, https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/43749/9789241596169_eng.pdf. ↵
- Möller, “Male and Female Genital Cutting,” 517; Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation,” 190. ↵
- Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation,” 189–90. ↵
- Margherita Brusa and Y. Michael Barilan, “Cultural Circumcision in EE Public Hospitals – An Ethical Discussion,” Bioethics 23, no. 8 (2009): 471, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8519.2008.00683.x. ↵
- Martha C. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 129. ↵
- Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 120. ↵
- Martha C. Nussbaum, “Women and Equality: The Capabilities Approach,” International Labour Review 138, no. 3 (1999): 237–38, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1564-913X.1999.tb00386.x; Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 124. ↵
- Nussbaum, “Women and Equality,” 235. ↵
- Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 127. ↵
- Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 119. ↵
- Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation: Beyond the Tolerable?,” 184. ↵
- World Health Organization, “Female Genital Mutilation.” ↵
- Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 119. ↵
- Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation,” 184. ↵
- Earp, “Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision,” 94; Möller, “Male and Female Genital Cutting,” 519. ↵
- Earp, “Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision,” 94. ↵
- Earp, “Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision,” 95; Möller, “Male and Female Genital Cutting,” 518–19; Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation,” 189. ↵
- Roksana Alavi, “Female Genital Mutilation: A Capabilities Approach,” Auslegung 26, no. 2 (2015): 1, https://doi.org/10.17161/ajp.1808.9514. ↵
- Earp, “Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision,” 99–100. ↵
- Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 123. ↵
- She even draws a parallel between FGM and oppressive US-American “culturally constructed imaged of beauty” (cf. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 123) in an attempt to overcome a double standard in judging other cultures more than one’s own. It is striking that she finds more parallels between these two issues than between FGM and MC. ↵
- See footnote 7. ↵
- Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation,” 192. ↵
- Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation,” 181. ↵
- Melville J. Herskovits, “Ethnologischer Relativismus Und Menschenrechte,” in Texte Zur Ethik, ed. Dieter Birnbacher and Norbert Hoerster (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1976), 38; Sue Derald Wing, “Whiteness and Ethnocentric Monoculturalism: Making the ‘Invisible’ Visible,” American Psychologist 59, no. 8 (2004): 765; Lance Workman and Will Reader, Evolutionary Psychology. An Introduction, Reprinted (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 238. ↵
- Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 120–24. ↵
- U.S. News Staff, “The 10 Countries With the Most Religious Freedom, Ranked by Perception,” May 3, 2019, https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/slideshows/the-10-countries-with-the-most-religious-freedom-ranked-by-perception. ↵
- Mariam Rawan Abdulla, “Culture, Religion, and Freedom of Religion or Belief,” Review of Faith and International Affairs 16, no. 4 (2018): 104, https://doi.org/10.1080/15570274.2018.1535033. ↵
- Martha C. Nussbaum, “The Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis,” Journal of Legal Studies 29, no. 2 (2000): 1021, https://doi.org/10.1086/468103. ↵
- Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation,” 183. ↵
- Abdulla, “Culture, Religion,” 105. ↵
- Abdulla, “Culture, Religion,” 104. ↵
- Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation,” 199–200; The Guardian, “The Girl Who Said No To FGM,” Youtube Video, 18:54, March 17, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAQldouaOLE&t=897s. ↵
- Brusa and Barilan, “Cultural Circumcision,” 471. ↵
- Abdulla, “Culture, Religion,” 104. ↵
- Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 124. ↵
- Möller, “Male and Female Genital Cutting,” 521. ↵
- Earp, “Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision,” 96. ↵
- Earp, “Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision,» 97; Möller, “Male and Female Genital Cutting,” 522. ↵
- Johnson, “Male Genital Mutilation: Beyond the Tolerable?,” 197; RoseFink, “Whose Body, Whose Rights? (1995),” Youtube Video, 56:51, December 29, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JsieythZvU&t=2534s. ↵
- Richard B. Brandt, “Drei Formen Des Relativismus,” in Texte Zur Ethik, ed. Dieter Birnbacher and Norbert Hoerster (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1976), 44. ↵
- Abdulla, “Culture, Religion,” 103, 110–11. ↵