The line between cultural respect and human rights

Even though I would like to think I am mindful of others’ culture and viewpoints, there is a line I do not think should ever be crossed: cultural traditions should not be an excuse for a human rights violation. No, a bat-mitzvah most certainly cannot be compared to going through female genital mutilation (FGM). It shocks me how often I hear students dismissing a clear human rights violation as something that is beyond their control. When Egyptian parliament members declare FGM necessary to keep men in line, it is not the product of a tradition, but of institutionalized misogyny.

According to medical historian David Gallagher, early written records trace FGM back to 163 BC Egypt, where the practice was performed on girls of  marrying age. Initially, this was done to control their sexuality, as it was thought the friction from wearing clothes would, “[begin] stimulating their sexual appetite.”

A year ago, Egyptian lawmaker Elhamy Agina declared FGM necessary, a statement made with blatant disregard towards the anti-FGM regulations put by the Egyptian parliament he is a part of. His only argument: “We are a population whose men suffer from sexual weakness, which is evident because Egypt is among the biggest consumers of sexual stimulants that only the weak will consume […] If we stop FGM, we will need strong men, and we don’t have men of that sort,”  Agina said in a speech to the Egyptian parliament.

Even though it seems Agina is a lone wolf, more than half of young women in 13 African countries have been genitally mutilated, Somalia has the highest rates with 98 percent of women having undergone FGM, according to UNICEF. When a member of parliament makes these not only sexist but highly unfounded remarks, they are not only disrespecting the people they supposedly represent, but the position they hold. Women should not be punished for men’s lack of self-control with an irreversible operation.

Traditions were once radical, new ideas, but are now coveted as unchangeable pillars of culture. Traditions are not rigid but fluid, we should eliminate traditions that violate human rights and encourage discrimination. The tradition of mutilating women is clearly perverse, rooted in a desire to make a woman “pure,” “feminine,” and “clean.” Women do not need their sexual organs cut out to be pure.

Being on the outside looking in, it feels like there is not much we can do. When those in power hold such dangerous ideologies, goals and initiatives set by foreign powers may be rendered useless. Even though legislation is finally being enacted to curb the practice, tradition is still pushing girls to celebrate their mutilation as a grand coming-of-age ceremony. Hence, even with the United Nations aiming for a total repeal of FGM by 2030, not much will happen without severe international condemnations.

If you want to get involved, I implore you: look into charitable organizations that support survivors of FGM with treatment and care, such as the AHA Foundation. The AHA Foundation, which was created by Somalian refugee and FGM survivor Ayaan Hirsi Ali, states that 513,000 women are at risk in the United States alone. Florida outlawed the practice in 2007, but 24 states have yet to follow. Women cannot give proper consent to this practice when they are conditioned to believe the rights to their body are not their own. We cannot accept such a violent practice, even if it is supported by a country’s tradition.