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I am going to be really brave and say it: all cultures are not equal. There, I have said it. And if some equal opportunity activist wants to report me to the Australian Human Rights Commission, go ahead.

I’ll start with my own country of birth first. In India, prior to British conquest, Hindus had the quaint custom of burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands; the practice was known as suttee.

In the 1840s, British army General Charles Napier enforced a ban on suttee, and a delegation of Hindu leaders approached him to complain that their ancient traditions were being violated. The general is said to have replied: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them.... You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

Illegally practised
I am reminded of suttee when I hear about the shocking practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) which involves ritual cutting and circumcision” of young girls. It is a brutal procedure which causes pain, bleeding, infection and life-long sexual dysfunction. The practice, which was widespread in Africa, is now banned on that benighted continent, and is illegal in Western democracies, but is still allegedly practised secretly in Africa and by some immigrants in the US, Europe and Australia.

FGM became illegal in the US in 1996. Appallingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) this year was considering a “compromise” on the legal prohibition that would allow physicians to perform a “ceremonial nick” on the genitalia of baby girls whose parents request the procedure.

Janice Shaw Crouse, PhD, of Concerned Women for America, and author of Children at Risk (2009), commented: “Clearly, the AAP capitulated their principles for political expediency. They excused their ‘nuanced’ and ‘culturally sensitive’ decision on the basis that ‘some families might take their daughters to other countries’ for the entire ‘circumcision’, so their ‘compromise’ is meant to ‘avoid greater harm’.” (American Spectator, May 25, 2010).

The AAP intended the “ceremonial nick” for baby girls born into families among the 10 million Muslims in the US. As Mark Steyn put it, FGM is a “key pillar of institutional misogyny in Islam: Its entire purpose is to deny women sexual pleasure.” (Washington Times, May 17, 2010).

FGM is not a medical procedure but a cultural, religious or social practice. It was common in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and Mali. The African Protocol on the Rights of Women prohibits “in all states” all forms of “female genital mutilation, scarification, medicalisation and para-medicalisation in order to eradicate them”.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 140 million girls and women have endured clitoridectomies (typically performed between infancy and 15 years old) and live with the consequences — which, in addition to the immediate dangers of infection and severe bleeding, can include long-term problems such as repeated urinary-tract infections and childbirth complications. The procedures are sometimes done under less than ideal circumstances and with crude implements — without anaesthesia and without sterilised instruments.

Crouse comments that today AAP members no longer use the acronym, FGM, choosing instead to use “female genital cutting (FGC)” or “ritual genital cutting”. These terms are meant to be “neutral” and “descriptive” rather than culturally insensitive. Ironically, they oppose only those forms of FGM which “pose the risk of physical or psychological harm” — as if ritual “nicks” have no such risks. One writer described the “harm reduction” as similar to “the difference between amputation and laceration”.

Instead of protecting infants, children and young girls, the AAP has employed a “philosophical equivocation” to accommodate an inhumane Islamic practice that disfigures and subjugates women and denies them normal lives as wives and mothers. Worse, the AAP’s accommodation gives legitimacy to a barbaric and illegal practice and ensures its continuation as a cultural rite of passage. Appallingly, the AAP’s “compromise” was picked up for consideration by the Royal Australian New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG).

Storm of criticism
Fortunately, responding to a storm of criticism, the American Academy of Pediatrics reversed its decision that doctors be given permission to perform a ceremonial nick on girls to keep their families from sending them overseas for the full circumcision. It is to be hoped that RANZCOG also abandons this foolish and harmful idea. The compromise of a “ceremonial nick” ensures its continuation as a cultural rite of passage. Medical organisations should not tip-toe around cultural practices that are abhorrent and cruel.
All cultures are not equal.

Babette Francis, B.Sc. (Hons) is co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc.



Member Organisation, World Council for Life and Family

NGO in Special Consultative Status with ECOSOC of the UN