On Excision

PHILOSOPHY PROFESSOR at University of Alabama at Birmingham James Rachels (1941-2003), in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy (3rd Edition, USA: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1999) discusses the case of a 17-year old girl in relation to the practice called “excision” in her native country of Togo in West Africa.
          As reported by the New York Times in a series of articles (mainly by Celia W. Dugger), Fauziya Kassindja arrived at Newark International Airport in 1996 and asked for asylum. She escaped from her country to avoid the permanently disfiguring procedure that is sometimes called “female circumcision.”
          Bearing little resemblance to the Jewish ritual of circumcision, excision is more commonly referred to as “genital mutilation” in Western newspapers. According to the World Health Organization, the practice is widespread in 26 African nations, and two million girls each year are “excised.” In some instances, excision is part of an elaborate tribal ritual, performed in small traditional villages, and girls look forward to it because it signals their acceptance into the adult world. In other instances, the practice is carried out by families living in cities on young women who desperately resist.
            Fauziya Kassindja was the youngest of five daughters in a devout Muslim family. Her father, who owned a successful trucking business, was opposed to excision, and was able to defy the tradition because of his wealth. His first four daughters were married without being mutilated. But when Fauziya was 16, he suddenly died. When Fauziya’s marriage was arranged, preparations to have her excised were also done. Fauziya was terrified, and her mother and oldest sister helped her to escape. Her mother, left without resources, eventually had to formally apologize and submit to the authority of the patriarch she had offended.
            Meanwhile, in America, Fauziya was imprisoned for two years while the authorities decided what to do with her. She was finally granted asylum, but not before she became the center of controversy about how foreigners should regard the cultural practices of other peoples. A series of articles in the New York Times encouraged the idea that excision is a barbaric practice that should be condemned. Other observes were reluctant to be so judgmental—live and let live, they said; after all, our practices probably seem just as strange to them.

Why Thoughtful People May Nevertheless Be Reluctant to Criticize Other Cultures.

Rachel claims that although they are personally horrified by excision, many thoughtful people are reluctant to say it is wrong, for at least three reasons:
1. There is an understandable nervousness about “interfering in the social customs of other peoples.”
Europeans and their cultural descendents in America have a shabby history of destroying native cultures. Recoiling from this record, some people refuse to make any negative judgments about other cultures, especially cultures that resemble those that have been wronged in the past.
We should notice however, Rachels explains, that there is a difference between (a) judging a cultural practice to be morally deficient and (b) thinking that we should announce the fact, conduct a campaign, apply diplomatic pressure, or send in the army to do something about it. The first is just a matter of trying to see the world clearly, from a moral point of view. Sometimes it may be right to “do something about it,” but often it will not be.
2. People feel that they should be tolerant of other cultures.
Tolerance is, no doubt, a virtue—a tolerant person is willing to live in peaceful cooperation with those who see things differently. But there is nothing in the nature of tolerance that requires us to say that all beliefs, all religions, and all social practices are equally admirable. On the contrary, if we do not think that some were better than others, there would be nothing for us to tolerate.
3. People do not want to express contempt for the society being criticized.
But again, as Rachels puts it, “to condemn a particular practice is not to say that the culture is on the whole contemptible or that it is generally inferior to any other culture.” It is always recognized that it could have many admirable features.


If you were Fauziya Kassindja, would you also do what she did? Why?

For students' assignment, use the FB COMMENT SECTION Here: Fauziya Kassindja Case: Excision, Female Circumcision, and Clitoridectomy





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