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Cultural Relativism: Female Genital Mutilation

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  1. Introduction
  2. Female genital mutilation
  3. Controversies
  4. Conclusion

Anthropology defines cultural relativism as the unbiased viewpoint of a culture different from one's own. The concept of pure culture relativism is a nearly impossible concept to incorporate into one's belief system because one can never fully separate oneself from his cultural identity; however, there are varying degrees to which one can practice this belief. Positive and and negative points exist. A less relative (thus, more ethnocentric) cultural outlook inhibits the ability to learn from another culture by not only restricting the level of trust between participant and observer, but also by limiting the experience taken from the culture. Alternatively, in losing oneself in a relativistic perspective, one loses that which defines his/her moral and ethical values. Without these values, what is the definition of human rights? Where does one draw the line between abuse and freedom to practice cultural and religious customs? ?Human rights include the right to speak freely, to hold religious beliefs without persecution, and to not be murdered, injured, or enslaved or imprisoned without charge? (Kottak 206). This definition brings obvious controversy as to what rights are more important; what if a practice infringes on human rights, but by outlawing it, another right is in turn infringed upon? While it is easier to take an unbiased stance on something such as arranged marriage (which, although by some standards is outdated, but not harmful), how might one feel defending the violent practices, and even celebration, of beating the wife? (Torr 99). Extreme examples of violent cultural practices such as female genital mutilation are an obvious subject of controversies with many objectors; however, before making a hasty judgment on any cultural practice, one must first understand the influence of politics, religion and traditions of the society, and how it is related to cultural practices.

[...] From an ethnocentric point of view, the practice of female genital mutilation might seem an atrocious violation of a woman's rights, but it is important to understand the cultural context in which the practice is performed. As marriage dowries are still common practice in many countries, the removal of pleasure-giving genitalia is a successful method of preserving female chastity and preventing adultery (Torr 99). While the practice seems an unfair trade to people of the Western world, people must understand that the cultural values in place in other countries vary greatly from our own. [...]


[...] Is the problem, then, that many people have with female genital mutilation the age at which modification occurs? In Ethiopia, the age at which girls are circumcised varies between seven days and seven months (French 93). This factor causes the argument to transcend the debate over freedom of choice to the sensitive realm of children's rights. Once again, the Western world's acceptance of abortion asserts a definite ideology of the parent's choice prevailing over the child. A less controversial means of explaining a parent's rule of a child is the age at which one is considered an adult. [...]

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