Female Genital Mutilation is Not Defensible on the Basis of Moral and Cultural Relativism

Written by Alma Claire / Art by Joyce Lee

Moral and cultural relativism says ‘no particular culture is superior to another when examining issues of ethics, morality, law or politics’ (Danial 2013). In other words, that morality, rather than being universal in nature or application, is entirely relative to its environment. Consequently relativists have opposed the moves made by advocates to ban female genital mutilation (FGM), on the basis that every society should be granted the liberty to practice that which aligns with their beliefs and norms, independent of cross-cultural ‘imperialist imposition’ (ibid). This essay does not investigate whether FGM can be defended on the grounds of another moral philosophy, but will argue that there are at least three fundamental arguments which set out why, despite assertions from relativists, the practice of FGM is not defensible on the basis of moral and cultural relativism.

Before continuing, it is imperative to understand the nature of moral relativism and the way in which it is used to defend FGM. Unlike particularists (who assert that there are no absolute moral principles), relativists hold that any moral axiom is only true in so far as it is relative to something else; that ‘something’ being a culture, society, or historical context for instance. Thus, any claims which intend to subvert the practice on the grounds of it being ‘unethical’, are opposed by the moral relativist in their claim that the truth of the practice’s morality is relative to its cultural context.

FGM is a procedure which deliberately damages healthy genital organ tissue and interferes with the natural function of the female body for ‘non-medical reasons’ (ibid); those reasons being the significant cultural meaning of the practice as a social and religious rite of passage. It has been the source of much controversy between:

a) Those who believe that the procedure can be judged by some set of universal standards;

that we are connected at least by the common cause of human rights and thus we are united against any form of discrimination, inequality, and violations of human rights (ibid).

b) The moral and cultural relativists who say that any such judgment (and subsequent attempts to ban the practice) is imperialistic in its intolerance of certain cultures based on the false claim that moral principles are ubiquitous. (ibid)

However, despite the concerns and claims raised by those relativists there are three lines of reasoning as laid out below, which support the notion that FGM cannot be defended successfully, not only because it perpetuates gender inequality and violates the fundamental and inalienable human right to life free from cruel, inhumane treatment (ibid), but also because it inflicts undeniable physical and psychological harm.

i) Gender Inequality:

While the World Health Organisation and UN argue that FGM is discriminatory on the basis of gender and is a manifestation of gender inequality (Hehir 2016), there are those who have directly countered this by claiming that much of the discourse around FGM and the desire to ban it has failed to include male genital cutting (MGC) as part of the discussion (Darby 2016); many Kenyan males, like females, undergo genital surgery of some kind. Thus it could be asserted that the idea of the practice as exclusive to women on the discriminatory basis of gender is not only unfounded (Shweder 2016), but also that those bodies who advocate for the banning of female genital mutilation show unjustified discrimination with respect to gender (Darby 2016) themselves.

However, the practice is discriminatory, at least in a more pervasive way, towards women. Not only is the procedure itself undeniably more physically harmful in the immediate and long term for women and girls, but the intention behind the practice – rooted largely in a desire to prevent women from experiencing natural human sexuality (Nelson 2016) whilst conversely aiming to promote this very ideal for men – is arguably a violation of personal autonomy and sexual rights (Danial 2013).

Although the genital procedures that boys undergo are designed to initiate him into manhood, thereby securing his place of respect and importance both within the community as a whole and within his home; for females, the practice serves to ‘curtail her sexual desire by making her more appealing to a man’ (ibid) and is primarily concerned with gender-specific notions of ‘virginity’ as a necessary requirement of morality and family honour (Kopelman 2014), distinctly marking an imbalanced power dynamic.

If moral relativists want to defend FGM successfully, they must counter these concerns by showing that the socio-psychological ‘damage’ (namely gender power imbalance) is in fact an external absolutist judgement that has not considered moral relativity. Of course it could be argued that the notion that sex should be pleasurable for women is not a universal one, and that in many cultures female sexuality is not only unimportant, but actually deeply problematic; that the insistence for equal sexual pleasure is a fundamentally ‘western notion’ and that it is imperialistic in nature to instruct or pass judgment on the sexual norms and behaviours of another society.

Even if this is true and we accept that both men and women in these cultures are unconcerned with female entitlement to sexual pleasure, or that it is somehow an inherently western notion, I would argue that it is in fact the very idea of valuing men’s sexual pleasure over and above women’s – perhaps even at the cost of women’s health and wellbeing – that is problematic in perpetuating gender inequality and imbalanced power dynamics both privately and publicly. Furthermore, the relativist fails to explain why then there are women within these cultural contexts who oppose the practice and its adjacent gender inequality.

ii) Fundamental Human Right: 

FGM not only threatens gender parity, but – perhaps more problematically – is a ‘violation of fundamental human rights (Hehir 2016). Here the question must be asked to relativists: ‘Surely there are some rights, such as health, that are universal in nature?’

Some might claim that the practice does, or at least intends to, promote health and in fact, from their cultural perspective, the disallowing of the procedure would worsen and threaten the health of women. Relativists say that simply abolishing the procedure is unethical in and of itself and thus a respect for the rights of culture is imperative when seeking potential remedies (Kopelman 2014).

However, there is overwhelming evidence which shows that the practice does in fact have devastating, undeniable health risks and complications, ranging from minor urinary tract infections to fatal haemorrhaging. The practice could arguably be viewed from a purely medical standpoint as being a health risk to the individual, and if we agree that the right to health is universal, then the health risks alone are reasonable grounds ‘in support of the abolition of the practice of FGM as a whole’ (Danial 2013).

It is worth considering that any concerns about ‘barbarous and inhumane’ practice (Gans 1996) raised externally to the society/culture could be rooted in problematic imperialism; something the West has historically been guilty of (ibid).

But what if after philosophically analysing and culturally debating, we arrive at the conclusion that in fact our moral intuition – which we cannot deny the validity of (ibid) – is distinctly ‘universal’ in nature rather than being particular to our own socio-cultural context, and thus that we have a moral duty/obligation to judge – even interfere in – societies by the same standard? Those who oppose cross-sociocultural moral judgements should perhaps consider the dichotomy that (Kopelman 2014) by proposing relative cultural norms as ‘ethically justifiable’ on the basis of moral relativism then surely ‘some intercultural judgements about female circumcision/genital mutilation’ also hold some moral authority (ibid).

A further point in the indefensibility of FGM on the basis of it being a violation of human rights, addresses the claim by some relativists that judgment is unethical precisely because the culture being judged views the practice as morally unproblematic. Thus it is apt to note ‘even within societies that practice FGM, a plurality of views exists’ (Moschovis 2002), and while the voices of the powerful in these countries are often loudest, they should not necessarily be mistaken as representative of the culture as a whole. The oppressed need to be heard in conjunction with the socio-cultural contextual consideration:

‘A recent study in central Sudan indicates a growing disenchantment with the practice among younger mothers, a moral flux that is important in informing discussion of FGM.’ (ibid)

In other words, moral relativists should be careful – when defending certain practices on the basis that to condemn them is cultural discrimination – that those who are affected most profoundly by the practice are in fact willing it to end.

iii) Physical and Psychological Harm:

The final and perhaps most convincing, or at least hardest to challenge even for the moral/cultural relativist, is that FGM is detrimental to the health of women and girls (Danial 2013). Ultimately, ‘FGM procedures are mutilations because they intentionally alter or injure the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’ (Danial 2013). Even for the relativist, health itself cannot be relative.

Shweder argues that contrary to Western interpretation of mutilation, the practice is often culturally perceived as being indicative of an individual’s maturation, both physically and socially (Shweder 2016). Many have countered that in fact some of the health problems – infection from unsterilised needles, urinal and menstrual blockage from the sewing of vaginal lips, etc. (Danial 2013) – posed by the procedure are in direct correlation with the number of non-medical practitioners who perform them (ibid); that if the West wanted to offer help, they could provide medical resources and information and practitioners to ensure that the procedure is carried out safely. For the relativist, the banning of FGM in itself is not problematic, but only if it is suggested or advocated by outsiders is it ethically unjust. Should a woman in that culture reject the practice of her own accord and mobilise her society to reconsider the morality of the practice, this is acceptable (ibid).

In so far as the health concerns raised, there has been no justifiable explanation as to why the practice – the risks of which can be life threatening (ibid) – should be overlooked on the grounds of cross-cultural differences. Beck asserts that the ‘harm reduction approach’ will continue to be unsuccessful in trying to eradicate the procedure entirely from cultural norms if they do not seek to find a compromise (Beck 2017), whereby ‘cultural relativity is not entirely negated in trying to find pragmatic alleviations to a harmful cultural practice’ (Danial 2013). It has been suggested that those against FGM should instead focus on promoting the ‘least invasive and least harmful forms of genital mutilation – such as very minor symbolic incisions – and provide communities safe and sterile environments to perform them in’ (Beck 2017).

However, cultural relativists also note that the procedure serves an important cultural purpose which must not be underestimated; that genital “reshaping” procedure ‘promotes a sense of wellbeing and is experienced as an enhancement’ by the young boys and girls, enhancing their self esteem and so the argument that says FGM is problematic on the count that it alters genitals for “non-medical” reasons, has not considered certain other cultural and religious factors (Danial 2013).

This directly contradicts claims that the practice does physical and psychological harm (Shweder 2016). Cultural relativists argue that anyone seeking to ban the practice should not underestimate and acknowledge the very real risk of alienation that young women face should they choose to reject the tradition (Danial 2013). Indeed, they claim that to impose one’s own standards and societal norms on a culture to the extent that individuals are ‘displaced from their own societies’; to deny those individuals the opportunity to fulfil their human desire to ‘belong’ is the height of imperialism (ibid).

But this can be countered by proponents of banning FGM by raising the question of whether the psycho-emotional ‘benefits’ of the procedure for the individual:

a) Outweigh the potential physical harm and risks associated.

b) Only exist as a manifestation of existing problematic cultural notions of gender, etc.

As argued by Danial, ‘where FGM is a social convention, the social pressure to conform to the value system of that society is a strong motivation to perpetuate the practice.’ Thus the act might be so highly regarded by respected and important members of the community that young girls might even be happy to partake to ensure that they receive a sense of love, belonging and acceptance.

But if a young girl knew that there were no negative socio-cultural consequences – such as familial shame, inability to marry, being outcast etc. – by refusing the procedure, would she still choose to partake? If the answer is no, then any argument that claims the practice offers a sense of wellbeing falls through.

Addressing the practice as seen in the ritual’s association with a woman’s religious identity cannot be underplayed as profoundly important for both the individual and the community (Moschovis 2002). However, it is worth dissecting and analysing how much of the religious esteem associated with the practice for women is exploited and manipulated socio-culturally as a means to further pressure young girls to conform; in other words, in the same way that certain biblical justifications were used to explain and condone slavery on the basis that one race was more valuable than the other, perhaps there are those reasonings used to justify FGM which we cannot afford to allow regardless of whether they are rooted in religion.

At least Wilkinson argues that in fact when considering the moral defensibility of FGM, the relativist’s idea of “cultural value” should have no place at all; that relative cultural norms can be changed should ethics require it of us. We can ‘keep parts of rituals that connect us with our forebears, while rejecting others’; for example, certain Maasai women have developed an alternative to the traditional rite of passage which does not include genital cutting (Wilkinson 2014).

Three arguments concerning gender equality, fundamental human rights, and physical/psychological harm, have been put forward as reasons to advocate the justifiability of exercising moral judgement as it pertains to the procedure, or at least to challenge those claims in favour of it as advocated by moral cultural relativists. It can be said that those arguments have at least in some notable way dealt with the various objections as offered by relativists pertaining to the right, and perhaps moral duty, of proponents of banning FGM to pass moral judgement in accordance with some universal ethical standard; that despite our cultural differences, ‘certain moral claims can be challenged, even where we have different cultural values’ (Kopelman 2014) and that perhaps relativists have been unsuccessful in meaningfully countering the arguments put forward. While the practice itself might be justifiably permissible within a different philosophical framework, this essay has shown that female genital mutilation is not entirely defensible on the basis of moral and cultural relativism.


Beck, Daniel. “Harm Reduction, Moral Relativism, and Female Genital Mutilation” The Brindle Post: Ethics in the News and Culture Explained (22 May 2017) [Online] <https://www.prindlepost.org/2017/05/harm-reduction-moral-relativism-female-genital-mutilation/> (Accessed 21 Nov. 2019)

Danial, Sandra. “Cultural Relativism vs. Universalism: Female Genital Mutilation, Pragmatic Remedies ” Prandium – The Journal of Historical Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 1-10 (Spring, 2013), Published by: The Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto Mississauga  [Online] <https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/prandium/article/download/19692/16296/ > (Accessed 20 Nov. 2019)

Darby, Robert. “Moral Hypocrisy or Intellectual Inconsistency?: A Historical Perspective on Our Habit of Placing Male and Female Genital Cutting in Separate Ethical Boxes.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, vol. 26 no. 2, 2016, p. 155-163. Project MUSE, (2016) [Online] <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/627257> (Accessed 27 Nov. 2019)

Gans, Eric. “Female Genital Mutilation: Cultural Relativism and Moral Absolutism.” Chronicles of Love and Resentment, no.43 (18 May 1996) [Online] <http://anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw43/> (Accessed 22 Nov. 2019)

Hehir, Brid. “FGM: Between Moral Relativism and Moral Hypocrisy” Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Matters (3 August 2016) [Online] <https://www.shiftingsands.org.uk/moral-relativism-moral-hypocrisy-reframing-debate-fgm/> (Accessed 25 Nov. 2019)

Kopelman, Loretta M. “Female circumcision/genital mutilation and ethical relativism” Research Gate (28 April 2014), Published by: East Carolina University [Online] <https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Loretta_Kopelman/publication/11706885_Female_circumcisiongenital_mutilation_and_ethical_relativism/links/0c960535e6edd16dd3000000/Female-circumcision-genital-mutilation-and-ethical-relativism.pdf?origin=publication_detail > (Accessed 23 Nov. 2019)

Moschovis, Peter P. “When Cultures Are Wrong” JAMA Network (4 September 2002) [Online] <https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1845524> (Accessed 29 Nov. 2019)

Nelson, Jamie Lindemann. “Relativists and Hypocrites: Earp on Genital Cutting.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, vol. 26 no. 2, 2016, p. 165-172. Project MUSE (2016) [Online] <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/627258> (Accessed 27 Nov. 2019)

Shweder, Richard A. “Equality Now in Genital Reshaping: Brian Earp’s Search for Moral Consistency.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, vol. 26 no. 2, 2016, p. 145-154. Project MUSE (2016) [Online] <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/627256> (Accessed 22 Nov. 2019)

Wilkinson, Dominic. “Cultural relativism and female genital mutilation” Practical Ethics, Ethics in the News (7 February 2014), Published by: University of Oxford [Online] <http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2014/02/cultural-relativism-and-female-genital-mutilation/> (Accessed 23 Nov. 2019)

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