Yael Tamir, a professor of philosophy, looks at what our revulsion at clitoridectomy tells us about ourselvesby Yael Tamir / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Not since masters and Johnson has the clitoris-or its absence-been a topic of such intense debate. In philosophical discussions about multiculturalism, it has taken over the role once played by cannibalism, slavery, lynchings or the Indian tradition of suttee. Clitoridectomy defines the boundary between us and them, between cultures we can tolerate and those we must condemn.
Clitoridectomy is obviously a deplorable practice. It is an extremely painful, traumatising mutilation of young girls that deprives them of sexual enjoyment. We should express no sympathy toward those who practise it.
But we should also be suspicious about the role of clitoridectomy in current political debate. The most straightforward objection is that it is a painful procedure which could lead to permanent damage. But we are not always horrified by such things. National Geographic regularly runs cover photographs of women and men who have undergone body piercing, tattooing, and abnormal elongation of lips, ear lobes, and necks, as a neutral representation of other ways of life and different conceptions of beauty. Hostility to clitoridectomy cannot be driven principally by concerns about physical suffering.
You could say that these examples are irrelevant because they do not include the mutilation of the body. But when is the body improved and when is it mutilated? Western conceptions of female beauty encourage women to undergo a wide range of painful, medically unnecessary and potentially damaging processes-extreme diets, hair removal, face lifts, fat pumping, silicone implants. You might argue that adult women do these things to their own bodies, that their decisions are freely made. But so, in a sense, is female circumcision. Women “consent” to clitoridectomy because the alternative is even more painful-a life of humiliation and deprivation. You may argue that the perpetuation of such a practice fosters false consciousness, which is why women decide to make such choices. But our own culture fosters false beliefs of a similar kind: the majority of the 30,000 women who responded to a Glamour questionnaire preferred losing 10-15 pounds to success in work or love.
So why do we judge one case more harshly than the other? Is it because clitoridectomy damages women’s sexual organs, thus depriving them of sexual enjoyment-a basic need, a right even. But when did our society become so deeply committed to women’s sexual enjoyment? Many features of our society-violence against women and the introduction of unrealisable standards of beauty-turn women against their own bodies and encourage them to suppress their sexuality. Feminists have argued that these phenomena have devastating effects on the ability of women to enjoy sex, yet little is done to change this oppressive reality.
Perhaps if there were no physiological barriers to sexual enjoyment, women’s lives would be better. But women’s ability to lead rewarding lives does not depend solely on their sex lives. Sexual enjoyment has acquired a mythical status in our society, as both the most sublime and most corruptive pleasure. Supporters of clitoridec- tomy stress the corruption: they believe that the pursuit of sexual pleasures may lead a person astray. This assumption is not alien to western schools of thought. And from Plato to Kant to Kohlberg, philosophers have urged that women are naturally light-hearted, prone to temptation, and therefore less able to think in moral terms. They need special guidance, restraint, and protection.
The real problem with clitoridectomy is socio-political. It is yet another way of oppressing women, of seeing them as the bearers of children and as a source of pleasure to men. Does the overwhelming disgust at clitoridectomy signal an emerging commitment to radical change-to ensuring equal social, economic, and political status for women? I am afraid not. Emphasising the practice’s distance from our own conventions allows us to condemn them for what they do to their women, support the struggle of their women against their primitive, inhuman culture, and remain silent on the status of women in our own societies.
Multicultural exchanges raise acute concerns not because they suggest the impossibility of cross-cultural conversation, but because they confront us with our own deficiencies. When we look closely at practices that appear to be as distant from our own tradition as possible, the differences start to fade. It is time to approach multicultural exchanges as a way to understand and improve our own culture.