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Cultural Relativism?– a Feminist Perspective on Female Genital Mutilation

By Caitlyn Flores

~Philanthropy Chair


Cultural Relativism is a topic often debated as cultural intolerance plagues our society. It is the view that ethical and social standards reflect the cultural context from which they are derived. While some believe different cultures should be allowed to continue their practices freely, others believe there needs to be a strict universal moral code for all cultures. The intent of this paper is to argue for the moral regulation of cultures and for a universal standard in which we can judge a particular practice as good or bad while using the example of female circumcision to support my arguments.

Female circumcision is a dehumanizing medical practice which cuts and removes all or some the exterior of the female genitalia. The main purpose of this is to ensure a girl's marriage or family honor, hinder women’s sexual desire, and is often seen as a rite of passage to womanhood. However, this is a social norm in societies deeply rooted in gender inequality where violence against girls and women are socially accepted. Female circumcision is a violation of women’s/girls fundamental human rights and is proven to have many negative psychological symptoms and medical complications like severe pain, prolonged bleeding, infertility, infection, and even death. This practice is highly controversial as it has dangerous implications on women, but some may say it’s necessary as it's an oppressive practice that benefits their need to control and dominate women and their bodies. In regards to cultural relativism, I believe there should be a universal standard we all abide by to ensure dehumanizing practices like this are illegal. I believe these types of practices and beliefs are inherently morally impermissible and there should be strict regulation for female circumcisions in countries where women have little to no rights whatsoever.

The issue of female circumcision doesn’t arise from cultural intolerance. In fact, I often encourage open minded thinking and acceptance of other cultures. However, I find it impossible to support or allow such a dehumanizing practice that strictly goes against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While some cultures may not find female circumcision to be wrong, I attest that this subjective view relates to ethical relativism by how morality differs from society to society. According to Salmon, M. in Ethical considerations in anthropology and archeology, or relativism and justice for all,

“respect for other cultures and a commitment to studying them in the context of their own historical development need not prevent anthropologists from criticizing the morality of some practices of those cultures.”

This alludes that moral statements are not objectively true and that just because a certain group of people believe an action is right, doesn’t mean it actually is.

In conclusion, female circumcision should be regulated and a universal moral standard should be upheld in order to rid the world of these inherently unequal practices. Cultural intolerance plays a role in dividing cultures and shouldn’t be accepted; however, we should accept intolerance to sexist, dehumanizing practices like this.

Quantifying FGM, PRB data source:

Source on Cultural Relativism:

Salmon, M. H. (1997). Ethical considerations in anthropology and archeology, or Relativism and Justice For All. Journal of Anthropological Research, 53(1), 47–63.

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