Editorial: Culture is no excuse for cruelty

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1994:

It is with further disgust that we note the opobrium cast upon Afro-American nov-
elist Alice Walker, a distinguished defender of animals, abused women, and children, for
attacking ritual female genital mutilation in her new books Possessing The Secret of Joy and
Warrior Marks. From 85 to 114 million women alive today, mostly black African
Muslims, have suffered the excision of all or part of their clitoris and labia minor in a rite
performed by elder women, without anesthetic or antiseptics, when girls of their culture
reach adolescence. Millions more suffer this procedure each year. Many die of resultant
infection. The purpose of the abuse is to make young women marriageable in a genuinely
patriarchal society by insuring virginity at marriage and chastity thereafter through making
sexual intercourse painful or uninteresting.

Noting that the resultant bleeding during intercourse is a major factor in the hetero-
sexual spread of AIDS, now devastating much of sub-Saharan Africa and spreading north,
12 African nations have fought female genital mutilation through public education since
1984. The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of
Women and Children points out at the grassroots in 24 nations that ritual female genital
mutilation is not demanded by either the Koran or the teachings of any other major religion.
But the mutilation goes on. Representatives of the Inter-African Committee have even
joined apologists for what can only be described as the systematic torture of women and
children in attacking Walker and her one prominent ally, New York Times columnist A.M.
Rosenthal, for meddling in the affairs of a culture to which they don’t belong.
As Rosenthal wrote on December 24, “Any attention to female genital mutilation
arouses angry arguments that it is a deeply imbedded ritual that must be left to local people
to handle, or try to diminish, without foreign interference. The same keep off signs were
posted when the issue was slavery or segregation in America, burning widows alive in
India, binding the feet of Chinese women…The local sensitivity argument is a fraud.”
The same arguments apply to culturally rooted animal abuse, from bullfighting to
hunting and trapping. Culture in this context is a primitive system of social organization
through imposed uniformity. Putting the tribal structure first, it is not to be confused with
the social contract, which protects the well-being of all by respecting the rights of each indi-
vidual, including the right to live free from oppression and suffering. When culture con-
flicts with the humane treatment of people or animals, it is culture that must yield. And it is
our duty to say so, even if the cost of introducing a just and humane social contract is the
destruction of a traditional culture. This is not cultural chauvinism; it is compassion and
common decency, for which we have remade our own culture many times, and continue to
remake it.
Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.