An article in volume 345 of the BMJ (8 December 2012) argued strongly that more should be done to prosecute perpetrators of female circumcision / female genital mutilation.1 The procedure is illegal in both the UK and France but the latter country is much more assertive in trying to root out the practice, we are told. Not only do most people in Europe oppose the procedure but they find it abhorrent. Clearly, the idea of cultural relativism is not carried over to female circumcision – cultural relativism is not an absolute and there are limits to the philosophy of live and let live. But where are those limits? When Vicky, my then wife to be, accompanied me to Dr Hastings Banda’s Malawi back in 1981, she was not allowed to go around in jeans. Where between the wearing of jeans and female circumcision does cultural relativism break down? In France, the niqab is outlawed in public places but that strikes me as illiberal – I think people should be allowed to go round dressed in anything they like – personally, I would not like to see people walking around in tasteless garb (or no garb at all) but I certainly do not think people should be locked up for doing so. What about a doctor wearing the niqab at work? That I would not condone – the practice of medicine is an empathetic art and to deliberately reduce one’s ability to engage with patients and use expression to provide comfort, support, attention and even amusement is a therapeutically restricting ordinance.
A principle is starting to emerge – people should be free to disport themselves as they wish in a public place. It may be distasteful to others but does not harm them beyond that. Similarly, free speech has the capacity to offend – bloggers beware. However, society loses more by inhibiting free speech than it would by limiting it. Stupid, offensive and erroneous remarks can be countered by rational argument. Exceptions should be circumscribed – incitement to violence, perhaps.
What about physical hurts though? Must those all be criminalised? I had to come to it eventually – what about male circumcision then – should Jews and Muslims be subject to punitive sanction in defence of the noble foreskin? There are those who say that if female circumcision is banned then the same should automatically apply to male circumcision. The conclusion may be correct but the argument is lousy, since the consequences of each intervention are very different. They may have the same name but they are most certainly not the same thing. There are even some things in favour of male circumcision – fewer bladder and other infections and protection against HIV and cervical cancer in the partner. On the other hand, it is quite a brutal thing to do to an infant if not performed under anaesthesia and does not seem to warrant the risks of the latter. I think boys should be left alone until they reach the age of consent but that is not tantamount to wishing to criminalise the procedure when carried out in infancy.
It is difficult to define exactly where the line should be drawn but one thing is clear – there is a massive difference between what is preferred and what is tolerable under law, and this distinction lies close to the beating heart of democracy.
As to how cultural differences arise in the first place, that is a fascinating anthropological question for another blog post.
1 Lloyd-Roberts S. UK’s shameful record on female genital mutilation. BMJ 2012. Available from http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e8121.