Graphic by Oscar Emilio Bueso Asfura

Harmful Traditions and Cultural Imperialism

Debates about cultural preservation and cultural dominance, tolerance and diversity, ignore current pressing human rights violations.

Mar 5, 2017

In Australia, vaginal cosmetic surgery is becoming increasingly popular. Women who elect to have the surgery do so because of “culturally-constructed ideals of ‘desirability.’” Over the last decade, the number of women who have had the surgery has tripled. In 2011 alone, over 1500 women reported having undergone the procedure. But what I find particularly fascinating is that an article in the Guardian equates the procedure with the tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM, defined as any procedure that may “intentionally alter or cause injury to female genital organs for non-medical purposes,” is a controversial practice that emerges frequently in debates between cultural preservation and human rights. The procedure reaps no health benefits. Instead, these procedures can often lead to health complications, such as infections due to the unsanitary conditions under which they are often performed, and potentially to complications during childbirth. Over 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone this procedure in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
But are comparisons between vaginal cosmetic surgery and FGM valid? I would disagree. The difference between the two is that FGM is usually carried out in unhygienic conditions, by untrained individuals, and often under coercion. Practices of FGM harm an individual’s health and should, in my opinion, be ended. But some might think otherwise.
Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, voluntarily underwent the procedure of female genital mutilation long after reaching adulthood. Originally from Sierra Leone but raised in the U.S., Ahmadu wrote that she was saddened that her Western “feminist sisters insist on denying us this critical aspect of becoming a woman in accordance with our unique and powerful cultural heritage.” When it comes to some cultural traditions, there is clearly a tension between cultural respect and health and safety.
Dr. Bettina Shell-Duncan, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, disagrees with current foreign-led campaigns to end the practice. She states that there are several forms of what she calls female genital cutting, and not all qualify as mutilation. Some forms include only minimal tissue alteration, similar to an ear piercing or male circumcision. Shell-Duncan notes that, in fact, all forms of FGM collectively result in less pregnancy complications than maternal smoking. The problem, she argues, is that the decision on what forms of FGM are trivial and which are grave is subject to the dictates of the international community. Eventually this might amount to a form of so-called cultural imperialism.
Cultural imperialism is the imposition of a dominant power’s values and norms on non-dominant powers. And this is really the crux of the issue. Attempts by foreign powers to dictate cultural practices within communities is often received with hostility and suspicion. These foreign powers usually seek to maintain their power by imposing their values on peripheral nations. Essentially, global notions of right and wrong are influenced by the values of the current hegemonic power. Justice, in the words of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, is “the advantage of the stronger.” The theory of cultural imperialism suggests that judgments on the ethics of certain traditions are really only based on the cultural norms of dominant countries.
Western powers often abuse their hegemony to enforce their own cultural values of individualism. The logic employed by Western powers in their foreign policy is often flawed. In 2014, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Uganda to try to pressure the government into repealing its harsh anti-homosexuality laws.
The truth is that large groups suppressing freedoms threaten the stability of freedoms elsewhere. If enough people are onboard with an idea it can overtake others. A perfect example of this is how the election of U.S. President Donald Trump has led to an increase in racial intolerance in the U.S.. The West promotes its libertarian message abroad because it is a way to combat any threats to its freedoms. But that is exactly the problem — the West sets itself up for a backlash when it decides to then criticize cultural traditions abroad that it deems immoral or wrong.
I recognize the hypocrisy in the West’s selective involvement. And I find it particularly unfortunate that this hypocrisy harms the West’s credibility when Western powers are trying to carry out policies that may be largely accepted by most people. I recognize the controversial nature of the West’s moral mission abroad and its implications on culture. But I don’t think it matters.
Debates about cultural preservation and cultural dominance, tolerance and diversity, ignore current pressing human rights violations. Discussions about FGM are not issues of cultural destruction or cultural imperialism — they are health issues. I oppose attempts to politicize what are clearly matters of personal well-being. Having moral and political debates about the mutilation of women and girls is unimportant. The conditions under which FGM is performed are largely unhygienic and the procedure itself reaps absolutely no health benefits for its victims. It is very typical of people sitting in positions of privilege, those who have the luxuries of time and safety, to over-politicize and over-moralize issues that are presently harming the psychological and physiological health of countless individuals. Health takes absolute precedence in all matters. Any traditions that harm an individual’s health should be stopped, and this would not be a loss to culture, but a gain to humanity.
Paula Estrada is Deputy News Editor. Email her at
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