There’s no place for ethnic arrogance, but genital mutilation is different, writes Karen Kissane.
NINETEENTH-CENTURY Westerners, confident of their cultural superiority, had no qualms about trying to stamp out ugly foreign customs. Britain’s empire builders banned the Indian tradition of suttee, in which Hindu widows were burnt on their husbands’ funeral pyres; Europeans led the fight against foot-binding in China.
Colonialism had many evils, but it shone a few lights in dark places, stopping some peoples from eating their enemies and others from leaving their girl babies out to die. But ethnic arrogance has no place in multicultural worlds like today’s Australia. How, then, do we deal with minority group traditions that the majority abhor, such as genital mutilation of little girls? How far should tolerance for diversity and respect for the values of others stretch? It has been known for some time that people in some ethnic communities, particularly those from Africa and the Middle East, are circumcising their daughters. Some girls are done on kitchen tables here, some are sent back to the old country and others, police alleged several years ago, are done by Australian doctors. “Female circumcision” ranges from removal of the hood of the clitoris or the clitoris itself to infibulation, in which the clitoris, the labia majora and the labia minora are cut out and the remaining flesh sewn together, leaving a small opening for urine and menstrual flow.
It effectively castrates women, leaving them with sexual pain instead of pleasure and ensuring their chastity as maidens and their fidelity as wives. It is a 5000-year-old tradition that parents still inflict on their daughters in order to make them marriageable and acceptable to their own communities. While no hard figures are available, federal health and legal authorities have heard anecdotal evidence of it here and say it is reasonable to assume that migrants such as African refugees are bringing the custom with them.
Australia has been slow to deal officially with the problem. Chief Inspector Vicki Fraser, the head of Victoria’s community policing squad, warned six years ago that the issue was being ignored because of a reluctance to create tensions in a multicultural society. Federal officials contacted for this story sighed that they knew the issue had been a time bomb, but that there had been concern about how best to deal with it without creating a racist backlash. How can you publicise an issue like this without arousing anger and disgust in other Australians? How do you convince women who have been circumcised that their daughters should not be deformed this way without making the mothers feel like freaks? Mutilation, after all, is in the eye of the beholder’s culture. Our criminal law does not recognise any right to consent to bodily harm, or any right by parents to consent to bodily harm to their children.
But we do have the right to consent to medical procedures that are painful and non-therapeutic, such as cosmetic surgery. The desire to have a nose broken and reshaped, a face cut open and tightened, or tissue removed from a large breast also springs from a longing to be accepted by the community. It may be sad but it is not, in our culture, considered bizarre.
But genital mutilation is different. It deprives women of a normal physical function, leaves them with serious long-term health problems and is done when they are children and cannot give informed consent.
Australian political leaders have long condemned it and threatened legal consequences for anyone involved, but its legal status is still unclear. The Australian Law Reform Commission has argued against special legislation criminalising it, saying that offenders could be charged under existing criminal law, and that, in any case, education would be a better tool for change than prosecution. The Australian Family Law Council, which advises the Attorney-General, recommends much stronger action.
The council’s discussion paper on the issue, due out next month, recommends federal legislation outlawing genital mutilation. It also proposes making it a criminal offence to send a child out of the country to have it done elsewhere. If the proposal is adopted Australia, like Europe, will jail offending parents. The council has rejected the argument that genital mutilation is a religious custom.
The chairman, John Faulks, says religious leaders deny that it is a Muslim practice or required by the Koran. Mr Faulks says it is important that laws be passed to clarify doubts about whether such cases can be prosecuted and in order for Australia to comply with its obligations under international conventions on the rights of the child. This, then, would be the limit of multicultural tolerance.
There have always been limits. We do not allow Muslims to cut off the hand of a thief or stone an adulteress. People from polygamous cultures must respect our bigamy laws and men from more patriarchal societies must learn that in this country, children of a broken marriage do not automatically belong to the father. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not permitted to refuse a sick child a necessary blood transfusion. The right of a child to protection outweighs the right of the parent to follow tradition.
Genital mutilation should be criminalised if migrants are to get a clear message about how serious a practice it is. Opponents of criminalisation argue that it sends the problem underground, causing more hardship for the girls. But that argument, like the argument against mandatory reporting of other forms of child abuse, makes no sense; the problem is already beyond the law. Even in the countries from which these migrants come, human rights activists oppose the practice.
But change must also come from within. Education programs should be set up to ask parents to examine their beliefs and to ask mothers to remember their own shock and pain and grief. The American writer Alice Walker, whose last novel was about a woman who had been mutilated, has been asked why women have helped weave such social and religious significance around what is, in essence, a horror. She said that people carrying an unendurable hurt create an alternative reality to make the pain more bearable, and that this is what must change if we are to stop attacks on the innocent face of the vulva.
First published in The Age.