The Common Good
January-February 1996

Dealing With Difference

by Kari Jo Verhulst | January-February 1996

When cultural diversity clashes with human rights.

A few years ago in a too warm bookstore, I came across a coffee-table book called The Circle of Life: Rituals From the Human Family Album. Compelled by the title, I thumbed through pictures of rituals and customs surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, and coming-of-age and stopped on the face of a young girl turned up in pain and anguish. The caption indicated that the pictured child had just undergone "female circumcision" and described the practice's widespread and diverse forms throughout the world. I became queasy and nearly fainted.

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My inability to temper that visceral reaction with respect for those who actually live through the trauma still dismays me. I also am enraged by my impotence to defend the girl.

The World Health Organization estimates that 114 million women undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) each year, usually before they reach puberty. In the most extreme form, the entire outer genitalia are removed and the two sides of the vulva sutured together until marriage, leaving only a tiny opening for the excretion of blood and urine. From a Western perspective, the procedure is cruelly unnecessary and bizarre. It causes harmful scarring, leaves women prone to infection and hemorrhaging (especially during pregnancy and childbirth), and significantly inhibits sexual pleasure and freedom of movement.

But in the eyes of the parents who have their daughters circumcised, it is a rite of passage no more unusual than a bat mitzvah or the advent of menstruation. To them, "circumcision" ensures sexual purity and health, and it is a necessary step to make a girl marriageable and therefore acceptable in her community.

FGM, once considered a "foreign" issue, is prevalent in certain immigrant communities in North America where belief in the "dirtiness" of female genitalia propels the practice despite efforts to halt it. Many families save up to fly a circumcisor across the Atlantic Ocean or to send their daughter back to their homeland to be mutilated, lest the girls become wild and sexually aggressive like American women.

THUS FAR, U.S. lawmakers and physicians have been uncertain and divided about how to respond to this rather obvious violation of human rights. Efforts to pass laws prohibiting the practice (modeled on laws found in most of Europe and in Canada) have been delayed indefinitely in the U.S. Congress. In Oregon and New Jersey, judges have ruled inconsistently and with trepidation in cases in which women sought political asylum on the ground that their daughters would be mutilated if returned to Africa.

It is an issue easily abandoned since it does not directly touch "our" daughters and sisters, and readily turned away from since it evokes such anger and repugnance. Yet how we respond judicially, legislatively, and communally-as citizens and as Christians-is indicative of just how committed we are to a truly diverse nation that maintains a commitment to civil and human rights.

We are a country inhabited by a variety of races, nations of origin, creeds, theological traditions, and sexual preferences which singularly or joined together in hyphenated-labels often define who we are and where we stand. Living with difference-viewed by some as a benchmark of virtue and by others as a sign of irreversible social disintegration-has been a national preoccupation for quite some time, and we are living in the throes of a backlash fueled by diversity fatigue and white-guilt exhaustion.

As Christians of conscience, our model for responding to issues like FGM must come from a God who listens. Wallowing in our discomfort and revulsion with politically conservative mavericks on the Hill or with those who painfully mutilate little girls is futile and unfaithful. To live with difference and speak out against abuse requires careful listening and a genuine attempt to understand what motivates the behavior we want stopped. This is what the Republican Party did so brilliantly to draft their Contract With America; they listened to people's fears and pains, only to stop listening once they'd accrued enough sentiment to manipulate for political gain.

To really listen to the fears and motivations of those with whom we differ and disagree demands a commitment to respect our neighbors that exceeds our need to be right or heard. This does not mean that we should not speak out against injustice. But as with the effort to end FGM, the greatest champions are those who reach out to their neighbors, establish trust, and talk openly but gently about the fears that underlie such behaviors and the harm they cause. It is an arduous and time-consuming process, but it is our only option if we are to achieve long-lasting impact based on justice and compassion.

 

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