Most of you will probably be familiar with the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), in which a woman’s external genitalia is partially or totally removed. As per Wikipedia, there are four types of FGM:
The main three are Type I, removal of the clitoral hood, almost invariably accompanied by removal of the clitoris itself (clitoridectomy); Type II, removal of the clitoris and inner labia; and Type III (infibulation), removal of all or part of the inner and outer labia, and usually the clitoris, and the fusion of the wound, leaving a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood—the fused wound is opened for intercourse and childbirth.
The fourth type of FGM covers procedures that do not neatly fit in the above three categories.
I am currently working on a paper on FGM with a former student of mine, Tara Steinmetz. But because we are planning on submitting our paper to a medical journal (and because medical journals are serious about researchers not posting their findings anywhere pre-publication), you will have to wait until our paper is published to hear about our findings.
Rather, the reason why I bring up FGM is because Linda Raftree had an excellent write up on her blog last week about another similarly disturbing practice which I had not yet heard of — breast flattening:
“Breast flattening,” also known as “breast ironing” or “breast massage,” is a practice whereby a young girl’s developing breasts are massaged, pounded, pressed, or patted with an object, usually heated in a wooden fire, to make them stop developing, grow more slowly or disappear completely.
(…) [B]reast flattening is practiced out of a desire to delay a girl’s physical development and reduce the risk of promiscuous behavior. Proponents of the practice consider that “men will pursue ‘developed’ girls and that girl children are not able to cope with or deter men’s attention. They see that promiscuity can result in early pregnancy, which limits educational, career, and marriage opportunities, shames the family, increases costs to family (newborn, loss of bride price, health complications from early childbirth or unsafe abortion).” In addition, there is the belief that girls are not sufficiently intellectually developed to learn about puberty, and therefore should not yet develop breasts. Another reason given for the practice is the belief that girls who develop before their classmates will be the target of teasing and become social outcasts. There is also, for some, the belief that large breasts are unattractive or not fashionable.
My colleague and mentor Don Taylor claims that the existence of FGM can serve as a litmus test to assess whether someone is a true relativist — a true-blue relativist would be okay with FGM.
While I agree that promiscuity can result in very bad outcomes for young women, I find the argument that girls are not sufficiently intellectually developed to learn about sexual and reproductive health particularly repugnant, especially when it leads to practices such as breast flattening. But then again, I am most definitely not a relativist.