FGM tool
A homemade tool used in Uganda for female genital mutilation.

Humans do the strangest of things for the most-absurd of reason. For example, some people wilfully choose to experience more pain. However, these people often find ‘good’ reasons for harming themselves. So what justification is there for stopping them?

Let us now consider the specific case of female genital mutilation (FGM) to illustrate the problem.

FGM is a brutal and clinically needless practice. But while the vast majority of FGM cases are performed on young, nonconsenting girls and violate their rights, their autonomy, and their medical wellbeing, it has been argued by some philosophers, such as Diana Meyers, that to undergo the procedure can be an autonomous choice. According to Meyers, with the skill of self-discovery, adult women provide ‘substantive reasons’ (e.g. to test their physical endurance prior to labour pains and demonstrate morally appropriate fertility).

So what is the problem? We are happy to accept other self-harming acts: it is seen as a great achievement for a climber to reach the summit of a huge mountain, such as K2, in fatally dangerous conditions, while we respect someone for walking barefooted across burning coals. In fact, we usually applaud these people for their courage. Yet our praise isn’t afforded to women who choose to undergo FGM. Isn’t this simply inconsistent, that we afford recognition to parts of cultures we do like but not parts of cultures we don’t like?

Then again, maybe none of these people ‘chose’ their preferences because they were manipulated. But can you really claim that you weren’t manipulated into having your preferences? And can the mountain climber and the barefooted person walking across burning coals really claim autonomy over their choices and successfully argue that their choices had nothing to do with factors such as cultural norms and peer pressure? It isn’t clear that FGM is a self-harming act which is fundamentally different to many others.

We should probably challenge FGM, in the general case, because it’s an oppressive practice which is foisted on young women to sexually control them. But for some adult women, specifically, what reasons are there to intervene and deny their autonomy?

On what grounds are your reasons more important than someone else’s?

Can we at least agree that humans are peculiar creatures?