Is there a deliberative argument against female genital mutilation?

Elaine Santos has this interesting habit of randomly asking difficult questions over morning tea. This week, her pop quiz question is “Is there a deliberative argument against female genital mutilation?” (Last week it was “What do we do with asylum seekers?”) One of our colleagues who has had this same conversation with Elaine said there is none while I, perhaps worryingly, instinctively thought there is.

Off the bat, I suggested that female genital mutilation is unacceptable under deliberative terms if those who are affected by it (inclusivity) are not given the opportunity to contest the traditional/cultural reasons for such practice (openness).

The openness argument is relatively straightforward. Deliberative democracy opens all principles and practices to challenge including tradition, ideology, expertise and sacred texts. Time-honoured practices, in order to be acceptable and legitimate based on deliberative terms, should be subject to critical tests of reasons. Its advocates as well as its critics should be able to publicly provide other-regarding justifications for supporting or disavowing such practice. A number of ethnographers and anthropologists (e.g. Vicki Kirby, Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf and Janice Boddy) have contributed to the dissemination of alternative discourses on the subject, facilitating greater understanding on female genital mutilation from the point of view of women themselves.

The inclusivity argument – ascertaining those who are “affected by it” – is a more complex one. On its strict definition, we can say that it is young female children who should have a say on the matter or their mothers who usually make the decision for them. It gets trickier, however, when we extend the notion of inclusivity to those who are not directly affected by the practice (in the sense that they are not subjected to it) but consider themselves to have a stake on the issue. This goes right in the heart of the normative dilemma of who should deliberate and decide on the acceptability of this practice. A colleague said that we should only engage with this issue if it occurs within our shores, as in the case of legislative debates on honour killings occurring in immigrant communities in Germany and the UK (our colleague Selen Ayirtman does exemplary work on this subject). Otherwise, we would be meddling in the affairs of other cultures. I questioned the default privilege this argument provides on the nation-state as the primary category for when we should engage in discourse on a particular issue. Global affairs can be viewed using different optics and nation-state or territorial boundary is just one of them. For example, as a woman, I feel that I must be able to contest a practice that systematically perpetuates female sexual oppression and gender asymmetries, even though I live in a western liberal democracy. On the other hand, as someone coming from a post-colonial, neo-liberal cultural background, I feel that I also have something to say about practices that confront the western liberal view of what is good. It is only until this discussion that I realised how tricky the issue of inclusion is in deliberative theory, but perhaps this tension is best left unresolved and contested, maintaining the multiple voices on the subject.

Our morning tea did not end with a consensus or even incompletely theorised agreements. Nevertheless, the discussion on the subject was both productive and engaging, prompting us to think about uncomfortable issues that deliberative democrats needs to face head on.

Nicole Curato is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the ANU. She worked with Prof. John Dryzek and Dr. Simon Niemeyer on an ARC and newDemocracy foundation-funded Project: Creating and Analysing the Australian Citizens’ Parliament. Aside from the theory and practice of deliberative democracy, Nicole’s research interests include fringe forms of political participation and qualitative research methods. Nicole is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the University of the Philippines.