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7 Law & Ineq. 367 (1988-1989)
The Influence of Cultural Relativism on International Human Rights Law: Female Circumcision as a Case Study

handle is hein.journals/lieq7 and id is 375 raw text is: The Influence of Cultural Relativism on
International Human Rights Law: Female
Circumcision as a Case Study
By Katherine Brennan*
The practice of female circumcision,' prevalent in many
traditional societies throughout the world, became widely publi-
cized in Western countries in the late 1970's.2 The revelation that
girls have their genitals excised as part of an ancient cultural prac-
tice shocked and angered many in the West who learned about this
practice for the first time.3 This angry reaction resulted in inter-
national efforts to eradicate female circumcision. As part of these
efforts, a London-based human rights organization presented a de-
tailed report about the painful consequences of female circumci-
sion to the human rights bodies of the United Nations in 1981.4
This presentation raised an important question which has plagued
human rights proponents for many years. Is it appropriate for the
United Nations' human rights system to criticize longstanding cul-
tural practices that conflict with its established human rights
This question has arisen in the context of increasing accept-
ance of the theory of cultural relativism, and has sparked exten-
* B.A., University of Wisconsin, Madison (1978); J.D., Univeristy of Minnesota
Law School (1990); law clerk at the 1988 session of the U.N. Sub-Commission on the
Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities. This article was a
co-recipient of the Helen I. Kelly Award for best student article in Volume VII,
Law & Inequality. The author would like to thank Professor David Weissbrodt,
Shelly Crocker, and William Green for their assistance on this article.
1. Female circumcision is an expression used in the popular media and
scholarly literature for a variety of female genital operations performed in tradi-
tional societies, generally as part of an initiation ritual. The operations involve ex-
cising varying portions of the female genitalia, depending on the custom of the
practicing society, For a discussion of the types of operations, see infra notes 27-28
and accompanying text. I have chosen to use female circumcision rather than
female genital operations because it is less cumbersome.
2. Rhoda Howard, Women's Rights in English-Speaking Sub-Saharan Africa,
in Human Rights and Development in Africa 46, 66 (Claude Welch & Ronald Melt-
zer eds. 1984).
3. Minority Rights Group, Female Circumcision, Excision and Infibulation,
Report No. 47, at 3 (3d ed. 1985) [hereinafter Minority Rights Group].
4. See infra notes 61-63 and accompanying text for a discussion of this

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