Billboards Fight Female Genital Mutilation

The ‘Honor Diaries’ team is proud to announce the installment of two billboards  – one in Boston, and one in Dearborn, Michigan, featuring quotes from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle condemning female genital mutilation (FGM).

Michelle FGM billboardSince they were put up, the billboards have gotten a mixed reaction – some say they love the powerful and evocative message, others say the ads make local cultures which might support FGM uncomfortable, others say the signs make the average American uncomfortable, suggesting that they condemn a cultural practice – something which is naturallly unsettling to Americans, who believe in open-mindedness and tolerance.

Last month, I joined fellow ‘Honor Diaries’ activist Jasvinder Sanghera on a talk show in San Diego. We were invited on to discuss how female genital mutilation, honor violence, forced marriage, and subjugation of women affects Americans.

Jasvinder Sanghera

Jasvinder Sanghera

Usually, the interviews in which we have participated about honor violence tend toward support of efforts to preserve the rights of women and protect girls’ from forced practices of all kinds.

But in this case, the host seemed nervous.  He was very careful to defend Muslim society – a couple of times during the discussion – and reiterate that the majority of US Muslims do not take part in the onerous acts we are fighting.  This is certainly true, but he seemed worried about making sure he made the point more than once.

He also suggested that forced marriage and female genital mutilation might be cultural or religious practices protected by the US Bill of Rights.  To this, we certainly could not agree – subjugating another in the name of religion is not a freedom protected by the US Constitution, no matter whether the reason is suggested to be of a religious or cultural nature.

To me, our interview exemplified a genuine American quandary.  On the one hand, Americans want to decide what they think is right or wrong on a fundamental, human level.  They want to take a stand against abhorrent practices.  And yet on the flip side, they are terrified – they do not want to condemn an entire culture for the harmful and unacceptable practices of a small proportion of its members. Americans are free-thinking, non-judgmental, accepting, inclusive, and supportive of a wide array of lifestyles which fit into the concepts of liberty which are indeed enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

So our billboard, which condemns a certain cultural practice, could certainly put some people on the defensive, unsure of where they should stand even before they analyze their true thoughts on the issue.

We must remember that America is not a country which confuses freedom with permissiveness or emancipation with indifference.  Preserving the rights of our fellow Americans is an important value – we cannot allow ourselves to be misled into tacitly supporting the subjugation of some under the premise that others should have the right to oppress them.

If the subjugation of women is a cultural norm, it should not be protected. We are not obligated to swallow anything and everything in the name of culture.  Culture is no excuse for abuse.

Stand up for the rights of women – there is no noble culture in the world which should feel threatened by that.