Deconstructing Nicholas Kristof’s “A Rite of Torture for Girls”

Today’s guest post is by Olugu Ukpai, Law PhD Candidate, University of Reading.  You may know him through my writing about his work with CHAMA. I asked Olugu to read Nicholas Kristof’s op ed in the NY Times called “A Rite of Torture for Girls.”  This is his thought provoking response. It is a long one, but so worth the read.  We look forward to your thoughts on this sensitive subject.

My response to Nicholas Kristof’s article examines female genital mutilation (FGM) discourse in the Western’s paradigm of imperialistic assumption (IA). My response neither canvasses for the abolition of nor justifies FGM. It only interrogates Kristof’s FGM discourse in the West by examining the manner western critics and their non-western allies have justified their condemnation of this “torture”. It also juxtaposes this with the attitude in the West to similar western practices and the limited Western concept of human rights which he fails to knowledge. It is averred that unless a more grass roots approach to empowering women practitioners to control their bodies by directly seeking their opinions, African women practitioners will remain marginalized, discriminated and violated.

Nicholas D. Kristof is described as “a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times. A veteran journalist, author and human rights advocates who has travelled widely providing compassionate insight into global heath, poverty and gender issues in developing world. Amongst his “unpleasant experiences” include “malaria”. It is probably because of his interests in human rights and gender issues in the so called “uncivilized” world that inspired him to write his ambitious piece about FGM titled, A Rite of Torture for Girls.

Kristof presents FGM as “grotesque of human rights abuse” and a “torture” “inflicted by mothers on daughters they love”. He describes the practice as a form of “oppression that women themselves embrace and perpetuate”. For Kristof, the practice is cultural, involving the carving out of the clitoris and labia in order to “lower sex drive” without anesthesia. “Cutters” use “wild rural thorns for stitches” with many complications. Interestingly, Kristof expressed his frustration that four decades of Western eradication campaign has been futile because, African women regard Western approach as “cultural imperialism”? which Kristof himself says that “it’s… justified”, but only to conflate his position when he acknowledge that “the most effective efforts against female genital mutilation are grass-roots initiatives by local women working for change within a culture”.

From the empirical sources juxtaposed here and there in the article, it seems clear that Kristof visited Somaliland and interviewed few unsuspected locals to justify his IA about FGM from where he generalized about the practice. This IA perspective is signified in the categorical title of his article: A Rite of Torture for Girls without any question mark. It seems that the Kristof had already concluded his story about this “torture” before travelling to Somaliland, first to add to his fame “as one of the few Americans to visit every member of the “Axis of Evil”, second, to add to his growing list of laurels. Although Kristof writes with passion to end this “torture”, he did so in an unfortunately unreflective way; diverting focus from third world’s pressing social and economical travails which arise from the exploitation and manipulation of its economy by the West. I couldn’t have been more disappointed at the end of the article as I was left wondering what practical action Kristof took to help the Somaliland women, especially Ms Ahmed’s daughter who suffered “a horrific pelvic infection and urinary blockage” after undergoing the procedure by her own poor mother.

In this respect, however, I would like to note that there are some unresolved tension in the author’s subjective attempt at discrediting the practice as a “torture”, “grotesque of human rights abuse”, and as an “oppression that women themselves embraces and perpetuate” on one hand and the many unanswered questions raised. Just one example among many, Kristof was silent on “Why would women “embrace and perpetuate” a practice that is overtly oppressive against them? He never sees it important to ask his unsuspected poor local women why the procedure is carried out by “cutters” using crude implements –“wild thorns in rural areas or needle and thread in the cities” and without anesthesia. Neither did he see it worthwhile to inform his teaming audience what he meant by the term FGM. He was also silent on the age of Ms. Ahmed’s daughter. This fail to shed light on whether the girl had attained the age of consent or not. This purposeful error in inaccurate demographic statics is not a trivial objection. It is political so as to attract sympathy and build moral argument often associated with forced and girl’s mutilation. This is a shame because, the proposition has great political and legal significance.

There has been a lot of negative publicity and campaign against FGM in the West where the practice has been labeled as “female genital mutilation”. WHO defines FGM as “All procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”? “Any definite and irremediable removal of a healthy organ is “mutilation”. It seems that Kristof carefully avoided this definition because of his non-inclusion of some western practices such as ‘female genital surgeries’. For instance, ‘vaginal tightening’, ‘clitoral repositioning’ or ‘pubic liposuction’ of oversized lips reduction of labia, and ‘vagina landscaping’ are performed in the so called developed nations, euphemized as “Toronto Trim” and “vagina landscaping” in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, and the US respectively. But like FGM, “Toronto Trim” and “vagina landscaping” are morally the same and also a mutilation of the female genitalia performed for non-therapeutic reasons with financing available for Westerners to carry out such needless genital mutilation in hospitals? What is the Western hullabaloo about FGM all about? What is wrong with the Somaliland women who decide to have their genitalia “trimmed” just like their Western women counterparts? I insist that FGM is not the cause of a problem, but a situation arising from the Somaliland women’s lack of money and Western driven concept of human rights. The important issue is whether the Somaliland women have access to resources and affordable healthcare plan that will enable them visit Dr. Robert Stubbs in Toronto whose “work has been receiving greater recognition by the medical establishment” in Canada or Dr. David Murdoch in the US whose song of glory in revamping genitalia has earned him the title “The Picasso of Vaginas” or whether these Somaliland women practitioners participate or consulted in the formulation of the policies which affect their lives such as in the regulation of their bodies.

Furthermore, describing FGM as “grotesque of human rights abuse” seems simplistic and even naïve of the author’s background as an Oxford Law graduate concerning the complex issues involving the “torture”. Even if taken at face values this allusion, then, Kristof ought to be reminded that the contents of human rights were defined without reference to Africans. It is only the West that has the exclusive prerogative to define particular rights. Developments in human rights since the 1960s, have reflected the socio-cultural evolvement in the West. Human rights became exclusively the product of western experience. The West introduced new “human rights” particularly in sexual matters. For example, whereas sexual intercourse between persons of the same sex is considered an abomination and a taboo in most African communities, same sex marriages have become legal in many jurisdictions in the West. Africans have not always qualified as human beings worthy of benefiting from the protection offered by human rights. This is because Africans were not always considered ‘human’ and were therefore devoid of the “sacredness” that human rights were meant to protect. Africans were considered slightly higher than animals but less that human. Modern international human rights law is traceable to Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (UDHR). This Declaration was made virtually with no African input. Most of the countries in Africa were under colonialism at that time. The absence of African participation meant that African perspectives and values were not adequately articulated. The result is that the emergent document portrays essentially western values.

Sadly, Kristof, who has been described as a “voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world” failed to look inward and voice out similar “torture” in his backyard. He portrayed the Somaliland women as without agency. Why not empower these women with cameras (Like Glen Canning of Canada does in his Cameras for Africa Project), money, and education to tell their own stories to the world because nobody can tell one’s story as oneself. Why portray them as “sinners needing salvation” from the American idol? Mr. Kristof’s limited knowledge of feminist argument regarding FGM is nonetheless critical. This made him portrayed the practice as an African problem, rather than a global issue facing women. Nahid Toubia puts it this way: “Mutilating of our bodies is a cross-cultural [global] phenomenon that involves comply[ing] with a certain social definition of being a woman. It is part of the global subordination of women in which women’s bodies are controlled by a male-dominated social ideology. The battle is, in reality, about power and dominance – about finding a way to justify the abuse of women”.

Overall, Kristof’s article succeeded only in justifying the old, Western IA while leaving many questions unanswered. These leave his readers to infer on many possible conclusions on their own about the “torture”. Kristof struggled to put old wine in a new bottle. The quest to end FGM must be approached from its complex, current, credible facts and enlightenment. The article did not advance our knowledge about the “torture” rather, old knowledge were reproduced in grand style by an American idol hungry for more fame from the “Axis of Devil”. Except the European justice system and celebrated writers, gender and alleged human rights advocates such as Nicholas Kristof considers a more grass roots approach to empowering women practitioners to control their bodies just like their Western counterparts by directly seeking their opinions, African women practitioners will remain marginalized, discriminated and violated. Since it is said that Kritof himself has had “unpleasant experiences with malaria”, I think that it will be more beneficial in his global health quest to focus more on the malaria scourge that has personally affected him which is causing needless daily deaths in Africa more than FGM. This will attach a human face to his global health advocacy. According to WHO, every 35 seconds, a child under five dies of malaria and these accounts for over one million deaths annually and 99% of malaria related deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. “Somali health indicators are among the worst in the entire world” with 36,732 cases of malaria in 2004.

Olugu Ukpai

Olugu Ukpai is a Doctoral Law candidate at the Reading University’s School of Law. He is the Director of Women’s Legal Empowerment and Social Accountability (WOLESA) and the CEO of Challenge AIDS and Malaria in Africa (CHAMA). Broadly, his work is in the interdisciplinary area of Law, Gender, Culture, Religion, African History, Environmental practice and Development. Ukpai’s research interest investigates the failure of the Courts, international and regional legal systems to creatively take a progressive stance against the “woman question”- cases involving gender-based violence against women and the clumsy nomenclature “the girl child” through strategic feminist litigation. Ukpai is an International consultant on Gender and Development, Law, Policy, and Feminist Jurisprudence with African concentration. He is a co-author in The Power of a Woman (forthcoming, fall 2011, USA) and Gender Lens (Forthcoming fall 2011, Cambridge Scholar). He has appeared as a frequent guest on television and radio networks such as BBC (London), CTV, CBC, CJLU, and CKDU radio talk shows in Canada. Ukpai is a recipient of West African Research Association (WARA) Fellowship (2011) and Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship (2005-2007). He holds the University of Reading’s Doctoral scholarship (2009-2013), Federal Government Scholarship (2003-2004), and a University Scholarship (1996-2000). In 2010, he received the Xn Foundation Prize for “Outstanding Achievements and Excellence” at Kent University in the United Kingdom and “Global Citizen Award” from Canada.  As a human rights activist, Ukpai is internationally known for his campaign to prevention of Female Genital Cutting among rural black women and migrants. He advocates for legal empowerment that will enable Southern women to make independent decisions about their bodies just like their Western counterparts rather than regulating their bodies through the power of the law. His social activism and academic excellence has earned him a long list of laurels. A graduate of University of Port Harcourt, (UNIPORT), Nigeria, he received his Master of Arts in International Development Studies (Gender inequalities and Human Rights concentration) from Dalhousie University (Canada) and holds a Diploma in Theology and Physical and Health Education. A First-Class Honors awardee, Ukpai was the overall best graduating student in his set with a First Class of highest GPA in the entire University. He distinguished himself by winning the Departmental (2000) and the Faculty of Humanities prizes (2000).

Olugu Ukpai is frequently sought for in international speaker on gender, development and legal issues. He is a member of The Professional Women Network Speakers & Authors Bureau, Member, Socio Legal Studies Association (SLSA), and Member, West African Research Association (WARA). He is a confirmed International Speaker of the Professional Women Network Conference, USA August 2012. He is available for international seminars, workshops and conferences.




  1. Consent, fool. Consent is the difference between willy nilly chopping bits off of LITTLE GIRLS, and then conditioning them to prefer their situation to social ostracism, and an adult woman asking a plastic surgeon to do something specific to her genitalia.

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