This is one of those ‘charged issues’: moral and religious issues get muddled up with cultural prejudices and pseudo-scientific propaganda. So, I’m really not sure where and how to begin…
The easy one first…
So much has been written about this, I will not go into details of the various ‘levels’ of female genital mutilation (recently re-named ‘female genital cutting’ in order to escape the deservedly bad PR). I’ll just note that it is a horrible thing which I condemn.
Rather, I would like to concentrate on the 3 reasons ‘why’ ‘female circumcision’ is practiced.
Many Muslims believe that Islam mandates both female and male circumcision because in the Islamic texts, the sex act is, at times, referred to as ‘when the circumcised parts meet’. This makes many Muslims believe that in order to emulate the prophet Muhammad, as their religion commands, both men and women ought to be circumcised – despite the fact that Muhmmad himself urged that ‘cutting less is better than cutting more’ because this ‘increases pleasure for both the man and the woman’ (I am paraphrasing).
Some cultures have such contempt for women that they believe that without removing the clitoris, a woman would not be able to control her sexual urges and would copulate with anyone, anytime. Therefore, removing a source of sexual pleasure will help protect her honour and the honour of her family.
But contempt for women is not the only cultural reason for this practice.
In some places, like Ethiopia, female circumcision is a cultural custom, practiced both by Muslims and Christians. It is part of the cultural fabric: the mom was ‘circumcised’, the grandma was ‘circumcised’, so the possibility that the daughter might not be ‘circumcised’ does not even occur to anyone. It’s just what is done!
I have commented on this phenomenon before: people cannot possibly stop a harmful practice if it never actually occurs to them that there is something they could – and should – question…. It is only after people figure out that that something could be questioned that the actual battle for change can begin.
As bizarre as it seems to us, there are people (women) who honestly believe that complete clitorectemy is medically necessary. I saw a video (long ago) of an old woman who was renown as an expert practitioner of clitorectemy explaining (through an interpreter) that unless the clitoris is removed before puberty, it will grow and suffocate the child during childbirth. She even cited ‘real evidence’, where women had ‘bad, partial’ ones and the baby suffocated in the womb…
Of course, most of us would recognize this as a symptom of the ‘operation’ itself: the severe scaring which results in less flexible tissues which do not stretch properly, which causes the child to suffocate in the birth canal. But, they ‘have their observations’ and truly and honestly believe that full clitorectemies are a medical necessity.
‘Female circumcision’ is practiced for religious and cultural reasons as well as because trusted members of their society who preform the clitorectomies honestly believe that it is medically beneficial to do so and are believed by the members of their society.
Here, in The West, this vile and inhumane and – well, horrible, sadistic torture – is not tolerated.
Unfortunately, recent voices – from among the people who would be the ones who wish to perform (and benefit financially from doing so) this procedure – have began a propaganda to normalize this practice ‘for the good of the little girls’! Their argument goes something like this:
The choice we are facing (they convincingly explain) is between horrible, painful, ‘back-shack-clitorectomies’ with no anaesthesia or even clean surgical instruments on one hand, and permitting a ‘ritual nick’ or ‘ritual pin-prick’ here, in the safety of a sanitary medical facility.
It’s the only safe option!
Don’t you care about these girls safety?
Please, consider, really consider, why is it that our political and cultural leaders are having such a hard time rejecting this flimsy excuse and ripping it to shreds for the ‘soft-racism’ and financial self-interest it so thinly veils?
I think that most of us would arrive at ‘the other circumcision’….
We tolerate it.
Many of us practice it.
If we permit bits of male infants’ genetalia to be chopped off (without anaesthetics to boot), how can we effectively combat a similar practice on female infants? Equality of the sexes and all….
Which brings me to:
Again, most of us are familiar with the ‘mechanics’ of what the term refers to. And, many of us, in The West, accept it as unquestioningly as that Ethiopian clitorectemist accepts ‘female circumcision’!
Some of us have, however, began to question this extremely painful practice which can lead to permanent re-wiring of a newborn’s brain. Many studies demonstrate that male infants who underwent circumcision display symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) months or even years later and that the neurological damage the infant suffers may cause life-long damage. And, most doctors now know that perfectly well.
And, there is always the issue of where do the rights of the parent end and the rights of the child begin….
Let me quote from the policy manual on non-therapeutic male circumcision by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia:
“Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an infant has rights that include security of person, life, freedom and bodily integrity. Routine infant male circumcision is an unnecessary and irreversible procedure. Therefore, many consider it to be “unwarranted mutilating surgery”.
So, why are we still tolerating this practice?
There are 3 reasons:
The first thing most of us (at least, those of us born in Europe) think of when we hear ‘male circumcision’ is the practice of Judaism. So, for those of the Jewish faith, this has sort of been ‘grandfathered in’ and is never really questioned. Even though it goes on and on about how Jews must also circumcise their slaves…
If nothing else, that ought to give us a moment of pause: Jews are mandated by God to circumcise all their slaves?!?!?
Well, the Bible says so.
So, how did this practice enter the North American society?
Victorian ‘religious puritans’ (for lack of a better term) brought in the practice in order to decrease young men’s sexual pleasure so they would stop masturbating and spent more time thinking about God.
By removing the skin that protects the glans of the penis, the very sensitive nerve endings are constantly rubbed by ‘stuff’ – from undies on. This ‘constant stimulation’ is too much – so the brain decreases the sensitivity of these nerves. (Sort of like once you’ve been in cold water for a while, the nerve impulses screaming the message ‘this water is cold’ become weakened and you are ‘used to the temperature’.)
That is the reasoning behind removing the foreskin. By constant mild stimulation, the strength of the pleasure signals decreases and the mutilated man can better keep his mind on God!
To sum it up: just like ‘female circumcision’, the religious goal of ‘male circumcision’ is the reduction of sexual pleasure.
In North America, this practice became so deeply culturally entrenched that, for generations, nobody questioned the practice. It was ‘simply done’. Promoted on the grounds of hygiene, the religious origins of this practice became forgotten by much of the population and became ‘the norm’.
Now, some parents circumcise their male infants ‘so they would not feel different from dad and/or other boys’… I know – I have seen it.
Many medical practitioners who perform infant circumcisions claim all kinds of wonderful medical benefits as a result of the procedure. Sort of like that Ethiopian clitorectomist does….
And there are tons of claims that circumcision reduces AIDS and other infections…. Yet, for each one of these studies, there are others that prove this is not so. And if one reads these ‘circumcision reduces AIDS’ studies, you will find that ‘circumcision’ in these studies is accompanied by a comprehensive education on AIDS and other STDs…. Yet, the studies do not make any difference between reduction in AIDS through education or circumcision. That is kind of like saying that learning the alphabet will make you good at math without mentioning that to learn the alphabet, you go to school where you are taught both the alphabet and the math….
So, what do the ‘Western’ MDs say about the medical benefits of male circumcision? Let’s see what the CPSCB has to say about the ‘Medical Perspecives’ (my emphasis):
Circumcision removes the prepuce that covers and protects the head or the glans of the penis. The prepuce is composed of an outer skin and an inner mucosa that is rich in specialized sensory nerve endings and erogenous tissue. Circumcision is painful, and puts the patient at risk for complications ranging from minor, as in mild local infections, to more serious such as injury to the penis, meatal stenosis, urinary retention, urinary tract infection and, rarely, even haemorrhage leading to death. The benefits of infant male circumcision that have been promoted over time include the prevention of urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases, and the reduction in risk of penile and cervical cancer. Current consensus of medical opinion, including that of the Canadian and American Paediatric Societies and the American Urological Society, is that there is insufficient evidence that these benefits outweigh the potential risks. That is, routine infant male circumcision, i.e. routine removal of normal tissue in a healthy infant, is not recommended.
In other words, any claims of medical benefits of male circumcision are about as well grounded in fact as the Ethopian woman’s belief that not cutting out the clitoris will cause it to grow so bit, it will suffocate the infant during childbirth!
Yet – we tolerate it….
Both male and female circumcision is done for the same reasons: religious and cultural pressures to decrease the ability of the individual to experience sexual pleasure, medical misinformation and cultural momentum.
Until we recognize the parallels between the two and criminalize the practice of parents imposing this choice onto their children, we cannot pretend we are a civilized people who respect basic human rights!