Nilofar Ansher questions some of the questioning in the circumcision debate
Writing was sparked by this article on female genital mutilation in Kenya.
In my religion, male circumcision is considered sunnat (holy/ordained by god). Our parents organize the ceremony and a doctor does the deed. We never had any questions about the moral aspect of getting a piece of skin chopped off. After all, how can you question the ethical connotations of a religious custom? But the recent protest against male circumcision that has arisen in the media and western countries focus on this very aspect: the moral responsibility of parents to make religious decisions for their children. Circumcision protestors say that the foreskin of the penis is a natural part of a male’s body and religion should not be the instigator for getting it removed. Another rhetoric raised by protestors is that of ‘parental abuse’: parents who perform this ceremony (Muslims, Jews and Christians all follow this practice, apart from several hundred communities in Africa, Middle East, Asia and India) are abusing their parental authority on a child who is not old enough to understand the implications of this procedure. They ask for parents to delay performing circumcision until the boy is old enough to decide for himself if he indeed wants to follow in the religious footsteps of his tradition.
This latter argument is very sound. Parents who are religious will pass on their learning and customs to their kids from birth itself. Some of these customs are restricted to learning the scriptures, performing prayers and undertaking certain rituals. These include animal sacrifice, or visiting a holy place, or participating in festivals, fasting, or doing charity. Some of us grow up and discard these practices and refuse to follow ‘traditions.’ Some others continue to practice and lead a religious life. There is no moral judgement on either of these two folks; it is their prerogative to follow customs or to inculcate new rituals or to simply decide to not follow any of this. The thing with circumcision is that it is a permanent act–you cannot grow back the foreskin, it’s an irreversible religious act. The psychological damage is negligible. Hospitals perform the surgery in 10 minutes and a boy who is 4, 5 or 6 hardly remembers the pain years later. But if you are not a follower or believer of that religion years later, you just might feel short-changed by your parents. So, yes, from an ethical point of view, you cannot force your child to have a ceremony as part of a religious tradition that the child might not eventually follow.
Of course, there is no physical harm done per se. Doctors and hospitals wouldn’t have willingly agreed to perform such operations if they believed that they are causing damage to the male penis. Scores of medical texts wouldn’t talk about the benefits of male circumcision. For thousands of years, male circumcision has been performed and all these men seem to have had perfectly normal sexual and familial lives. They went on to have kids and their kids were also circumcised and so on.
But to say that parents are physically abusing their male child by performing this ceremony is distorting the very foundation of what parents do and the role they play. Yes, a child has rights. Certain unalienable rights. Rights to live, be happy, pursue education, have nutritious meals, make friends and be in a secure, warm and loving environment, travel and learn to sing, dance, play, or draw. Parents are responsible for actualizing these rights. Parents try their best to provide that ideal environment for their children. No parent will willingly or purposely abuse their kid by performing a religious ceremony. They do it in good faith, in the name of god, and in the belief that this is one of the holy acts ordained in their scriptures.
To be born into a religious family means to follow certain religious practices. These practices are all geared towards making a person good and kind and loving (irrespective of what the brain-screwed terrorists might say). So, is the case with male circumcision, which has several medical benefits–chief among them being hygiene. Why would people and media say that millions of parents around the world are willfully ‘abusing’ their children with this practice? Are all these parents mentally disturbed then? Are they incapable of making decisions for the welfare of their children because of the religious practices they believe in? In essence, are the protestors attacking the very idea of religion itself? To practice religion is to be mentally unsound and in essence, perpetrate abuse?
Who decides what legacies and traditions are alright to be passed on to the next generation and which other learnings and customs should be held back? For example, many believe that home-schooling is an unorthodox and unusual practice of educating children. Kids who are home-schooled might not adjust well in a big classroom or university where they eventually have to go to study later in life. They might feel overwhelmed and not be able to keep pace with home work, assignments and group projects. But the government or society won’t go around banning home-schooling, because it is left to the parents’ good judgement to decide what is best for their kids. This is because it is understood that a parent will inherently do only what is good and always keep the best interests of the child (children) in mind. The same applies for decisions regarding medical complications in a child: do we amputate the limbs, do we get a mole removed, do we wait for the teeth to fall out before surgery? We trust parents and the institutions in charge to make the best decision possible.
Are there hundreds of cases where parents end up willfully abusing their children? YES! Those are people with psychological problems and they either need help, rehabilitation, some time off—or most probably jail time if they are sociopaths or maladjusted adults! But to question the sanctity of a parent-child relationship–across hundreds of countries and millions of parents who perform circumcision (or any other religious rites for that matter)–is plain ridiculous and disturbing.
What role does law play in unpacking these private tensions between religion and family on one hand and the public discourse on what is ethical parenting on the other? There is a tension between the Western model of viewing all issues from a rights-based lens and the Eastern model of living life based on the foundations of tradition, mythology, religious books and teachings, and, dare I say, common sense?
Is the term ‘female genital mutilation’ even appropriate to describe what is primarily a religious or tribal custom? Let me enumerate the various tribal practices that could possibly come under the purview of the judiciary: body piercing and branding (using a hot iron rod–Native American, Indian, Asian, African); neck elongation using heavy metal jewellery since childhood (because this tribe believes that an elongated neck is beautiful–African); facial piercings (ears, eyebrows, mouth, lips, cheeks, rod through cheeks–Native American, Indian, African, East Asian); full body tattoo (several cultures and tribes); sexual, menstrual and marriage rituals that involve blood sacrifice or some sort of isolation or ceremony involving fire or some form of body ritual (across all religions and traditions); animal sacrifice; fasting without food and water, and other variations of fasting (basically, denying your body essential nutrients for up to 12 hours in a day–Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jewish). This list is endless and older than the idea of religion itself.
Now, we have a rising tide against male and female circumcision. Be it Kenya or America, human rights activists are batting on the side of ethics, proclaiming this ritual as outdated, unnecessary and traumatic. There is more outrage surrounding female circumcision than male. They focus on the bleeding, the pain, lifelong painful intercourse, and the psychological damage that takes place when an essential component of your femininity is cut off (the physical part of what makes you a woman, and the psychological aspect of connecting a part of your body with sex and sexual identity). I am a woman and I would never wish to have my “femininity” cut off in such a painful manner or using such crude and unhygienic tools (as is the case in every village where female circumcision is performed–be it Africa or the Middle East). However, I would also never reduce my femininity to a part of my body. That’s like saying that if I happen to lose my breasts, I would stop functioning as a woman and conceptually stop being feminine! What sort of trajectories do the feminists/rights activists walk on when they relate a female’s genitals to her womanhood? Seems like they are objectifying (glorifying) a body part–not for the functional role it plays, but for the gender implications it has in society. Not good. But yes, this is a different issue to deal with.
There is no arguing on one point: the girl child who undergoes circumcision is in constant pain, while growing up, during menstruation, during sex, childhood and suffers innumerable complications. We don’t hear much of such complications arising out of a male circumcision (primarily, yes, because this is a private affair and routine, too) and with hospitals and doctors performing this operation legitimately, there is really no human rights issue at stake here (apart from the matter of deciding your children’s religious following, which I discussed above).
For female circumcision, it is highly mandatory that the women themselves take charge and decide to stop practicing a ritual that scars them for life. The solution needs to come from the women. The idea of what empowerment means to them and how it has been shaped or influenced by their tradition has to be taken into account. Are Western feminists, health care professionals and local government departments going to ‘educate’ these women (Africa, Asia and Middle East, tribal, rural and urban) about what empowerment ‘should’ mean and what is the ideal way to be modern? Is there a one-size-fits-all idea of modernity and empowerment? Of course, they function within a society (traditional, but I won’t use the word orthodox) where empowerment and goodness is associated with the performance of these rituals. Where does that leave them? In another article I read about female circumcision in a small village in Africa, one of the women said that female circumcision is a rite of passage for their tribe and it marks the transition of a girl to womanhood: she is now ready for marriage, sexual intercourse and childbirth, and is empowered to be a decision maker. When the government banned this practice, their community men ostracized them and the women also felt a sense of outrage and betrayal at the hands of the government. In a sense, the men in the government were stopping these women from being empowered by taking away their right to perform an essential ritual.
If all female practices are going to be reduced to the rhetoric of ‘patriarchal conditioning,’ where does that leave the millions of festivals, customs, celebrations, art, music, rituals and ceremonies that all religions perform every day? Both men and women enjoy and take pride in tattooing their bodies, in piercing their skin, in conducting sacrifices and in initiating their children through the same journey. It’s plain silly to view just one custom as violating human rights and turn a blind eye to the other customs that are equally physical (and painful). This reasoning obviously means that we hold on to all these practices for the sake of preserving culture and civilization. Is that what is at stake here, preserving culture at the cost of human rights? Can the law ban genital mutilation by claiming that it is barbaric and unhealthy and leave alone the other rituals and practices I listed earlier?
Being human means being a creature of culture. How did human rights become disparate/separated from being human? Can the world really have a blanket proposal on a particular community’s sacred practices? Is not the community sentient and intelligent enough to know what practices should be kept and what should be discarded as time moves on? Can’t the community decide among themselves what sort of rituals should be passed on to their kids and which practices are harming their survival? Can we really expect a bunch of MA Sociology graduates and government lackeys to understand the mythical relations between a tribe’s identity with their rituals?
How can the government promise religious freedom and cultural integrity while maintaining a human rights index is a question that needs much debate today. Even the notion of ‘humanity’ is under question: does the rights of a person begin when she is a cell in the womb, or when she is born, or when she attains puberty or when she is 18 and ready to participate in society? It’s tough. The reason these debates keep popping up every now and then is because age-old issues are now being highlighted in the domain of human rights abuse.
This tension between person and society, between private and public, between the home and the law has always been extant since societies came into being.
The Muslim face veil was banned in France last year citing security reasons, where as in the Middle East, the face veil is a sign of modesty and considered a custom (there is still debate over whether its a mandatory religious practice). We can argue the point till the end of the world that these practices are influenced by patriarchy and conditioning and that the system wants women to be subsumed and submissive under the blanket of rituals and customs. The patriarchy that we blame for the suppression of one half of the species is also responsible for what we understand to be civilization today. What we know of culture, what we experience of music, art, drama, literature, professions, folklore and mythology all originate from the world-view of that system. How do we by-pass all that? Do we have an alternate model of an ideal society? What is society without all these rituals? You cannot argue for the ban on one custom and champion other rights and practices–it doesn’t sound too moral to my ears.
- We are not all bullied into doing what we don’t want or like.
- We are not all cows yoked to traditions that we don’t believe in.
- We are not all puppets of a male-dominated society where we are helpless to voice our dissent.
- We have not all been brainwashed into serving the men, the husbands and fathers in our lives in the name of duty or tradition.
- We are, most of us, content to have tradition as our bedrock.
- We are, many of us, happy to practice religious rituals.
- We are, several of us, aware of the injustices perpetuated in our name.
- We are, all of us, capable of realizing wrong from right. We might not always have the opportunity to correct wrongs, but please give us enough credit to know when we have been treated unfairly. We do not need professionals to educate us about our sorry plight.
We are empowered to protect and nurture our children in the best way possible. We might not at all times act on the guidelines of Scientific Journals, but we really do our best in keeping our children safe and happy and well-taken care of.
Please do not act on our behalf. Please listen to us. Please understand why we follow certain customs. Please don’t belittle our practices. Please don’t be ignorant about our ways. Please don’t try replacing our way with yours–because your way is not paved with wisdom either.
If we do wrong, speak to us, don’t patronize us. If we are unable to cope, guide us, don’t hand-hold us.
Stop taking credit in our name. Stop handling our burden. Stop trying to save us.
We are equal to you and you are not above us.
This article has not been written in the favor of ‘a’ side. It has not been written to disparage Western ideals. It tries to question all the sides, all the arguments, all the tensions inherent when we end up erecting sides. I cannot be a product of a modern, Western education and criticize those very standards. But I do want to argue about the validity of championing ‘a’ particular way of life as just and moral and ethical, while condemning the other way of life that you haven’t ever understood or lived. I also don’t claim to know much about feminist manifesto or theoretical underpinnings of what motivates feminists. However, I have come across several articles where feminists have championed the ban on genital mutilation as a step forward in the right direction, based solely on an understanding/viewing of female circumcision as a violation of a woman’s body. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t. Only those who have undergone the procedure/ritual would know. Let them speak. On my behalf, instead of censure, I would request an engaged and sensitive response from my readers on this issue. Comment is free!