The Blog

Circumcision: One Cut Too Far

This rank hypocrisy on behalf of those who would not draw parallels between male and female genital cutting is strong evidence to the theory which holds that people can get away with almost anything - regardless of how brutal and cruel it may be - if only they justify it with a divine mandate, and enough history to confer respectability.

It is ironic that the barbaric practice of female circumcision is so (justly) reviled, but that the more common male form lacks the same horror in the popular imagination. That it is just as arbitrary, and as non-consensual, is not in doubt. That, in the Christian and Jewish forms, it is a hangover from a quasi-mythical hinterland of a small Mediterranean tribe is a matter of historical record. But the tradition still goes on, and while there are people who campaign against genital mutilation in boys, there is little worldwide appetite for such a view.

Which is odd, as those charities which do so for girls are correctly identified as being brave and vital for 'civilising' (if the word may be permitted) swathes of the world where a lack of medical knowledge and fear of the feminine creates a culture of violence and repression.

This rank hypocrisy on behalf of those who would not draw parallels between male and female genital cutting is strong evidence to the theory which holds that people can get away with almost anything - regardless of how brutal and cruel it may be - if only they justify it with a divine mandate, and enough history to confer respectability.

But let us confront the facts first. It is true that circumcision is painful, and while it is ritually performed on all Jewish boys (and others, of course - Coptic Christians for example) by non-medical men (their only training is a basic guide on how to do the job) it is done so because it is divinely commanded, not performed with any particular respect to health issues. That the pain is only transient is not a serious defence. Inflicting suffering on a minor (who is unable of signalling any choice in the matter), or any non-consenting individual, is abuse, regardless of the intensity or duration.

The pain is thought to have other consequences too, as the dogmatic requirement that all men need to undergo it when becoming a Jew is thought to be a strong reason for Judaism to not be a world religion, unlike other monotheistic dogmas. It seems that a simple narrative of "saving grace" is a more effective tool for proselytising than an obligation to mutilate oneself and one's children.

The fact remains that this procedure can have serious medical complications, especially in those who endure it so young. It would not be fair, though, to omit the potential benefits of circumcision. It is confirmed in a survey for the World Health Organisation, that there is a minute decrease in the risk to contracting HIV if the person involved is circumcised. This may well be in evidence, but there are also small medical benefits to female circumcision, and yet there are no serious people who call for that to be implemented as part of a religious tradition or even for health reasons for all newborn girls.

What I am opposed to is not the existence of the procedure itself, especially in circumstances where it is considered medically necessary, but to the institutionalised continuation of it by the Jewish faith and certain elements of orthodox Christianity - as well as some Islamic cultures, in which it is an obligation. It is deeply immoral that this wicked doctrine is preached and practiced purely because of some legendary story or two.

There is form in reform: some of the more outlandish religious traditions related to the practice have been swept aside by modernity: it is no longer customary, for example, for the child's father to perform the ritual. Which, I suppose, makes a nice change from the very God who wanted patriarchs to also hold the knife to the throats of their sons.

But the very thing which is celebrated about the symbology of circumcision is its permanence. In particular, it is seen as a lifelong reminder of one's belonging to the tribe of Israel. This is a fallacy, as not only is there no evidence for a Jewish 'race' - or any race for that matter - but, even if there was, wouldn't genetic membership be enough?

I feel that two things concerned: personal bodily integrity, as well as that religion (or lack of it): should not be choices made by other people. Religious beliefs are not set in stone, much less in flesh. To have a perpetual reminder of a religion in which you don't believe engraved upon your body for life seems to me a cruel fate for anyone.

However there are major reasons why I think this issue is largely ignored by campaigners. First; that it is a religious practice, and thus protected from scorn by the universal fear of 'offence'. What it actually is, and the precise effects, are often overlooked. It is actual bodily harm masquerading as 'Tradition' (note the self-referential capitalisation).

Much as religions which can be historically proven to have deliberate and mendacious origins are still respected; and these same organisations are prevented from coming up against the weight of evidence to suggest that their founder was actually a charlatan - examples include Scientology and Mormonism - people just can't bring themselves to criticise the status quo, or to question received wisdom. That it occurs is enough for them; and the new thinking regarding the effects of infant circumcision: causing approximately 100 infant deaths per year in the United States alone, for example, is a mere irrelevance in the face of religious continuity.

The second is that it does not command the attention of the feminist lobby: and the major effects they can have to transform the lives of women living in serfdom or in squalor merely because of their sex. The sad fact is that female circumcision is only recently being demonised and prevented due to the actions of very brave women on behalf of their comrades. Male mutilation is not within their interest, and so does not have, and cannot have, the support of this most vocal lobby - or the ears of those who might affect change. This issue does not have the same emotive impact - after all - it has become commonplace; and so does not command the rhetorical arsenal of the sisterhood.

Finally, the movement opposing circumcision is not as influential because campaigning against a custom practiced by nice, local, Western Christians, Jews (and to some extent Muslims) does not allow us the secret pleasure and thrill of superiority (no doubt influenced by racism and colonialist attitudes) that we can get by mocking the savage African tribesmen, and their archaic mannerisms in the treatment of their daughters.

It is not as fun for snobs to mock the Jews, and an element of guilt will always stop 'us' criticising 'them'. Much as anyone who speaks out about the shooting of Palestinian children should be prepared to be called an anti-Semite - an element of collective responsibility is felt by all non-Jews regarding the sorry treatment of that faith during the course of history - it is not, however, justification, even if unspoken, for refraining to attack the most evil traits of that religion and others, and doing so with gusto.