By Rebecca Steinfeld, SOAS, University of London
Making a comparison between male and female genital cutting is usually dismissed or condemned. When, for example, the Council of Europe recently passed a motion declaring both female genital cutting (FGC) and the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons "a violation of the physical integrity" of children, Tanya Gold, writing in The Guardian, called it:
A revolting ... juxtaposition of female genital mutilation, which is always torture, and often murder, with ritual male circumcision, which is neither, and, incidentally, is practised by most Muslims, and all Jews.
Gold's reaction is understandable. The horrifying damage caused by amputation of a girl's external genitalia and infibulation (closing up of the vagina) - the most invasive forms of FGC - are incomparable to the harm caused by male genital cutting (MGC). Other less invasive forms of FGC, such as clitoral "nicks", can also cause severe bleeding, infections and infertility.
But both FGC and MGC, where the erogenous foreskin is removed, can cause serious physical, mental and sexual harm. In 2011, 11 boys under the age of one were treated in Birmingham for life threatening hemorrhage, shock or sepsis relating to circumcision. In the US it's estimated that 100 boys die as a result of circumcisions every year. MGC is also far more common globally: 13m boys to 2m girls annually.
It isn't a 'harm competition'
But this isn't a harm competition. It's about how FGC, often referred to as female genital mutilation because it's widely seen as a violation of women's rights and a form of oppression and sexual control, is easily accepted when that girl is a boy.
But, as bioethicist Dena Davis put it: "When one begins to question the normative status of the male newborn alteration in the West, and when one thinks of female alteration as including even a hygienically administered "nick," one begins to see that these two practices, dramatically separated in the public imagination, actually have significant areas of overlap."
Although FGC is practised because of religious beliefs and seen as an important part of cultural identity (imparting a sense of pride, a coming of age or a feeling of community membership), aversion to it overrides concerns about protecting these religious or cultural freedoms - a view also held by some community leaders.
But when it comes to Male Genital Cutting (MGC) it's neither explicitly illegal nor compulsorily regulated. Instead it's perceived as a relatively innocuous procedure, a "routine neonatal circumcision", or brit milah for Jews and khitan for Muslims.
The reasons for male circumcision also vary: for Muslims it's sunnah, a practice instituted by the Prophet Muhammad; for Jews it's a sign of God's covenant with Abraham. It's also cultural: it marks an entrance into manhood and is also carried out because of perceived social or health advantages (reduced HIV transmission among adults in Africa is a specific case, unrelated to most others or children). And in the case of MGC, religious and cultural freedoms are generally respected.
Given these contrasting public perceptions, drawing parallels is controversial. Some feminists interpret comparison as an offensive trivialisation of the harm done to women, while many Jews and Muslims see it as an attempt to restrict their religious and cultural freedom, with some going as far as to liken the threat to the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany.
Consent and control
Along with the serious harm that both FGC and MGC can cause, both occur without the consent of the child, and irreversibly violate the child's human right to physical integrity. In so doing, FGC and MGC both prioritise the cultural or religious beliefs of parents over their child's right to self-determination and an open future.
Both have also sought to shape bodies and control sexual desire. FGC seeks to contain women's sexuality within marriage and reproduction by aiming to reduce sexual pleasure, while the Jewish sage Maimonides and the Victorians advocated MGC to reduce lust and masturbation. Legal scholars Marie Fox and Michael Thomson have argued that MGC is "a gendering practice tied to masculinity and the management of male sexuality" that "parallels the ways in which feminist scholars have argued that female genital cutting serves to fix gender in women".
Given these overlaps, why have the two been treated differently? Alongside the difference in harm and misperceptions about the contrasting settings and ages at which the procedures take place, the double standard stems from two further factors: sexism and ethnocentrism.
Male bodies are constructed as resistant to harm or even in need of being tested by painful ordeals, whereas female bodies are seen as highly vulnerable and in need of protection. In other words, vulnerability is gendered. And little girls are more readily seen as victims than little boys.
Familiarity also creates comfort, and since MGC has been practised in the West for millennia and been routine in English-speaking countries for a century, we're desensitised. By contrast, since FGC is geographically or culturally remote, it's more liable to be seen as barbaric.
It's time to re-examine our gender and cultural assumptions about genital cutting, and take a non-discriminatory, intellectually consistent approach. We either accept that the loss of some individual rights of both boys and girls is the price of societal diversity - an approach rooted in a respect for pluralism and multiculturalism - or we respect the rights of all children, both girls and boys, equally.
The first means rethinking opposition to FGC, and perhaps even re-allowing it on the basis of parents' religious beliefs or cultural preferences. But this would be unconscionable. The better thing would be to recognise that little boys have the same rights as little girls to bodily integrity (as recently recognised in the Netherlands), an open future and freedom from harm - in spite of their parents' views.
Recognising overlaps in the cultural and religious arguments used to defend both, and human rights violations in no way trivialises the horror of FGC. And from a strategic point of view, making foreskin cutting a feminist issue would strengthen efforts to eliminate FGC. How can activists expect to convince a mother to leave her daughter uncircumcised if her husband is able to continue circumcising his son?
Rather than criticising the Council of Europe's motion, we should celebrate it as a move towards greater child protection and gender equality.
Rebecca Steinfeld has received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).