In the current issue of Foreign Policy, Mona Eltahawy writes about misogyny in Middle Eastern Islamic countries. Titled “Why Do they Hate Us?,” Eltahawy’s article catalogs the pervasive and systematic abuse of Arab women—from child marriage, to the deprivation of simple liberties, to sexual assaults and beatings—and governments’ utter failure to protect them.
An Egyptian journalist who herself was assaulted by a group of men while covering protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last November, Eltahawy talks of Arab men’s contempt for women and fear of their freedom and sexuality. She makes a special note of the pervasiveness of female genital mutilation, citing support for the practice by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a contemporary Muslim cleric and Al Jazeera TV host, as a means of “reduc[ing] temptation” in women who would otherwise be sexually uncontrollable. Egypt banned FGM only four years ago, and Eltahawy asserts that 90 percent—nine out of ten Egyptian women—have had their genitals surgically altered, “for modesty.” (It’s clear that this claim struck a nerve: a number of the nearly 1800 [at the time of this writing] comments to the article refute the 90 percent statistic, but do not deny that the practice is commonplace.)
Eltahawy barely mentions male genital alteration in the Arab world, except to decry al-Qaradawi’s use of the term “circumcision” to describe FGM because it puts that practice “on a par with male circumcision.” The implication, of course, is that the former is horrific and the latter relatively trivial.
What’s not often discussed is that cultures that condone or tolerate the genital mutilation of girls also condone the genital mutilation of boys. In Egypt, whether the rate of FGM is 90 percent, 50 percent or “only” 20 percent, it’s safe to bet that the rate of male genital mutilation (MGM) is close to 100 percent. Nearly every man in the Arab world was, as a boy, held down while a knife-wielding adult brutally severed his foreskin. Lost was the most sensitive part of his penis, meant to give not only pleasure to himself and his partner, but also feedback during the trajectory from arousal to orgasm. (Absent such feedback, a man has little ability to control or delay his own climax, contributing, no doubt, to the alienation of his female partner—a phenomenon Eltahawy also references.)
Back to Eltahawy’s question, Why Do They Hate Us? I don’t know why men hate women, in the Arab world or elsewhere. I am not a psychoanalyst. But I have a few thoughts, perhaps also better expressed as questions.
- What is the psychological and social impact of ubiquitous genital mutilation—involving force, pain and the abuse of power—in a given culture?
- What happens to the rage and desperation engendered by the trauma and helplessness of girls and boys—later women and men—forced to endure such an assault?
- What are the sexual and psychological consequences, when not only one but both partners are wounded, missing critical parts of their genitals?
- How do people feel, not just about the (often nameless and faceless) person who cut them, but about the parent or parents who failed to protect them, or maybe even held them down, or who almost certainly deceived them about the “celebration” they were about to experience?
- How do boys feel about mothers who are routinely victimized and helpless to stand up and protect themselves, let alone to protect their children?
- When these boys become men, how are those feelings projected on to the women they encounter in the public square, the women they marry, indeed, their own daughters?
Bringing the discussion to the United States, beginning in the 1940s and well into the 1980s, circumcision was inflicted on nearly nine of ten American baby boys. This means that today, American men between the ages 30 and 70 are overwhelmingly circumcised, just like their Middle Eastern brethren.
- How does this affect relationships—psychological, sexual and social—between men and women in this country?
Unfortunately, Eltahawy loses the opportunity to explore these questions, and thus misses a fundamental point: The genital cutting of babies and children dehumanizes an entire society. The reality is that so long as we treat our children this way, we will mistreat, disconnect from and—in the extreme context—despise each other as adults.
Bravo! This is a profoundly deep awareness of why there is so much anger and hatred in societies where genital mutilation is tolerated and forced on helpless children of both sexes.
It has always been evident to me that the nations of the world (with the possible exception of Indonesia) where genital cutting happens as a matter of social “normality” are also the nations that are the most war-like and prone to domestic violence either among spouses or between opposing sectors within the same society. I would definitely be pissed if I learned that I had the most sensitive part of my penis sliced off when I was not able to prevent it or consent to it. What is done to little girls is outrageous. What is done to little boys is no less so. Thank you for this shared understanding.
I like your use of the phrase “shared understanding” Greg. All too often we hear about FGM and it is somehow considered worse than MGM. This raises awareness that if it is done to boys, it is just as awful as when done to girls. The US and all countries where boys are considered second class in this regard would benefit from a reality check.
I am sure that violence of this sort, when inflicted on infants or young children, is compartmentalized in some portion of the brain and then later reenacted in often bizarre and predictable/unpredictable ways during a person’s life. It is subconscious. I don’t think most children understand that they are missing the most sensitive part of their genitals. But they have an innate understanding that they were violated whether they can verbalize it or not. This is the underlying reason why other types of child abuse are forbidden: because it is understood that abuse or violence will leave its mark. Unfortunately, in cultures that circumcise, circumcision is not viewed as abuse or violence.
How about having a look at those Arab men who aren’t cut, and see if they hate women or not. I am sure there are some who aren’t cut, as an acquaintance of mine was married to a man from the Arab world (he is a Christian) and he is intact. F.W.I.W.
It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which people go for their own self-servitude.
Why are people adamant that female circumcision not be made “on par” with male circumcision? The implication always is that female circumcision is “worse.”
“Comparing male circumcision trivializes female circumcision,” some argue, but under our noses they are already spinning the conversation in a desired direction; away from questioning male circumcision.
“Do not trivialize female circumcision,” FGM activists insist, but that is precisely what is happening with male circumcision.
The real reason people do not want to make female circumcision “on par” with male circumcision is not because it “trivializes” female circumcision. On the contrary, they don’t want to imply in any way that male circumcision should be questioned.
This is actually a rather transparent defense mechanism, and, actually, a very delicate balancing act. FGM activists have to sensationalize genital cutting in one sex, while making sure it is trivialized in the other. Accusing intactivists of “trivializing” one sex’s mutilation is actually projection and it’s pathetic.
If people actually took the time to analyse genital cutting in both sexes they’d realize they’re more “on par” than people realize.
Male and female circumcision are the same in any aspect people would like to name, from severity, to intention, to actual damage.
It’s just that people want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to point fingers at one culture, at one religion without being meadured with the same yardstick.
Let it be clear; you can’t have one without the other.
The problem needs to be uprooted as a whole.
As long as male circumcision continues, so will female circumcision.
You clearly have fire in your belly Joseph and an imposing intellect to match those of the essayist and other contributors. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. Any doctor that cuts perfectly healthy tissue from the genitals of an infant is a butcher and should be hounded out of the profession. I cannot even propose that they instead practice their butchery on animals, because as well as being a victim of genital mutilation I am also a vegetarian. It is truly a sad world that we live in and always will be whilst it has humans in it that can go about their daily lives oblivious to the wickedness, suffering, cruelty and atrocities that are rife in society.
I think you could ask the same series of questions from a sociological and anthropological perspective, too. In the end, for such brutality to be commonplace it must be sanctioned by the entire society. The culprits in this continuing abuse are religion and government. In the United States, we could add insurance companies, doctors, nurses, hospitals, and medical associations who promote this cruelty by encouraging their members to cut babies.
But at the top of my list are the parents. Sure some are duped or coerced into agreeing, or perhaps their ignorance prevents them from seeing the harm, but the truth remains that it is the parents who are handing their children over to be cut. After all, they have a choice. No one is stopping them from grabbing their baby and running as fast as they can from the room.
I quite disagree.
Who goes to prestigious schools for over 10 years or so?
Who boasts expensive pieces of paper hanging on their wall and are so vain as to demand all who come in contact with the call them “doctor?”
Who gets paid millions for their so called expertise?
Who’s professional responsibility is it to know better than to be eliciting any kind of “decision” from parent’s where they know there is none to make?
That responsibility falls on none other than doctors.
What true “choice” do parents have if they’re made afraid to say “no?”
What fault do parents have that they trusted a person who professes to be an authority, and that trust is betrayed?
Doctors go to school for years and years, they’re supposed to be paid and trusted to provide complete and factual information to parents, but somehow suddenly they’re too stupid to do their own jobs and parents have to crawl in the dark on the Internet for the information a trusted physician is to be providing?
It’s doctors who are shirking their professional responsibility, if not intentionally relinquishing it on gullible parents having stuffed their heads with fear.
It is doctors who are being professionally irresponsible, if not outright committing medical fraud.
Ultimately, the person holding the scalpel is the doctor.
When a liquor store owner sells beer to a bunch of teenagers, when he entices them to buy the beer on purpose, it’s not the children who are responsible.
Doctors are not off the hook “because the parents asked,” or “the parents signed the consent form.”
It’s doctors who are first and foremost, responsible for reaping profit from professional abuse and the deliberate violation if basic human rights.
Without medical or clinical indication, doctors have no business performing surgery on healthy, non-consenting individuals, much less eliciting any kind of a “decision,” or stoking a sense if entitlement in parents.
Unless the parents actually did the circumcusion themselves, dctors are the prime culprits responsible.
Having parents sign their ready-made circumcision consent forms does NOT let them off the hook.
It is their professional duty to refuse to perform needless surgery in healthy, non-consenting individuals, and they are shamelessly washing their hands on parental naïveté.
It is doctors who are paid to know better, not parents. Researching and evaluating the merit of surgery is THEIR job.
I would not be so quick to condemn physicians, because despite their years of training and eduction, they have been duped as well. American physicians coming out of medical school and residency have no knowledge of the structure or the function of the foreskin. One histology text commonly used in medical schools refers to the foreskin merely as what is cut off during circumcision. When students and residents are having their clinical training, they are itching to be allowed to do procedures, because you can only watch for so long. The first solo procedure for most medical students and residents is a circumcision. This is like giving a dog his favorite treat. The trainee jumps at the opportunity without giving it a second thought, just like a dog responds to being handed a hot dog. So in a way physicians circumcision of boys is a conditioned response that they are in some ways brainwashed into accepting. Most physicians who perform circumcision have no idea what they are cutting off or the medical consequences of the surgery. They have been conditioned into performing them and will say they do it because of parental demand. There are also pressures to increase RVUs (relative value units), billings, and income, but most physicians will with a straight face tell you that these do not matter.
If parental demand dried up or if physicians started to refuse to perform the procedure, the practice would dry up. Right now physicians cave quickly to parental demand and are financially rewarded for circumcising infant boys. The question is which approach (reducing demand or stifling supply) is the most expedient approach.
It is very shocking to me that I have heard doctors go on about potential benefits of baby boy penis parts removal (all of which to me seem non existent or contrived) and yet so few doctors ask “What are the sexual and psychological consequences?”
How could any medical professional in an advance country ever cut off genital parts of a baby without first being certain that there are no sexual and psychological consequences? As there is clear evidence of sexual and psychological consequences of baby boy penis parts removal what does this say about American doctors that do this?
Bravo to Mona Eltahawy for her extraordinary courage in allowing herself to ask these profound and essential questions, let alone to voice them. These are questions we all should be asking. It is more than appropriate that her words were published in Foreign Policy, yet, it was the one question she does not ask: namely, how does this culture of rampant sexual abuse and subsequent rage affect feelings to the “other” and hatred institutionalized as foreign policy. Kudos also to Georganne for bringing this important article to our attention. A deep thank you to you both!
excellent post by Georganne as usual – i will add that the issue is generally ignored by the political left and right. My experience has been that even among the most progressive among us, many of us choose to ignore or sabotage the efforts of people who are fighting to protect the rights of male infants and children – shame!
In February of 2010, Mona Eltahawy published an article on her website decrying FGM. http://www.monaeltahawy.com/blog/?p=224
In response, one reader brought up the relationship between female and male genital cutting. Another reader, named Mia, took issue with this, giving the usual argument: “I can’t believe you would try to compare FGM with male circumcision.”
In response to this, a reader named “Snow White” submitted the following:
“Mia, you are completely wrong. There is no difference between mutilating one than the other. Males can be operated on badly, end up mutilated and experience as much suffering as a female because of it.
In both genders, the practice is often carried out without any anaesthetic what-so-ever. It causes a lifetime’s worth of suffering, on every level imaginable. It is one of the sickest, basest forms of child sex abuse there is. It is wrong, regardless of gender. There is no other sane interpretation.
I am an Egyptian woman, who was not mutilated but was traumatised in childhood when it happened to my brother. When I passed the age of 31, I suddenly needed therapy. I underwent a course of hypnotherapy in order to deal with the horrific memory I has suppressed for most of my life.
The memory of the event was not suppressed. I knew it had taken place and somehow I rationalised it as – “that is just what they do in those countries.” What I had suppressed was the full realisation of the horror, the memory of my brother’s screams, the shock and panic I experienced, the confusion and all the emotional trauma of the “healing” process.
What made this experience exquisitly horrific, more than worthy of destroying two innocent lives, was that the mutilation was carried out by Mummy and Daddy.
My father was Muslim and a surgeon. My mother also worked in the field of medicine.
I do not know why it happened at the age it did. I don’t know why it was performed without anaesthetic in a modern clinic stocked with a full complement of modern drugs.
I do not know why they did it alone, in the clinic, rather than taking him to a hospital and having it done under an anaesthetic.
I know they don’t know I was outside the door, frozen in horror, unable to move, listening to the screaming. When I heard they were coming out the door, I ran back to the apartment we lived before they knew I was there.
We healed, we forgot, as children often forget and our childhoods carried on as ‘normal.’
But my mother was not Muslim. And things were never ‘normal’ again. My parents’ marriage did not last. I believe that the shared trauma of the experience was too much for them and, consciously or unconsciously, they needed to escape the marriage, in an attempt to escape the memory.
The profound and deep-seated, unconscious terror my brother and I then grew up in meant that our lives and our relationship with our parents could never be in any way right or good, healthy or natural.
My relationship with my brother is rocky at best. We can barely stand to be in the same room as one another. I feel eternally guilty and I feel he blames me for not being able to protect him, as I had always dome before.
Both my parents died relatively young. My father was barely past 50 and my mother was only 46. They both had extremely difficult and painful lives. And sometimes, I gloat that they are dead. I breathe a sigh of relief and mourn them not at all.
That is the consequence of this act. That is the devastation left in it’s wake. I can barely write these words and have never written them before.
My feelings on the matter are so strong, that I am incapable of a rational debate on the matter with another human being. If the subject comes up, I simply go away.”
The bottom line is male determination to ensure reproductive success. Maintaining control over women’s bodies – e.g., by mutilating genitals to “purify” them and ensuring that they’ll be sexually compliant in producing children for designated male owners. Mutilation of male genitals follows a less obvious logic, but again it’s about preparing the penis for its primary job – producing heirs, especially male heirs. We’ve recognized the barbarity of one practice by making it illegal, but we continue to accept the other with spurious justifications – medical “treatment” and “parental rights” over bodies that are not their own.
We have to avoid pointless comparisons about which is more brutal and harmful. They’re both brutal, both harmful. Comparing plays into the hands of those who want to continue cutting infant males.
“ALL of them” means generalizing which is wrong. Just because some American husbands beat up their wives,
I also can’t ask: Do all American husbands beat up their wives?
I have just read a terrible news abt an american woman allowed her five-month-old daughter to be raped by a man she met online.
HAVING SEX WITH 5-MONTH OLD GIRL!!!!! OMG!! What a civilized western culture!
this guy was also charged of statutory rape, sodomy, inches, and child pornography.
I thought these kind of crimes only happen in Islamic countries.
Some will hope that these two criminals have an Islamic background, but sorry to disappoint u, they do not.
Of course some men are bad people, but most men are kind compassionate people. Let’s just analyze what happened in Egypt and see if it’s true that “Arab men hate women.”
Men supposedly run everything in the Middle East and women have no say whatsoever. So let’s assume that’s true.
So the men who control everything passed a law in Egypt that criminalized female circumcision, but gave no legal protection to males.
So how is it that these “women haters” are passing laws that protect women, when these men are not even protecting themselves?
Maybe they don’t consider themselves to be in need of any protection due to truly believing that being circumcised is a good state for a male to be in.
However, your point is correct in that Egyption men (the legislators, anyway) were able to be convinced that female cutting was harmful and therefore, because they are not women haters, passed a law to protect them. That – or it’s not really the men who “run things” over there!
So much of what we hear nowadays about the battle between the sexes is feminist blather.