Cultural Blindness and Circumcision

I can’t count the times I’ve heard people say that female genital mutilation (FGM) is “much worse” than routine infant male circumcision. And frankly, I’m tired of it. Cutting the genitals of children – female or male – is a gross violation of their basic human rights. Period.

Which is why a recent New York Times article, “Genital Cutting Found in Decline in Many Nations,” really galled me. While it’s indeed encouraging that the incidence of FGM is declining in some African countries, the article failed to note that in the United States, more than a million newborn boys are subjected to circumcision each year.

As Americans self-righteously decry FGM, the American government and funders such as the Gates  and Clinton foundations are pushing male circumcision on misinformed and disadvantaged adult men and, increasingly, on male infants who cannot consent. Removing normal genitalia is not a legitimate public health intervention, yet they continue to relentlessly promote it. Whole ranks of international health specialists are building their academic and foundation careers on this worthless, unethical surgery carried out on third-world men, and American doctors continue to rake in the cash for inflicting it on American baby boys. And all of them are willfully, conveniently ignoring any discussion of the ethical disconnects and cultural biases that prevent honest comparison of FGM and MGM.

complications from circumcision

Complete excision of penile skin as a complication to newborn male circumcision. (DMJ)

A recent study published in the Danish Medical Journal documents significant complications from circumcision in more than 5% of boys. The photo at right – which accompanies the report – generated disgust even among intactivists when we posted it on our Facebook page. Many asked us to remove it. We didn’t, because this photo of an infant’s mutilated, forcibly stimulated penis speaks volumes about our culture’s refusal to see circumcision for what it is: the unnecessary and unethical damaging of a perfectly healthy part of the body resulting in a spectrum of outcomes that no one has the right to dismiss. Why can’t we call that male genital mutilation? Will the DMJ report be picked up by American mainstream media? Of course not.

The hypocrisy and cultural blindness are mind-boggling.

Georganne Chapin

Question from an Egyptian Journalist: Why Do (Arab) Men Hate Women?

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.

Georganne Chapin