Female circumcision, more accurately termed genital mutilation, is a barbaric assault carried out on young girls for religious and cultural reasons. While female genital mutilation is most widely practiced in regions of Africa, and small pockets in the middle east, the process of removing some or all of the clitoris is unfortunately carried out across the world.Although confusion remains about the relation of religion to female circumcision, and not confined to specific religions, and is influenced mainly by region of origin. Still, an estimated half a million girls living in the United States have been subjected to the brutal practice, or are at risk of being victimized.
Although confusion remains about the relation of religion to female circumcision, it is not confined to specific religions and is influenced mainly by a person’s region of origin. Still, an estimated half a million girls living in the United States have been subjected to the brutal practice, or are at risk of being victimized.
(Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly related female genital mutilation to the Islamic religion. As reflected above, the practice is influenced far more by region than religion. A small minority of Islamic countries practice female genital mutilation, and the practice is not sanctioned by the religion.)
A high profile case is unfolding in Michigan where a female doctor has been accused of mutilating the genitals of two young girls, and this has sparked a call for awareness of the problem, and reform to prevent it from continuing.
“It’s taken me a long time to be as comfortable as I am,” said Taher, who hopes that her Sahiyo campaign to end female genital mutilation will gain momentum from the Michigan case. “We can’t have this happening … Whether it’s a tradition, for religious reasons or for sex, I see all of it as controlling someone. This is a form of gender violence. It’s a form of child abuse. It’s oppression.”
Religion and culture are generally used as excuses for female genital mutilation, and ironically sometimes the older woman who had the practice done to them in their youth are some of the biggest proponents of carrying on the tradition.
And fathers who want their sons to “look like them” contribute to why male genital mutilation continues. Make no mistake about the psychological impact. Just as Taher has had to struggle to be comfortable with herself, many men who were circumcised as infants feel just as much internal turmoil.
I talked to one victim who wished to remain anonymous because he generally keeps quiet about his feelings on his own circumcision, rather than face ridicule.
Unlike most cut guys I am aware that I’m ‘missing out’, so to speak, and this consistently causes me emotional and psychological pain and stress on almost a daily basis. I can’t even urinate without seeing my mutilated penis and feeling awful about it. Emotions range from sadness and depression to anger and frustration.
Yet most people brush off the crimes against baby boys because it is part of the American culture, or because it is for religious reasons, or because it is supposedly cleaner.
And supporters of female circumcision say the exact same thing. But the real reason behind circumcision of males and females is the suppression of sexual satisfaction.
Growing up in India, [Sulemanji] was told that the practice was meant to “curb a woman’s sexual desire” so that a woman wouldn’t have an affair or premarital sex. The Bohras do this, she said, by cutting the hood — or tip — off of the clitoris, which was done to her. Today, she said, the Bohras are changing their story about why they practice genital cutting, claiming the ritual is for cleanliness and religious reasons.
Sulemanji associates it only with pain.
Male circumcision is the same story. When the modern tradition was resurrected in Victorian era Britain the religious community was very upfront about the benefits of male circumcision in preventing the oh-so-sinful crime of masturbation. They knew that circumcising men removed the main pleasure centers associated with sexual arousal.
Today, ask anybody why baby boys are circumcised, and they will say it is because it is cleaner.
Yet even in the mid-1900’s doctors began coming out with studies and papers declaring male circumcision medically unnecessary (except for very specific medical conditions), and detailing the psychological and sexual harm of cutting off the foreskin.
In fact, the main difference between female and male genital mutilation in America is that most of the male victims do not remember it being done to them. It is much easier to sympathize with the victims of female genital mutilation because they can tell the story of what they went through.
“It was very very painful. No painkiller. No anesthesia. They just cut. I still remember the scissors. I remember it very very well,” said the woman, who requested her identity be withheld. “They said it’s for religion. We have to do it. No other reason, nothing.”
But she has since learned, she said, that the elders were trying to suppress her sexuality. And she has no way of knowing, she said, if she’s missing out on anything sexually, noting: “I don’t have the guts to ask some of my friends” about their sex lives.
The victims of male genital mutilation cannot describe their attacks in the same way, but that doesn’t make it any less of a crime. I have often heard defenders of male circumcision say that since babies do not remember the procedure, it does no harm. But it is worth noting that to defend child molestation, in the same way, would be absurd. Of course, traumatic pain being the first experience in life could lead to a whole host of psychological issues.
I talked to another male victim of male genital mutilation, David Garlock, who is vocally against male circumcision and speaks out against the practice on Youtube and other internet forums.
The first time I had sex it felt like almost nothing. Sure it was exciting and gratifying, but in terms of physical sensation the experience was negatory. One can never know for certain how different people experience the universe so I wasn’t sure if the numbness was typical or just a quirk of my circumstances…
The fact that I could not achieve orgasm through any of the traditional methods or that the effort required compared to the relatively minor reward seemed absurdly mis matched never struck me as particularly telling. Its just me I thought or maybe I just need more experience.
…it wasn’t until I started restoring my foreskin that the likely explanation became apparent. The explosion of sensation and erogenous pleasure that accompanied the re-covering of my glans went far beyond anything that could be attributed to placebo… For the first time I was able to orgasm in the traditional ways others took for granted…
Clearly [in-tact men] live in an experientially different universe one with sensations and feelings those unfortunate enough to have been circumcised at birth will never experience or even imagine.
And others do take it for granted. This past February at a party an intact man who had seen David’s comments about circumcision on facebook approached him, told him he thought it was ridiculous that David was so “obsessed” with the issue of circumcision and that he “should get over it.”
Can you imagine someone having this same attitude towards victims of female genital mutilation? Do you think Taher has to deal with comments like this from intact women, who entirely fail to sympathize with their victimization, simply because the cultural norm is so ingrained?
Still, when you talk about matters of degree, it is hard to deny that the wrongs perpetrated against most female victims of genital mutilation are worse.
Yet even in the court cases involving the perpetrators of female genital mutilation, the defense lawyers use these same arguments about the degree of the crime to differentiate among female victims. Some claim their clients are not guilty of genital mutilation, but rather a simple alteration.
One defense lawyer believes the government has overstated its case, claiming no mutilation took place, and has accused the news media of sensationalizing and misrepresenting what really happened.
In court, Bloomfield Hills attorney Shannon Smith has admitted that her client — Nagarwala — performed a procedure on the genitals of two Minnesota girls. But it wasn’t cutting, she said. Instead, Smith said, Nagarwala removed the membrane from the girls’ genitals using a “scraper,” wrapped it in gauze and gave it to the girls’ parents, who would then bury it following a religious custom…
“All of the acts that my client performed on children” did not involve female genital mutilation, said Smith, arguing that “the issue of female genital mutilation presents vagueness.”
So in this instance, was it mutilation, or was it a simple religious custom?
Questions like these don’t have to be answered if the personal autonomy of individuals was simply respected, whatever their age.
There is no need to decide where the line is for male or female victims of genital mutilation. Any medically unnecessary procedure involving the genitals of children should be off limits.
What Should We Do?
None of this is to say that anyone who has circumcised their son is a bad person. That is absolutely not the case; many otherwise loving, caring parents who have the best interests of their child in mind circumcise their sons. There is a strong cultural influence to do so, and an ingrained tradition of “like father like son” that leads to the practice being widely continued.
Clearly, most sane people are on board with banning female circumcision altogether. It is an obvious crime against the girls whose genitals are mutilated. Many believe that the girls should not necessarily be removed from parents that attempt or successfully mutilate their genitals, as that might cause more psychological harm.
And I tend to agree based on the scientific data. Even children that are physically abused do not necessarily do better when removed from the situation (which is in no way an endorsement or excuse for their treatment, just another psychological factor to consider).
And children actually suffer more trauma from abusive treatment that is not a community norm. For instance, a child is less likely to suffer psychological harm from spanking if they know all their friends are spanked as well. This means that since the practice of male circumcision is so widespread in America, the psychological factors are in fact reduced compared to circumcised females who, in America, are the extreme minority among their peers.
That is why the best solution is to consider male circumcision a tort, allowing for civil damages to be awarded to those males who have been wronged by their parents. Most parents who circumcise their sons mean no harm and are generally ignorant to the harm they cause. Therefore the civil liability would be relatively low since there was no intent to do harm.
A legitimate settlement would be to have parents cover the costs of foreskin restoration if that is desired, or psychological therapy to overcome the mental damage done.
But the most important change needs to be the realization that although he is your child, he is not your property to do with what you want. It is his body and his decision which parts of him should be cut off and discarded.
We need to stop the culture of genital mutilation, and in order to do that, we need to have tough conversations that make people uncomfortable. If you realize you made a mistake with your child, it is okay to admit you were wrong. In fact simply apologizing to your son may be all that is required to put the issue to rest. Hopefully, the next generation will not have to deal with the same issues.
This is an Individual Human Rights Issue
There are plenty of resources to learn more about why circumcision is medically unnecessary, but the main point here has nothing to do with the medical benefits or detriments, but with individual rights. If you believe in rights at all, you should agree that permanently altering a boy’s body without his consent is a violation of his rights.
As with all harmful cultural norms, there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend a decision that was made with flawed information, or out of ignorance. Especially with many doctors supporting the practice, it is very easy to fall into the cultural trap of doing what everyone else is doing and assuming it is normal or even beneficial.
I don’t want parents to feel bad about themselves, I want them to reflect on far-reaching consequences of the actions they take which affect their loved ones. This is a serious topic that needs to be brought to light. While we finally gear up to stamp out female genital mutilation in America, one million boys will be circumcised this year alone. Over 100 of them will die due to complications from the medically unnecessary procedure.
If the need to stop the practice of female genital mutilation seems so obvious to you, why shouldn’t young boys be afforded the same protection?