Sunday, December 13, 2009

Circumcision: Religious Custom or Mutiliation?

Nicole Humphrey, R.N.

Do most Americans fear the unknown when speaking or debating about female circumcision? Do American women perceive female circumcision as a right of passage, a human rights violation or in a feminist view? This paper will use research to eliminate the fear and educate the unknown.

Female circumcision has been practiced for many centuries and in multiple cultures around the world. Circumcision started as a ritual in a small number of tribes in north east Africa. Some experts estimate female circumcision has been conducted for over 4,000 years in various parts of the world. Female circumcision is a tradition practiced today in rural areas of Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Northern Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kurdistan, Indonesia, Southern Jordan and Northern Iraq.

Circumcision is discussed often in the Bible, it is mentioned over 16 times. In Genesis, God commanded to Abraham that “every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you” God revealed what circumcision represented. "But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, with their unfaithfulness in which they were unfaithful to Me, and that they also have walked contrary to Me, and that I also have walked contrary to them and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if their uncircumcised hearts are humbled, and they accept their guilt- then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham I will remember; I will remember the land" (Leviticus 26:40-42). When God told Israel, "Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer" (Deuteronomy 10:16), it meant that they were remove their stubborn sinful thoughts from their minds. In other words, they were to purge sin from their lives and become obedient to the laws of God. "And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live" (Deuteronomy 30:6). Circumcision, in the biblical context, is a covenant between man and God. A person who is circumcised is one who knows God and has separated themselves for God.

The World Health Organization categorizes female circumcision into four categories (Type I, Type II, Type III, and Type IV). The Types performed vary from culture to culture. Type I Sunna circumcision, is the least severe type, the procedure is where the clitoris is nicked. Type II, would be the circumcision part where the clitoral prepuce is removed. Type III, Clitoridectomy Circumcision, would be the most common, which is where part or the entire clitoris is removed. Type IV would be the most severe which is called Infibulation or Pharaonic circumcision.

As stated in Just Genesis by Alice Linsley: “In Pharaonic circumcision, the clitoris and labia minora are removed. Then the labia majora is sewn closed, leaving a small opening at the vulva for the release of urine and menstrual blood. Among the Sudanese this practice of female circumcision parallels the circumcision of males and emphasizes the binary distinction between females and males.” (Circumcision and Binary Distinctions) Female circumcision is often performed by a traditional practitioners, midwife, an elder trained for this task, traditional healer, and lay persons. It is estimated over 100 million to 140 million females world wide have undergone female circumcision.

In America female circumcision is viewed by many as mutilation and a violation of human rights. It is commonly referred to as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). In the United States, 16 states have instituted criminal sanctions against the practice of female circumcision. According to “The following states instituted sanctions: California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin. A federal law criminalizing the practice was passed in 1996 and became effective in April 1997. The law states the practice of Female circumcision on a girl under the age of 18 is a federal crime, unless the procedure is necessary to protect the health of a young girl or for medical purposes connected with labor or birth. The penalty for violating this law is a fine or imprisonment for up to five years, or both. This law specifically exempts cultural beliefs or practices as a defense for conducting female circumcision.”

In America, female circumcision is a controversial, ethical questionable topic discussed frequently among women’s groups. Many governments and organizations view female circumcision as a violation of human rights of women. These organizations efforts are focused on eliminating female circumcision through advocacy, research, education, legislature, and training programs.

The following are some statistics from UNICEF depicting female circumcision prevalence among women aged 15 – 49. Egypt 97 percent, Mali 92 percent, Sudan (north) 90 percent, Ethiopia 80 percent, and Mauritania 71 percent, the countries with a rate of 80 percent or higher display very little or insignificant variation by socio-demographic variables, including geographic location or background characteristics. In Guinea, Egypt, Mali, North Sudan and Eritrea on average 80 percent or more women have undergone female circumcision and a range of 45 percent to 75 percent of women living in the above countries have at least one daughter who has undergone female circumcision. In Mali, Nigeria and Benin husbands have the final say on his wife’s health care options. In Eritrea the wife has the final say on her own health care options.

Female circumcision is a ritual which has been practiced for thousands of years. It is a rooted custom, deeply entrenched in multiple ethnic groups. Governments and organizations have attempted to legislate and restrict female circumcision where female circumcision is performed. They are often met with resistance. There are multiple reasons societies practice female circumcision. Religion is one reason, a ritualistic right of passage, hygiene, cleanliness, preserving a girl’s virginity and to protect her from becoming “promiscuous”.

In some African cultures female circumcision is completed to prepare young girls between the ages of five and ten years old for womanhood and marriage. The BBC reported, “The shedding of blood is seen symbolically as a stream connecting the woman to the rest of her close-knit community. In a small community oneness is very important.” (Ethics – Female circumcision # section 6) It has social significance. Circumcised women are regarded with higher standards than uncircumcised women who are regarded as impure and not an appropriate choice for a wife. In some areas even circumcised women are prejudiced against women who had not undergone female circumcision.

Many cultures practicing female circumcision hold high regard for virginity and purity. These cultures believe women who protect there purity will become a role model for the entire tribe. Some cultures believe if an uncircumcised clitoris touches a man’s penis it could be fatal and is at the very least dangerous for the man. Various cultures perform the ritual because it has been a custom for years or an “old” tradition. According to an article in the New York Time, “Voices Rise in Egypt to Shield Girls From an Old Tradition:”

A young female died after her clitoris was removed causing outrage. Outrage not because the young female died but because the government shut down the clinic. Many women and men of the country support female circumcision. A few supporters stated: “They will not stop us,” shouted Saad Yehia, a tea shop owner along the main street. “We support circumcision!” he shouted over and over.

“Even if the state doesn’t like it, we will circumcise the girls,” shouted Fahmy Ezzeddin Shaweesh, an elder in the village.

Female circumcision is the counterpart of male circumcision in the African cultural context, which is the original context of circumcision. Among the Afro-Asiatic peoples (who gave us the Bible) circumcision of the flesh is an outward sign of the purified heart or the life surrendered to God. This is why the Apostle Paul never insisted that Gentile converts be circumcised. He speaks instead about the greater importance of circumcised hearts. He is referring to the heart that is obedient to God. (Rom. 2:25-29; 1 Corinthians 7:19) In this context the woman who is most likely to be chosen to be a wife is one who is circumcised. African men want brides who have undergone circumcision as an act of surrender to the order of God's creation, an order in which males and females supplement each other by virtue of their differences. To draw a parallel to the way things were in our own country a century ago, young women were chosen as brides if they were known to be good and one sign of goodness was that she went to church and had been baptized.

It is strange that some are outraged by female circumcision, calling it mutilation, but many of these same people have their baby boys circumcised.

Female circumcision is still widely preformed in Egypt even though it was banned. The ritual is deeply rooted in Egypt and will take more than a few laws established by the government to change this cultural tradition. The laws may have an adverse reaction causing female circumcision clinics to go underground.
Every spring in Bandung, Indonesia a free female circumcision clinic is held. Girls are taken by their mother to be handed over to a group of women who perform Type II circumcision. After the procedure is finished the girls are taken to a recovery area and given a celebratory present signifying their initiation into womanhood. According to a 2003 study by the Population Council, an international research group, 96 percent of families surveyed in Indonesia reported their daughters had undergone some form of circumcision by the time they reached age 14.

Although several countries still practice female circumcision it is a highly debated ethical questionable topic. There is disagreement between viewing female circumcision as cultural relativism or an issue of human rights. The human rights position has gained ground over the last several years, increasingly international organizations and governments are attempting to set laws to ban female circumcision. The cultural relativism position is never far from the surface and religious and cultural groups are defending why a ban should not be enforced. Support for the continuation of the practice is not universal and tends to vary within and between countries. Female circumcision is difficult to understand in our culture. It is a practice that we should not judge based on our own sense of morals and ethics. We should not judge cultures who continue to practice female circumcision until we have researched all dimensions. This includes health affects and viewing it within the proper cultural and religious context. It is important to do this research prior to forming an opinion and certainly before classifying circumcision as mutilation.

Related reading:  Female Circumcision in Kenya


Alice C. Linsley said...

Georgia Smith has asked me to post a comment for her. Here it is:

"There is a health and hygenic benefit and defense for male circumcision, but as far as I know, not any for female circumcision. Moreover, there is a Biblical mandate for male circumcision, but no mention of female circumcision in either Scripture or Christian tradition. As far as I know, the only reason women are circumcised is through local custom following pagan (non Judaic/Christian) religious traditions."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Pharonic circumcision was likely practiced among Horite women in and before Abraham's time. Most of the Bible passages that deal with circumcision come from a later time and present the practice as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham. Here we are told that God commanded Abraham to circumcise all the males of his household. There is another important reference to circumcision, however, involving Zipporah, Moses' wife who is said to have circumcised their son. So women apparently circumcised in some situations as well as men. This is a very old practice, predating Abraham.

Mark Lyndon said...

Some forms of female circumcision do less damage than the usual form of male circumcision. Sometime there's just an incision with nothing actually removed. One form just removes the clitoral hood (the female foreskin), so it's the exact equivalent of cutting off a boy's foreskin. In some countries, female circumcision is performed by doctors in operating theatres with pain relief. Conversely, male circumcision is often performed as a tribal practice. When circumstances are similar, so are outcomes, and 56 boys have died of circumcision in just one province of South Africa so far this year.

Are you aware that the USA also used to practise female circumcision? Fortunately, it never caught on the same way as male circumcision, but there are middle-aged white US American women walking round today with no external clitoris because it was removed. Some of them don't even realise what has been done to them. There are frequent references to the practice in medical literature up until at least 1959. Most of them point out the similarity with male circumcision, and suggest that it should be performed for the same reasons. Blue Cross/Blue Shield had a code for clitoridectomy till 1977.

One victim wrote a book about it:
Robinett, Patricia (2006). "The rape of innocence: One woman's story of female genital mutilation in the USA."

Nowadays, it's illegal even to make an incision on a girl's genitals though, even if no tissue is removed. Why don't boys get the same protection?

Don't get me wrong. I'm totally against female circumcision, and I probably spend a lot more time and money trying to stop it than most people. If people are serious about stopping female circumcision though, they also have to be against male circumcision. Even if you see a fundamental difference, the people that cut girls don't (and they get furious if you call it "mutilation"). There are intelligent, educated, articulate women who will passionately defend it, and as well as using the exact same reasons that are used to defend male circumcision in the US, they will also point to male circumcision itself (as well as labiaplasty and breast operations), as evidence of western hypocrisy regarding female circumcision. The sooner boys are protected from genital mutilation in the west, the sooner those peoples that practice FGM will interpret western objections as something more than cultural imperialism.

Alice C. Linsley said...

I agree that there is a good deal of hypocrisy surrounding circumcision. I encourage you to read this essay which puts circumcision in cultural context.

Job said...

I suppose this is the pragmatist in me, but I am struggling to see the need for circumcising women. I am not sure how it reflects on the purity of a woman. I grew up in West Africa, I was never aware of female circumcision. only the male. Boys would be taken away at age 7-9 and a shaman with a razor blade would do the deed. It was an entrance into manhood, and if they did not get tetanus, a good hygienic move. I understand the correlation between opposites. However, frankly, I am not sure that is enough information to convince me that the female form is of any value. I guess I am asking, is mutilation or not, and if it is not why is it valuable/pragmatic?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Hi, Job. Thanks for your thoughtful response. As with any surgery, things can go wrong. That happens even with modern medicine and can be the gorund for malpractice lawsuits. I'm sure that the one who circumcised was likewise required to pay the family for "mutilation".

As I have explained to Georgia, I'm not advocating for or defending circumcision. I observe these facts that support the veracity of the Biblical account of Afro-Asiatic ruler-priests who spread their binary worldview from the Sudan to Nepal. These were called Sarki.

The male-female binary distinction, that was the basis on their understanding of God's work in the world, is the basis for the circumcision of both sexes. You will find this developed in this essay:

The binary worldview of the ancient Afro-Asiatics (Abraham's ancestors)is based on objective observation of binary opposites, and can be traced back to the Upper Nile which includes Ethiopia and eastern Sudan. The Bible refers to this region as Kush.

Circumcision of both sexes is still practiced in that part of the world.

Nimrod (Gen. 10:8) was a Kushite kingdom-builder who had moved east into Mesopotamia where he established his territory between Ninevah and Calah. He is an example of the Sarki who migrated from Africa eastward.

Other Kushite ruler-priests went into India and all the way to Nepal. These are called "Sudra" in that part of the word. Sudra means Sudanese.

The eastward migration of Kushites is spoken of in the Bible and verified by much evidence from linguistics, anthropology and archaeology. The phenomena of male-female circumcision is simply another example of the binary worldview that these Kushite ruler-priests spread across the Afro-Asiatic Dominion.

Job said...

I see. Thank you. I believe my earlier comment was mostly rooted in the statement from the first paragraph "This paper will use research to eliminate the fear and educate the unknown."
I guess I assumed that it meant the intent of the paper was to defend and demonstrate the value of female circumcision to those who opposed it on a human rights or feminist bias.

Alice C. Linsley said...


This paper was written by one of my students. She is a nurse who wanted to place female circumcision in cultural context. Information tends to lessen fear of the unknown.

In ancient practice all circumcisions were done with flint knifes. These were chipped from hypersaline rocks. The higher saline levels reduced the risk of infection.