Most of the time I try to not think about it, because if I do it just makes me sad and not a whole person. I feel a part of my body is stolen from me without any permission. I was only 6-years-old when they cut me in pieces and threw it away for no good reason at all.
Remember this quote for the conclusion of this piece. It is part of a personal account given by a survivor of genital mutilation, speaking to the emotional and physical scars left behind from this operation. Genital mutilation, often defined as “any type of cutting or removal of all or some of the genital organs,” has received worldwide attention and quickly become a divisive issue for the international community. Exposing cultural and religious rifts, genital mutilation has called into question the limits of what can be legitimately explained or justified through cultural, traditional, and religious rational. While being denounced and discouraged by the Western world and large international organizations like the United Nations, nearly 140 million women worldwide have experienced the specter of female genital mutilation (FGM). These women have survived operations in which their clitoris, labia majora, labia minora, or other areas of their genitalia may be partially or wholly removed with or without any sort of anesthetic. Women may also be subjected to forms of “pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, and cauterizing” to the genital area. These procedures have no medical benefit to the patients and are often carried through “to help her resist ‘illicit’ sexual acts,” and/or increase her femininity, beauty, and cleanliness. There is no lack of long term consequences as well. For those operated on, usually between infancy and age fifteen, long-term consequences may include infection, infertility, childbirth complications, corrective surgery, and a slew of mental effects.
Fortunately, FGM has been thrust into the spotlight and the plight of these women is being recognized. A prominent United Nations organization, the World Health Organization, has recognized this practice as a human rights violation towards affected girls and women, stating that it
reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.
In addition to its condemnation by the United Nations, FGM is illegal in many Western nations such as Australia, Canada, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America as well as multiple African nations (“Female genital mutilation.”). It is promising that this issue is at the center of an often too illusive world spotlight, but it must continue to remain fixedly there or risk devolving back to what it was before it became an addressed issue.
However far the conversation concerning genital mutilation has gone, there is still a concerning blind spot. Male genital mutilation, which most often takes the form of circumcision, is rarely discussed. Although many parallels in the logic against mutilation between the sexes exists, it is rarely extended to males. Male circumcision involves the removal of the foreskin, a sensitive part of the male genitalia which contains thousands of highly sensitive nerve endings and plays many important functions in regards to general health and sexual function. This practice is most often performed on infants in the United States, African nations, and the Middle East, and has historical ties to the Abrahamic faiths, particularly Judaism. The United States has one of the highest circumcision rates in the world, with 79% of the male population being circumcised (Waskett). Many of the same arguments in favor of female circumcision are made for male circumcision, which include cleanliness, coming-of-age rituals, religious reasoning, and aesthetics. Unfortunately, the concern regarding the medical and ethical foundation of this practice has not been extended to male circumcision. The United Nations has remained disturbingly silent on the manner and there is almost no formal recognition of the issue within the USA.
So we end up with the question, how is it that the human rights violated by female circumcision are not also violated when applied to males? Both involve removing sensitive portions of the sex organs, have little medical validity, are frequently performed in unsanitary conditions, and can lead to highly damaging mental and physical effects. While an adult has the right to alter their body as they see fit, should the mutilation of infants of either sex be an accepted practice? When there is no personal choice in the manner, this is a troubling scenario. Several European nations have stepped up to the plate in considering legislation granting males the same rights and protections of females. Jenny Klinge, a spokesperson for Norway’s Centre Party, summarizes the issue, saying,
In my view, this is a custom that we cannot accept in a modern, civilized society. Our aim is to prioritize the rights of small children. Fortunately, it has become forbidden to circumcise girls, now it’s time for boys to get the same legal protection. I’m not buying the argument that banning circumcision is a violation of religious freedom, because such freedom must involve being able to choose for themselves. It represents an irreversible operation on a boy who is not in a position to protect himself, and as such is in breach of basic human rights (Duke).
In what should not be reduced to competition between the two, male circumcision must receive the same attention and concern that FGM has garnered. As a movement grounded in gender equality and against body shaming, feminism is posed to enact change and protect the fundamental human rights of all males and females. This is an issue that must not be ignored with either gender, but male circumcision, in particular, cannot be discounted as merely a far-off or backwards tradition, as it’s happening at an alarming rate in our nation and many others. As with most issues of social justice and advocacy, inaction does nothing. Nineteenth century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, stated that “a person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
(Which Do You Cut?)
So what can be done? There are many simple steps that can be taken to address this issue:
- Educate yourself ~ As with any issue, knowing more about the subject at hand does nothing but help. There are a number of websites that speak to the cultural reasoning, ethical considerations, and medical complications for genital mutilation of both genders. Here are some particularly helpful websites:
- Wikipedia.org ~ a great source for general information and overviews of the arguments for and against, as well as general physical information of the practices and genitalia involved
- Banning circumcision: Against the cut ~ speaks to the ‘intactivist’ movement in America
- World Health Organization: Female genital mutilation ~ an amazing fact sheet pooling statistics from across the world and succinctly summarizing the issue of female genital mutilation
- Be a responsible parent ~ Leave the decision of what your child’s genitalia will consist of to your child. It is your child’s right to make their own decision on what will be done with their body and they deserve to make their own decision on what their future health and sexual life should look like.
- Remove the stigma ~ Open a dialogue about the issue and help remove the stigma and silence surrounding male and female circumcision. This short, and quite vulgar, clip from Sex in the City (Sex in the City ‘Uncut’) shows the disturbing attitude many American women make towards uncircumcised penises and circumcision in general. This is a glaring example of sexism and body shaming that has become terribly normalized. No partner, in a healthy relationship, should be objectified or made to feel unwanted for how they were born.
Can you tell from the quote at the beginning of this entry if the recipient of the genital mutilation was a male or female? With effects and consequences so similar, it should not matter. Genital mutilation is a fundamental violation to any person’s human rights and each of us must play an active role in the fight against the violation of human rights for any issues to be solved.
Duke, Barry. “Religious leaders furious over Norway’s proposed circumcision ban.” The Freethinker, 17 June 2012. Web. 30 June 2012. <http://freethinker.co.uk/2012/06/17/religious-leaders-furious-over-norways-proposed-circumcision-ban>.
“Female genital mutilation.” Media Center. World Health Organization, Feb. 2012. Web. 30 June 2012. <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/>.
Sara254. “I Am Circumcised Female Too.” Experience Project. EP, 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 July 2012. <http://www.experienceproject.com/stories/Am-A-Circumcised-Female/2153591>.
Waskett, Jake H. “Global circumcision rates.” Circumcision Independent Reference and Commentary Service. CIRCS, 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 13 July 2012. <http://www.circs.org/index.php/Reviews/Rates/Global>.
Which Do You Cut? Web. 14 July 2012. <http://www.drmomma.org/2009/09/cut-documentary-film-on-fgm-female.html>.