In Fearful Symmetries: Essays and Testimonies Around Excision and Circumcision. Matatu 37. (Ed. Chantal Zabus. Amsterdam & NY: Editions Rodopi, 2008), Dr. Sami Aldeeb wrote a passionate chapter revealing why circumcision - and when I use the term I always mean boys - is harmful and therefore wrong. I also heard him speak at the Brussels conference in December 2004 where participants explored parallels and differences between circumcision and female genital mutilation. Moreover, J. Steven Svoboda, who was also in Brussels, spoke again at the British Royal Academy of Medicine on 4 July 2007 where a colloquium on genital surgeries enabled me to strengthen my belief that these two speakers were right. They convinced me to oppose excising parts of boys’ anatomies.
Since this is the first time I am ’outing’ myself about my opposition to cutting off the prepuce of young males, I’d like to supply some background, especially since my present stance represents a reversal of personal policy. In the past, I argued strongly against confusing in any way the fight to stop FGM with opposition to circumcision, unable to imagine it might help the girls’ cause to bring down the organized fury of religious supporters-the world’s heavies among both Muslims and Jews. Specifically, in the mid-nineties, when Terre des Femmes retooled its working group against FGM, a participant urged coupling male and female mutilations. I opposed for two reasons, first, a practical consideration of campaign strategy - I didn’t want to close off discussion with believers before it could even begin–, and second, dissimilarity in intention and consequences when razors amputate genitals of boys versus girls. In other words, from both a surgical and, more important, psychological and political standpoint, I see no reason to compare the two bodily assaults because differences far outweigh similarities (I’m still convinced of that), and had the term ’circumcision’ never been mistakenly applied to what happens to girls, the idea of comparing these two different surgeries would never have come up. I stand by my conviction that this is the case. As Marieluise Janssen-Jurreit wrote in Sexismus in 1976, within a context of misogyny, patriarchy, sexism, and above all, power differentials that continue to exist in all nations between humans labeled female and those labeled male, the psychological effects of these two surgeries are incomparable. Female genital mutilation is intended to disempower those subjected to it relative to those for whose sake (husbands) it is presumed to be desired. In other words, arguments for the DIS-SYMMETRY between FGM and circumcision never let go of context. Within worlds in which women are systematically humiliated as women, and boys are not systematically humiliated as men, the psychological residue and political consequences of these two kinds of assault differ significantly.
Nonetheless, both can be opposed in terms of human rights to bodily integrity and as child abuse when practiced without medical justification on people below the age of 18.
I’ll leave specific arguments about law and health to those better qualified, however, and narrow my talk to one unusual example of the productive confusion that has arisen when, in fact, the word CIRCUMCISION is used for both females and males. Although Harvard professor Shaye J.D. Cohen, in Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) obviously calls what happens to women ’circumcision’ in line with millennia of debate (and at the same time establishes his credentials as someone knowledgeable about FGM), he gives reasons that can be helpful to us concerning the tradition’s consistent selfinterrogation and, to date, continued re-affirmation for men of circumcision’s use. Cohen explains that the argument with the most traction has viewed circumcision as a marker of Jewish identity; that in turn has centered on the obligation of Jewish males to concentrate on prayer, so that „the purpose of circumcision is to reduce male lust, and [has] consequently ? nothing to do with women (Maimonides, by implication)“ (223). Although Cohen is clear about his personal opinion (not in favor of abolishing the Bris), his even-handed and detailed historical account broadens our discussion and inadvertently reveals what Rabbinic experts favored but what today has been rejected: the intention to damage the male organ as a disciplinary measure. My talk will mainly review his findings.