Male and Female Circumcision

Global Discourse: An Interesting Issue Gender Equality in Abrahamic Circumcision: Why and Why NotEdited by Matthew Thomas Johnson, Ingvildbergomlunde; the Introduction summarizes all articles.

This is the issue that emerged over 40 years ago after FGC (zero-tolerance global campaign) was initiated. Female genital cutting is the practice of cutting off female genitalia without medical necessity. To distinguish between the adult and child genital cuttings of females, sometimes the term ‘girl circumcision is used. The practice is commonly categorised into four types by the World Health Organization: type I – cutting of the outer clitoris; type II – the partial or total removal of the outer clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora; type III/infibulation – narrowing the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal, with or without removal of the outer clitoris; and type IV – all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. A body of research from a range of fields shows that in contemporary hegemonic public discourse, the acceptable way of talking about, interpreting and comprehending the practice is through a framework of condemnation (Hauge, 2012; Shell-Duncan et al, 2016; Hodzic, 2017; Lunde, 2020).

In 2018, and 2019, however, the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom in India issued official statements in which they stated that female circumcision is performed in a less invasive way than that of male circumcision in order to ensure that circumcised girls are treated equally. The statements further made it clear that the Bohra do not practise ‘female genital mutilation’—in fact, they condemn the practice (DBWRF, 2018; 2019). These statements are a reminder of two major limitations in global efforts to eradicate FGC. The first is that there has not been much differentiation among different FGC forms. Indeed, it is the most invasive form—and likely the least common globally—that has received most attention in public discourse and among researchers and policymakers. A second, central and unresolved question concerns the acceptance by the Global North of medically unnecessary circumcisions of boys. The practice is extremely varied, with many variations, including removing the foreskin or entire penis.

Taking Richard Shweder’s (2022) article ‘The prosecution of Dawoodi Bohra women: some reasonable doubts’ as a target piece for discussion, the aim of this issue is to better understand these limitations. Shweder proposes legalizing FGC in certain forms. Shweder argues that FGC, as it is practiced among Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, is lessinvasive than that of traditional boys circumcision and is therefore more meaningful to the Bohra. This suggests that girls should be granted the same cultural and/or spiritual rights as boys circumcised. This proposal is controversial because it challenges the core tenets of international campaigns to end FGC (such as Target 5.3 in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal): Girls can only be empowered if they are protected from fear-inducing, painful experiences.

This issue explores two possible directions in the equivalence argument. One is the plausible legalization of FGC. The other examines whether boys need protection against male genital chopping. This second possibility—of proposing an age limit or ban on male circumcision—is also controversial, particularly at a time in which there is growing concern about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This may, in part, explain worldwide reluctance by otherwise-interventionist policymakers to act upon the similarities between male and female circumcision.

However, the increased attention on children’s rights and anti-circumcision activism, as well as the emerging interest in media about the similarities between male and female circumcision, means that this issue contributes to a lively set of discussions within societies. Parents may be increasingly asked to question whether they will circumcise their kids on the same grounds as previous generations.

This issue is open to all perspectives and does not promote one position. In fact, each author has a diverse disciplinary, professional, and cultural background. As with the Boston Review series of debates regarding Yael Tamir’s (1996) position on FGC, Shweder’s article serves as a reference point for a series of critical responses that examine the implications and applications of the notion of the genital cutting of girls and boys being equivalent.

In the first article, Fuambai Ahmadu and Tatu Kamau (2022) … analyse the paradox of the treatment of FGC in Kenyan law, in which legislation appears to privilege gender-confirming surgery in a cultural context with less fluid gender norms. Brian Earp (2022) then shows how he and Shweder agree on the presence of double standards but depart in their normative conclusions, with Earp rejecting all medically unnecessary medical cutting of children. Next, Allan J. Jacobs (2022) shows how understanding of the anatomy of female and male bodies can contribute to debates about circumcision, arguing that the differences in female and male anatomy make female circumcision dangerous in infancy and male circumcision safest in infancy. Carlos Londono Sulkin (2022) then interprets Shweder’s imaginative framework as semiotic webs that are not only tools to understand others outside of us, but also means of making sense of ourselves, arguing that semiotically constituted experiences of genitalia are central to how human beings articulate and experience images of the self. Then, Seth Rozin (2022) analyses the anticipated and unanticipated pushback he received in response to his play ‘Human Rites’, which sought to challenge audiences’ assumptions about FGC.

Next, sharing experiences and reflections on participation in the Islamic bioethical discussion in the 2017–19 Fiqh Council in North America, Aasim I. Padela (2022) calls for the inclusion of social scientists, public policy experts and other relevant scholars in Islamic bioethical deliberations in addition to clinicians and jurists. Then, Brid Hehir (2022) argues that the UK legal context discriminates against women from specific ethnic backgrounds in its criminalisation of FGC and permission of forms of labiaplasty. Next, Juliet Rogers (2022) shows how the High Court of Australia’s failure to consider equivalence disregards women’s agency towards God and community in its subscription to the view that the body of a woman becomes injured—a remnant—when she is circumcised, as opposed to the male body, which becomes part of the nation through circumcision. Michael Rosman (2022) then usefully explains and analyses the debate between Congress and a District Court over the applicability of Section 116 of the US Criminal Code to the Dawoodi Bohra case.

Bettina Shell-Duncan (2022) argues that in order to understand the particular constraining conditions within particular contexts, it is necessary to add broader structural and global factors to concern for legal, social and modern versus traditional understandings of the agency and choice of parents. The final reply comes from Ellen Gruenbaum and Samira Amin Ahmed (2022) who claim that Shweder’s defence of the practices of the Dawoodi Bohra is not helpful in Sudan, arguing that female and male genital cutting are best approached as two separate issues, with efforts to eradicate FGC—predominantly type III—already well established and the acceptance of male circumcision entrenched in public discourse. In his epilogue, Shaye Cohen (2022) writes how his book my Why isn’t it possible for Jewish women to be circumcised (Cohen, 2005) is not about the circumcision of women, but rather about the non-circumcision of Jewish women and what makes Jewish women Jewish. The issue ends with a reply by Shweder (2022) to the respondents.