Articles on Shifting Sands
Male circumcision is celebrated while female is illegal
Jewish and Muslim communities are braced for the impact of a landmark ruling
What are the most common procedures performed on infants in hospitals in the United States?
According to the National Institutes of Health, prophylactic vaccination and inoculation is #1, followed closely by circumcision. In fact, nearly 60 per cent of newborn boys in the United States leave the hospital circumcised, with the male foreskin completely removed.
This procedure is legal in the United States and countries around the world. For many parents, the decision to circumcise their bundle of joy is motivated by social and health benefits, including the suspected decrease in risk of urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases, cancer, and even HIV, both in the male and his future sexual partners. And for many other parents, circumcision is a core tenant of their faith. In the Jewish tradition, circumcision is performed on the eighth day after the birth of the male child, marking the entrance into Abraham’s covenant with God: “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11). And in the Islamic tradition, circumcision honors Muslims’ Abrahamic roots as descendants of Abraham’s first-born son Ismael, with the procedure referenced in a number of jurisprudential books.
Male circumcision is legal, female isn’t
To reiterate, in the United States, male circumcision is legal, and it makes no difference whether it’s simply a routine procedure habitually requested by families before the male child leaves the hospital or an important part of their religious faith. However, a similar and largely symbolic ceremony for girls is deemed illegal. In fact, a female Muslim American doctor could be sent to federal prison for allegedly helping girls in her community take part in this religious tradition; and she and eight other parents stand to be punished by having their children taken away from them to be raised by others.
This doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, is part of the Dawoodi Bohra faith, a Shia Muslim denomination that believes boys and girls should participate in Abraham’s covenant. In this tradition, male children are circumcised while female children participate in khatna, a rite that is similar to circumcision in terms of the symbolism and yet, in reality, is considerably less invasive and ultimately harmless.
During male circumcision, the foreskin is completely removed. During khatna, an experienced female doctor or traditionally trained female circumciser typically makes a small nick, cut, or wipe on the foreskin or hood of the clitoris. There is no negative impact on the girl’s mental, physical, or sexual health, and many highly educated professional Dawoodi Bohra women living in India, Pakistan and several other countries celebrate khatna.
In fact, khatna is actually closer to hatafat dam, the Jewish conversion ceremony that takes place when Jewish parents adopt a non-Jewish person who was already circumcised at birth, which is obviously quite common in the United States. In this procedure, there is a small cut, nick, or piercing to draw a drop of blood, a largely symbolic rite to mark Abraham’s covenant. (And, it’s worth noting that, while female relatives are often present during male circumcision, only women take part in khatna.)
To recap: male circumcision is widely performed, and indeed accepted and embraced, by Jewish, Muslim, and non-religious families around the world, including in the United States. Yet, a female doctor may go to prison in the U.S. for allegedly performing a significantly less invasive procedure on girls, a symbolic, harmless rite embraced by Dawoodi Bohra women for centuries.
It’s clear that religious women of all faiths, and indeed anyone who values the social, health, and spiritual benefits of male circumcision, should be watching the outcome of this case closely.
This piece was first published here and is reproduced with their permission.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a (volunteer) nurse and midwife in Africa, in Ethiopia and Botswana, where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.
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