Disclaimer: This article discusses the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision to some depth. I am aware that both these practices are based in deep cultural roots where they are practiced, and I acknowledge that I’m taking a largely Western perspective in my discussion of them. I really don’t mean to undermine the beliefs and rituals of any ethnic group.
Last week, The New York Times published an article called Fighting Female Genital Mutilation, which outlined the nightmarish barbarity of the practice still rampant in many parts of Africa and the Middle East. It was well-researched and hard-hitting; then I looked at the comments section (a mistake I tend to make now and then).
Now, I’m not one to judge the human race by looking at Facebook comments, but the sheer ignorance I saw was shocking. I knew what people were saying about the issue was wrong, but worse, I didn’t know how to correct them. That is, when it comes to the topic of the comparison of female gential mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision, I knew what they both are not – but I didn’t know what they really are.
Honestly, that’s another kind of ignorance that isn’t really much better than that of the people I was balking at; to combat any issue, you need to first be informed about it.
Here’s the situation: female genital mutilation and male circumcision are both things that exist and are practiced. Male circumcision has both proponents and denouncers – and rightly so. FGM is more widely condemned – and rightly so. But when more people protest against FGM, people point fingers and ask why they aren’t also protesting against male circumcision. Why do they do this?
Now, most times it’s just a case of attention-seeking men’s rights activists (MRAs). But many other times, it’s people who are just depressingly uninformed and somehow feel it’s okay to compare the two practices. Here’s a quick breakdown:
FGM has many variations and levels of severity to which it is carried out, but essentially, it’s a process that alters the female genitalia. It dates as far back as Graeco-Roman Egypt and one of the reasons why it was done was to prevent sexual violation. No religion condones it specifically, although it has come to be associated with certain religions due to its associations with female chastity. It could mean the removal of the entire external organ, or parts of it, such as the clitoris and labia, or narrowing/closing entirely the vaginal opening. Girls are made to undergo this process between infancy and the age of 15. It is carried out with rudimentary tools, usually razors, and most often without any form of anesthesia. The WHO has declared that it has no health benefits and is harmful in varying degrees: cysts, urinary tract infection, fatal bleeding, PTSD, and septicemia, to name just a few. Basic bodily processes like urination and menstruation are painful.
On the other hand, male circumcision is a process which involves the cutting of the foreskin of the penis and is traditionally done in infancy and sometimes on adult males. In more developed countries, there are specialized circumcision devices and the operation can be performed surgically, with anesthesia.
The WHO recommends male circumcision in parts of Africa where the incidence of HIV is high, as a preventive measure (it reduces contraction rates by 60%). Male circumcision is also associated with lowered rates of syphilis and herpes. However, there is research out there that shows that circumcision leads to lowered sensitivity in the penis and other complications such as bleeding and infections, the rate of occurrence of which ranges from 2 to 8 percent. Circumcision is also an unnecessarily traumatic experience for a child that young to undergo, and could have negative effects on the mental health of the child.
So now you have the facts.
Both procedures seem to be an unnecessary violation of human rights and privacy, but the difference between them lies in the reasons why they are carried out. FGM is based on deeply-rooted gender inequality – where it is practiced, a woman who has been cut is considered “pure” and more “feminine,” her virginity “preserved” until the day she is brutally ripped open again by her husband.
Worst of all, FGM is also done to increase male sexual pleasure during intercourse, because of the confined space and added friction. FGM’s main purpose is to keep women “controlled”, and to diminish their identity as sexual beings. Male circumcision does not imply the end of a healthy sex life for a man, and, in places like Africa, helps to combat the HIV epidemic. The purpose of circumcision varies in different communities, but it has roots in many religious beliefs that base the practice in cleanliness of self and purification.
If you oppose male circumcision, I respect that. There is plenty of biological evidence to indicate that it is, overall, harmful to those who undergo it.
However, you simply cannot put it on the same level as FGM and say they’re the same thing, because they are not.
Oppose both, but understand how radically different they are. Understand that FGM is literal oppression, that girls are held down till their bones break, that women who’ve suffered through it are called survivors, not patients.
Stop saying “FGM is bad, but male circumcision is bad too!” There is a spectrum of “bad”, and these two things fall on radically separate parts of that spectrum. Male circumcision is still an encroachment on bodily autonomy. It is still a practice done without the consent of the person receiving it. However, people need to understand that denouncing one of the two does not mean undermining the gravity of the other.
They are different.
Both wrong, but both different.