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Male Genital Mutilation
A Feminist Study of a Muted Gender Issue
Seham Abd el Salam
Cairo, June 1999
B.Sc in Medicine, Graduate Diploma in Medicine, Graduate Diploma in Art Criticism,
Post masters Fellowship Research - Supervisor: Professor
American University in Cairo, School of Humanities,
Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology Department
English Version translated by: Azza Ali (Ph. D) and Seham Abd el Salam
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Chapter I: Introduction
My awareness of male genital mutilation (MGM), which is known as male circumcision, took many stages to develop. At the beginning, I did not have a definite attitude towards MGM. I did not agree or disagree to it. The issue did not have an impact on me for many years. I overheard my mother and father talking with neighbors on the negative effects of female genital mutilation (FGM), which is known as female circumcision. They always said that it was not healthy, like male circumcision. My parents considered male circumcision a snip that removes a useless and insensitive piece of skin. They also thought that it was a simple procedure done to males similar to cutting off the nails. When I went to medical school, male circumcision was part of my study of surgery. It was advised in all the text books I have studied then as a preventive procedure against cancer of the penis and cervix uteri. It was also a procedure done without anesthesia because it was claimed that the infant does not feel pain like an older child or an adult.
I took the theoretical information that I learned at home and university for granted, until one day I saw it practically done. I was shocked, and started doubting all the theories that supported MGM. At the time, I was a newly graduated medical doctor in 1972, and was appointed in El Demerdash University Hospital as a surgery trainee house officer. One day, the residence of surgery asked the junior house officers to stay in the outpatient clinic after their rounds. That day he was going to train us to perform male circumcision. The infant that was to be circumcised was a healthy baby of about one month old. The resident did not give him any anesthesia, so naturally, the child screamed loudly. I could see signs of shock; like pale face and profound sweat. From this first experience, I doubted all what I had learned about male circumcision. Although I did not know much before about the structure and function of the prepuce, the signs of shock that I saw on the child’s face convinced me deeply that male circumcision was nothing but savage butchery. There were no reason to perform an operation on a healthy child, especially that it involved a shock experience. Since then, I started comparing between male and female circumcision, to me there was no difference. I decided from that day never to perform MGM. FGM was essentially out of question because it was not mentioned in the medical texts. In my experience, as a junior doctor in the emergency unit, I admitted many male children with symptoms like severe bleeding and surgical shock after having been circumcised, and that added to my convictions. I started speaking with people I knew who had male children, and I succeeded in some rare times, to be counted on one hand, and I failed in most cases to convince them that this procedure should not be done. The intellectuals who did not believe in FGM, on one hand, were deeply convinced with male circumcision on the other hand.
When the anti-FGM movement started in Egypt in 1994, I was surprised that the same doctors and theologians who were against FGM and were telling people to refrain from the procedure believed that male circumcision was a necessity. Moreover, distinguished figures who were calling against FGM, were careful not to deal with male circumcision. They always retorted saying that that was not to the point of discussion. In spite of everything, after the silence that had been broken on the subject of FGM in 1994, the press issued articles on victims who had experienced complications made by circumcision in both sexes. Wherever I went to discuss FGM, I was asked many questions on male circumcision as well. Some male intellectuals even who were advocating the movement against FGM felt that male circumcision had to be dealt with too, although they did not express their opinions in detail. For example, we attended a seminar on FGM in the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and one of the men who was a young doctor, came up and said that he could remember his own experience with circumcision when he was a child of six years old. He said that it was a shock, it included all that was said about FGM hazards. The doctor was surprised that people who were calling for human rights ignored this fact. On another occasion, I was designing a logo for the campaign against FGM, it was an Egyptian peasant woman, the heroin of "Nahdit Masr." She was hugging a girl instead of putting her hand on the head of the Sphinx. A male colleague saw it and said: "She ought to be hugging a little boy as well." Accordingly, I started to take an overt attitude against all violations of human bodies, irrespective of their gender and to support it by reading in medicine, Islamic studies "Fiqh," and social sciences.
I learned, through reading in legal English at AMIDEAST and in the Department of Sociology-Anthropology in the American University in Cairo, more about the common cultural background of FGM and MGM. I learned, as well, from the modern medical sciences, that the benefits of MGM were proved to be false. (This will be discussed in detail later). I tried to spread the information I had learned to my friends, who were mainly against FGM. A large number of them were from the medical profession. They did not pay any attention to what I had to say, or heard me and then expressed doubt. They did not even try to read about the issue. Worse than that, the men and women intellectuals who were leading advocacy against FGM on the basis of reason and the human right of bodily integrity, justified MGM using the same irrational justifications that were being used to justify FGM. Others whom I talked to were more flexible on the subject of FGM but were hesitant as to the movement against MGM. Very few accepted the new ideas and they were sorry because they did not know otherwise before. Fewer people were ready to spread these new ideas to others.
I) Presentation of the study
A) The importance of the study
MGM is more common than FGM, whether in Egypt or on the international level. The number of circumcised males is estimated as 13.3 millions yearly, whereas 2 million females are circumcised every year. Most of the circumcised persons of both sexes are children (Denniston, 1997; DeMeo, 1997). In the procedure of circumcision in both sexes, a sensitive healthy part of the body is amputated of a child who does not have a chance to say no, defend itself nor express consent. In both cases, it is the society that is imposing its control over the children’s sexual drives. Moreover, the study is significant because some medical doctors spread rumors saying that female circumcision by removing the hood of the clitoris partially or totally is similar to male circumcision. They claim that MGM is a useful procedure and not harmful to the male. Accordingly, they claim that the suggested procedure is not harmful to the female. Moreover, some doctors described types of similar procedures claiming that they are contributing to anti-FGM movement. (Karim, 1996). In spite of all this, the relation of MGM to common social traditions that define femininity and masculinity and determine the power balance between the two sexes in Egypt was not studied. Thus, this research is ground-breaking.
B) Research hypothesis
The patriarchal social system has two biases: one is based on gender and the other is based on age. In both cases, the weakest party of any social relation suffers from discrimination. As for gender, it is the women who suffer most; and as for age, it is the children. Therefore, women and children are gathered in one group, that is, they are the inferior and the weakest. Thus, women are inferior to men even if they are from the same age group, and children from both sexes are inferior to adults. (Janeway, 1980).
Even in MGM, men have the upper hand because the procedure is considered a symbolic separation of the male child from the female world and a passage to the world of men (Turner, 1967). Some researchers have noticed similarities between MGM and FGM (Kennedy, 1970; Lightfoot Klein, 1997). Men and women working in the field of human rights, reproductive health and social development have been interested in the subject of FGM. They usually introduce themselves and are considered by others as intellectuals. They include people from the medical profession who advocate female genital integrity. Using modern science, they spread their ideas on new concepts of femininity, women’s self images, women’s sexual drives, women’s reproductive rights and female social role; all of which are different from the traditional value system, which is based on beliefs that are unfounded according to the modern scientific evidences. The intellectuals, though, might take a modern attitude towards some modern issues, but are hesitant when it comes to other issues, influenced by their socialization into a traditional value system with deep rooted conventional ideas (Gramsci, 1971). When it comes to issues concerning the human body, intellectuals in general and medical doctors specifically, have a leading role in society because they are considered examples to others in setting the ideological terms of reference concerning the issues in question and also in their behavior. Accordingly, due to their involvement in the intellectual conflict, they become active leaders (Frankenberg, 1988). And yet, they could at times be the cause in fixing stagnant social concepts. The intellectuals may either be leaders of social change or conformists according to their awareness of and attitudes towards the political power game.
Feminism highlighted the link between knowledge and power. This was a great epistomilogical contribution, not to mention that knowledge in itself is power, but also the right to attain it is controlled by a network of decision makers that have the power to provide individuals and communities with information or deprive them from it. The individuals’ and communities’ share from information depends on their position in this power network (Lennon and Whitford, 1994: 1). Presumably, therefore, the number of people adopting the idea of MGM base their concepts on social bias that aims at maintaining the gender and age power heirarchy in present patriarchal society. Also, the analysis of knowledge, beliefs, and experiences that form the background discourse behind the procedures that maintain the patriarchal heirarchy might reveal unknown aspects in power politics that determine the social relationship between women and men.
C) Research questions
With my primary fieldwork observations and readings of relevant literature in mind, these questions are taken into consideration; why do intellectuals and especially the medical doctors object to FGM - on modern scientific and rational basis - yet, refuse to take the same attitude toward MGM? What is the background of MGM proponents and opponents? Would social awareness raising about the hazards of MGM affect the movement against FGM as some intellectuals claim? If women ignore revealing patriarchal bias against male children, would they be able to liberate themselves?
D) Research objective
The research aim is to go beyond the common arguments on health and religion to explore the various background biases, interests, and power politics behind the attitude of Egyptian intellectuals who work against FGM but tolerate MGM. Achievement of this objective is attempted by seeking answers to the fore-mentioned research questions.
II) Literature review
A) The cultural history of circumcision in pre-modern societies
In J. DeMeo’s article The Geography of Male and Female Genital Mutilations (1997) there was a study of several pre-modern societies that depend on subsistence economy. He found that communities that observe traditional circumcision, consider it very highly and can not imagine life without it. Whereas communities that do not have this tradition reject it strongly. DeMeo attempted to find historical and intercultural explanations for some communities’ insistence on circumcision in spite of its being painful and harmful. DeMeo described the various types of male sexual mutilation. The simplest type is carried out in some areas in Asia, where they incise the prepuce without separating it totally from the body. Circumcision is more cruel than that because the prepuce is completely amputated. This is a tradition which is common in Africa, some countries in Asia, and islands in the Pacific Ocean. The next most severe type is the skinning of the penis. Its origin goes back to Arab Peninsula and was practiced till recent times. It was a procedure done to a man immediately before marriage. There is also a type of MGM that involves cutting the urethra all the length of the penis. This was a custom among Australian aborigines. The mutilation of male genitalia in puberty or young adulthood is done to test their endurance. On walls of Ancient Egyptian monument, there are pictures of male circumcision in 2300 B.C. But DeMeo said that he does not believe that the Ancient Egyptians invented this procedure but got it through the Bedouin invasions in 3100 B.C. These tribes were heirarchical patriarchal communities who practiced male kings idolatry, ranked warriors and priests high and built elaborate temples and tombs. According to DeMeo, present day communities that practice circumcision have the same patriarchal features and tendencies. The lack of circumcision in some male dominated communities does not make it any better, for they control children by some other rough practices.
DeMeo expressed his belief that the disturbance in the relationship between mother and child and child abuse all contribute to the continuation of the aggressive patriarchal society. He finds historical evidence that changing the economic structure alone, without challenging the tradition of male and female sexual mutilations, does not bring about social change towards more humane conditions for all community members. DeMeo elaborated that since there is a relation between MGM and FGM, as seen in the geographic distribution of this tradition, their cultural background, and their psychological and social motives, where males are predominant to females and adults to children, therefore, the subject of MGM and FGM must be dealt with as one integral issue.
Some studies dealt with circumcision as a procedure practiced in ancient times. They tried to find a relationship between this tradition and the prevalent social system in many ancient societies. One of the most important works of research on circumcision is Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male by B. Bettelheim (1954). Bettelheim analyzed that male circumcision is based on male jealousy of female fertility that appears when women experience menstruation; and that male circumcision is a symbolic identification with this female attribute. Bettelheim had another theory that states that circumcision of males is considered a symbol of superiority of the father over other males that threaten his relationship to the mother, thus making him feel less anxious. Circumcision originally came from different areas of the world among various tribes and nations, although, it served the same social role. He also stated that such relationships between adults and children are still prevalent in present societies, where adults fulfill their instincts and prevent children from enjoying theirs by setting strict behavioral rules that are not followed by the adults themselves.
Bettelheim described the symbolic sexual role of male circumcision that is held in patriarchal societies where erection is considered a significant sign of male adulthood. Exposure of the head of the penis by circumcision gives it a perpetual appearance of erection. Accordingly, the procedure transfers the child who is not yet sexually mature, making him a symbolically mature male, separating him from the female world. For this transformation to take place, the rituals are significant because they imply a symbolic death of the child and resurrection of a new male figure. This new birth comes from the father not the mother. That is the circumcision of male children plays a dual symbolic role reinforcing male authority: the first of which is by giving the child a mature male appearance, and the second by giving the male the feminine privilege of shedding genital blood. This symbolic is reinforced in Jewish communities where the procedure takes place at a very early age - when the infant is only seven days old - instead of the age of puberty. At that age, the child is helpless and is completely under the control of his parents, that is also reinforced by religious force. Bettelheim concluded that whether circumcision is invented by males or females, and whether it fulfills their needs, it can not act as a symbol of maturity except in a society which socializes its individuals to expect severe punishment for transgression of the appropriate sexual behavior. This is the case in societies where patriarchal figures are dominant over and threatening to the young.
Any reason for circumcision nowadays has hidden motives behind it, which are different from its ancient motives, since these motives are hidden behind heavy curtains of mythical, religious and mundane ritualistic justifications.
More recent studies associated circumcision with the patriarchal society. For example, A. Montagu stated in his article Mutilated Humanity (1991) that circumcision in both sexes is a tradition that appeared with the rise of patriarchy. He explained that circumcision continues in our modern time because of the persistence of old patriarchal values, in spite of the different motives behind it in antiquity and present day societies. Montagu stated that the human being is the only creature that mutilates the bodies of its individuals in the name of reason, religion, customs and traditions, morality and law. Any reason for circumcision nowadays has hidden motives behind it, which are different from its ancient motives, since these motives are hidden behind heavy curtains of mythical, religious and mundane ritualistic justifications. Over time, old justifications give way to new ones based on new biases. That is why it is difficult to find a a precise explanation of the origin of circumcision. The researcher who wishes to find the origin of why circumcision takes place, must get rid of all kinds of personal biases. By defeating the various justifications of circumcision, we will be confronted with the reality of social organization. Reality is not an abstract concept. It is socially conditioned. Montagu observed that circumcision did not take place in pre-patriarchal societies that were based on sexual equality. For example, in communities of fruit gatherers. Therefore, it can be concluded that circumcision is a patriarchal invention. Montagu continued, saying that circumcision could have various cultural significances. Among Australian aborigines, it is a symbolic identification of the male to the female because it causes a flow of blood from the male genital organ. In African tribes, circumcision could be explained by its being a symbol of sexual duality of creation. According to this belief, a human individual is born with both feminine and masculine attributes since the femininity is inherent in the male prepuce whereas masculinity exists in the clitoris. Accordingly, circumcision is considered a purification of the male from the female characteristics. The female spirit is considered something that prevents the male from the ability of rational thinking, and so, a non-circumcised male is considered socially inept. By circumcision, the male loses his individuality and becomes a social being. Moreover, circumcision is considered a severing of the unity of the human being when the feminine part of the body is cut off; therefore, the male searches for a reunion that can only take place through marriage. Therefore, it is an essential motive for marriage. Also, the female who has been robbed of the male characteristics by circumcision accepts it when she searches for a husband. Accordingly, this makes the procedure of circumcision a procedure that turns the individual into a social being, seeking continuation through marriage and child birth. Finally, Montagu said that no matter what the cultural origin of circumcision, humans inflicted it on children as a tradition with the same motive: the predominance of males and their superior social status over females and children. Therefore, circumcision sets the rule that states that it is naturally the powerful who has the upper hand, and makes it an established part of social reality.
Another article that implied the same idea is A Biocultural Analysis of Circumcision by R. Immerman and W. Mackey (1998). [see similar article: A Proposed Relationship Between Circumcision and Neural Reorganization, R. Immerman and W. Mackey, Journal of Genetic Psychology, Volume 159, Number 3, Pages 367-378, September 1, 1998] They tried to link the biological impact of circumcision on the brain to the reasons of its adoption by several cultures. They observed that male genital integrity provides both sexual partners with great sexual satisfaction. Therefore, circumcision might provide the community with an interest that surpasses the deprivation of individual men and women from such sexual satisfaction. The two authors stated that circumcision diminishes the ability of the brain center of sexual pleasure to respond to stimuli. Moreover, it eliminates the secretion of smegma, which is a male genital lubricant with a gentle odor that is attractive to females. They believed that the changes that are the result of male circumcision decrease their attractiveness to females and make males of the tribe less irritable and more tolerant to one another. Therefore, tribal leaders find it easier to control circumcised males and direct them.
Other scholars said that circumcision originated in matriarchal societies. One of these studies is From Genetic Cosmology to Genital Cosmetics: Origin Theory of the Righting Rite of Male Circumcision by D. Voskuil (1994). Voskuil said that in ancient pre-patriarchal communities, people found a relationship between the universe and the female body because of its ability to reproduce. It produces blood and milk and its vital functions are consistent with the lunar cycle; therefore, the female body became a sacred figure. Thus, males attempted to "correct" their bodies, making it similar to that of the female; that is how male circumcision began since it caused a flow of blood from their bodies even though this was a symbolic similarity to the female. Voskuil explained that this could be the motive behind the opinion saying that circumcision is an esthetic operation.
Voskuil added that with the rise of patriarchal society, circumcision lost its significance as a symbolic matriarchal fertility ritual, but continued to be practiced although the motive differed in the sense that it no longer aimed to make the male similar to the female, it rather meant to make him different from women. In addition, it became a symbol of submission to the dominant patriarch and separation from the female community instead of its old significance as a symbol of identification with the sacred female deity. As time passed, it became widely spread in patriarchal societies. In matriarchal societies, though, circumcision was not imposed except on the male who had intercourse with the priestess/queen. Like smoking that was practiced by priests, then by the elite and finally by the common people, circumcision turned from a specific religious ritual for elite clergy to a general mundane tradition for the common public.
Victor Turner studied the ritual of circumcision in the "Ndembu" tribe in Zambia, that is composed of several villages. In each village, lives a group of inhabitants that have a kinship relation from the maternal side. Turner analyzed this ritual in his book On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience (1985). He explained that the motive behind circumcision is a modification and reorganization of the male child’s relationship with his parents. In this tribe, children are linked to one village by their mothers, whereas, their relationship with others is made broader by the father who acquaints them with other groups from several villages in which their cousins live. Naturally, male children are attached to their mothers before being circumcised, helping them in their daily chores, but after circumcision, they become more attached to their fathers, brothers and other male members of the tribe having similar activities. Because of the attachment to the mother, male children are considered polluted and immature. And accordingly, they do not deserve to be guided by their fathers and other male figures. In these tribes, when leaders find that children are increasing and that there is a lack of laborers, consequently disturbing the tribes’ male/female power balance, there are immediate preparations for male circumcision:. It separates the male child from his mother before they develop a stronger mother/son attachment that is difficult to separate. Moreover, the father/son relationship becomes stronger after circumcision, as the child before circumcision was considered polluted and immature and not worthy of taking instructions from the father because he is still under the mother’s control. An evidence that Ndembu male circumcision separates the child from the mother, is that they believe that the male prepuce is analogous to the female labia majora. Circumcision is a ritual that takes place to which all relatives - not only males but female cousins too from the villages close by - are invited. Therefore, the child’s relationship with the world becomes broader because it is not only attached to the mother but becomes involved in the world of the fathers kinship network which involves interaction with the males in the surrounding villages.
Various researchers studied the concepts and beliefs behind the social rituals. Since circumcision is a purification ritual, studies of purity and pollution in various cultures are of particular significance. One of these studies is M. Douglas’ article Symbolic Pollution (1966). Although this study did not deal directly with circumcision, it can be applied to it. It can explain why people insist on this tradition, especially since the Egyptian colloquial word for circumcision "tahara" means purification. Douglas said that the ancient religious rituals are characterized by their material link to medicine and their hygienic relevance, even if hygiene is not their primary interest. I consider Douglas’ study relevant to my topic because we still define dirt and cleanliness in the same old way. Dirt means to us the presence of a thing or the performance of a behavior out of their appropriate location or context. The things or behaviors might not necessarily be considered filthy in themselves. For example, a drink is considered dirt when it drops on a dress, and people feel disgusted from a person who laughs in a funeral, even though drinks and laughter are not dirty in principle. Douglas suggested that the more deep rooted the beliefs about the pollutedness of something are, the more difficult it is to change. Thus, over time, people develop a stronger bias against what they consider polluted. When new ideas threaten to bring about a change in such bias, they tend to ignore or object to it so that these new concepts do not disturb their universe. Also, change might upset the distribution of power roles and endanger the established familiar system. In less sophisticated societies, positions of power and danger are defined by the interaction of order and chaos. Not to mention that the concept of pollution as a danger to the social system would be impossible except in a society with clearly defined borders. Thus, an individual who transgresses his/her predefined borders is considered polluted. Beliefs concerning pollution reinforce the well established social moral system, because transgression of the pollution taboo is severely punished. These beliefs define the rules of what is considered socially as the correct individuals’ behavior. If an individual is polluted and yet harmless to others, he/she still is not socially accepted and is punished. Such rituals as bathing, incense … etc. purify the individual from pollution.
Since circumcision is considered a sacred ritual in various religions, Sami Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh’s works have a special significance because he discusses it in terms of religious arguments. One of his most important works is To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah: Legitimization of Male and Female Circumcision (1994); and his book: Male and Female Circumcision among Jews, Christians and Muslims: Religious Debate (khitaan al-zukuur wal-inaath ‘and yahud, wal-masihiyyin wal-muslimin: al gadal al din) (Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, 2000). In this book, the author reviewed the various opinions of theologians in the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam starting from early days of Judaism till the present decade. The author said that the three religions always interacted and impacted each other. The discourse of circumcision progressed from one Holy Book to the other. In the Old Testament, it was obligatory; in Christianity, it was not considered a sacred procedure; and in Islam, it was not mentioned at all in Quran because Islam stressed the concept of divine perfection of creation. Abu-Sahlieh elaborately reviewed the discourse on circumcision in the three sacred books, Prophetic tradition, and the writings of men of wisdom, theologians, and men of Fiqh, all of whom depended on what is stated in Ch. 17 of the Book of Genesis in which Jehovah ordered Abraham to be circumcised and to do the same procedure on his sons. Jehovah promised them the sacred land because they are God’s chosen people. Moreover, they are identified by circumcision. The researcher considered this procedure as a political convention which is carried out by means of surgery, and described it as "Politicization of a Surgical Operation." Sanctification of male circumcision transfers Jehovah from a divine creator to a simple shepherd who needs a physical sign to identify his people out of all the other human beings; like a shepherd identifying his herd. Other scholars explained that the circumcision of the male child on the 8th day is to purify him from birth pollution. Contact between the child and his mother’s body and after-birth are both considered polluting. In fact, there are laws in Judaism that admit the hazards of infant male circumcision. Therefore, some rabbis exempt some Jews from this procedure, on condition that the child has 2 brothers or a maternal male cousin who died during circumcision. Abu-Sahlieh explained that the Old Testament was gathered together and documented in the 9th century B.C., that is approximately after 4 centuries of Moses’ death and 10 centuries of Abraham’s death. Therefore, it included various other traditions from the different cultures over this period,. That is why some scholars of Judaism doubt the historical origin of the events that took place in the Old Testament. Abu-Sahlieh said that circumcision goes back further than the Old Testament because historical documents were found that proved that circumcision was a procedure carried out in Ancient Syria in the 28th century B.C. and in Ancient Egypt in the 23rd century B.C. In the latter, it was not carried out on all Egyptians but only on the priests. This is proved by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who forbid this procedure on everyone in the 2nd century A.D,, but he exempted the Egyptian priests.
The Jews used circumcision politically over the years. It was a procedure that was carried out on a relative basis and not done on everyone. Historians state that this procedure was not obligatory to Jews except after their return from exile in the 6th century B.C. A group of Jews made an agreement with surrounding nations in the 2nd century B.C. They stopped observing circumcision, and hid the signs of the procedure by pulling down the skin of the penis to cover its head. They could do so because in ancient times circumcision did not include a complete amputation of the prepuce, as is the case now. It was the outer layer that was cut only. The anti-circumcision trend appeared again in the 2nd century A.D. The rabbis, though, created a new way of circumcision by amputating the two layers of the prepuce as a counter reaction to the mentioned trend. Moreover, in 1842, a group of German Jews questioned the obligatory imposition of circumcision; but they retreated under pressure of conservative Jewish clergy. In 1869, Jews who had emigrated to the United States started to discuss the exemption from circumcision of men who converted to Judaism as adults. The exemption was authorized in 1892 because it was said that in the Old Testament, when Abraham was ordered to undergo this procedure, it was not an obligation to all Jews throughout history, and also because of the fact that Jews are identified by their maternal ancestors, regardless of whether they are circumcised or not. Thus, a circumcised Jew cannot be considered a Jew if his mother is from another religion. These modernists also viewed that circumcision did not comply with other Old Testament instructions that forbid harming the body. Modern Jewish feminists noticed the patriarchal political nature of male circumcision. Abu-Sahlieh quotes some of them. One of them is Miriam Pollack, who refutes that circumcision has a religious significance. She says that it has a political background in general and is specially significant to gender.
Circumcision is based on men’s domination of women. By this procedure, the child is separated from his mother who does not have any authority on him any longer. This harms the child, for at this stage he needs his mother most and she cannot defend him, in spite of the fact that they are attached to one another at this early age. The knife that is pointed to the child is in fact pointed to the heart and soul of the mother. Circumcision is actually an injury to the mother; it is humiliating to her since it implies that ‘Your authority over males is limited; moreover, this child belongs to the male community.’ In this manner, the relationship between man and woman is disturbed and similarly the relationship between mother and child. The child’s separation from the mother is a preparation for his separation from her when he is recruited by the army. (Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, 2000)
In spite of these political arguments, the rabbis stress the importance of circumcision considering the non-circumcised a polluted person who should live in isolation. Moreover, he is forbidden the entrance to Eden. Some Jews believe that God will forgive many of their sins because they have been circumcised. Some Jews also admit that the procedure is a means of a cruel way of controlling the child’s sexual drives. The Jewish doctor Moses Maimonides, who lived in the 13th century, was one of them. He said that circumcision diminishes male sexuality but does not affect reproduction. He also said that a female desires to have continuous sexual intercourse with non-circumcised male, and he considers this immoral. He finds it wiser and better to circumcise a male child when he is 8 days old and is helpless. Moreover, his parents are not yet too emotionally attached to him to refrain from circumcising him. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh believed that people of the West do not object to MGM as much as FGM because of the fact that the Jews have power over the mass media and financial resources that are considered the main tools of social action. Thus, people in the West avoid the accusation of being anti-Semitic that may create problems for them.
Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh discussed circumcision in Christianity. Christians who observe circumcision as a tradition justify it by that it was practiced on Christ himself. This anecdote did not appear except in Luke’s Gospel. Some interpreters said that even if Christ had been circumcised when he was a child, it was because he was born a Jew. But when he became a Prophet, he cancelled some of the pre-established rules of the Old Testament, one of these laws was an eye for an eye. He also defined pollution in different terms; a pollutant is what comes out of the mouth not what enters it. Jews who had converted to Christianity tried to impose circumcision on newly converted Christians from polytheistic religions. Paul, the apostle, argued against them by considering circumcision as not having a religious significance. Other priests interpreted circumcision symbolically. They said that circumcision in Christianity means refraining from sexual sins and that it did not imply the amputation of the prepuce. Jews who converted to Christianity, in Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh’s opinion, failed to establish circumcision in Christian thought because they were not a power in the Roman Empire. But Jews who converted to Islam, succeeded in establishing Jewish principles in Islamic thought "isra’iliyyat" because they enjoyed cultural and economic powers in the Arab Peninsula and the surrounding countries in early Islamic period.
Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh proceeded to review the religious controversy concerning circumcision in Islam. He began with the fact that the Qur’an does not mention anything on the subject, though, some men of Fiqh interpreted some verses with controversial connotations "Ayat Mutashabihat" that could be relevant to circumcision. These verses are the ones that order Muslims to follow Ibrahim’s traditions which originated when Allah put him to the test by ordering him to follow His instructions. Certainly, Allah’s imprint on the human body is the best. The author explained in detail the various points of view of men of Fiqh in their interpretation of these verses. Some said that the holy verses implied circumcision; whereas, others considered the contrary. Therefore, it is clear that there is a contradiction between their interpretation and some of the "Sunna." Some theologians said that it is mentioned in the "Sunna" that Adam was the first to have been circumcised and not Ibrahim. Others believe all Prophets were born naturally circumcised, which is another contradiction to what is implied in the verses concerning this matter. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh believed that Ka’ab il Ahbaar – who was a Jew converted to Islam – has a great deal of influence on these interpretations because many of the Islamic concepts were shaped by his Jewish thought "Isra’iliyyat." This theological conflict extends to the 19th and 20th century thinkers such as El Shawkani, Muhamed Abdu, Mahmoud Shaltut, Wahba El Zoheily and Selim El ‘Awwa. Most of these thinkers did not believe in female circumcision, though they insisted on male circumcision because of its assumed hygienic benefits, although it contradicts the Qur’anic verses that mention the perfection of Allah’s creation. Moreover, the Prophet forbid any modification to the human figure, even if this is made by just tattoo or piercing.
Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh explained that those who believe in male circumcision base their ideas on "Sunna" which is considered the secondary source of Islamic law. However, many theologians critically revised the prophetic traditions "Ahadeeth Nabaweyya." According to Abu Haniifa, only 17 of these Prophetic traditions were accepted as authenticated. Al Imam Malik could not approve more than 300 of these Prophetic traditions. Moreover, stories concerning the Prophet Mohammad’s -May the blessings and peace of God be upon him- circumcision were varied; some considered that he was born already circumcised. Some said that Gabril did this procedure to him, others said that it was his grandfather who circumcised him. Believers in circumcision depend on a Prophetic tradition relayed by Shi‘ites that states that the Prophet -May the blessings and peace of God be upon him- circumcised his grand children, El Hassan and El Hussein, on the 7th day of their birth. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh said that this was neither mentioned in the six books of Sunna nor in Ibn Hanbal’s religious reference. One of the most recent controversies between men of Fiqh appeared when El Sheikh Gad il Haq Ali Gad il Haq said that this story is not an authenticated Prophetic tradition, whereas, El Sheikh Tantawi used it as a reference to stress the importance of male circumcision in contrast to female circumcision, which he did not believe was an Islamic requirement.
Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh went further to review the biographies of the Companions of the Prophet Mohammed and stories about them, some of which suggested that circumcision was a pre-Islamic Arab custom. Other stories suggested that the Arabs were not keen on it nor was the Prophet -May the blessings and peace of God be upon him- For example, Osman Ibn Abi il ‘Aas refused to attend a celebration for circumcision because of the fact that neither the Prophet -May the blessings and peace of God be upon him- nor his companions did attend or hold such celebrations. Abu El Hassan il Basary said that the Prophet -May the blessings and peace of God be upon him- did not care to check whether newly converted Muslim males were circumcised or not, no matter what their color or ethnicity was. The matter was of no importance to him. Whereas, Ibn il Munzir said: "There is no valid reference -neither through stories nor Sunna (Prophetic tradition)- to circumcision" "La yougad fil khitan Khabaron Yourga‘ Ilaeh wala Sunna Tuttaba.‘" However, in the early Islamic period, the policy was that non-Muslim citizens were obliged to pay a certain sum of money as a tax (gizya) to the Muslim government (beit il maal). There is a story referring to Omar Ibn Abd Il Aziz’s disagreement with the ruler of Kharasan, who suggested that those who wished to be converted to Islam should be circumcised, so that their conversion is made more arduous in order to retain the taxing system (gizya) of Islam. Justifying his principle, Omar Ibn Abd Il Aziz said that Allah sent the Prophet Mohamed -May the blessings and peace of God be upon him- to guide people on the right path but not to circumcise them.
Moreover, Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh reviewed some modern literature written by contemporaries who object to circumcision. One of these books is Joseph Lewis’ book In the Name of Humanity translated by Issam el Din Hefny Nassef and published in 1971 with the title of Circumcision is a Harmful Jewish Fallacy with a long introduction by the author (Nassef, 1971). Moreover, Mohamed Afifi wrote an article about this book, which will be dealt with in detail below. The title of this article is The manual for the bewildered on circumcision (murshid il hayraan fi ‘amaliyit il khitaan).
B) Circumcision in modern societies
Circumcision today is a social behavior which is valued as an inherited cultural tradition. That is why studies that deal with social behavior are important to review. One of them is T. Parsons’ and E. Shils’ study Values and Social System (1951). Parsons and Shils analyzed the individuals’ behavior in societies. They said that societies control individual’s behavior through cultural systems in order to preserve the equilibrium in the social system. The attitude of individuals determine their behavior towards any given subject. Therefore, people’s behavior is a result of the components of their personalities, and their reaction to social system that modifies their social behavior; moreover, it is the culture with its symbols that shapes the values and beliefs within this social system. Cultural systems are composed of highly representative symbols that are significant to the social system. It is only those who have creative potentials, and are the leaders of these cultural systems who create cultural values that are relayed to and inherited by the subsequent generations. When these cultural symbols become well established, they become an active power that direct individuals’ and groups’ choices to fit the values and social norms they represent. It is according to these values that the individual shapes his/her reaction to the prevailing social norms. Therefore, it can be observed that the common culture is an important factor in the individual’s reaction to others in creating acceptable social norms. This need of social acceptance is a basis for facilitating social norms without which the social stability will be threatened.
Societies, though, are not culturally homogeneous; moreover, not all established cultural systems suit changing social needs. Therefore, individuals re-evaluate their inherited cultural values, and select what appeals to their practical everyday needs. People hold on to the inherited values in order not to disturb their pre-established social system, but they fail when the value interferes with the new life requirements. Therefore, they are confronted with two alternatives: either they live following the inherited values or they adapt the values to their modern modes of life. Societies in general and multi-cultural societies specifically, tend to submit to social mobility that might be considered foreign and contradictory to the pre-established norms, so as a compromise, they make allowance for the social change to a certain extent but not to the degree that disturbs the prevailing system. With these contradictory concepts in mind, social change might happen. In my opinion, Parsons and Shils’ research interprets the persistence of circumcision in the modern society because of people’s tendency towards conformity and highlights the importance of social change.
Traditional tribal leaders, priests and magicians used to carry out the ritual of circumcision in old cultures, whereas the medical professionals took it up in the modern era. Moreover, the medical institution has certain characteristics that make it fit to get involved in this procedure. Foucault explained in his book The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception (1975) the historical development of modern medical knowledge that led to control over the body. Modern empirical medicine began with the beginning of the 19th century, in which the subject/object relationship changed from what it was like in the 17th and 18th centuries, as a result of the change in the physician’s perception of his object: the patient. Diagnosis before the 19th century was reduced to the consideration of the objective signs disregarding the patient and his subjectivity. This reductionist view assumed that the doctor should deal with the disease and ignore the patient’s subjectivity. Therefore, diagnosis in the 17th century depended on the doctor’s theoretical interpretation of objective signs, disregarding the individuality of the patient. In those days, the doctors disregarded nature. Therefore, they did not take the natural course of the disease in every individual into consideration, except when their theoretical judgement failed. In the 19th century, though, observation of the symptoms became of crucial importance. Therefore, the doctors’ observing gaze gave him a distinguished hegemonic status. Accordingly, he could make judgements and claim the right to be absolutely respected and obeyed. No deviation from the natural case escaped his knowledgeable gaze, neither on an organ nor on the individual as a whole. The doctor’s gaze gave him power and hegemony because he was supported by the medical institution that justified his vision. Thus, medicine claimed part of the traditional patriarchal power by virtue of such medical gaze.
Wallerstein described in his book Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy (1980) how MGM and FGM were introduced into modern medical sciences in England in the second half of the 19th century, in the reign of Queen Victoria, then, it spread to other medical institutions in the colonies and other English-speaking countries. In his article From Ritual to Science: The Medical Transformation of Circumcision in America, David Gollaher (1994) described how MGM spread in the United States after a decade from its introduction to the country, and the development of the arguments that supported MGM. He also said that the procedure spread so broadly in the States to the extent that surgeons and parents did not consider it as a surgery. Circumcision did not begin to be known in the States except in 1870. It was introduced at a time when the modern theories of various diseases had not yet been developed as they are today. The most important of which is the fact that diseases are caused by microbes and cured by antibiotics. Before that, the physicians suggested that a disease results from nervous reflexes. This theory explained that the stimulation of the sexual organs is reflected on higher levels of the nervous system and that was a cause of various diseases, such as paralysis, epilepsy, and insanity. Based on this theory, amputation of various parts of the body became common to cure mental disorders, examples of such surgical procedures was the removal of the ovaries, clitoris and prepuce. Practical experience though proved that such procedures did not cure diseases nor did it prevent masturbation in children that used to be considered one of the causes of harmful nervous reflexes that may destroy brain centers. Therefore, the value of circumcision changed from a cure to a prevention, and remained to be considered as a beneficial "preventive" surgery. As pathological theories changed from the previous theory that stressed the importance of the nervous reflexes to the significance of bacteriology, the amputation of female genitals ceased but MGM remained to be common. It was only medical doctors who could fight diseases both surgically and medically, that is why "preventive" surgeries spread to include circumcision because they could rid the body of any potential septic focus; such as the adenoid, tonsils, gall bladder of typhoid carriers, and the prepuce that was considered a place for accumulation of dirt. However, the prepuce secretes a material which is called in Latin "smegma," which means "detergent." Gollaher said that most of the opinions on the subject of circumcision were mentioned in a book by Remondino in 1881 on the history of circumcision, in which he mixed folklore, his subjective views and incorrect information. For example, Remondino said that the prepuce is nothing more than a developmental rudiment. It has no function in modern men’s bodies. Moreover, he described the prepuce as an extra structure with extremely malignant effects. According to him, such malignant effects are invisibly done, like the acts of evil spirits and djin of Arabian tales, who can remotely harm their prey. Similarly, the prepuce makes a male prey to diseases and other problems all his life long. It makes him good for nothing; neither for work nor marriage. It turns him into a miserable person by making him vulnerable to continuous scolding and punishment. As a child, it causes him to have nocturnal enuresis and indulge in masturbation that weakens his body, mind and moralities. He may even end up in jail or a lunatic asylum. Thus, a male has to get rid of this evil body part to ensure leading a good life. Some Jewish medical doctors expressed theories on the prevention of cancer and sexually transmitted diseases by circumcision. They explained why Jews were more healthy than other people. One of the Jewish doctors said that "Judaism as a religion served science" (Gollaher 1994: 16). With the end of the 19th century, circumcision in the United States ceased to be a ritual and became considered a medical procedure. Some of the factors that lead to the spread of circumcision was the fact that anesthesia, disinfectants and medical care in hospitals were becoming more common in the United States. Childbirth was no longer a family event that took place at home. Obstetricians were technical practitioners rather than scholars. They learned the techniques through observation of their seniors and repeated them without critical thinking. Thus, they believed in routine surgical procedures. Doctors who were convinced about circumcision increased, which is why the procedure became more widely spread and accepted by people. It was found that the most important factor that increases the prevalence of any surgery anywhere was the increase in the number of the medical professionals in the area who were ready to do it. This can be applied to procedures such as Cesarean section and circumcision. Moreover, people tend to believe that the prevalent medical procedures are the best medical care that money can buy. But Gollaher believed that mere technology without scientific basis could be more harmful than beneficial. As a principle, science serves knowledge, whereas mere technology without solid scientific basis serves control over the human body.
By the early time of introduction of MGM to the USA, male adults did not find a reason to ask for circumcision for themselves. Thus, most of those who had this procedure done to them were children of higher and middle class families with diseases that were thought to be a result of retention of the prepuce according to the 19th century theories as stated above. Gradually, doctors convinced people with the principle of male circumcision especially at an early age when they believed that the child could not feel the pain sharply. They thought that circumcision pain was not more than that of the prick of a needle. They preferred to do circumcision at an early age to prevent diseases that could show up as a result of the presence of the prepuce and before the child grows up acquiring bad habits.
Gollaher mentioned that in spite of the doctors’ continuous attempts to convince people of the surgical safety of circumcision, medical research started to discover hazards of MGM as early as 1909, when an American medical journal published an article about circumcision complications, such as infections, tissue edema, excessive bleeding, hematoma, excision of the head of the penis and mutilation. Thus, the ideas of surgical practitioners contradicted the findings of medical researchers. Practitioners assumed that their empirical experience proves that the prepuce is harmful and that circumcision has curative and preventive significance, while these assumptions could not stand the test of experimental medical research, and hence, proved to be invalid. Medical practitioners disseminated their disdain to the prepuce to the public. Thus, its retention turned to be a sign of ignorance, negligence and poverty. These ideas played a role in increasing the demand for male circumcision.
In her article The Ritual of Circumcision, Karen Erickson Paige (1978) reviewed the development of rationales that are used by the modern American medical institution to justify MGM. These justifications emerged only after the widespread use of medicalized male circumcision in the USA. According to Paige, Western people used to be astonished when they heard about the types of body mutilations that are practiced by other non-Western people or tribes. On the other hand, they used to consider their own Western rituals that include body mutilation, including male circumcision, as medically justified procedures. Although MGM is practiced in some western industrialized, as well as some non-Western traditional societies, it developed differently in both types of societies. MGM started in the West with the masturbation mania that prevailed in the West in the period of transformation from agricultural to industrial economy between 1700-1914. Masturbation used to be considered a sin since as early as the Biblical era. However, it did not start to be considered as a medical problem before the time of modern industrial transformation. This medical theorization appealed to middle class parents because it provided them with an explanation of what they considered bad children’s behaviors, such as rudeness, rebellion, nervousness and interest in the opposite sex. Thus, establishing masturbation as a danger to be feared and controlled by various means served work, family, and parental institutions. British and American doctors suggested various treatments for this "problem," which included types of food and drinks to suppress sexual drives, different forms of chastity belts to prevent children from touching their genitalia, recommendation of intimidation and punishment of accused children, plaster splints or leather and rubber sheaths to entrap the penis, cauterization of genitalia, and in extreme cases doctors castrated the "sick" masturbators. In terms of these circumstances, circumcision was considered a more merciful alternative to some of these types of "treatment." Doctors promoted that circumcision ensures better health for the boy, improves his work capabilities, ensures more longevity, protects the boy from tantrums and diseases, and consequently saves money and time that would have been spent on medical consultation and therapy. In 1890 some American surgeons established the Orificial Surgery Society. Its main task was promotion of genital surgeries for males and females. Such surgeries gave parents a tool to control their children’s sexuality, and gave doctors a chance to emphasize their authority over children and women’s bodies. After masturbation mania in the West had faded, by 1925 writings that recommended horrible means to prevent masturbation decreased. However, male circumcision persisted with the emergence of a theory in 1932 about its preventive significance against cancer. This theory depended on research that was carried out by a medical doctor who concluded that cancer of genitalia is less prevalent among Jews and Muslims because they perform male circumcision. This theory helped to spread infant male circumcision in order to protect adult men from cancer, i.e. the strong controls the body of the weak whom he believes to be polluted. It was proved that this research had flawed methodology, and hence, its results were invalid. In this research, religion was the only variable that was taken into consideration. Other variables such as socio-economic standards and health habits of the sample’s population were neglected. Even the relative representation of Jews in the community, i.e. their percentage, was not taken into account. Another justification for circumcision was beautification. Paige quoted a doctor who said, "the circumcised penis appears as if it were erected even if it is not so. Thus it is a proof of manhood." However, social biases changed, as did the justifications for circumcision throughout the decades. For example, in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, masturbation and sex in general were not encouraged; and doctors at that time considered circumcision as a tool to control sexual drives. Yet, on the contrary, in the late 20th century, when sex and masturbation were considered good and normal, doctors said that circumcision was done to increase the sexual sensitivity of both males and females. When a procedure is justified by contradictory reasons, that means that it represents mythic ritualistic thought, which is irrational and non-scientific.
Paige mentioned that some psychoanalysts suggested that circumcision represents the child’s willingness to submit to his father’s authority by giving up a part of his penis, or represents the father’s efforts to convey his supreme authority over the child by the procedure. She studied 23 local communities that practiced circumcision, and found that there were many common factors among them. The most important of which is that they came from pastoral or rural origins, also, that they have interest groups composed of males who were considered kin or brothers. Paige considered that it was the males who have the ultimate authority over females, to which they were related or bound to in marriage. In such cultures, the male was not circumcised for his own good but for the sake of the leaders of the family or the tribe. These leaders used to force the father to circumcise his son without hesitating. He should not object to the principle. The father’s submission to the leaders of the tribe was considered a sign of loyalty to the patriarchal society. The ritual that expressed this loyalty was done by amputating part of the penis and not the ear for example, because it was the penis that was responsible for reproduction. Hence its relevance to the group’s interests, because the departure of a senior male with his sons would weaken the power of the group that in turn would create a political and economic threat to the tribe. Paige interpreted the Genesis story in sociological terms saying that it represents conflicts in the tribe that increased in number and needed more males to defend it. That is why Jews identified circumcision in the Old Testament as a political agreement between God and Abraham, without giving it any medical or health explanation, as is the case with the Jewish doctors and those who were convinced by their opinions today.
One of the reasons of the increasing doctors’ acceptance to infant male circumcision is the belief that infants don’t feel pain, and that is why no anesthesia is given. This belief encouraged more research to be done on pain in the newly born children. One of these studies is a research by David Chamberlain Babies Don’t Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine (1991). [see also: Babies Remember Pain, David Chamberlain, Pre- and Peri-Natal Psychology, Volume 3, Number 4: Pages 297-310, Summer 1989.] In it, Chamberlain explained the relation between doctors and children saying that the doctors considered that children are not mature enough to feel pain. In the first half of the 20th century, doctors considered the child’s reaction to pain as a mere reflex because they believed that the cerebral cortex was not developed enough at birth to perceive pain. But recent studies proved that on the contrary, children do feel pain and express it by crying and facial expressions. In fact, there are objective signs of pain on circumcised children, such as an increase in heart beat and a faster breathing rate, a lack in blood oxygen and an increase in the amount of cortisol in the blood. After circumcision, the child’s sleeping pattern changes, and he tends to become socially remote. His feeding habits change and even his interaction with his mother is disturbed. Chamberlain said that circumcision takes place as a result of social pressures and that the parents are not aware of its impact on the child. He further gave various explanations to the doctors’ denial of pain in children. One of these explanations is that the doctors who perform this surgery have patriarchal biases, hence, they disregard the child’s feelings. This applies also to female doctors who were trained by male doctors. Moreover, some doctors may still hold the old and outdated belief that pain is good, sacred, and a necessary part of regular human life. This denial of pain may be the result of the fact that these doctors wish to appear as scientists, who are usually characterized by dull and blunt emotions. Chamberlain mentioned historical evidence that reveals that doctors’ denial to the efficiency of infant’s perception of pain is rooted in bias against the weak. When anesthesia began to be used in the United States, doctors did not give it to Negroes, Asians, German, Irish, sailors, soldiers, rural and poor people because they considered them tolerant of pain.
In his book Circumcision: An American Health Fallacy (1980), Wallerstein criticized the research that had taken place in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, which stated that circumcision was a health procedure. He stressed the weaknesses in the research methodology that were of an unacceptable level. He explained the reason why the United States was the only Western industrial country that supported male circumcision for non-religious reasons. This was based on fallacies about the health significance of the procedure. Circumcision in the USA was also reinforced by the fact that the severed prepuces were considered a commodity to be sold on the market to pharmaceutical and cosmetics labs.
The assumed "health benefits" of MGM were nothing more than unfounded hypotheses that were not proved to be true by well-controlled scientific research. Moreover, researchers studied why doctors agreed to do this procedure. One of these studies was by Denniston in his article "Iatrogenic Epidemic" (1994). He said that doctors in the United States agreed to circumcise children with the denial theory in mind. Denial is a relief to the individual who experienced psychological shock. It also relieves guilt feelings of those who inflicted pain on others. Accordingly, doctors who were circumcised themselves wanted to do the same to others to relieve themselves of the harm they themselves experienced when they were children; and as a relief of the sense of guilt when circumcising others, considering it a normal health precaution.
In his book Circumcision the Hidden Trauma, (1997) and in his article The Psychological Impact of Circumcision (1999), Goldman made an extensive study of the psychological aspects of male circumcision. He said that doctors ignore circumcised children’s pain because they are helpless and cannot put up a defense. It was proved by studying anatomy, chemical changes in the nervous cells, physiology and the behavior of infants that they are in fact affected by pain more so than adults. Other researchers, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, agreed with Goldman in the fact that they found a variation in the circumcised child’s reaction to his mother and that his sleep pattern has changed and the child became unduly hyper-reactive to painful stimuli. Some mothers said that the day their child was circumcised was the worst day in their lives, it was as if the child had been slaughtered. Trauma, according to the definition of the American Psychological Association, is described as "an event that goes beyond every day life experience of human beings, for example, physical violation, or torture, or anything that threatens the individual’s safety." Physical violation on one hand, is any abuse to the body, whereas, torture, on the other hand, is an infliction of pain or extreme stress. Both cases are traumatic, even if the attack or injury are not done with the intention of violation or torture. The above definitions are descriptions of the act itself and the human reaction to it irrespective of the intentions of the violator. The younger the infant is, the more he is harmed by trauma. Goldman gave some reasons why men do not reveal their feelings towards their own circumcision. He assumed that they do not talk about it because they accept it as a common belief stating the health benefits of the procedure or perhaps because they do not want to remember the pain the experience involved. So, they repress it as a defense mechanism in order not to feel the pain or humiliation. Another reason could be that MGM takes place at a very early age before the child has developed the spoken language. That is why males do not express their painful circumcision memories in words, but they express it in non-verbal ways such as insensitivity towards others or unexplainable rage. Goldman analyzed the psychology of doctors who circumcised children by saying that they subconsciously project their own painful experience on others because it was, at the time, unexplainable trauma to them. That is how people adapt their beliefs to suit customs and traditions. Thus, men from the medical profession support circumcision, which is common among them, with the excuse that the prepuce is not of any good and that children do not feel it anyway. Doctors who strongly believe in circumcision reject any new information that is not in agreement with their own ideas. The more the gap between their theoretical beliefs and the practical results of their deeds grows, the more they avoid new information. They say that they do the procedure according to the parents’ request. Thus, circumcision is the only surgical procedure that is decided by non-professionals. However, doctors play an active role in the parents’ decision to circumcise their baby by hiding information on the hazards of MGM and the functions of the prepuce from the parents, or even by suggesting that it is recommended. On the other hand, parents think that the procedure is good for the child since doctors agree to do it, so they request it. In both cases, circumcision is done because it is a socially accepted procedure.
Myths of social acceptance are not easy to be terminated; for when people fall under social pressures, they cannot easily be critical to the social group and they tend to conform to it. Especially when common norms are challenged by contradictory ideas, they tend to defend them. When Goldman studied circumcision in Judaism, he found that it was spread among the Jewish communities a thousand years before the Old Testament was written down. Therefore, it can be considered that circumcision was included in the written Bible as a divine law to eliminate the parents’ sense of guilt and to provide them with a good excuse that relieves them from personal responsibility of what had been done to their children. Circumcision was not stated in the Qur’an, although there is a lot of theological debate on its religious validity. And because of the skepticism that surrounds the religious justification for circumcision, both Jews and Muslims support their convictions on social tradition. These convictions are hidden behind a barrier of silence, which is why MGM has continued as a social tradition. Goldman explained the role played by medical "sciences" in the continuity of unnecessary social habits that are moreover, harmful and not healthy and gave circumcision as an example. He said that science is not a neutral institution but is affected by cultural values and serves them. One of the ways by which social systems preserve old values is to renew their credibility by inaccurate scientific research. That is how some intellectuals play a crucial role in concealing facts.
The article by Cold and Taylor (1999) entitled The prepuce refuted the common medical fallacies about the physiological insignificance of the prepuce. This article explained in details the embryological development of the prepuce, its anatomical structure and its various functions. Both male and female embryos develop prepuces. In infancy and early childhood the prepuce is naturally attached to the head of the penis or clitoris to protect them from irritation by excreta. Natural separation takes place gradually till it is completed when a child is between 4-17 years old. This anatomical fact was discovered in 1949, but many doctors are not aware of it, and they diagnose this natural phenomenon as a case of pathological adhesions that needs to be corrected by circumcision. Cold and Taylor explained that the prepuce is formed of five layers of tissues that are full of blood vessels and sensory nerves that are specialized to feel light touch. It is the most sensitive male organ, similar to the sensitivity of the finger tips, eyelids and lips. Taylor discovered the minute structure of the prepuce and its innervation and described it in an article published the British Journal of Urology in 1996. In the prepuce there are muscle fibers that are similar to the fibers in the scrotum. The role of these fibers in infants and children is to protect the urinary tract from infection. They act as a one-way valve that facilitates the passage of urine and prevents the entrance of any foreign body. As the male approaches puberty, these muscle fibers decrease in number and give way to an increase of elastic fibers, till both types of fibers reach an equilibrium that allows free mobility of the prepuce in sexual intercourse. The prepuce also has immune cells that are considered a primary defense against microbes. It also secretes a lubricant matter to make sexual intercourse more comfortable. Therefore, by circumcision, the male is deprived of all these advantages that nature granted him.
Some doctors, though, revised their attitude towards circumcision because of
the knowledge they acquired on the subject; they criticized themselves and raised it as a problematic issue among their colleagues. In his book,
Circumcision Exposed: Rethinking a Medical and Cultural Tradition (1998), B.
Boyd mentioned that some American pediatricians stopped doing the procedure after reconsidering circumcision and the pain it causes to the child. Boyd
discussed the medical and cultural aspects of male circumcision in the United States. From the medical point of view, he discussed the function and
structure of the prepuce, and the similarity between male and female
circumcision. Boyd criticized the involvement of modern medical institution in performing and justifying circumcision, especially that scientific research refuted any of the vindication put up by medical professionals to prove that circumcision is beneficial and healthy. Respectively, he refuted
all that was said about the significance of circumcision as a curative or preventive measure against masturbation, sexually transmitted diseases, cancer of the penis and cervix uteri, urinary tract infection, and finally AIDS. Circumcision, therefore, is not a valid scientifically justified procedure which cures diseases. In fact, it is “a surgery in search of a disease.” Moreover, Boyd reviewed other doctors’ efforts to criticize MGM. As for the cultural point of view, Boyd explained that circumcision is practiced by religious groups in the societies that strongly believe in it, even if their ideas do not come from religious texts themselves. He also reviewed some statements of Jews who experienced a conflict between their innate feelings of protecting the child from harm and the requirements of their religious institution. They, accordingly, became critical towards circumcision, and were satisfied by saying prayers as a religious ritual for the newly born. It is the spiritual significance that matters and therefore, it is not necessary to shed blood and deprive him of an important part of his body. Evidently, circumcision is a tool used by patriarchal societies to control the weaker and less powerful masses. All the religious explanations behind circumcision are nothing but excuses for making it a prevailing tradition. Boyd gave the opinion of the Jewish physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides who lived in the 13th century, as an evidence. He explained
that circumcision is done at a very early age because it is easier to control the infant who is unable to refuse to be circumcised, whereas an adolescent could easily totally disagree. Furthermore, as the child grows older, his parents’ emotions towards him become stronger and therefore, prevent them from letting the procedure be done because they do not want to hurt him. Boyd dealt with the social significance of circumcision. He said that it gives the individual a feeling of helplessness, because when he experiences extreme pain as a vulnerable child who is unable to defend himself, he learns that such violence is inevitable throughout his life in order to survive. This feeling increases as society insists on denying the psychological impact of circumcision on the individual and is indifferent to
it. This is a similar situation to societies with racial, gender, or ethnic discriminations. Boyd stressed the fact that it is only the individual who has the right to decide whether he wants to be circumcised or not. American doctors, lawyers, and other intellectual activists against circumcision, share Boyd’s opinion. Boyd further criticized American feminists who, in spite of the fact that they are against FGM, do not take an active role to stop MGM, with the excuse that it is not a practical endeavor. Boyd said that it is not their right to criticize a tradition that is foreign to them - such as FGM - while they keep silent when it comes to one of their own cultural traditions that implies a violation to the bodies of their children. He considered such attitude a political bargain that feminists use to prove
their loyalty to the dominant social culture, so that they can be allowed a wider space to struggle against a less dominant practice such as FGM among immigrants. This is similar to the strategy that was used by some white leaders of the laborers’ movement who refused to address the issue of racial discrimination.
that the African justifications of FGM
were the same as the American justifications of MGM.
However, as feminists started to reconsider MGM; they revised their old conviction that FGM is a completely different issue. One of the most renown feminist articles is that of the anthropologist Lightfoot-Klein (1994) Erroneous Belief Systems Underlying Female Genital Mutilation in sub-Saharan Africa and Male Neonatal circumcision in the United States: A Brief Report Updated in which she said that she was not very interested in MGM, although she was not very convinced by its validity, because all her studies were on female issues, that is why she was not active in fighting MGM since this is "a male issue" that women cannot understand. It was also irrelevant to her because of the fact that she is a woman. As she continued her studies of FGM in Africa, she did find a similarity between sexual mutilation in both sexes. Lightfoot-Klein discovered that the African justifications of FGM were the same as the American justifications of MGM. Such similarities are found in the opinions that say that circumcision does not deprive the child from an important part of its body but it only takes off an unnecessary piece of skin; and that it is a beautifying procedure; it also has health benefits such as the prevention of infection, and other diseases; and since doctors agree to do it, it has to be beneficial. In both sexes, men and women do not find any relation between long term complications and circumcision that they experienced at a very early age. It was claimed that neither females nor males would find a partner if they were not circumcised.
Other thinkers realized that it is important for women to advocate the rights of children from both sexes in order to create a better future. One of these thinkers is DeMause, the founder and president of the International Association of Historical Psychology and who was also the editor of the Journal of Psychological History and published an article on the internet Women and Children at the Cutting Edge of Historical Change (DeMause n.d ‘1’) in which he said that historical progress evolves when the older generation reconsiders their childhood traumas and therefore, they decide not to do the same to their own children. In another article The Psychogenic Theory of History (DeMause n.d. ‘2’), DeMause said that such improvement in child rearing enables new personalities to appear that can play the role of leadership in social, economic and political evolution to shape a better society.
"Why should we be
objective about questions like rape, wife battering, and circumcision?
...it is time to be biased by siding with the weak and to declare that the emperor is naked!"
Human rights activist agreed with this trend as expressed in Nobel’s article "Just say No: Issues of Empowerment." (1991). She denied the idea of "objectivity" in dealing with the rights of the weak who are subject to injustice from the more powerful social actors. She wondered, why should we be objective about questions like rape, wife battering, and circumcision? She said that it is time to be biased by siding with the weak and to declare that the emperor is naked!
In the United States, some intellectuals pioneered the movement against MGM. Their efforts resulted in a decrease in MGM prevalence from 90% in the 1980s to 60% in beginning of the 1990s. In a pamphlet published by an active American organization, the National Organization to Halt Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males (NOHARMM), there is a description of the efforts of intellectuals against the mutilation of the human body that is done everyday to males. The pamphlet includes testimonies of men who have been circumcised and have suffered from this traumatic experience. (NOHARMM, 1994).
No research has been done on male circumcision in Egypt, which is why there is no extensive bibliography on the subject written by Egyptian thinkers. Moreover, the available written materials do not include any academic research. The earliest written material I found is a translation by Essam Eddin Hefny Nassif of Joseph Lewis’ book Circumcision: A Harmful Jewish Fallacy (1971) with an introduction by the translator. The book dealt with the historical background of circumcision especially in ancient cultures. Nassif commented on the influence of some Jewish ideas "Isra’illiyyat" that were transferred to Islamic thought by some Jews who converted to Islam. Isra’illiyyat gave a false impression that circumcision is one of the requirements of Islam. However, it is a harmful fallacy spread by the rabbis. It is also a ritual with political significance as a symbol that encouraged the Israeli to occupy Palestine.
The writer Mohamed Afifi reviewed Nassif’s book in an article Bewildered Guide to Circumcision (1997). Afifi considered that circumcision is a representation of the rabbis’ sadism, it is a new Jewish personification of ancient bloodthirsty gods that were alive in the primitive man’s imagination. Afifi ridiculed the medical myths that hold that circumcision is done as a preventive surgery; describing them as a ridiculous argument. He said, "Why should we assume the existence of such a disgusting man who has rejected personal hygiene and has left his body secretions to accumulate day after day till he gets cancer?! If this pig has to be really there, don’t you agree that he should deserve to get cancer?!". Afifi said that people who die from circumcision are much more than those who die from cancer of the penis. He exclaimed why a female does not have her breasts amputated when she is eight days old to prevent her from getting cancer of the breast that is common in women. Afifi, then explained Nassif’s point of view that refuted circumcision in Islam, stressing sheikh Shaltut’s views that says:
The way I see it is that the opinion of Shari’a (Islamic law) on circumcision is not subject to a written text, but is subject to the common view that considers it wrong to inflict pain on anyone except when necessary according to their best interests, which should overweigh the inflicted pain. After reviewing all opinions on circumcision, we have reached the conclusion that it does not have any religious significance according to Sunna, let alone its existance in Fiqh. This conclusion was reached by some early theologians. One of them expressed it as follows: "There is no valid reference – neither through stories nor Sunna (Prophetic tradition) - to circumcision" (Afifi 1971).
Afifi concluded that insisting on circumcision in the age of space is irrational.
Gamal el Banna is an Egyptian intellectual who wrote his opinion on this subject in an article entitled A Point of View About Male and Female Circumcision (1999). He denied that circumcision is a mandatory Sunna. According to him, mandatory Sunna is what the Prophet was told to do by Allah, or what he said as an explanation to what has been stated in the Qur’an. Neither case applies to circumcision. Moreover, El Banna considered circumcision a contradiction to the concept of the perfection of creation that was stated in the Qur’an. Circumcision does not add anything to the human body but on the contrary it is a sort of amputation. Therefore, we should not impose it on children, and deprive them of what Allah gave them, for it is the child’s right to keep his whole body intact.
Dr. Nawal El Sa’adawi wrote various articles in the Egyptian press on male and female circumcision. The first article was published in October magazine in 1995 in which she told of her experience as a medical doctor at the beginning of her career, when she refused to do this procedure to either sexes, and that was in 1954 when she was newly graduated from medical school. She was convinced that a scalpel should not be used to cut off a healthy part of the body. She mentioned some operations made by doctors as "preventive surgeries" that were later considered by research to be harmful, such as routine appendectomy, tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy, especially if these operations were not necessary. She reviewed some modern studies that proved that circumcision is contraindicated and harmful. She also mentioned the conferences held in Europe and the United States that dealt with this subject. In her opinion, circumcision is a remnant of slavery and idolatry rituals of blood sacrifice. Moreover, she explained the beneficial function of the prepuce and the disadvantages of the procedure in both sexes.
...the health justifications
are nothing but excuses to hide its oppressive nature.
Dr. Sa’adawi published another article in Rosal Youssef magazine in 1998 showing the relation of male circumcision to the patriarchal society. She interpreted the story of Abraham’s circumcision that was revealed in the Old Testament, saying that Sarah ordered his circumcision as revenge for his delay in sending Hager and her son Ishmael away. As for the Jewish motto that says "Land in exchange for circumcision" she said that its interpretation needs more study of the ancient slave societies and the history of conflicts on power and land throughout humanity. Dr. Sa’adawi wrote that the health justifications of circumcision are nothing but excuses to hide its oppressive nature. Dr. Sa‘adawi had access to many updated resources on MGM when she taught in Duke University in the United States between 1993-1995. Moreover, she reviewed two theological opinions on circumcision: one by Sheikh Muhammed Abdu and the other by Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut. Both say that there is no relation between circumcision and Islam. Then she expressed the importance of the same procedure in Judaism as a purification of the infant from the birth pollution by the blood shed in circumcision. This ritual was replaced in Christianity with baptism, which was done with water. She said that El Raazi, who was a Muslim Arab doctor who lived in the 10th century A.D., objected to any interference with the healthy human body, including circumcision. She mentioned that El Raazi’s books were forbidden from circulation in Egypt. If these books were available, people would have known that the call against circumcision was not from a Western origin, but it was an old indigenous call that dates back to the earliest debate between rationality and irrationality.
Dr. El Sa’adawi also published an article in Rosal Youssef in 1999, a response to a young mother who had told her that she had tried to defend her baby son’s bodily integrity but did not know how to discuss it with the doctor and family who insisted on circumcising the child saying that it was a beneficial procedure. The mother asked Dr. Sa’adawi to publish some information on the matter. Dr. Sa’adawi reported that after having published her article on the historical and cultural aspects of circumcision, the magazine refused to allow her to publish any medical information on it. However, Dr. Sa’adawi gave brief information on the sensitivity of the prepuce, its immunological function and the harm of removing it. Then, she explained the psychological problems and the traumatic experience that the child is exposed to, and the pain involved, even if it is done under anesthesia, because local anesthesia does not penetrate the five layers of skin, and she also said that general anesthesia is dangerous. Moreover, she explained that circumcision is one of the causes of male sexual frustration and male violence against women, especially their wives.
III) The theoretical framework
A) The first theoretical concept: Gender
My analytical framework is based on feminist gender theory, where gender is sociologically defined as social intervention to shape male and female identities to match the dominant cultural image of masculinity and femininity. This intervention starts in childhood to socialize boys and girls into the presumed patriarchal gender roles. Feminism is rooted in enlightened concepts of emancipation and justice, and tries to interpret the established social organization in terms of these concepts with the objective of bringing about a social change towards a more fair society for the weak and the vulnerable social groups (Lenon and Whitford 1994). The feminist point of view sees that such social change should serve women in the first place, taking their ethnic and class specificity into consideration. However, all social groups that are marginalized and denied their full rights under patriarchy are meant to benefit from social change. Such groups include children of both sexes (Sacks 1980).
a) Patriarchal gender politics and biases
In patriarchal societies, women and children from both sexes have lower social status because of their economic dependence. Women depend on their husbands and children on their fathers for protection and provision of everyday living needs in return for their submission to his authority (Lerner, 1986). The impact of this dependence increases during transitional stages from the traditional social system that is based on subsistence economy – where women do some home activities that have a socio-economic value – to the market economy that does not evaluate these home services socially (Meillassoux, 1972). In such conditions, women are unable to make independent decisions, and whoever tries to do otherwise is unacceptable and considered as a transgressor of her appropriate social limits.
Moreover, in patriarchal societies women cannot participate equally in the relations of ruling since it is men who set laws and customs. Thus, women are inferior and live in a lower social status in these patriarchal societies. Moreover, the female’s most important product in terms of patriarchal gender division of labor are children. However, children are not attributed to mothers and therefore do not belong to her but to their father and his kin after a period of maternal care (Moghadam 1993: 105). Women are responsible for the continuity of such gender politics by their silence (Smith, 1987: 34).
b) Shaping images of masculinity and femininity
Sherry Ortner attributed women’s social inferiority to the patriarchal conceptualization of masculinity and femininity; the female is always linked to nature and the male to culture. Women find their self-satisfaction and creativity in reproduction, whereas, men depend on technology and culture to achieve their creative abilities. Thus, a man is conceptualized as a powerful being, superior, intellectual, pure, dominant; and a woman is conceptualized, on the contrary, as associated to nature, inferior, weak, polluted, submissive, and home bound (Moore, 1988: 12-24).
In traditional societies, reproduction is the female’s essential social role, although the produced children do not belong to her but to their fathers and their paternal lineage as mentioned above; and this role affects young women’s social status. One of the indicators of social status is the individual’s ability to control the products of his/her labor (Moore, 1993: 31-32). Patriarchal gender politics and division of labor deny this right to women.
c) The link between children from both sexes and females
According to patriarchal traditions, a woman’s highest aspiration is to become a mother and especially to reproduce sons. It is her ability to become a mother that defines her social status. (Inhorn, 1996). It is known that women care for their sons more than their daughters because they believe that male children are more sensitive and more vulnerable. Therefore, their main endeavor is to protect them from being hurt or suffering. (Abd el Salam, 1998) According to Smith’s theory that deals with every day life issues as problematic in terms of the dominant relations of ruling, women’s private interests are considered political, exactly like all private matters with underlying social power politics (Smith, 1987). Accordingly, one can reveal the underlying power politics behind the violation of women’s interest in protection of their children by questioning the issues that violate this private emotion, the most important of which is circumcision. According to Smith, dealing with every day life as problematic means that the researcher has to find the link between the problem of her research and the relations of ruling that are represented by the relevant dominant social institutions, knowledge and ideologies. In this context, there is no issue that can be considered trivial or irrelevant as is always claimed by social power holders. This research is important because it reveals the hidden aspects of a practice that appears to be innocent and natural, although this is not the case. I suggest that hidden aspects of social phenomena are even more significant than clearly evident aspects.
d) Sex as a means of social control
Several studies have dealt with the relation between the traditional practices that are performed over the human body and politics of social control. The human body is a good medium for social control of the individuals by shaping their bodies to fit the socially acceptable image. This is evident, for example, in the social discourse about the female body figure and weight, if she does not meet these expectations, she is considered socially in need of therapy (Bordo, 1993). Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1987) described three levels in dealing with the human body that start from the concrete to the abstract. The first and the most concrete level is the individual body. On this level, the body is treated as a human body that feels pain and pleasure. This is the level on which the individual is able to experience and respond to subjective concrete sensations. The second level is the social body, on which the body is treated as an abstract object without any individual attributes. On this level, society can inscribe its symbols on the body. The third level is the body politics, on which society interferes to define and control the limits of what an individual can do with his/her body and what is forbidden.
Although sex is associated with the body at the individual level as it is socially defined, sexuality is not an expression of physical drives only but it is a very complex construct of cultural symbols and social conceptualizations of the individuals’ bodies, including the social conceptualizations of femininity and masculinity and their relation to how men and women should appear and act in the specific social and cultural context. Therefore, sexuality, as a social concept, is a mediator between the physical and social aspects of the gendered body (Abd el Salam, 1998). Sex is a physical function which is used by power holders in modern patriarchal society as a means of control over the weaker especially women and children. Therefore, in the age of capitalist transformation, dominant power politics defined the acceptable sexual behavior and what should be written or said or not said about sex. All this was used as a tool for capitalism. And since production is the most important capitalist objective, expression of sexuality was restricted to what helps the achievement of that goal. An acceptable sexual relationship was only that which is between a married couple for the sake of reproduction of labor force. Any other forms of expression of sexuality was socially unacceptable. Both religious and medical institutions did not hesitate to interfere to impose control over sexuality since it was considered a chaotic situation if left without rules to regulate it socially. (Foucault, 1984) When added together, the social alienation that is one of the characteristics of capitalist relations of production and the patriarchal biases against women and children, it is not strange that the society practices its control over bodies of individuals in every possible way so as not to allow any diversion from the main capitalist objective, which is production of commodities in factories and children in families (Trask, 1986).
To end the social bias against women and children, we cannot disregard or marginalize gender issues on the assumption that they are trivial and that the first priority should be given to issues of economic growth in the developing societies. This rationale is over-simplification that disregards the patriarchal social power politics. Therefore, development cannot be complete without taking gender issues into consideration. (Hatem, 1986). This analysis applies to children from both sexes as well as women. Therefore, it is not good for women to keep silent when it comes to issues that harm their children with the excuse that it is not one of the priorities in improving women’s social situation. The powerful do not dominate and control the weak as a result of a conspiracy, but it is the weak who give them the chance to keep their thumb over them by remaining silent. Actually, what makes the weak keep their mouths shut is their sense of isolation, weakness, and their feelings of inferiority, insecurity and lack of self confidence. (Janeway, 1980). According to Foucault’s analysis, exposure of social traditions with relation to sexuality to discussion enhances social change for the benefit of the weak (Foucault 1984: 6-8).
e) Men’s emancipation movement
In patriarchal society, men also have their share of gender discrimination and oppression. Some pro-gender equality men started a male emancipation movement in the West in the first half of the 1970s. The leaders of this movement compared between the advantages they achieved from institutions in the patriarchal society that gave them authority and their suffering from the burdens of the imposed identity and body shaping to meet the requirements of traditional masculine image and role. According to this image, men should not be sensitive but should be rough, violent and strong; and are allowed to create hell for women. Emancipation-oriented men revolted against the idea of preset gender roles, according to which they were expected to be tough and were deprived of having the chance to express their tender feelings freely. They considered that such rigid allocation of gender roles is disadvantageous to men and a factor that increased women’s subjugation. They, therefore, advocated that gender is exactly as class and ethnic identities, none of them should define social roles. That is, gender identity ought to be accepted as it is but social roles should not be strictly pre-defined. Thus, women should be able to reach leadership positions and men should have the chance to act as nurturers and care givers and vice versa. Members of this movement considered the division of roles according to gender as controversial and that this issue will not be solved except by bringing traditional gender roles to an end. Although society gives men the authority that is the upper hand, some men do not feel that they are actually powerful. In such patriarchal societies, the main criteria that asserts manhood is his success in his sexual life with women. Accordingly, he is responsible to take the initiative, and is expected to proceed with all the steps to achieve this goal. And yet, he is not supposed to express his emotions because of the traditional social image of masculinity. This contradictory situation makes it difficult for a man to interact efficiently as a partner. Therefore, he has to act roughly and have a mechanical sexual relationship with his female partner. This situation deprives him of an important part of his human rights. Thus, people who follow the patriarchal social norms suffer from oppression, whether they are males or females. Male emotional oppression is reflected on the female because he uses her to prove his virility to other men. By so doing, the female is turned into a sexual object; and the male turns into an object of success in terms of the patriarchal social norms. Therefore, the two genders turn into objects instead of interacting human subjects. Social theorists consider the transformation of the relationship between men and women from the role to the identity theory as an indicator of moving from the structuralist/functionalist theoretical paradigm as it was described by Talcot Parsons in the 1950s to the feminist theoretical paradigm.
Emancipatory men imagined that their collaboration with the feminist movement will lead to bringing about the expected change in gender relationships. But with the beginning of the 1980s, the male emancipation movement was divided to two groups. One group, the conservatives, thought that feminists concentrated on winning gains for their gender, so, they diverted from the movement and set up their motto which was "Men’s rights," since they considered themselves a victim of oppression and gender discrimination. Instead of allying with feminists as they did when the movements started, they turned against them; because they considered that the feminist movement allowed women to keep their traditional role in society that allowed expression of their natural human feelings, in addition to giving them access to competition with men and sharing the authority that they used to enjoy by virtue of their traditional masculine social role.
As for the progressive leftist wing of the men's emancipation movement, they remained allied with the women’s emancipation movement that aimed at lifting the burdens of the shoulders of both genders. They considered the patriarchal society as going through a critical period and that the only way to overcome it is to ally with women to bring about social change by turning established social institutions – such as the family – into institutions characterized by cooperation, peace and equality between the two sexes. Leftist members of the men’s movement see that patriarchal society shapes men’s bodies to imprint them with symbols of physical strength and violence. Social customs that aim at defining masculinity – such as sports for example – leave its imprints on the male’s body to define their traditional gender identity in opposition to the soft female body. Gender identity is not just a symbolic system of significant signs. It has also concrete material implications, like gender division of labor that allocates private tasks and space mainly to women and public ones mainly to men. Thus, traditional gender identity affects gender social roles. Men are given authority and power, while women are assigned to reproduction and child care. To trespass this crisis and establish social justice, emancipatory men and women think that they should collaborate to improve gender politics (Messner 1998; Martin 1998, Lorber 1998).
B) The second theoretical concept: the intellectual
My theoretical definition of the intellectual and his/her role in social change depends on literature by Antonio Gramsci (Gramsci 1971; Hoare 1971) and Edward Said (1996). Gramsci dealt with the concept of the intellectual in his analysis of the social and class hierarchy and relations, which is a major level of social organization. Although my research deals with gender, which is a minor level of social organization, Gramsci’s analysis is still valid to my research. Edward Said, on the other hand, dealt with the intellectual on a more general level of social organization; by so doing his views can be easily applied on the contemporary intellectuals who are interested in gender issues and can explain their attitudes and opinions and their effect on their proclaimed final objectives.
a) Who is the intellectual?
In Gramsci’s opinion, the intellectual is she/he who has a philosophical conceptualization of the world that can be applied to everyday life. Philosophy in this sense is not specified to the professional intellectuals only but is available to everybody. There is not only one single way of interpretation of life, but every individual forms his/her own concept based on common sense and inherited cultural background - including social beliefs, customs, myths, social views and behavior. After this general level of philosophy that is available to all human beings, there comes the level of critical world view, which is the level of the individual’s acquired awareness of his/her world in terms of critical revision of the established traditional collective wisdom of their communities (Gramsci, 1971). According to Gramsci, intellectuals can not be separated from their class consciousness. Therefore, there are two types of intellectuals: the professional intellectual and the organic intellectual. The professional intellectual, on one hand, is someone who considers himself a leader of other non-intellectuals. On the other hand, the organic intellectual is someone who can not be separated from the masses of people. One of the main differences between the two types of intellectuals is that the organic intellectual does not only have the ability to theorize for and talk about life, but can also offer active participation in humans’ everyday life, and can perceive history in its relation to humanity. Unlike the professional intellectuals who limit their action to their own specialization, organic intellectuals employ their specializations to propel history in a direction that serves to improve the human condition. According to this concept, the intellectuals represent their community and class members in positions of social and political sovereignty (Hoare, 1971).
Edward Said reviewed other thinkers’ definitions of the intellectual. Some considered the intellectual as an individual separated from the group and remote from common people. As for example, Julian Benda who sees the intellectual as a servant of the government, or as someone who is remote from reality living in an ivory tower. Others gave a class definition of the intellectual such as the American sociologist Alvin Goldner who said that intellectuals are elite people who formed a new class that took over that of landlords. People from this class enjoy what Goldner called the culture of critical discourse; and they use a highly specialized language to interact with other intellectuals. Other thinkers, though, did not consider intellectuals as a separate social class but as representatives of their classes. According to Gramshi’s theory of the organic intellectual who is committed to the public issues, Said defined people of our time who spread knowledge to the public as intellectuals. Michel Foucault described the common intellectual as a person who has a specific job, but has the ability to employ her/his experience in other areas beyond his specialization. Edward Said thought that without intellectuals, no modern or anti-modern movements could have been existed, because it is intellectuals who initiate social movements. According to Said, the intellectual who would have the ability to create social change, is he/she who acts in public life as a marginalized "amateur" who is worried about the stagnant status quo. Of course, all societies have intellectuals who are unlike those defined by Edward Said. Some of them serve the government, and others bear attractive slogans but back up reactionary politics in contradiction with their theories. Said called this group "professional intellectuals." Said defined professionalism as trading one’s intellectual expertise for wealth or status. Accordingly, such intellectuals are careful not to go beyond the limits that are accepted by institutions that hire their services. Thus, they could be known as objective and non- controversial persons, hence they become more valuable in the labor market. In Said’s opinion, professionalism is the main threat to the intellectual’s integrity (Said, 1996).
From Gramshi’s and Said’s analyses, one can deduce that there are two types of intellectuals: One is called the professional intellectual who serves the powerful at all socio-political levels. The other type is the intellectual who is in alliance with the marginalized and weak groups. Gramshi called this type the organic intellectual, whereas, Said called him the amateur intellectual. I prefer to call this type "the free thinkers." One cannot deny the co-existence of the two types of intellectuals in all societies, but Gramshi and Said valued intellectuals who side with the weak social groups, for they are the type of intellectuals that can enhance fair social development.
b) The social function of the intellectual
Gramshi elaborated on the concept of the organic intellectual. In his opinion, this type of intellectual is not remote from other social classes. All through history, each class provided its own intellectuals who represented their class and upgraded the social and political consciousness of its members. They had also to face intellectuals of old and conservative classes who try to resist social change; and who are mainly composed of clergy and medical doctors (Hoare, 1971).
According to Edward Said, the function of the intellectual is to eliminate stereotypes that restrict people’s thought and limit their ability to communicate with others. He defined them as personalities who cannot be stereotyped into a dogmatic ideology or political party slogans. They focus on human sufferings, irrespective of the sufferers national or party affiliations. The "knowlegeable professionals" who form the public opinion in a way that pushes people to conform to the established norms create a problem for the "amateur" intellectual. The amateur intellectual, therefore, has an important function. He/she has to attempt to convey facts to the ruling powers. Intellectual are those who have the ability to represent people, and carry new ideas, opinions, and attitudes to and from them. He/she also has the ability to face rigid ideologies and refrain from their replication, because his/her function is to enhance social change and the acceptance of new norms. Said said that the intellectual should represent humanity and speak for weak groups whose issues are usually neglected, because he/she believes that all people have the same rights in the quality of life, and should be treated equally by the powerful decision makers of the society. He should have the courage to face those who violate the weak members’ rights and struggle for justice. By this definition, the intellectual is a public figure; yet, he is independent of powerful and ruling institutions. And since he represents the public, he must accept his social obligation and be ready to face the risk that is imposed on him by his duty. Also, it is his duty to have the ability to associate the problems of his own community with those of similar communities from all over the world.
One of the most important problems that the intellectual faces is the counter views that aim at preventing any social change or challenge to the status quo. Such views numb people’s minds making them unable to think clearly; therefore, they are unable to accept change or new norms. It is always easier to adopt the established ideas and repeat the same social pattern that has been followed over the years. The intellectual who chooses to side with the weak has to reveal to the community how these outdated ideas emerged and developed till they became accepted as established facts beyond doubt. He/she must explain that these "facts" are man-made and not natural givens. Moreover, what a powerful group considers an acceptable "fact" is not necessarily so for their weak counterparts (Said, 1996).
c) The intellectual between conformity and deviance from the dominant norms
According to Gramschi, all people conform to the dominant culture in one way or another, however critically minded they are. The dominant culture of any community at any specific time is composed of various elements that accumulated throughout history. Thus, conformity alone is not a criterion of negative submission to or critical election from the dominant culture. The appropriate criterion is which historical period one conforms to. Some intellectuals inspire contemporary thought to suggest creative solutions to the problems of everyday life. Other intellectuals inspire past and outdated thought and suggest solutions that are inappropriate for actual contemporary reality. A third group of intellectuals may manage their actual everyday life in contemporary practical terms, while they have different theoretical thoughts inspired by traditional cultural beliefs. Gramsci concluded that the first type of intellectuals are capable of positive deviance from the dominant norms, the second type are conformists, and the third type has to reconcile their theoretical conceptualizations with practical facts of life (Gramsci 1971).
Edward Said explained that it is important for the intellectual who aims to bring about a social change for sake of the weak groups to work as an amateur. This is the only way that may empower an intellectual to face the pressures that are exerted on the modern professional intellectuals. The first type of pressure is the professionals’ imprisonment within the limits of their narrow specialization, and belief in their theories as dogmas. The second pressure is exerted upon those who are reputable experts in their profession, taking into consideration that an officially acknowledged "expert" is not necessarily the most knowledgeable member of his profession. Sometimes, ruling institutions give such acknowledgement to an intellectual because he/she conforms to its ideology. Such intellectuals are obliged to limit themselves to the choices of the institutions that hire their expertise. The third type of pressure is the professionals’ and experts’ desire to join the power holders. Thus, they become very keen to please the powerful rulers. Edward Said criticized some intellectuals’ tendency to refrain from siding with the difficult issues, even if they are just issues in principle. He concluded that this tendency is dangerous and even fatal to the intellectual life, because it cools down its inherent hot and enthusiastic spirit.
IV) Research methodology
This social field research depended on semi-structured one-to-one interviews with 23 men and women that were chosen from the intellectuals who declare that they are human rights proponents and FGM opponents. Twelve respondents are women and eleven are men. Twelve respondents are medical professionals, three of them are gynecologists. Among respondents with non-medical professions are two anthropologists. All the others came from various specializations from areas of humanities, law, development and arts. (for further details, see appendix 1)
I would have liked to organize several semi-structured group discussions with senior and junior activists from both sexes who have experience in reproductive health and activities against FGM. I would have liked to discuss the attitudes, experiences, and beliefs of the respondents on the subject of MGM. However, I could not organize such group meetings. I had to find someone to introduce me to people who could open the gate for me to the group discussions. I brought up the subject of MGM with a young doctor who worked with me as an assistant in the information center on FGM and violence against women, in which I worked as a consultant. This doctor is a member of a non-governmental organization made up of a group of young people who work in development. He promised to introduce me to the chairman of the organization, but the chairman utterly refused to discuss male circumcision in his organization. So, it was impossible to interview this group. As for senior activists who have experience in the field, they come from various organizations, so, I tried to bring them together in a meeting place. Since I am a member of the Association of Health and Environment Development (AHED), I talked with AHED’s chairman and secretary about this subject, who accepted to give me the chance to make the fieldwork meetings there. Although I had solved the problem of a place to work in, I had another problem which was how to bring these people together for two whole hours; even if that meant dividing them into two groups, because their schedules were full and varied.
Therefore, I had to give up the idea of group discussions. I chose instead to make individual in-depth interviews with as many respondents as I could within the time limit of this research. I already knew many individuals who can be approached as respondents because I had done a lot of field activities as a member of the FGM task force since 1994. I was also responsible for the information center that dealt with violence against women and FGM from 1996 to 1999. Therefore, I decided to choose research respondents from both sexes from anti-FGM activists who live in Cairo for several reasons. First, all the FGM advisory group members and many of the activists against FGM live in Cairo. Second, the time limit of the research would not allow me to go to other governorates in Egypt to collect data.
I planned that most of the respondents should be activists. Moreover, I gave priority to those who were more active in fieldwork whether in planning, awareness raising, or advocacy. I decided to allocate three months to collect field data through semi-structured individual interviews with respondents. There was some difficulties in making appointments because this fieldwork was done in Ramadan, which is a holy month for Muslims and it coincided with the Christian celebration of Christmas, and also the New Year vacation. It was difficult for the respondents to give me appointments because of their family commitments during this period. Some of the candidates refused to meet me either because they found the subject matter embarrassing, or because they did not consider it important and therefore, refused to contribute to such a research that studies a "trivial" subject as male circumcision.
Between December 1998 and the early March 1999, I met 25 respondents. At the beginning of each interview, I asked each respondent to choose a pseudonym. Some welcomed this suggestion, whereas others resisted the idea of not mentioning their true names, being public figures who had nothing to fear. Moreover, 5 of them insisted on having their true names mentioned in the research. A few days later, Dr. Nawal el Sa’adawi published a press article against MGM (Sa’adawi 1998), and was attacked by some of the public readers. One of the respondents, then, contacted me asking to conceal his real name because if not, he may face unnecessary trouble. So, I contacted 2 of the 4 remaining respondents who insisted on leaving their names unchanged. But I decided to use a homogeneous method and give all respondents pseudonyms, because declaration of respondents’ real names may create bias against or with their statements, since they are all public figures with fans and foes. On the other hand, use of pseudonyms may help the readers to focus on the significance of the respondents’ statements without being affected by any previous assumptions about them.
All respondents in this research were acquaintances, with whom I had good relationships. Some were friends even. This previous acquaintance facilitated this research, saving a lot of effort and time because it made respondents feel at ease with me during the interviews. It also made the research easier for me, especially that the subject matter can be quite embarrassing. Being familiar with the respondents made them respond without hesitation to my questions. Without this trust, my fieldwork could have been quite difficult. The respondents did not doubt my identity or my intentions. As to how I felt, I was quite free in my conversations with them. Although I am usually a shy person who cannot initiate an extended individual conversation with strangers, and usually I do not feel comfortable speaking to people I do not know. As I said, the male respondents were all from previous acquaintances and I was sure that they enjoy a high intellectual and moral standards, so, I did not feel embarrassed nor expected anyone of them to misunderstand me when I discuss sexuality with them. I tape recorded the interviews on pocket size highly sensitive tape recorder. But I always asked the respondents’ consent before recording. Two male respondents expressed their worry lest they might be identified by their voices. So, I assured them that no one would listen to them except me. Fulfilling my promise, it took me a long time to write down the data by myself without assistance, so, it took all of March and half of April 1999 to finish this task. Each interview took between 45 minutes and 2 hours. But I found technical problems in 2 tapes that I had recorded with one male and one female doctor respondents who called themselves Dr. Adham and Dr. Warda, so, I decided to neglect them because I could not hear the recorded material well.
My previous acquaintance with the respondents was not always an advantage, since at times it had a negative effect on gathering data about memories of personal experience of male respondents of their own circumcision. Although I encouraged all respondents to explain in details their experience with male circumcision, I did not force the males to talk more than they could about their personal experience with circumcision. I was clearly aware that I study a very personal and sensitive subject. Moreover, being a friend caused some embarrassment that I respected and that was a limitation. If I had had more time to interview each respondent more than once, or if I had not been so close to some respondents, or if the person who carried out the interviews with male respondents was a man, much more data could have been collected.
I was careful as much as possible to make the respondents feel that it was them who have the upper hand in the researcher/respondent relationship to encourage them to give me as much information as possible of their personal experience. I allowed them to choose the place and time of the interview on purpose. These meetings were held either at their homes, or in their offices. One of them chose to meet me at the club, and another chose to meet me at a restaurant on the Nile. I agreed to all their suggestions. Although I usually do not like outdoors meetings, respondents' generosity and encouragement made me overcome this problem. I did not offer respondents any material reward in exchange of the interviews. Perhaps I took some flowers for some of them or sweets for their children, but this is a normal behavior, given my close relationship to them. Moreover, I was treated as a guest in their places. This unintentionally gave them a symbolic superior position, which was an asset to the research as it ensured more confidence and comfort for the respondents.
I used to start the interview with a conversation on their beliefs, information, experiences and attitudes towards male circumcision. Then I would suggest that they look at illustrations that show the structure and function of the prepuce. All of the respondents agreed to look at them except for Horeya who refused. I asked them to tell me their opinions of the information I gave them and tell me about their impressions of circumcising their children in the future, and asked about their future public attitudes towards male circumcision in comparison to female circumcision. (see Annex 2 for the details of the steering questions).
After I finished the research, I kept in touch with the respondents especially that some of them were colleagues and friends. Some of them helped me to arrange public meetings to raise the issue of MGM. A few of the female respondents told me that they changed their minds and that they would never circumcise their future children. Every one expressed their interest to see the final draft of this research. Even some were afraid that the research would turn people against me, and this proves that the interviews did not change the respondents friendly feelings towards me.
V) Writing the research
After collecting the data, I started to categorize and analyze them. The research is divided into 5 chapters, a conclusion, a bibliography, and 3 annexes. The first chapter deals with the research hypothesis, its objectives, research questions, and its importance. I included also literature review that highlights the socio-political background of circumcision in antiquity and in modern times, and how circumcision was introduced to the medical institution in the mid-19th century. After that, I explained the two underlying concepts of the research’s theoretical framework which are: 1) the concept of gender, and 2) the concept of the intellectual. Finally, I gave a summary of the research methodology and the fieldwork.
The three chapters after that were dedicated to description of the collected field data. Chapter 2 deals with the respondents’ knowledge of and beliefs about male and female circumcision. Chapter 3 deals with the respondents’ actual experiences with male and female circumcision. Chapter 4 is a description of the respondents’ attitudes towards MGM. In chapter 5, I analyzed the respondents’ beliefs, experiences, and attitudes that were all described in the previous chapters. The conclusion included a general outlook of the subject and a summary of the 4 chapters.
Three annexes are attached to the research. The first is a description of the respondents, in which I was cautious not to reveal their identities. In the second annex, there is the list of questions that were used to steer the interview sessions. As for the third annex, it includes the illustrations that I used to explain the structure and function of the prepuce to the respondents.
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