Earlier this year, Icelandic parliamentarians submitted a bill to ban male circumcision. Members of the clergy from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths together lodged protest against this violation of the right to religious freedom and claimed that legitimate concern for the welfare of infants could not justify the stigmatisation of certain religious communities. The scientific validity of medical concerns surrounding the practice were hotly debated. It was a reasonable objection to a contentious bill that considered issues surrounding male circumcision in addition to its religious value.
Of course female circumcision, a much less invasive but equally religious practice, has been illegal in Iceland since 2005.
And therein lies the dilemma. Unlike for male circumcision, there is no acceptable debate around the scientific facts and religious value of female circumcision. To those committed to feminist agendas across communities, disciplines, cultures and faiths, this is neither acceptable nor, unfortunately, is it surprising. Legislating for female bodies without considering the female point of view is the norm across many societies, and in the case of female circumcision,is arguably made that much more difficult because the female point of view surrounding the practice is itself complex. Consequently, the reality of the practice of female circumcision is distorted and ultimately lost in applying the aspersion ‘female genital mutilation’ to unfairly label, making any rational debate of the practice impossible. But this debate is necessary, not least because there are numerous communities of women whose cultures and voices are being denigrated by a label so uninformed and heavy-handed.
Instead of promising a confirmation of and protection for the female right to bodily integrity the current debate on female circumcision limits its interests to those women who have no traditional, religious or cultural affinity to any form of female genital alteration. This then limits the right of bodily integrity to those who would practice it in a way acceptable to the global west. The double standard substantially impacts communities of women practicing non-western constructs of femininity. The discourse on female circumcision is so violently against nuance or balance of any kind that campaigns to prohibit all types of female genital alteration come across as neo-colonialist – ignorant of cultural, ethnic or geographic differences. These ‘eradication’ campaigns almost all uniformly address non-western communities, aggressively pursuing a singular claim to authenticity without considering context and writing off possible opportunities for inclusive dialogue by using ‘inflammatory rhetoric’. This is not conducive to an intersectional feminist agenda that respects and champions every woman’s right to choice, right to life or right to freedom. Rather, the one sided discourse labeling all female genital alterations as mutilation threatens what it should actually be protecting against, the oppression of the female voice.
Additionally, the narrative of the uniformly misguided woman who practices female genital alteration or the inevitably victimised young girl who was subject to it misses out entirely on the balance of the sexes argument that is yet more foundational to the principle of feminism. Why is there no similar casting of those men who practice and are subjected to male circumcision? Female genital cutting only exists in societies where a similar or parallel procedure is conducted on male genitalia. The perspectives applied to female versus male circumcision are worryingly skewed. If any measure should be applied as to the validity or otherwise of a practice, it should not be on the basis of gender. Religious freedom, medical validity, and the welfare of infants are all reasonable bases that should be considered, but blanket prohibitions that are solely determined by gender do not serve anyone’s interests because they do not actually protect anyone. Under WHO’s definition of FGM, the ritual scraping or nicking of the clitoral hood, as done in Islamic female circumcision, is considered FGM, bringing worldwide censure of the practice, even though there is no scientific evidence of its harm. Absurdly, there is no international measure for condemning certain medically unsound male circumcisions, where ‘male genital mutilation’ causes tens of deaths a year.
The ritual nick or scraping of female circumcision sees no tissue removal and is much less invasive than traditional male circumcision, the mildest form of which sees the removal in an infant of an equivalent of 30-50 square centimeters of erogenous tissue that would have existed on an adult male. All female circumcision has been defined as mutilation, regardless of the setting, consequences or parental motives. This raises serious questions with respect to the moral, legal or even logical acceptability of such a definition, applied only on the basis of gender. In America no form of male circumcision is prohibited and a medical licence is not required to conduct it. Such an extraordinarily divergent handling of a procedure, based solely on gender, is not conducive to protection; aside from the legal minefield it produces, it is at best unfair, and in the worst case outright sexist.
Unfortunately, this is not new. Gender equality before the law has been an ongoing battle. Though somewhat self-explanatory, there are accepted definitions of the principle that function within legal spheres, more prominently in the Global North. These include the objective equality of men and women when formulating and implementing laws, regulations, administrative provisions, policies and activities, or equal rights and opportunities for women and men in laws and policies, and equal access to resources and services within families, communities and society at large.
In Islamic practice, gender equality is better defined by the phrase ‘gender equity’. Although gender may define the specific practice made obligatory on an individual, each individual has equal value. In Islam, the practice of circumcision is no different to any other religious rite – the obligation is similar, gender defines the nuance. Both males and females are to be circumcised as a religious rite in Islam. Men are circumcised at birth, women are circumcised at the age of seven. Men have skin excised while women receive only a nick or a scrape. Although the Islamic religious rite of male circumcision is protected, the less invasive religious rite of female circumcision is censured and outlawed.
A new approach to Islamic female circumcision is needed that places it on par with the right afforded to male circumcision as a religious practice. An informed, reasoned discussion of the practice of female circumcision, not driven by biases in geography, culture, political agenda or international institution, will re-established equity.