Feminism’s Savior Complex

by roxythekiller

Via Flickr user TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

Stringing together the words “genital” and “cutting” makes most people cringe. A man sitting in the back row of one of my anthropology classes went on a tirade against “female circumcision,” insisting that Jews were so stuck in their “messed up” traditional ways that they hurt their own children.

“Female circumcision” is a term used in many feminist texts, shamefully ignoring scientific records or cultural differences. “Female genital mutilation” (FGM) is another way to refer to female genital cutting. It is a loaded term which objectifies Africans as inherently subhuman or violent, but changing “female genital mutilation” into “female circumcision” does not soften the impact — it transfers it onto Jews, who are then accused by anti-circumcision activists of butchering babies.

When feminists look to cultures other than their own, they often judge cultural practices such as “genital mutilation” with the assumption that their high-handed verdicts will help women. Instead, their uninformed positions trigger another kind of violence against women: the violence of being labeled savage. In debates on genital cutting, Savior Complexes create rifts in feminist communities and ultimately hurt women.

Circumcision is commonly known as a Jewish ritual in which the foreskin of the penis is removed, and it is only practiced on males. However, this ritual is not strictly religious or strictly Jewish — Muslims, Jews, Aztecs, Mayans and Australian aboriginals independently adopted this 6,000-year-old practice at different points in time. It is still being used by Jews and Gentiles for a number of reasons, including health benefits. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), circumcised boys have a lower risk of urinary-tract infections and penile cancer. Circumcision can also prevent the spread of HIV/AIDs: according to studies by the CDC, Johns Hopkins, and the Baltimore City Health Department, uncircumcised heterosexual men are 50 percent more likely to be infected with HIV/AIDS than their “cut” counterparts. Medical trials in Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa found that circumcision reduces the risk of  female-to-male HIV  infection by approximately 60 percent. Over the next two decades, circumcision could save 3 million lives in Africa alone. Circumcision is now part of AIDS-prevention packages across the continent.

Despite these studies, medical boards in the United States are ambivalent about circumcision, arguing that although the health benefits are real, complications such as infection and a little unexpected bleeding are also real. Anesthetics are currently used in most circumcision operations, putting to rest the issue of pain during the operation. In other words, circumcision is not “good” or “bad” for the baby; it’s one option among many.

Medical or cultural information has not stopped circumcision from being the most controversial medical procedure since abortion. Anti-circumcision groups such as National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC) lump circumcision and female genital cutting together, overlooking crucial cultural and scientific differences in favor of sensationalism.

Female genital cutting is carried out in order to keep women from having sex or feeling sexual pleasure, and has been determined to cause long-term health problems — including death. That said, many anti-FGM campaigns also suffer from the “Savior Complex,” and willfully ignore that many FGM-related complications result from lack of access to quality medical care. They blame African culture, not scarcity or colonial history, for death, patriarchy, and disease.

Anti-circumcision campaigns borrow the anti-FGM framework: its heads claim they are only trying to protect the children, and even feature some Jews who support their cause. These campaigns have found their way into many feminist classes and texts, where they are used to spew hate against anyone who supports circumcision or has had it done. Parents are turned into monsters, and a “cut” man is referred to as a man who “isn’t whole.” Feminists who go along with this mentality politely spew out the damning words: female circumcision. Interestingly, save for “female genital cutting,” no alternate term has been created, and no text that I’ve come across has suggested using a non-Western term to refer to female genital cutting.

Terms like “female circumcision” alienate Jews and Jewish feminists because of the effects they have on our communities — they label us as bad mothers and backwards savages. They assume we need to be “saved” by the very groups who have persecuted us all these years. Jewish women are not “feminists first and Jews last,” because Judaism is our irreversible heritage and our history — it shapes who we are. It is also a history marked by 3,000 years of non-Jews killing our children.

The health and safety of Jewish children were not the main concern of Gentiles throughout history — convincing themselves that Jews were bloodthirsty savages was. In many ways, it still is: the belief that Jews are particularly violent, bad or subhuman defines anti-Semitism. Many Jews know and feel that, which is why some of us get frustrated when feminists have the chutzpah to say “female circumcision.” It does not soften the impact of the “genital mutilation” mislabel, but instead insensitively lumps together two groups who have historically been despised in the West into one big, violent monster.

Jewish students in my classes have responded to the term “female circumcision” by growing very quiet, getting angry, or passively agreeing in the hope that they will finally be validated as “good Jews.” Most Jews familiar with anti-Semitism will mistrust publications that use words like “female circumcision.” It is a loaded term, and it is difficult to look past it. When I see these words, I think about my brother, who is circumcised, and my mom, who, like many Jewish mothers, agreed to the procedure. I think, “Are these Gentiles calling my mom a monster?” NOCIRC claims that she “cruelly” deprived him of choice, and that crippled him forever. Damning stuff. It makes all Jews ripe for judgment in a trial against us that never ends, and has been going on for thousands of years: Are we or are we not savages? It does not matter if we do or don’t circumcise — once you plant the idea that Jews are more likely to butcher their kids than other people, it does not go away. There is no room for a middle-ground or for choice once circumcision is labeled as inherently cruel. This mislabeling and over-concern for “the children” hurts us, and our children, by demonizing us. It cuts off dialogue by fostering anti-Semitism and stereotyping against people from the very groups it hopes to get into dialogue with: Africans and Jews.

Changing the term for “FGM” to something other than “female circumcision” would make fruitful discussions possible. Rather than lumping “Others” together, it would allow these acts to stand on their own, without transferring heavy-handed Western judgments into terminology referring to non-Western cultures. “Mutilation” is a loaded term that automatically objectifies the “mutilator” as a violent subhuman, and since this connotation already exists for “FGM,” changing the term to “female circumcision” only means that violent stereotypes get shoved onto Jews — who are already vulnerable to stereotyping. Both terms originated in the West and are used to talk about female genital cutting without actually taking the opinion of the people we’re talking about into consideration. Maybe feminists from the affected geographical regions should decide on a new term, and finally have their say.


More on Anti-Circumcision Movements and the “Intact boy”:

10 Comments to “Feminism’s Savior Complex”

  1. It is amazing how culture colors our thinking and actions. Strip out culture and you have a human being who is having part of their body removed without their consent. Male. Female. They are both humans. And, neither consented to having their sex organs altered.

    Add in culture, and suddenly, female genital cutting has medical benefits, such as a reduction of HIV infections (there are studies showing this). Add in Western cultures abhorrance to altering the female genitalia and who cares about benefits. Cutting women is bad, but cutting boys is OK because certain cultures alway do it.

    • Female genital cutting does not have medical benefits… it leads to scarring, death, and other disproportionately large medical complications that male circumcision simply does not have. Circumcised males are less likely to contract HIV, penile cancer, or urinary tract infections. It is not just a cultural rite, and I never stated that it’s “okay” because cultures do it.

      I stated all this in my article… which I suspect you only skimmed.

  2. I don’t honestly agree with male circumcision, but I can see where it would make medical sense for someone to decide to do it for their child. And, I certainly agree, there is no medical benefit (and a slew of medical complications and oppressive reasons for doing it) when it comes to FGM. I don’t really understand why people began calling it female circumcision except perhaps that it reminded them of male circumcision in the area it is performed. Still, it isn’t circumcision. Not really. I had no idea that it had become such a problem, however, terminologically speaking, by being called “circumcision.” I suppose some people, however, will use any reason to blame the Jews for things. Just like some people will use any reason to blame blacks for things, and any other form of prejudice. It’s difficult to avoid that, but I think giving it a new name that is all it’s own might be a good idea. I think you’re onto something there.

    • If you ask me, circumcision is a family matter. It is culturally and scientifically different from female genital cutting… and lumping male circumcision with female genital cutting not only creates confusion, but sets both Africans and Jews up as savages (in the Western imagination.) The circumcision label does not soften the “FGM” mislabel’s impact, it just transfers it onto Jews.

      I use “female genital cutting,” but even this is a Western label pasted onto non-Western individuals, and is used to judge them accordingly. I wonder how these “primitive” Africans would call our breast implants and parents feeding their kids food that leads to heart attacks…

  3. And the Africans would have full rights to talk about how crazy our breast implants and cholesterol generating mechanisms that we prop up in this country.

    Excellent story, though. There’s a lot in the word “circumcision” that makes in inappropriate to discuss the practice of FGM, or any other kind of GM.

  4. The medical evidence that it is bad for women — and “access to medical care” has nothing to do with it — is overwhelming.

    The very idea that FGM or MGM — the removal of a body part — can be conducted on a child for any purpose is OUTRAGEOUS. That is not the parent’s body. That is the child’s body. And the child should be of a FULLY GROWN AGE before making a decision, an INFORMED DECISION, uncoerced by culture or religion or family or tribe.

    THIS IS THE LAST FORM OF SLAVERY, and slavery is where it began … Arab slave trading of African women for sexual purposes.

    This is not an African tradition. It is a tradition imposed on African culture by Shafi’i Sunni Islam.

    See “Saharasia” by James DeMeo for the history of this.

    • A lack of proper medical care makes a difference for women in the affected regions— it determines whether women will die from bleeding out from the procedure, how fear of rape influences women’s decisions, and how people with STDs live within their communities. Female genital cutting often occurs due to fear of rape, and concern with the modesty of women.

      When you refer to minors right to an “informed decision,” refusing to do circumcision means that boys have a larger risk for penile cancer, AIDS/HIV, and urinary tract infection (depending on your region.) Who says it’s our right to expose children to this risk? And why the interest in circumcision, when ingesting high fructose corn syrup kills more children each year due to obesity and heart problems? Are those parents not slave masters and mutilators?

      The reason those parents aren’t attacked so viciously is because a child’s health is a parent’s responsibility, and that includes their mental health. Circumcision has been practiced for thousands of years without grown men suffering any more than their uncut peers. If anything, children suffer from uninformed opinions like your own, which demonize anyone who disagrees with you as a monster guilty of slavery and violent mutilation. Your uninformed, self-righteous attitude is deeply disturbing.

      Also… in Africa, lines between “African” and “Arab” are not clear-cut, and never were. Unfortunately, many Westerners are obsessed with “scientifically” grouping and labeling people, without being aware that this does not apply to how people interact in different parts of Africa.

      As for your source… James DeMeo is an orgonomy peddler— a self-styled Western scientist notorious for distributing propaganda and leaving conspicuous absences in his books (i.e. altering maps.) As a producer of “cloudbuster” rain-making devices, he has a commercial interest in the region he studies. His website also claims that UFOs exist, and sells a device referred to as a “Life Energy Meter.” “Saharasia” is an essentialist mish-mash of theories based on outdated information collected before 1956, primarily by white male scientists who had no clue about the cultures they studied. This “study” lumps together Asia, Africa, and the Arab world, glossing over important differences and nuances… simply put, it dumbs down the cultures and histories of these regions.

      • Yowza, what a damning source!

        I can appreciate the ‘don’t do it babies who have no say’ argument. Course, we do a lot of things to infants that they wouldn’t choose for themselves–clothes, diapers, food selection… But how many men choose to be castrated later in life? There are some regions where it’s traditional to have the procedure done in boyhood, or as a transition to adulthood. But who in the West would volunteer for it?

      • Can I just say that you’re awesome? I felt like I was on fire after reading that!
        I’ve read James DeMeo and he’s an idiot.

  5. I think you’re right, the local terms for the practice should get a chance. I’m sure one reason this hasn’t happened is because it’s fairly wide-spread, and finding a common term would be very difficult.

    I don’t have a strong opinion on male circumcision. It isn’t something that really resonates with me either way. I do think that the people who carry on about it being so terrible are, well, carrying on. This is incredibly unfair and hypocritical, as I would want to take an axe to anyone who said something similar about women feeling pained, degraded, or subjugated by something. The evidence of millennia shows that circumcision is not overly destructive, and in fact has some very important health benefits. (I am eager for someone to work out the how and why of AIDS prevention via foreskin removal.)

    I’ve never called what’s done to women ‘female circumcision.’ I don’t think that indicates the severity of what is done to women and girls. Men and boys recover in about a week (assuming the procedure is done well), whereas females suffer for months while healing, and then a lifetime of difficulty and further infections.

    When we first got on this topic, I did some research. Apparently the foreskin and the clitoral hood are analogous–they are formed from the same fetal tissue. So, one could make a case for calling surgery to remove or cut the clitoral hood circumcision. I still can’t equate the two in my mind.

    I see why you and other Jews are disturbed by the terminology. I wish I had access to the OED to find out when the usage switched.

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