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 the “Definition of Circumcision” and AIDS/HIV Research: Charles Hirshberg’s “Should All Males Be Circumcised?”
- More on Aztec Circumcision: Medicine in Mexico: From Aztec herbs to Betatrons by Gordon Schendel, José Alvarez Amézquita, Miguel E. Bustamante.
- More on Circumcision in Mayan, Aztecs, and Aboriginal histories: Jewish choices, Jewish voices – Page 61
- More on Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Histories of Circumcision: David Gollaher’s Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery
More on Anti-Circumcision Movements and the “Intact boy”:
- NOCIRC arguing that circumcision violates human rights: National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC): The 1989 Declaration of the First International Symposium on Circumcision
- NOCIRC placing female and male genital cutting in the same category: National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC)
- NOCIRC’s Pamphlet referring to Circumcision as “genital mutilation”: http://www.nocirc.org/publish/2pam.pdf
- NOHARMM’s “The Whole News for Intact Boys“