When it comes to circumcision, the focus on health and religion obscures underlying issues of consent and control, writes Sya Taha.
Circumcision keeps a man clean, neat and healthy, right? As it turns out, however, not every guy who was circumcised at a young age is happy with what he’s got left. These stories of regret (and anger) surface sporadically from two communities that routinely circumcise newborn or young boys for religious reasons (Muslims and Jews),[i] as well as from a country that does it for primarily health reasons (the United States).
Discussions by Muslims around circumcision usually centre around male circumcision. This is perhaps not surprising, since in many Muslim communities (Indonesia, Turkey and Morocco, for example) a huge party or feast is organised around the boy who is soon to be a man. In Singapore, it used to be the norm to circumcise a boy just before puberty (a tradition carried over from Javanese migrants) and have a big celebration. This norm has lost favour over having the procedure done discreetly at younger and younger ages, sometimes before the baby has even left the hospital at a day old.
But what is the difference between male and female circumcision? Although female circumcision might be more accurately called female genital cutting since it ranges from a prick on the clitoral hood to a complete removal of the clitoris and inner labia,[ii] I retain the term “circumcision” because in many Muslim communities it is referred to with the same word, sunat or khitan, as male circumcision. Just like female circumcision, there are different types of male circumcision done at different times (newborn, toddler, prepubescence) and for different reasons (aesthetics, phimosis, infection, religious tradition).
In this article I refer only to non-therapeutic (ie, done without medical reasons) circumcision done on boys and girls before they reach the age of majority (ie, ranging from newborns to teenagers).
The religious sources often cited to justify male circumcision are also the same ones used to justify female circumcision. These sources include a verse from the Qur’an accompanied by two hadith, as the verse alone does not exactly refer to the act of circumcision.
The Qur’anic verse often quoted is 3:95, which tells us to follow in the millah, or the way of Prophet Abraham (the verse later explains that we are to follow his monotheistic beliefs). The two most cited hadith are one that reports that Prophet Abraham circumcised himself at the age of 80,[iii] and another that includes circumcision as one of “five acts of fitra”[iv] (but is the only irreversible act among the other four acts of personal hygiene).
Muslims who are against female circumcision also use the same hadith to justify why girls should not be cut. For example, a representative of the Egyptian mufti has stated that female circumcision has only social roots, not religious ones.[v]
It is also important to point out that circumcision is seen as a purely religious topic (sometimes explained together with health reasons), and anyone who attempts to discuss this topic will have their authority questioned. In other words, unless you’re a (male) Islamic scholar, it’s going to be difficult to be taken seriously.
Dr Sami Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, a Palestinian-American lawyer, has written extensively on this topic, pondering the question of why discussions around circumcision remain gendered. He argues that the texts used to promote circumcision among Muslims (which are virtually always the same) are in fact gender neutral, making the issue more about political agendas rather than religion.[vi]
Circumcision is seen as harmless, or even beneficial in many Muslim communities
Both male and female circumcision cut parts of the genital organ that have similar roles; both the male foreskin and the female clitoral hood serve to protect a spot on the human body with the highest concentration of nerves. Each area also plays an important part in sexual arousal and satisfaction: the male glans and the female clitoris. Both procedures also privilege the parents’ religious identity over the child’s capacity to shape their own future.
However, news of female circumcision, especially when coming from the so-called “barbaric” Muslim world,[vii] is more apt to make headlines – especially when something has gone wrong.[viii] Botched male circumcisions, though, hardly make the mainstream news, even though there are often reports of a boy dying from complications from their non-therapeutic circumcision.[ix]
But I don’t want to compare the degree and extent of harm being done to boys and girls all over the world. Such comparisons often lead to defensive attitudes, because one’s cultural and religious identity becomes encapsulated in the tradition of circumcision, which is then pitted against modernity, Western international organisations, or other cultures.
Arguments about the physical harm done to boys and girls may also not convince everyone, because the procedure is seen as harmless, or even beneficial in many Muslim communities. That many baby boys cry only shortly after the procedure is interpreted as sign of little or no pain (and the procedure’s harmlessness); however, medical studies show that it is a sign of neurological shutdown from severe shock.[x] For many prepubescent boys, it is a rite of passage or a chance to feel like a “tough hero”.[xi] For girls, however, the belief is quite different: they need to be purified or else they will become “wild”.[xii]
Religious and health arguments obscure the more important issues of giving consent, and imposing control
Religious or health reasons also reveal our own assumptions about our body as God’s creation. God tells us that we were created in “the best of moulds” (95:4). But proponents of circumcision believe that all foreskins – not only those in need of medical attention – are inherently impure, no matter how much physical or spiritual purification is done. The only solution is to permanently remove it. What does it say about our belief in God if we think we are created imperfect and thus in need of a corrective procedure?
Consent and control
I think that religious and health arguments obscure the more important issues of giving consent, and imposing control over a child’s body. I don’t doubt that parents wish the best for their children, and that they are always looking out for their children’s best moral and physical interests. However, it is one thing to dress a child in a kufi or hijab, but quite another to irreversibly change their body without any medical reasons. We might recoil in horror to see a toddler seemingly being given a tattoo,[xiii] but how do we react to a toddler being circumcised?
I will not circumcise my son when he is a day old, a month old, or even 10 years old. It’s not because I am discarding a sunnah or tradition; it’s because I see circumcision as an optional act that a fully cognisant adult should undertake if she or he believes that it will help him or her become a better Muslim. By not circumcising my child before he can fully understand what it means to be a Muslim, I am leaving the way open for him to choose what he wants to do – because as parents we can only guide but we cannot force our children to believe (11:42-43). I want to raise him to have good values, and I’m not sure what kind of values a physical act like circumcision will impart.
Men are allowed to be scared, and it doesn’t make them any less Muslim
There are actually many Muslim men walking around with perfectly clean, intact penises. Just like women (cut or not), they must regularly wash themselves to keep clean, for hygiene is a part of everyday life. When people argue about the obligatory nature of male circumcision, they are often not talking about grown men. In fact, there is much leeway when it comes to the circumcision of adult men – acknowledging their fear or uncertainty.[xiv] Men are allowed to be scared, and it doesn’t make them any less Muslim.
There are Muslim women and men who have chosen circumcision for their own conscience and belief. I fully support their ability and right to decide for themselves – just as I support those who decide as adults not to do so, for whatever reason, because there is no compulsion in religion (2:256).
As for children who are supposed to be under our protection, I pray that we can support their right as Muslims to choose too – just like Prophet Abraham was allowed to choose to believe.
[i] See for example, ‘A young Singaporean Muslim: I am now against circumcision’ available here
[ii] ‘Classification of female genital mutilation’, World Health Organisation, available here
[iii] Narrated by Abu Huraira, in Bukhari, available here
[iv] Narrated by Abu Huraira, in Muslim, available here
[v] ‘Mufti’s deputy reiterates: Female circumcision prohibited by religion’, Egypt Independent, 23 Jun 2013, available here
[vi] See for example, the article ‘No distinction between male and female circumcision’ here or the book Legitimisation of Male and Female Circumcision here
[vii] Rebecca Steinfeld, ‘Like FGM, cut foreskins should be a feminist issue’, The Conversation, 18 Nov 2013, available here
[viii] Sara C Nelson, ‘Soher Ebrahim Egyptian girl, 13, dies after illegal female genital mutilation’, 10 Jun 2013, available here
[ix] For example, seven botched circumcisions in Saudi Arabia caused injuries and hospitalisation, available here. See also the hospitalisation of a three-year-old Indonesian boy with haemophilia here, and the deaths of two Indian toddlers here
[x] See medical studies by Brady-Fryer, Wiebe and Lander (2004) available here, or Williamson and Evans (1986) available here
[xi] Shahnawaz Abdul Hamid, ‘Circumcision in Islam: a meaningless tradition worth discarding?”, Muzlimbuzz.sg, 11 Nov 2013, available here
[xii] Sya Taha, ‘A tiny cut: female circumcision in Southeast Asia’, The Islamic Monthly, 12 Mar 2013, available here
[xiii] Maria Vultaggio, ‘’Tattoo forced on toddler by mother’ video goes viral; but is it a hoax?’, International Business Times, 29 Jan 2013, available here
[xiv] See sources cited in ‘Considering converting: is it necessary to be circumcised?’, available here