Law and Circumcision: Human Rights versus Cultural Rights?

Religion versus law versus human rights

In my religion, male circumcision is considered sunnat (holy / ordained by god). Our parents organize the ceremony and a doctor does the deed. We never had any questions about the moral aspect of getting a piece of skin chopped off. After all, how can you question the ethical connotations of a religious custom? But the recent protest against male circumcision that has arisen in the media and western countries focus on this very aspect: the moral responsibility of parents to make religious decisions for their children. Circumcision protestors say that the foreskin of the penis is a natural part of a male’s body and religion should not be the instigator for getting it removed. Another rhetoric raised by protestors is that of ‘parental abuse’: parents who perform this ceremony (Muslims, Jews and Christians all follow this practice, apart from several hundred communities in Africa, Middle East, Asia and India) are abusing their parental authority on a child who is not old enough to understand the implications of this procedure. They ask for parents to delay performing circumcision until the boy is old enough to decide for himself if he indeed wants to follow in the religious footsteps of his tradition.

This latter argument is very sound. Parents who are religious will pass on their learning and customs to their kids from birth itself. Some of these customs are restricted to learning the scriptures, performing prayers and undertaking certain rituals. These include animal sacrifice, or visiting a holy place, or participating in festivals, fasting, or doing charity. Some of us grow up and discard these practices and refuse to follow ‘traditions’. Some others continue to practice and lead a religious life. There is no moral judgement on either of these two folks; it is their prerogative to follow customs or to inculcate new rituals or to simply decide to not follow any of this. The thing with circumcision is that it is a permanent act – you cannot grow back the foreskin, it’s irreversible religious act. The psychological damage is negligible. Hospitals perform the surgery in 10 minutes and a boy who is 4, 5 or 6 hardly remembers the pain years later. We know this because the ceremony has been performed – and continues to be performed – in hundreds of communities for close to 1,000 years. But if you are not a follower or believer of that religion years later, you just might feel short-changed by your parents. So, yes, from an ethical point of view, you cannot force your child to have a ceremony as part of a religious tradition that the child might not eventually follow.

But to say that parents are physically abusing their male child by performing this ceremony is distorting the very foundation of what parents do and the role they play. A child has rights yes. Certain unalienable rights. Right to live, be happy, pursue education, have nutritious meals, make friends and be in a secure, warm and loving environment, travel and learn to sing, dance, play, or draw. Parents are responsible for actualizing these rights. Parents try their best to provide that ideal environment for their children. No parent will willingly or purposely abuse their kid by performing a religious ceremony. They do it in good faith, in the name of god, and in the belief that this is one of the holy acts ordained in their scriptures. More often than not, even adults who don’t end up following their religion or customs meticulously, will still cling on to certain physical rituals that mark their identity. Perhaps it’s psychological, perhaps it’s reactionary. But this is a family decision, a personal one. Why would people and media say that millions of parents around the world are willfully ‘abusing’ their children with this practice? Are all these parents mentally disturbed then? Are they incapable of taking decisions for the welfare of their children because of the religious practices they believe in? In essence, are the protestors attacking the very idea of religion itself? To practice religion is to be mentally unsound and in essence, perpetrate abuse?

What role does law play in unpacking these private tensions between religion and family on one hand and the public discourse on what is ethical parenting on the other? There is a tension between the Western model of viewing all issues from a rights-based lens and the Eastern model of living life based on the foundations of tradition, mythology, religious books and teachings, and, dare I say, common sense?

As for the term ‘female genital mutilation,’ is it even appropriate to describe what is primarily a religious or tribal custom? Let me enumerate the various tribal practices that could possibly come under the purview of the judiciary: body piercing and branding (using a hot iron rod – Native American, Indian, Asian, African); neck elongation using heavy metal jewellery since childhood (because this tribe believes that an elongated neck is beautiful – African); facial piercings (ears, eyebrows, mouth, lips, cheeks, rod through cheeks – Native American, Indian, African, East Asian); full body tattoo (several cultures and tribes); sexual, menstrual and marriage rituals that involve blood sacrifice or some sort of isolation or ceremony involving fire or some form of body ritual (across all religions and traditions); animal sacrifice; fasting without food and water, and other variations of fasting (basically, denying your body essential nutrients for up to 12 hours in a day – Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jewish). This list is endless and older than the idea of religion itself.

Now, we have a rising tide against male and female circumcision. They focus on the bleeding, the pain, lifelong painful intercourse, and the psychological damage that takes place when an essential component of your femininity is cut off (the physical part of what makes you a woman, and the psychological aspect of connecting a part of your body with sex and sexual identity). I am a woman and I would never wish to have my “femininity” cut off in such a painful manner or using such crude and unhygienic tools (as is the case in every village where female circumcision is performed – be it Africa or the Middle East). However, I would also never reduce my femininity to a part of my body. That’s like saying that if I happen to lose my breasts, I would stop functioning as a woman and conceptually stop being feminine! What sort of trajectories do the feminists / rights activists walk on when they relate a female’s genitals to her womanhood? Seems like they are objectifying (glorifying) a body part – not for the functional role it plays, but for the gender implications it has in society. Not good. But yes, this is a different issue to deal with. There is no arguing on one point: the girl child who undergoes circumcision is in constant pain, while growing up, during menstruation, during sex, childhood and suffers innumerable complications. We don’t hear “much” of such complications arising out of a male circumcision (primarily because this has been a routine performed by doctors – legitimately – in several countries). Perhaps, hospitals need to maintain records and educate parents on the potential and very real risk of infection for male circumcisions.

For female circumcision, it is highly mandatory that the women themselves take charge and decide to stop practicing a ritual that scars them for life. The solution needs to come from the women. The idea of what empowerment means to them and how it has been shaped or influenced by their tradition has to be taken into account. Are Western feminists, health care professionals and local government departments going to ‘educate’ these woman (Africa, Asia and Middle East, tribal, rural and urban) about what empowerment ‘should’ mean and what is the ideal way to be modern? Is there a one-size-fits-all idea of modernity and empowerment? In another article I read about female circumcision in a small village in Africa, one of the woman said that female circumcision is a rite of passage for their tribe and it marks the transition of a girl to womanhood: she is now ready for marriage, sexual intercourse and childbirth, and is empowered to be a decision maker. When the government banned this practice, the men in their community ostracized them and the women also felt a sense of outrage and betrayal at the hands of the government. In a sense, the government was held responsible for de-empowering the women. Yes, from a Western lens, it might be obvious that patriarchy has a stronghold in these regions and it operates on a visceral level, barring women from rights to their own body. But a Western intervention is certainly not the answer.

A few of my readers point out that horrific practices such as Sati in India was also part of the customary cultural practice of the Rajput warrior clan in ancient and medieval India. It involved a widow burning on the funeral pyre of her husband; the royal queens and princesses were particularly susceptible to it as they had to uphold traditions and set examples for the women of their community. The British banned the practice during their rule over India and without a doubt, thousands of women have been saved from a fate worse than death.

How can the government promise religious freedom and cultural integrity on one hand while protecting the rights of vulnerable and weaker sections, the women, the children, the elderly? Even the educated women from the city falls prey to customs and rituals that require her to fast several times a year (Asia, Middle East). Even the notion of what ‘humanity’ means is under question: does the rights of a person begin when she is a cell in the womb, or when she is a fetus, or after she takes her first breath? If someone attains legal identity only by the age of 18, aren’t parents naturally the guardians and should have medical, economic and cultural rights over their babies?

I guess there are more questions and concerns than real, definitive answers to these issues. Morality and ethics are not as obvious to understand and practice as we think they ought to be.

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