Circumcision and human rights

Hypocrisy, sexism and double standards rule at the United Nations


Neither the United Nations and its organizations, nor the Council of Europe, nor Western legislatures [with the partial exception of Scandinavia and South Africa] have addressed the issue of male circumcision. So long as these institutions remain quiet, one cannot expect the Organisation of African Unity or African legislatures to open their doors to address the issue. Some have tried to justify the practice of male circumcision invoking religious and cultural rights, but such a justification can also apply to female circumcision, which has been nearly unanimously rejected. In any case, both practices violate individual rights, notably the right to physical integrity and life, the right not to be submitted to inhuman treatment and torture, the right to the modesty, and the right to respect of the dead when circumcision takes place after death.

The deafening silence concerning male circumcision

“Circumcision of male children does not concern the United Nations”.

— Mrs. Halimah Al-Warzazi, special rapporteur of the UN, appointed pursuant to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to campaign against “traditional practices prejudicial to … children.”

The United Nations and its specialized organizations have always maintained a radical distinction between female circumcision, which they condemn, and male circumcision, which they are silent about, without ever making a scientific survey justifying the distinction.

A distinction has already been made just at the semantic level. That is, these organizations used to use the term female circumcision, but changed to female genital mutilation in 1990, keeping the term circumcision for only male circumcision. Male circumcision has never been qualified in international documents as a mutilation. During the UN seminar in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) in 1991, participants asked for a way to dissociate, in the minds of people, male circumcision from female excision. Three reasons were invoked against female circumcision: it is based on superstitions, it is not mentioned in the Bible or the Koran, and it is harmful to women’s health. As for male circumcision, it was deemed to have a hygienic value.

A policy paper on female circumcision published by the World Health Organisation in 1998 attempted to justify distinguishing it from male circumcision be reference to the greater physical harm, though even that admitted that as rites they had much in common:

Female circumcision is no different from male circumcision, as both are cutting rituals performed on a child with no demonstrated positive impact on health. One difference between the two practices is that male circumcision is a clear requirement of some religions while female circumcision is not. The most important difference, however, is that even the most minimal form of female circumcision can affect a girl’s normal sexual function. Evidence in the medical literature on the effect of circumcision on male circumcision is not well established.

Source:  Nahid Toubia and S. Izett, Female Genital Mutilation: An Overview (Geneva: WHO, 1998), 3

If it is true that there is no research on the effect of circumcision on male sexual function, there is obviously no basis for the WHO’s and the UN’s assumption that it is so much less harmful and immoral than any form of female circumcision that no action should be taken even to investigate it, let alone restrict or regulate it.

I addressed a set of questions to Mrs. Halimah Al-Warzazi, special rapporteur of the UN on traditional practices, in order to have a clear idea about the UN’s position and the reasons why it distinguishes between male and female circumcision. I reproduce here my questions and the answers I received in a letter dated January 7, 1997, with only minor formal modifications:

Question. Are you fighting against male and female circumcision or only against one of them? If you fight against one of them, which one? Why do you neglect the other one?

Answer. On the level of the UN, only female circumcision is considered a harmful practice that it is necessary to abolish. The question of the circumcision of female child is excluded therefore of the preoccupations of the UN. I consider that this practice, apart the fact that it is religious for the Jews and the Muslims, is a hygienic element that American physicians perform at the time of childbirths to all, be they Jews, Muslims, Catholics or other. Therefore, it doesn’t seem to me suitable making an amalgam between female circumcision considered as dangerous for the health and male circumcision that, on the contrary, is beneficial.

Q. Do you agree that persons or groups who do not practice male and/or female circumcision may fight against these practices? For example do you accept that whites fight against male and/or female circumcision practiced by blacks, Christians fight against male/or female circumcision practiced by Muslims or Jews? If yes, why? If no, why?

A. The question as asked seems to me of discriminatory character regarding to the color and the religion. If the UN fights against female circumcision, this is not for reason of color or religion, but to protect women and children of the multiple misdemeanors of this practice.

Q. Do you accept religious male and/or female circumcision on children? On consenting adults? Whatever be the religion: Islam, Judaism, Animism?

A. I share the medical opinion on circumcision of males whatever the religion of the children or the adults.

Q. Do you accept cultural male and/or female circumcision on children? On consenting adults? Whatever be the culture: Western or non-Western culture?

A. I don’t accept female circumcision. The refusal and the dismissal of this practice don’t have anything to do with culture. The United Nations consider that any breach to the physical integrity of women and little girls with the consequences which result from circumcision is a violation of human rights.

Q. Do you accept that (non-medical) male and/or female circumcision for cultural or religious reasons be practiced by physicians on children? On consenting adults (indicate the age)? Physicians cannot cut the healthy finger or ear of a consenting adult. Do you consider this should be also the case for male and/or female circumcision?

A. My answer evidently concerns solely female genital mutilation (female circumcision). I am for the total eradication. No physician should perform female circumcision.

Q. Do you accept that the law forbids and punishes (non-medical) male and/or female circumcision? Even if (non-medical) male and/or female circumcision are practiced for religious or cultural reasons? Even if the victim is adult? What kind of punishment do you recommend? Against the parents of the child? Against the adult circumcised? Against the physician?

A. The question of female genital mutilation because of its cultural character (it is not religious) must be solved with a lot of tact. Education and information must first precede punitive laws because these risk the wanted results of pushing parents to proceed to clandestine circumcision of their little girls. On the other hand, physicians should be punished. To note that lately, the Egyptian Government promulgated a law in this sense. As for the woman who would expose herself voluntarily to this practice, what is not frequent, the only action to undertake would be to bring her help in the event that she would require it.

Q. Do you consider that parents can consent for their children in the practice of (non-medical) male and/or female circumcision? If yes, until which age?

A. (No answer).

Q. Some groups consider the fighting against male and/or female circumcision as imperialistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, anti-Blacks attitude? Do you worry about that accusation? What would be your answer to such accusation? Have you ever been accused? By whom?

A. As long as the struggle against female circumcision stands on position of victim protection and the struggle against practices considered human rights violations, no one must get worried of what a person or a group of persons thinks. Today, this struggle is engaged with success. The fact that female genital mutilation is not anymore a taboo topic demonstrates that the international community is on the right path.

I felt it was my duty to respond to Mrs. Al-Warzazi. Thus, in a letter dated February 14, 1997, to which I attached some of my articles, I wrote the following:

Your arguments are very interesting, even though I don’t share them for three reasons:

  1. It is wrong to accept any breach to a person’s physical integrity whatever is his or her sex or religion, except for a real, and present medical reason.
  2. The hygienic pretext is too narrow. One cleans the teeth and doesn’t pull them out, except when they are decayed beyond repair.
  3. American physicians perform male circumcision, but there are also in the U.S. physicians and nurses who are strongly opposed to this practice, contrary to medical deontology. The practice of slavery in the U.S. in the past doesn’t legitimize slavery today, nor should it!

Personally, I am opposed to male circumcision as much as female circumcision. To consider one and not the other is also a matter of sexual discrimination. I consider the UN as accomplice in this crime committed against children. I ask you to inform the subcommittee that elected you.

Mrs. Al-Warzazi answered by fax dated May 16, 1997, as follows:

Thank you for your letter and documents that you sent me. As for your position on male circumcision, I will present it to the Subcommittee, while telling it that the UN are not at all an accomplice to the fact that about hundred million women of by the world allow themselves to wear earrings because they have been pierced. I believe that it is a polemic that we could drag out a long time if I had to give you other examples.

I don’t believe that it is just to impute with so much lightness a crime of this nature to our organization that made so many advances in human rights. To have an opinion is a thing that one has the right to see respected. But to impose it, undoubtedly, is an act of intolerance that the international community doesn’t stop fighting.

Mrs. Al-Warzazi made reference to our correspondence in her report on the traditional practices of 1997. She says:

Certain universities are beginning to take a closer look at the problem. In early January 1997, for example, a lecturer from the Swiss Institute of Comparative Law sent the Special Rapporteur a questionnaire that was to serve as a basis for a book on male and female circumcision. In her reply, the Special Rapporteur made a point of mentioning that circumcision of male children did not concern the United Nations, as only female circumcision was deemed a harmful practice to be eradicated. Consequently, it would seem inappropriate to consider together both female circumcision, which is harmful to health, and male circumcision, which has no undesirable effect and is even considered to be beneficial.

Source:  UN document E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/10, 25.6.1997, par. 18.

In her last report of 2000, Mrs. Al-Warzazi indicates that she received a few letters condemning male circumcision, but she insists her mandate is limited to female circumcision. She pretends that the harmful effects of male circumcision cannot in any way be compared or equated with the violence, danger, and risk faced by girl children and women. She also insists that male circumcision may be related to a lower risk of HIV transmission from women to men.

Source:  UN document E/CN.4/sub.2/1991/48, 12.6.1991, par. 27.

Thus, it can be concluded that the religious bases of male circumcision, the trivialization of its health implications (compared, for example, to ear piercing), or even its beneficial effect are reasons the UN uses to justifying not leading a campaign against routine male circumcision. We can also say that female circumcision has a religious basis in the eyes of those who perform it, including even animists. On the other hand, the UN and its organizations have never made a study on the harmful effects of male circumcision. Let’s also recall that some forms of male circumcision are more harmful than some forms of female circumcision.

What this discussion has illustrated is that the true reason behind the UN’s silence is political. We already spoke of this possibility in the social debate. I asked Dr. Leila Mehra from the WHO: “Why the WHO is concerned only with female circumcision and doesn’t consider male circumcision?” She responded in a meeting held in her Office in Geneva on January 12, 1992: “Male circumcision is mentioned in the Bible. Do you want to create problems for us with the Jews?” The same day, I met Mrs. Berhane Ras-Work, president of the Inter-African committee in her office in Geneva. Strangely enough, she gave me the same answer, illustrating that the two of them undoubtedly consulted each other before meeting with me. I tried to obtain clarifications from the WHO in Geneva on its repeated position, as I had done with the UN. But the responsible persons limited themselves by only sending publications on female circumcision, without answering my questions concerning male circumcision. I then turned to the regional office of the WHO in Alexandria. This office proceeded in the same way. I persisted, whereupon the office told me that if I wanted to have answers to my questions, I would have to assume an expert’s expenses. I reduced my questions to only one:

The WHO took official position concerning female circumcision. Is there an official position of the WHO on male circumcision. If not, why?

By email of January 5, 1999, Mr. Adil Salahi, public information officer, answered:

Your correspondence with Dr. Hafez, Director, Health protection and promotion and Dr. R. Mahaini, Regional advisor on reproductive, family and community health, has been referred to me.

I would like to tell you that they have dealt with you on trust, thinking that you are undertaking a serious study. However now that we have a clearer picture of your endeavors, you are advised that the WHO extends its assistance to all countries and communities, showing sincere respect to people’s traditions and beliefs. It condones no attempt to decry the religious beliefs of any community. Hence we wish to have nothing to do with your project or your writings. We will not engage in any further correspondence with you. This is the end of the matter.

If we look in the documents of the CE, we notice they make no mention of male circumcision. This topic has never been discussed within the Council. A June 22, 1999, letter of the European Court reads: “the Council of Europe [addresses] problems raised inside by the various institutions that work there. If a particular problem was not taken in consideration, it is probably because it has not yet been denounced in adequate manner”. Another letter of the European Parliament of July 12, 1999, also confirmed that male circumcision has not been treated by this Parliament.

Male and female circumcisions and non-discrimination

1. The principle of non-discrimination

The condemnation of female circumcision and the silence facing male circumcision, without a valid scientific justification to distinguish the two translate into:

The international and national legislatures, as well as the NGOs, that adopt the same position, violate a fundamental principle of human rights: the principle of non-discrimination. This principle is mentioned practically in all international documents and Western and African constitutions. We mention here some articles:

The Charter of the United Nations

Art. 1 - The purposes of the United Nations are [...] (3) To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

Art. 55 - [...] the United Nations shall promote: [...] (c) universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Art. 2 par. 1 - Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Art. 7- All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of the Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Article 2 par. 1 - States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.

The Egyptian Constitution of 1971

Art. 40 – The citizens are equal in front of the law. They have the same rights and the same public duties, without discrimination for reason of sex, origin, language, religion or belief.

The Oath of Geneva of the World Medical Association

I will not permit considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, or social standing to intervene between my duty and my patient.

World Medical Association website

The Declaration on the rights of the patient of the WMA

To avoid transforming the principle of non-discrimination in a propaganda slogan empty of any meaning, this principle must find application in decisions of the institutions that preach it. If these institutions violate it, their decisions become invalid even though these decisions have been taken in unanimity. To validate these decisions, it is necessary either to suppress the principle of non-discrimination of their laws, or to give a valid justification for the discrimination they practice.

Taking into consideration this argument, the Amnesty International-Bermudas section stated that the decisions of Amnesty International against female circumcision are invalid since they don’t apply simultaneously to male circumcision. The statutes of Amnesty International indeed forbid the discrimination based on sex. Male circumcision is a violation of human rights, just like female circumcision. Therefore, Amnesty International must lead a campaign of struggle against these two practices.

Source:  LeYoni Junos, Bodily integrity for both: The obligation of Amnesty International to recognize all forms of genital mutilation of males as human rights violations (Bermuda: Amnesty International, 1998), 19-21.

2. Absence of valid of reasons for discrimination

(a) Difference between male and female circumcision

There would be justification for distinguishing female circumcision from male circumcision if the two acts differed substantially. However, the distinction between these two practices is more illusionary than realistic. Both are violations of a minor’s physical integrity without his or her consent and without medical reason. Lightfoot-Klein interviewed people in Africa who perform female circumcision and in the United States who perform male circumcision. By juxtaposing their sayings, she proved that the two practices are similar. Her conclusions are as follows:

Both groups claim that their respective sexual mutilation practices are minimal, painless, beautifying, medically indicated, hygienic, prophylactic, sexually improving, universal, medicalized, and harmless. Both excised African women and excised American men are reluctant to believe that they have lost anything. In their denial, they convince themselves of the illusion of their intactness by allowing, openly or tacitly, their own daughters and sons, respectively, to undergo the same procedure. They justify their attitudes throughout the belief that these surgeries are a matter of tradition and/or scientific or medical necessity. In light of these attitudes, any statement that sexual mutilation is harmful is resisted by excised women and men in an attempt to assure themselves of their normality, and to alleviate the guilt they would have for having condoned the circumcision of their own children.

Lightfoot-Klein adds:

Enlightened Westerners, existing in a world far removed geographically and psychologically from the strange and disturbing practices of sexual mutilation in Africa, may be tempted to disregard them as something that does not concern the West. The practice of female circumcision, which many Westerners regard as barbaric and irrational, however, has had its parallels, throughout history in secular male circumcision, as practiced in the United States. The reasons given for female circumcision in Africa and for routine male circumcision in the United States are essentially the same. Politically, the underlying similarities between male and female sexual mutilations are that both are perpetrated by force on the generally unanaesthetized, helpless bodies of unconsenting infants and children.

Source:  Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, Similarities in attitudes and misconceptions about male and female circumcision, in George C. Denniston and Marilyn Milos (eds), Sexual mutilations: A human tragedy (New York: Plenum Press, 1997), 135, 131

(b) Positive discrimination

The legislature can positively discriminate in favor of an oppressed group to bring him up to par with a privileged group. So, one can encourage women in the domain of political rights or access to jobs by giving them privileges because they were deprived for a long time of these two rights. This “positive discrimination” stops when the number of women in these two domains becomes equal to that of men. This sort of discrimination, however, cannot be invoked in the domain of circumcision because male and female children are all victims of this practice. Furthermore, male children are victims in a greater number (13 million per year) than the female children (2 millions per year).

(c) Gravity of female circumcision

There may also be justification to discriminate between female and male circumcision if female circumcision were manifestly more serious than male circumcision, as many documents emanating of the WHO and other international and no-governmental organizations declare. Both female and male circumcision have several degrees. Certainly, the Pharaonic circumcision of women is more serious than male circumcision of the 1st and the 2nd degree. But there is no doubt that male circumcision of the first degree is equivalent to female circumcision of the first degree, or even more serious than the latter.

We saw in the first part of this work that circumcised women of Oman consider male circumcision more severe than female circumcision performed in this country where only the tip of the hood of the clitoris is cut. Therefore, if we take into consideration the argument of the gravity of the operation, the legislature either needs to condemn all degrees of male and female circumcision or establish reprehensible and tolerated degrees in the two practices. But the legislature condemns all degrees of female circumcision from the lightest to the most severe, and tolerates all degrees of male circumcision from the lightest to the most severe.

Even assuming that female circumcision is generally more severe than male circumcision, this fact doesn’t justify the acceptance of male circumcision, because male circumcision also constitutes a violation of the right to physical integrity. By analogy, one can say that the murder is a more serious offense than rape or theft. It doesn’t mean that the legislature has to be concerned solely with murder and let rapes and thefts go unpunished. The severe mutilation of female children in Africa doesn’t in any way diminish the gravity of the human rights violation inherent in mutilating the genitals of male children in a country such as the United States.

The legislature cannot close its eyes to a violation of physical integrity of one group while at the same time condemn a violation of the physical integrity of another on the basis of differences in the gravity of the violations. The legislator must punish all medically unjustified violations, even though the severity of the punishment must correspond to the gravity of the specific violation. The generalization that female circumcision is severe and must be forbidden and punished, while male circumcision is insignificant and must be tolerated is a legal aberration.

(d) Priority of the struggle against female circumcision

Even if we were to admit that female circumcision is in general more severe than male circumcision (which is far from the truth), there would be justification to grant priority to abolishing female circumcision over male circumcision if we conclude that simultaneously fighting two battles could be harmful to both or even one battle. Movements that fight against female circumcision without addressing male circumcision frequently use this argument. The most generous concede male circumcision is important, but conclude that the issue comes in second place, after they eventually win the battle over female circumcision.

Besides the fact that female circumcision is not more severe than male circumcision, such an argument is immoral and counterproductive. Such an argument is immoral because it is used to inflict an unjust pain on male children under the pretext that their sisters endure more than them. The injustice committed against girls doesn’t justify the injustice committed against boys, and the pain of girls doesn’t suppress the pain of boys. Circumcision is one of aspects of violence in society, and it influences human reports inside society regarding men and women. This violence can’t be tolerated against men and yet forbidden against women. If we permit the violence against men, this violence will be harmful to women sooner or later. Male circumcision aims to deprive women of their right to sexual pleasure with an intact man, as explains Maimonides.

Source:  Maimonides: The Guide for the perplexed, section III, chapter 49.

Such an argument is also counterproductive. Indeed, families that perform female circumcision also perform male circumcision. The two operations often carry the same name, as it is the case in Arabic: taharah, purification. A family that knows these two practices cannot understand why it has the right to purify its boys but not its girls. And if we start distinguishing between men and women, one risks having a separation in the solidarity between the two groups. A circumcised man who doesn’t feel protected by women will be reticent to protect circumcised women. There would be disengagement on behalf of men. However, the battle against male and female circumcision needs the two groups’ effort. All suspicion on behalf of a group towards the other will only weaken their ranks. Boyd, an opponent of male circumcision, reports that at one film showing and forum he attended on female circumcision in Africa, it was announced at the outset that no discussion at all of male circumcision would be permitted. He got up and started to walk out, only to be booed and heckled by some of the women in the mostly female audience. One of his friends was devastated for months after something similar happened to him. Men and women will all win by remaining united, and they will all lose by dislocating themselves.

Source:  Billy Ray Boyd, Circumcision exposed: Rethinking a medical and cultural tradition (Crossing Press), 132

There was a similar incident at a seminar on circumcision organised by the Inter-African Committee set up pursuant to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to campaign against “traditional practices harmful to … children.” A Cameroonian researcher reports that he participated in a symposium organized by the Cameroonian branch of this Committee.

I raised the issue of male circumcision and tried to argue that, even though it might be considered less drastic than its female counterpart, it violated the same fundamental principle of personal bodily integrity, and that the two were, therefore, best tackled together, especially as it is the former that is widespread all over Cameroon. Quite surprisingly, however, my arguments were rapidly brushed aside, as all other participants seemed to consider male circumcision quite unproblematic. Besides, as one of the organizers of the event pointed out to me, the terms of reference for which funding for the seminar was provided did not include male circumcision. A young lady even further told me during the coffee break that she considered my remarks typical of male patriarchal chauvinism, always seeking to divert attention from any serious problem affecting women to a non-problem affecting men. When I protested that I, in fact, considered myself a feminist, she only sneered.

Godfrey B. Tangwa, Circumcision: An African point of view, in George C. Denniston, Frederick Hodges and Marilyn Milos (eds), Male and female circumcision: Medical, legal and ethical considerations in pediatric practice (New York, 1999), 188

Let’s note in this respect that movements against male circumcision are without exception also against female circumcision, even though the movements see in the laws forbidding this practice an implicit consecration of male circumcision. Facing these discriminatory laws, these movements tempt not to abolish them, but to spread them so that they cover also male circumcision.

(e) Argument of virility

Some argue male circumcision is different from female circumcision because the former is geared toward training young boys to develop skills associated with power and control, not to reinforce their submissiveness and make them feel they are second-class citizens as are the goals with female circumcision. They further argue that male circumcision does not damage the penis, the organ for sexual pleasure, contrary to female circumcision that destroys the organ for sexual pleasure in the female through the cutting of the clitoris. This argument is, however, not valid everywhere. Some groups see female circumcision as a means of reinforcing femininity and sexuality and encouraging their integration in society. Male circumcision, on the other hand, serves to reduce sexual pleasure in a man and affirm the domination of the father or the community over males.

Even supposing this argument is valid in certain groups, it cannot serve as justification to forbid female circumcision and tolerate male circumcision. This sort of tolerance perpetuates the social clichés of man’s superiority over women. The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women says in article 5: "States Parties shall take all appropriate measures (a) to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes."

It is, therefore, the duty of the international legislature to suppress male circumcision as a custom that reinforces the superiority of circumcised men over women and uncircumcised men, for the same reason as it must suppress female circumcision as mark of inferiority.

Source:  LeYoni Junos, Bodily integrity for both: The obligation of Amnesty International to recognize all forms of genital mutilation of males as human rights violations (Bermuda: Amnesty International, 1998), 8

(f) Many women reject the distinction

If we review the organizations that fight against male circumcision, one notes that women form the iron of the spear in this battle. This is the case, for example, with NOCIRC, Nurses for the Child’s Rights, and Mothers Against Circumcision. Dr. Michel Odent said, in the fifth international symposium that took place in Oxford in 1998, that at the time of the first two international symposia on the circumcision, women were promoters and formed the majority of participants. It is only subsequently that men entered the fight and have ultimately presented specific technical research against male circumcision. Odent assigned this phenomenon to the fact that women are more sensitive than men. But it may also be possible some feel guilt for not having protected their male children against men who mutilated them. Finally, perhaps others are reacting against a frustrated sexual life with circumcised men.

Moreover, men know they need the support of women. As George Denniston writes in this respect:

One key to eradicating circumcision may lie with the women of America. When women learn that circumcision causes great pain, disrupts maternal bonding, and permanently disfigures female body, they will rise up to protect their sons. When women learn that circumcision deprives a man of his full sexual capacity, and that circumcision thereby deprives a woman of a fully equipped, fully functioning partner, they will act to stop this practice.

Source:  George C. Denniston, Tyranny of the victims: An analysis of circumcision advocacy, in George C. Denniston, Frederick Hodges and Marilyn Milos (eds), Male and female circumcision: Medical, legal and ethical considerations in pediatric practice (New York, 1999), 236

In any event, the protection of children is unquestionably the first duty of mothers. If they disengage themselves of this battle, the child will never find support on behalf of men. In Arabic language, the term mercy (rahmah) and the term womb (rahm) have the same root. The mother who carries the child in her womb is the most merciful person toward him. For this reason, the feminist movements that fight solely against female circumcision leaving male circumcision behind violate an essential law of the human life. One can even wonder if they don’t lack humanity and maternal instinct.

(g) Political arguments

As stated previously, the real reason behind the refusal of international and national legislatures and NGOs to commit themselves against male circumcision is undoubtedly political: the fear to be labeled an anti-Semite or anti-Muslim. If this conclusion proves exact, we are facing a politicization of human rights, which means that these organizations align themselves on political positions. To please the Jews and the Muslims, or because of fear of these two groups, they violate the child’s rights. In the process, they are losing their credibility for many.

There is a reason this conclusion is not mentioned in these organizations’ documents. It is, in fact, unimaginable that they would overtly display their fear. But in moments of distraction or in tête-à-tête discussions, some confess the shameful: “Yes, we are afraid to be labeled anti-Semite or anti-Islam”; “Yes, we want to avoid problems with these groups”. I myself have heard these answers with my own ears several times on behalf of Mrs. Dr. Leila Mehra from the WHO, of Mrs. Berhane Ras-Work from the Inter-African committee and of others. Some will say it in a more diplomatic manner: “We act in the setting of the mandate that the UN confides us. And as we are only charged of female circumcision, we will therefore limit us to the latter”. This affirmation is clearly mentioned in the 2000 report of Mrs. Al-Warzazi discussed previously.

Source:  UN document E/CN.4/Sub.2/2000/17, 27.6.2000, par. 54-55.

Thus, it is not difficult to conclude that if the silence concerning male circumcision is dictated by politics, the campaign against female circumcision is also dictated by politics. We mentioned that Oman has a very high rate of female circumcision, yet the UN, WHO and other organizations never worry about this country, contrary to what happens in Egypt. The president of Oman’s Women Association has speculated that Oman is not a political goal for many countries, contrary to Egypt. For her, the campaign against female circumcision is above all a political campaign.

Certainly, we would not ask that the campaign against female circumcision stop, even though it is only a pretextual campaign to attack particular countries. “Make the good deeds and we will forgive you your reasons”. If we can save girls from this mutilation, we must be thankful to the campaign against this practice even though it hides its political aims. But what is scandalous is to stay silent in front of the millions of mutilated male children for political reasons. This double standard corrupts the worthiest human acts and can have counterproductive effects. Even the women committed against female circumcision can feel tricked and used for political ends. Dr. Amal Shafiq, a Muslim Egyptian woman, working in the setting of the UNICEF in Cairo, participated in a symposium in 1998 organized by the UNICEF in Geneva. She presented herself during the symposium as activist fighting against female and male circumcision. The person running the symposium, a Christian Swiss woman approached Dr. Shafiq and told her: “You do well to fight against female circumcision, but the male you don’t have to worry about it. It isn’t part of our activity”. Shocked, Dr. Shafiq telephoned me: “Why does a Christian Swiss defend male circumcision whereas an Israeli Jewish colleague sitting next to me campaigns against it?”

Source: Extract from Chapter V, "Human rights", from Sami Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, Male and Female Circumcision among Jews, Christians and Muslims: Religious, Medical, Social and Legal Debate (Warren, Penn: Shangri-La Publications, 2001), 316-324. The text has been slightly edited for clarity and to bring some points up to date.

Full text available from Dr Aldeeb's website

Sami Aldeeb's blog  (in French)


This remarkable account casts a disturbing light, not only on the hypocritical and sexist practices of the United Nations and World Health Organisation, but also on their recent decision to endorse and promote circumcision of men and boys as a tactic against HIV-AIDS in Africa and other underdeveloped regions with high rates of HIV infection. The astonishing letters from Mrs Al-Warzazi and Mr Adil Salahi show that they were already committed to promoting circumcision as an AIDS preventive way back in the early 1990s, over a decade before there was a shred of evidence that it any prophylactic effect. If Mrs Al-Warzazi was sincere in her statement that she "share[d] the medical opinion on circumcision of males", she should have been forcefully against the practice; at that time all medical authorities that had issued a policy on the subject (British Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Canadian Pediatric Society and the Australian College of Paediatrics) were firmly opposed to it.

These rude and dismissive responses to an eminent legal scholar are shocking in themselves, but more even seriously they would appear to demonstrate that the fundamental interest of UN bureaucrats is not to promote individual human rights (as required by the UN charter), but to advance the customs and practices of the ethnic/religious groups to which they belong. To this end, a health scare such as AIDS is a useful tactic for preserving a “traditional practice” condemned by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is obvious that the eagerness and alacrity with which Africans from circumcising cultures seized upon the WHO recommendations is because it was just the weapon they needed to force the reluctant to submit to the operation and silence the increasingly vocal critics of circumcision within their own communities. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, together with the writings of legal scholars and ethicists, had, by the early 1990s, clearly established that circumcision of minors (unless medically essential) was unethical and possibly illegal. But there was a loophole in both the Convention and the WHO's 1998 policy paper that allowed the conservative defenders of circumcision to claim that if there was a "demonstrated positive impact on health" (WHO 1998), or if circumcision was not a practice "prejudicial to the health of children", but (even better) in some way beneficial, it could be promoted and enforced more vigorously than ever before. The circumcision diehards have taken full advantage of these loopholes.

It would thus appear that the WHO's insistence on circumcision as a medical or even "scientific" necessity also functions as a cover which allows the world's major circumcising cultures - Judaism, Islam, the United States and the many African tribal societies that have adopted the practice - to continue to enforce their traditional but increasingly discredited rites.

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