Iranian human rights activist criticises circumcision

As the demand for democracy and individual rights spreads from the developed world to the Middle East and Asia, more people are taking up the cry that bodily integrity - an entitlement implied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - applies to all parts of the body. Progressive Jewish people, especially in the United States, have been abandoning circumcision for many years, but until recently few people from a Muslim background dared to question the practice. That silence is now well and truly broken.

Circumcision or genital mutilation

by Jahanshah Rashidian

Circumcision, or for non-believers “genital mutilation”, is one of the most ancient rituals still practised in some societies. Historical background of this old ritual, as to when, who, and why it started is not precisely known. The practice varies from region to region and from epoch to epoch in its total or partial removal of the foreskin /clitoris for both sexes.

Circumcision, in its different forms, is practised in a big part of the world. The Jews were the first to adapt it as a sign of religiosity; it is mentioned in the Old Testament as a religious ritual and preserved its practice into our times. Circumcision was banned by the ancient Romans and Greeks considering it as an act of barbarity. Also the early Christians took a strong stand against it. Despite many modern anti-circumcision movements especially for the female one, circumcision for both sexes is practised worldwide in the Islamic societies, in some old tribes in Africa, in some native tribes of Australia and since 19th century, occasionally, in the USA.

Benefits of circumcision are believed to maintain genital organs in hygienic conditions for male whereas it is practised to reduce the sexual lust for female. Removal of a functional, sensitive, healthy, and normal foreskin or clitoris with many nerve fibres, nerve endings, strictly speaking is a genital mutilation. Medically speaking, it has no relevant healthy benefits that can objectively be used to justify its practice. And as such, this heritage of passed rituals violates the principles of modern morality and the very principles of sciences.

Our universal law respects parent’s “ownership rights” over their children to protect them, namely to the extent where all their decisions should normally be in the child’s benefits. The contrast to this however appears when they have no right by abusing constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion to inculcate a particular religion or ritual practice into their children. A child’s right to maintain the integrity of his/her healthy body should not be violated by any religion.

Some businesslike or religious doctors, as modern circumcisers, cut off a functional healthy and normal part of human body, a business or religious treatment which is in contradiction to their professional morality. This is akin to remove an eyelid which protects the eye or to cut off a finger of a child as a pseudo-healthy treatment. Circumcision would have died out long ago, along with leeching, skull-drilling, and castration if it were frankly motivated by purely medical reasons. The fact is that the “reasons” were later invented and stereotyped to justify the ritual act of circumcision. Pseudo- intellectuals of religious industry have been long brainwashing innocent people to blindly practise such rituals.

Religious mission is to avoid rising general awareness about the scientific, reasonable, and beneficial reasons, and in this light, much has been cooked up about the nonessential ritual of circumcision. The advisability given about circumcision, contrary to immunisation, is merely rooted in cultural customs, religious and social myths, but not in therapeutic treatments.

The foreskin protects the glands of sexual organs. Thus the foreskin is an essential part of human sexual anatomy. The foreskin is a sensitive and functional organ with a rich concentration of blood vessels and nerve endings to keep the glands soft, moist, and sensitive. The psychological studies have proved that all individuals, regardless religion or gender, who have genital cutting imposed upon them as non-consenting children, bear different degrees of physical, sexual, and emotional wounding. The cutting is mostly the first painful and bloody trauma for a child. Many people from circumcising cultures can attest to the harm this practice inflicted on them. Religious and cultural influence reinforces denial of these consequences and makes it, with all means, taboo for people to dare talking openly about their harm. The fact that religious pressure forces people to adapt to and cope with this wounding or to remain silent, does not justify the wounding anymore.

No medical evidence about the effectiveness of this wounding in reducing the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or considerable effectiveness of penile cancer or genital diseases has been really proved. Only periodical speculations, which are mostly loaded with religiosity, justify this practice. No health organisation in the world currently accepts circumcision as a preventive procedure and advocates its practice for both sexes; even if female circumcision is in some areas absent, it is immorally perverse to excuse one cruelty by invoking a worse one. The genitals of both sexes, as the products of evolution, should be left intact.

Since 1996 female circumcision has been considered violence against women in the US and thus has become illegal, but the “civilised world” ignores the practice of it in many circumcising cultures. In Egypt, a US alley, more than 90% of women are victims of female circumcision. The legitimisation of this painful and barbaric act, which can rarely be imagined without shuddering or being sick, is mentioned in a Hadith reported by Umm’Atiyya: “A female circumciser in Madineh was told by the Prophet of Islam, “When you circumcise, do not cut a big part of clitoris as that is better for a woman and more desirable for her husband.” The narration, ignoring the image of pain and sufferance, is one of the fundamental religious sources, allowing not only circumcision of boys (Khitan), but also circumcision of girls (Khafd) in Islam.

For less conservative Islamic scholars, the narration is a “modest” reason that only the outer part of the clitoris should be cut off and not as is done in some other African Muslim countries cutting off all the clitoris. Cutting away a part or a young girl’s entire clitoris is a ritual practice in parts of Islamic Africa. However, even the “modest” image of such a removal of the prepuce of a young girl’s clitoris seems still odious enough to call it a barbaric maiming of innocent girls. It practically is to inflict a despoiling of ability to enjoy sexuality. It means that sex for women is not so much more than procreative act.

Beside the idea of reducing all of the female extra-marital affairs, another dominant idea of female circumcision has been claimed to diminish the risk of rape. As such, the entire clitoris is cut off. The tissue are then sewn together, leaving a narrow hole for the flow of urine or menstrual blood (a second procedure is necessary to allow the sexual intercourse). This typical patriarchal and misogynous idea does not consider the male rapist as the main culprit, but implicitly the female uncircumcised victim! Degree of brutality of female circumcision brought some of the Islamic scholars to modify their judgement about performance of its practice, arguing that female circumcision has been regarded by the Prophet as an act of merit, not as an obligation. This is the why that female circumcision is less practised than male circumcision in the Islamic societies.

Circumcision however is not mentioned in the Koran and has been initially inspired as an act of purification (Taharah/Taharat) for both sexes. This has been referred by a narration from the Prophet who classifies circumcision as one of the five acts of Fitrah (purification), namely shaving the public hair, trimming the moustaches, clipping the nails, plucking the armpit hairs. Circumcision was imposed on Iranians through the Islamic invasion in 7th century. (The pre-Islamic Iranians, Zoroastrians, were not circumcised). Circumcision for both sexes, along with female infanticide, was old tribal traditions practised by the primitive patriarchal pagans in Arabian; the advanced culture of Persians did not adopt such atrocious rituals. Islam adopted the circumcision and changed its status into an Islamic ritual. And as such, it was imposed upon the conquered territories, including Iran.

Female circumcision, apart from some cases in southern areas and Kurdistan, is not practised in Iran, but the Shiite sect considers male circumcision obligatory and tends to lean the extreme side on the issue. Associated with a typical ceremony (Khatneh Soorun), a reminder of a sacrificial ceremony, the Islamic circumcision is in perfect harmony with the feast of the sacrifice in Islam. Circumcision in Sharia is an order to cut the skin that covers the male genital and /or to cut the upper end of the skin that covers the clitoris on the female genital part. It has been considered by Islamic scholars that circumcision is compulsory act on both males and females.

Sacrifice like cannibalism and infanticide is older than all the main monotheist religions. It has been an act of worship. Human / animal sacrifice was a routine ritual ceremony, in which young human victims were killed to please their gods or spirits. In exchange for the wanton sacrifice, the human victims were baptised martyrs and were promised holly rewards like the paradise in the next world. The human victim was not only offered to satisfy the gods and consequently the group, but as a martyr, became a promoted status of sacred. This concept of divine victim is very similar to the concept of martyrdom in Shiite traditions.

At the early ancient cultures human /animal sacrifice was a routine ritual in times of natural disaster; even for the rise of the sun a person would be sacrificed. Human sacrifice or mutilation still happens today as in underground practice in some traditional religions in some cultures in South Africa. The occasions of human sacrifice and human mutilations are associated with some ritual ceremonies. In ancient Egypt, as brutal as widow-burial, the ceremonial and sacrificial circumcision, for both sexes, was practised to please their god of fertility. In ancient Mesopotamian there were festivities in which the genital organ of a young boy was brutally cut off and was offered to the goddess of fertility.

Some scholars believe that all of the monotheists Prophets were born circumcised, while some others claim that Prophet Abraham was the first to practise (self) circumcision to please God.” No need to mention that today’s judgement about such an act of “pleasing” can be reduced to the rank of pathology. Another aspect of circumcision besides the purification and the sacrificial character, can be regarded as an act of punishment (a means of humiliating to mark captured enemies and slaves, or as a patriarchal means was in its origin an injury to the mother reducing her authority over her child).

The punishment which religiously often means a ritual purification is attributed to tone down sexual pleasure. Human sexuality has been seen in many primitive cultures as immoral and impure and thus needs ritual purification. Circumcision, in this case, was the obvious way to “purify” the believers. In this light, sex with an uncircumcised man is not allowed for a Muslim woman.

Considering the case of the Abraham’s self-circumcision, to be believed or not, reflexes that a very important combined factor of circumcision is to be self-injury. This is a pathological practice to relieve overwhelming emotional tension. It can be practised from a little common cut of skin to the collective practice of self-flagellation or self-stabbing in the Shiite mourning rituals. As witnessed in the period of mourning month of “Moharam”, self-injury in Shiite is widely practised. In this case, the practice is usually a symbolic act to connect the individual to the group of believers.

Some practices like piercing and tattoos, or in this case circumcision, are also socially preconditioned. These practices are done to identify with a particular group, religion, and collective identity. So, the social respect of collective practice can turn into a practice of self-injury like circumcision, and its harm is socially justified for the members of that society. The self-injury in its ritual practice often focuses on the sexual organs and can be regarded as a copy mechanism for the origin of circumcision.

To conclude my article and my purpose, I point out the following traits:

Original source with comments from readers

Or at the author’s blog

Jahanshah Rashidian is an Iranian-born German and a freelance writer in several languages (Persian, German, French, and English). He is not affiliated to any political entities. He writes on democracy, human rights, and secularism.

See his blog here

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