A shameful incident in Bundaberg, Queensland, in 2002 highlights the need for better protection of boys against unwanted interference with their genitals. In this case a Moslem father forced circumcision on his two sons, aged five and nine, against their own wishes, against the wishes of their mother, and in breach of a specific order by the Family Court. The father was separated from his former partner (an Australian woman of indigenous origin), who had sole custody of the boys, but who allowed them to visit him on the understanding that the man's sister would ensure that they were not harmed. He took advantage of this generosity during one stay to race the boys off to a doctor and have their foreskins amputated. Although the case was investigated by the Queensland Police child abuse unit, which sought to prosecute the man for assault, the case was dismissed in the Bundaberg magistrate's court on legal technicalities.
The case shows up the shameful state of medical ethics in Queensland. How was it possible to find a doctor to perform this unnecessary and harmful surgery on two normal boys merely because an adult preferred them to be like him? And not an adult with any legal rights over the boys: had the surgeon done his homework, he would have discovered that the father did not have custody of he boys, and that the Family Court had specifically ordered that they were not to be circumcised. That it was possible is partly a tribute to the destructive influence of circumcision advocates like Professor Brian Morris at Sydney University and the maverick Queensland GP Dr Terry Russell. They are forever popping up in the media to urge parents to have their sons circumcised. Russell's own medical practice consists almost entirely of severing the foreskins from baby boys by means of the plastibell device. No medical organization in the world recommends circumcision, and in Australia both the Australian College of Paediatrics and the Australian Medical Association have issued strong statements against the practice
How effective is Queensland and Australia law in protecting the bodily integrity of children? In several European countries, including Sweden and Norway, the written permission of both parents is necessary before a doctor can legally perform a circumcision on boys. A simple rule like that in Australia that could have prevented this tragedy. The case also shows up the sexist and discriminatory double standard by which female circumcision is condemned with horror as female genital mutilation while male circumcision is tolerated as a trivial or even beneficial adjustment. Yet Amnesty International defines genital mutilation as the removal of any part of the genital organs. By this definition, these boys are victims of genital mutilation.
If these boys had been girls there would be universal outrage and demands for education programs and legal reform to prevent such cases in the future. Why the sexist double standard? Do boys not have the same right to a complete set of genitals as girls? The father's right to practise his religion and culture does not extend to the right to inflict injury or disfiguring bodily alterations on other people, especially if they are defenceless children.
In this special report we print a number of items relating to this tragic and disturbing case. Because new charges may still be laid against the man, it is not possible to reveal his name or that of his ex-partner and the boys.
Dad escapes charges
By Tanya Moore
A MAN who had his two young sons circumcised without their mother's permission had charges of grievous bodily harm against him dismissed yesterday. The Bundaberg father, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, had his case dismissed when the prosecution revealed they were not ready to proceed. Bundaberg Magistrates Court was told the man had taken the boys to a Bundaberg hospital while their mother was on holidays to have the operation performed on the six- and nine-year-old boys.
Defence barrister Tim Ryan said the doctor had no problems with the "routine operation" because both the boys and the father had given their consent. The court was told the father was "sincere in his religious beliefs" that the boys should be circumcised. But the court was also told the mother, who is separated from the man, disagreed with the procedure and had been involved in a Family Law Court matter, which was the centre of the prosecution's case. Prosecutor Senior Constable Wayne Puxty explained to the court that the prosecution was unable to go ahead without the certified Family Law Court documents that were supposed to be supplied by the mother, and requested an adjournment to receive them.
But Mr Ryan said the request was "simply outrageous" given the case had been set down for a hearing since May and the documents wanted by the prosecution had been in existence since August 2000. He added his client had not seen his two sons since the charges were laid on October 3 last year as part of his bail conditions and said any further delaying of the case would be a "misuse of the criminal justice system".
Acting Magistrate Neil Lavaring rejected the application for an adjournment, which forced Snr Const Puxty to offer no evidence against the father. Outside court, arresting officer Detective Senior Constable Peter Cormack, from the Gold Coast child abuse investigation unit, said police would still be pursuing the case, on which charges could still be laid.
By Tanya Moore
DOUBLE standards allowed two boys to be circumcised without their mother's permission, an outraged Australian health group said yesterday. Circumcision Information Australia spokesman Shane Peterson said the case in which a six- and nine-year-old boy were circumcised by their Bundaberg father, despite their mother's opposition, was "a tragedy".
"In European countries the written permission of both parents is necessary before a doctor can legally perform a circumcision on boys", Mr Peterson said. "This rule should be implemented in Australia to prevent such tragedies." Mr Peterson said the case illustrated a double standard whereby female circumcision was condemned as mutilation while male circumcision was viewed as trivial or even a beneficial adjustment. He said the case also highlighted the lack of implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by Australian law.
The mother of the boys is also angry at what she sees as a double standard on circumcision. "If I had been in this current situation with two daughters who were circumcised by their Muslim father, the Australian public would be outraged," said the woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons. "Because it is my two sons who have been harmed, few people seem to care." She said her estranged husband had performed the operation during an access visit to the children last year.
Grievous bodily harm and unlawful wounding charges were laid against the boys' father, but these were dropped on Thursday when the prosecution revealed they were not ready to proceed with their case. Detective Senior Constable Peter Cormack, from the Gold Coast child abuse investigation unit, said police would still pursue the case, on which charges could still be laid.
Mother's fury as boys circumcised
by Elissa Lawrence
A MOTHER has spoken of her anguish at discovering her two young sons were circumcised without her knowledge.
The woman, 27, who cannot be identified, said she was devastated to learn her former partner and father of her sons had arranged for the boys, then aged nine and five, to be circumcised at a Bundaberg hospital last October for religious reasons.
The man appeared in Bundaberg Magistrates Court on Thursday facing charges of grievous bodily harm (for the circumcision). The court was told the Muslim man had taken his sons to hospital to have the operations performed while their mother was on holidays and was "sincere in his religious beliefs" that they should be circumcised. The court was also told the mother objected to the procedure and was involved in a Family Law Court matter central to the prosecution's case. But the charges were dropped when the prosecution revealed missing Family Law Court paperwork meant it was not ready to proceed with the case. An adjournment request was denied, forcing the police prosecutor to offer no evidence against the man.
Outside court, arresting officer Detective Senior Constable Peter Cormack from the Gold Coast child abuse investigation unit said police would pursue the case and that charges could still be laid.
The boys' mother, who now lives on the Gold Coast, said in a statement she believed her sons had been assaulted. "My sons have a right to grow into adult men with intact bodies and choose their own religious and other beliefs", she said. "If I had been in this situation with two daughters who were circumcised ... the Australian public would be outraged. Being of indigenous Australian descent, I understand the importance of freedom of personal beliefs in a multicultural society."
Circumcision Information Australia spokesman Shane Peterson said circumcision was a form of mutilation. "For a long time Australia has had a double standard on male and female circumcision", he said. "Female circumcision is illegal yet male circumcision continues to be unregulated. It's morally wrong. An adult is surgically inflicting their religious, cosmetic or sexual preferences on a child. Surgery of any kind is one of the most invasive and high-risk forms of medical intervention possible, and it should always be the last resort. In European countries, the permission of both parents is necessary before a doctor can legally perform a circumcision on boys."
A committal hearing for charges of grievous bodily harm and unlawful wounding was scheduled in Bundaberg yesterday against a father who forced his two sons to undergo circumcision during an access visit to his family home last year. The father, of Muslim faith, arranged for his sons aged 5 and 9 to be circumcised for non-medical reasons. This was against the expressed wishes of their mother.
"Being of indigenous Australian descent I understand the importance of freedom of personal beliefs in a multicultural society", she said. "I believe my sons have a right to grow into adult men with intact bodies and choose their own religious and other beliefs; I am devastated that the father has stolen that opportunity away from my boys."
The charges were dropped yesterday as documents from 1998 needed as evidence for the case could not be located. Prosecutor Senior Constable Wayne Puxty explained to the court that the prosecution could not proceed without certified Family Law Court documents that were supposed to be supplied by the mother, and requested an adjournment to receive them.
But defence barrister Tim Ryan said the request was "simply outrageous" given the case had been scheduled for a hearing since May and claimed the documents wanted by the prosecution had been in existence since August 2000. He added his client had not seen his two sons since the charges were laid on October 3 last year as part of his bail conditions and said any further delaying of the case would be a "misuse of the criminal justice system".
Acting Magistrate Neil Lavaring rejected the application for an adjournment, which forced Snr Const. Puxty to offer no evidence against the father. Outside court, arresting officer Detective Senior Constable Peter Cormack, from the Gold Coast child abuse investigation unit, said police would still be pursuing the case, and charges could still be laid.
By arranging circumcision of the boys, the father was in breach of orders by the Family Court, Brisbane. After a long documented history of physical abuse by the father to the mother, the Family Court ruled that the boys would reside with their mother, and she would have the day to day care and control of their welfare and development.
Despite the Court's rulings and the issue of protection orders, on a number of occasions the father threatened to abduct the children, force them to undergo circumcision, and accompany him to Turkey. The father tried to fulfil the first part of his threats by applying to the family court for the boys to be circumcised. The mother of the boys said that the man had a history of substance abuse and psychiatric illness, and that the Family Court "justly dismissed his application for my boys to be forcibly circumcised."
The mother feared for her family's safety and moved from Bundaberg to an anonymous address in the Gold Coast to escape the father's continued threats and harassment. For her boys' well-being, she preferred that they have no contact with their father. "I only allowed my boys to stay with their father during the recent access visit as his sister agreed she would be responsible for their care and well-being", she said.
It seems the mother's trust was misplaced, as the boys' aunt did not prevent the circumcision that went ahead. The mother believes this was due to the family's Muslim faith. "The father always used his Muslim religion as an excuse for his violence", she said. "He treated us as though we were less than human; he saw us as objects or property for him to do with as he pleased. And now he has assaulted and mutilated my two boys in the worst possible way, by cutting off part of their sexual organs and depriving them of future sexual pleasure".
The boys are reluctant to speak of their experience, but have expressed that their father misled them to believe they were going to the doctor for an examination. They are very upset that part of their bodies was removed and do not want any contact with their father. Despite the obvious trauma and breach of court orders, the father's barrister argued that the circumcision should be treated as a moral rather than a criminal issue. This has outraged the mother, who is adamant that her sons have been assaulted. "If I had been in this current situation with two daughters who were circumcised by their Muslim father, the Australian public would be outraged. Because it is my two sons who have been harmed, few people seem to care".
A spokesman for Circumcision Information Australia, Mr Shane Peterson, said that the case highlighted the lack of implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by Australian law. "In several European countries the written permission of both parents is necessary before a doctor can legally perform a circumcision on boys. This rule should be implemented in Australia to prevent such tragedies."
Mr Peterson also said that the case illustrated the double standard by which female circumcision is condemned as mutilation, yet male circumcision is viewed as a trivial or even beneficial adjustment. "Amnesty International defines genital mutilation as the removal of any part of the genital organs. By this definition, these boys are victims of genital mutilation."
Stricter rules governing consent for non-therapeutic circumcision could have prevented this sad and all too common occurrence. A high proportion of marriages in Australia are between men and women of different ethnic/cultural backgrounds, and the children of such unions cannot be said to belong strictly to one or the other group; this is all the more true in the many cases where marriages end in separation while the children are still young.
Children in such situations will eventually decide which (if any) of the parental cultures they wish to identify with, or whether they wish to choose a cultural identity of their own, and we recognize their right to make a free choice. In a multicultural society, freedom of religion means that each individual must have the freedom to adopt his or her own religion and not have it imposed on them. In order to ensure that this right is real, their bodies should be protected from tell-tale and irreversible alterations. Although these children may choose to identify with the culture of one or other of their parents, they are not only members of that culture; they are also Australian citizens who are entitled to the protection of Australian law and custom. Individual determination has a physical as well as a mental dimension. Multiculturalism was intended as a policy to make people from non-English speaking backgrounds feel more at home in Australia; it was never meant as a carte blanche for the retention of customs that Australian society finds abhorrent.
In the United Kingdom and Sweden the judicial systems have intervened in instances where Moslem fathers have sought or arranged for the circumcision of boys without maternal consent. In two cases the fathers were convicted, and in one of these cases the father was gaoled for three months. The practitioner who performed the circumcision was also charged with an offence, though acquitted, by the National Board of Health and Welfare.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international treaties which protect the physical and moral integrity of individuals are available at http://www.arclaw.org
J was a five-year old boy living in England, born of a mixed marriage. J's father is a Turkish Moslem, his mother is British. The father wanted him brought up as a Moslem and circumcised. The mother did not, and she took the father to court to prevent that from happening. In a landmark decision she won on both issues. Here are some significant quotes from the judgement of Wall J, delivered in England on 6 May 1999.
What the judge said
Where there was disagreement between those who had parental responsibility for the child, including a local authority exercising parental responsibility under a care order, circumcision was not to be carried out without the leave of the court.
The question of the father taking J to Turkey on holiday is, however, linked with the question of his circumcision. If I decide that J should not be circumcised, the question arises as to whether or not the father's family and/or a Turkish court would accept that decision and feel themselves bound by it. The father assured me in evidence that he would respect the English court's decision, however much he might disagree with it, and would not seek to have J circumcised in Turkey. The father also recognised that if J returned from Turkey circumcised that would constitute a clear contempt of the English court. It is, therefore, clear to me that in Islamic law, J is to be regarded as a Muslim. According to Dr Hinchcliffe, circumcision is not mentioned in the text of the Koran, but in the Sunna (the practice of the Prophet Mohammed), which is the second recognised source of law, it is strongly recommended, and sayings from the Prophet himself are cited in support of the practice.
J is plainly not in a position to give an informed consent to his circumcision. There is also ... a body of medical opinion which regards both male and female circumcision as invasive procedures involving unnecessary mutilation of the genitals, and which calls for male circumcision to be criminalised, except in the rare cases where it is medically called for.
A case can be made for describing ritual male circumcision without any medical need for it as an assault on the bodily integrity of the child; indeed, that is the case which is made in much of the medical literature to which I was referred. If J were to be circumcised this could be carried out as a day case. J would be likely to be unconscious for about 20 to 30 minutes. It would be a painful procedure.
The medical benefits arising from circumcision (apart from the three conditions identified by Dr S for which surgery is indicated) are highly contentious. There is a powerful body of medical opinion which puts strongly in issue any suggestion that male circumcision prevents or reduces the risk of urinary tract infection, penile cancer, or sexually transmitted disease. Equally contentious is the suggestion that it reduces the incidence of cervical cancer in women.
There is evidence that tissue loss during circumcision removes or destroys the function of tissue which plays an important part in the overall sensory mechanism of the penis, and that there is a consequential loss of sexual sensory pleasure during sexual intercourse.
Dr S's view, as a paediatrician, was that circumcision should only be carried out if medically indicated.
I should add, in parenthesis, that amongst the documents shown to me was material from an organisation called Norm UK, the aims of which are to provide education about (1) the need to avoid circumcision and (inter alia) (2) about foreskin restoration. Within this material was an article on foreskin restoration which indicates that it is possible, although restoration cannot give back the erotogenic nerves amputated at circumcision. Equally, there was nothing in the medical evidence I read and heard which indicated that J could not be circumcised as an adult.
The father simply could not understand the objections to circumcision. It was a means of demonstrating and reinforcing J's relationship with him: they had to be the same.
The procedure for a child of J's age carries small but identifiable physical and psychological risks. It is an invasive procedure, which therefore carries with it risks shared by all surgical interventions: pain, bleeding, infection, surgical mishap and complications of anaesthesia.
The father did not accept the risks, either physical or psychological, outlined in the medical evidence by Dr S; and I have to say that, despite his obvious sincerity, there was an element of exaggeration in the father's account of his own circumcision (no doubt as a result of the passage of time), and in my judgment he minimises its painful aspects and underestimates the likely effect of the procedure on J.
In my judgment, the strained relationship between the parents, and the fact that as a circumcised child J would be unlike most of his peers, increases the risk that J will suffer adverse psychological effects from being circumcised. The disadvantages are that despite the father's passionate defence of the procedure, J may be traumatised by it. Thus, contrary to the father's perception, circumcision may in fact weaken rather than strengthen his relationship with J.
Circumcision carries with it the small but definite risks of both physical and psychological harm to which I have referred. Furthermore J, as a circumcised child, would undoubtedly be different from the majority of his peer group. The consequential possibility that he may be picked on or teased by his peers cannot be excluded as a risk.
I think that, because of his strong feelings and the passage of time, the father minimises the pain and discomfort likely to be suffered by J if the operation is performed. Circumcision is an effectively irreversible surgical intervention which has no medical basis in J's case. It is likely to be painful and carries with it small but definable physical and psychological risks.
Under art 9 [of the Human Rights Act 1999], the father says that his right to manifest his religion in practice includes the right to arrange for the circumcision of his son in accordance with the tenets of his religion. That seems to me plainly correct. It follows that any limitations on that freedom imposed by a court must be (1) as are prescribed by law; and (2) as are necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others - in this case, the rights and freedoms of both the mother and J himself. … I therefore see nothing inconsistent with the proper operation of arts 8 and 9 of the Convention in a decision of the court which, on the particular facts of this case and in the exercise of a judicial discretion, refuses to make a specific issue order permitting J's circumcision, alternatively prohibits the father from causing J to be circumcised. … Equally, given the balance which the court has to strike between the competing rights of the mother, the father, and the child, it does not seem to me that an order prohibiting circumcision in the circumstances of this case could properly be described as discriminatory under art 14.
In my judgment, the argument put forward by the Official Solicitor on this point is sound. Circumcision is an irrevocable step in a child's life. Changes of surname, which require applications to the court in cases of disagreement are reversible: circumcision is not. In my judgment, therefore, where there is a dispute between parents or other persons having parental responsibility for a child over the child's circumcision, that dispute should be referred to the court.
For all these reasons, there will be no order on the father's application for J to be brought up as a Muslim and there will be a prohibited steps order preventing the father from arranging or permitting J to be circumcised without the leave of the High Court. I propose to invite counsel to agree the precise terms of the order.
Order accordingly. Leave to appeal granted.
Re J (child's religious upbringing and circumcision)
FAMILY DIVISION, Judge WALL J.
2, 3, 4 MARCH, 6 MAY 1999
Justice Wall's decision was confirmed on appeal.
Although the father in the Bundaberg case, and his barrister, tried to excuse his actions by reference to the Moslem religion, Islam does not impose an obligation on parents to circumcise their children. Furthermore, its recommendations about circumcision apply to women as much as men. The Koran, the Moslem bible, makes no mention of circumcision at all, but the prophet Mohammed is reported to have stated that "Circumcision is a sunnah for the men and a makrumah for the women". (Note the reference to men and women: nothing about boys and girls.) The term sunnah means customary or traditional; the term makrumah means meritorious. The most you could conclude is that circumcision was customary for men and meritorious for women, and thus desirable for both but obligatory for neither.
In these respects Islam is quite different from Judaism, which requires the head of the household not only to circumcise his baby sons at eight days, but also his male servants and employees, which makes no mention of women in this context, and in which the rule of circumcision is stated prominently in the first book of the Jewish bible.
Mohammed further laid down five rules for Moslem men: shaving the pubic hair; circumcision; trimming the moustache; plucking the hairs from the armpits; and clipping the nails. These constitute the fitrah, or laws of personal deportment, to which a pious man in pursuit of perfection must conform. According to Sami Aldeeb, "They are not compulsory, but simply advisable". The vital point about this list is that circumcision is a recommendation for adult men, perhaps no more important than trimming their moustache or shaving their pubic hair. It is thus less obligatory than the rule of prayer five times a day, the pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting at Ramadan or abstention from alcohol and pork. There is certainly nothing in the fitrah which requires a father to circumcise his children.
Before assuring the Bundaberg magistrate's court that the man in this case was "sincere in his religious beliefs", his barrister should have established that he scrupulously observed all these requirements, not just the observance that his sons, rather than he himself, had to pay for.
There is no unanimity among Islamic theologians as to whether Mohammed himself was circumcised and how it happened. Some say that he was born without a foreskin, others that he was circumcised by an angel or his grandfather. It is thus obvious that, whatever traditions may have evolved in particular cultures over the centuries, Islam does not require parents to have their boys and girls circumcised; and that parents who do have them circumcised cannot appeal to rules of their religion as a justification for this assault. Some Moslems even question whether circumcision itself is necessary and suggest it was merely a custom taken over unthinkingly from desert Arabs when Islam arose in the seventh century. The Egyptian Dr Nawal El-Saadawi writes:
"If religion comes from God, how can it order man to cut off an organ created by Him as long as that organ is not diseased or deformed? God doe not create the organs of the body haphazardly without a plan. It is not possible that He should have created the clitoris in woman's body only in order that it be cut off at an early stage in life."
As a woman and a victim of circumcision herself, she was referring to the female genitals, but the point is equally applicable to the male foreskin - the part of the penis removed by circumcision.
Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, Jehovah, his cousin Allah and sexual mutilations, in George C. Denniston and Marilyn Milos (eds), Sexual mutilations: A human tragedy, New York, Plenum Press, 1997
Dr Sami Aldeeb, To mutilate in the name of Allah or Jehovah: The legitimation of male and female circumcision Medicine and Law, Vol 13, No 7-8, 1994, pp. 575-622
Also available at
Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, Male and female circumcision among Jews, Christians and Muslims: Religious, medical, social and legal debate, Warren PA, Shangri-La Publications (Marco Polo Monographs, No. 5), 2001
When he was travelling through the marshy region of the lower Euphrates River in the 1930s (present-day Iraq), the British traveller Wilfred Thesiger encountered many Arab people who did not practice circumcision, and others who did and suffered nasty injuries and infections as a result of the operation. His report makes a mockery of the ill-informed statement by the Australian College of Pediatrics (1996) that circumcision "probably originated as a hygiene measure in communities living in hot and dry environments". On the contrary: cutting flesh in primitive conditions was about the least hygienic thing anybody could do, carrying a high risk of bleeding, infection and permanent disability or death, as Thesiger found.
Circumcision, although nowhere mentioned in the Koran, is generally regarded as obligatory for Moslems following the example of the prophet Mohammed himself, who was circumcised in accordance with Arab custom. No uncircumcised person may lawfully make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Among the tribes in southern Iraq … the operation was often deferred until manhood … and was seldom performed before puberty. It was done by specialists who travelled round from village to village in the summer. Their traditional fee was a cock [!], but more often they charged five shillings. The examples of their work which I saw were terrifying. They used a dirty razor, a piece of string and no antiseptics. Having finished, they sprinkled the wound with a special powder, made from the dried foreskins of their previous victims, and then bound it up with a tight rag. People living under these conditions acquire a remarkable resistance to infection, but they could not resist this, and boys sometimes took two months to recover, suffering great pain in the meanwhile. One young man came to me for treatment ten days after his circumcision, and although I am fairly inured to unpleasant sights and smells, the stench made me retch. His entire penis, his scrotum and the inside of his thighs were a suppurating mess from which the skin was sloughing away, the pus trickling down his legs. I cured him eventually with antibiotics. In spite of the social stigma of being uncircumcised, some boys not unnaturally refused. In other cases the fathers would not allow their sons to be operated on because there was no one else to look after the buffaloes. A few maintained that they had been circumcised by an angel at birth, a superstition that is also current in Egypt. Later I visited villages … where I heard that hardly anyone was circumcised.
Wilfred Thesiger, The marsh Arabs, London 1964, pp. 101-2
Also available at
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