elettaria: (Sloth debauchery)
I've just written such a long comment to an article by Ava Vidalon FGM that I may as well copy it over to here. The article is excellent, go and read it. The comments are full of racism and will probably make you headdesk repeatedly. Here's what I put.

I've noticed that when FGM comes up, sooner or later someone brings up male circumcision, and there's a lot of anxiety about talking about the two together. Women talking about FGM fear, quite rightly, that FGM will be seen as much milder than it really is, since male circumcision is less extreme, and that this will end up being a "what about the menz?" derailment. The answers I've seen have usually been along the lines of, "Yes, that's bad too, but FGM is worse. Now shh. This is our space."

I think that it's very important not to let discussions of FGM be overpowered by discussions of male circumcision, but nevertheless, I think they do need to be discussed together some of the time, and more often than we're currently doing. We need to be opening up the topic, not closing it down because there are so many different taboos involved. FGM is far more extreme than male circumcision, and it's absolutely crucial to discuss that, but regardless, any genital mutilation of anybody, and particularly babies and children, is appalling and should be banned. FGM, male circumcision, surgery on intersex newborns to make them look "normal": they're all massively different when it comes to the history and cultural significance and what goes on physically, but they are all, unequivocally, horrific breaches of human rights which should not be accepted anywhere.

Some years ago, I brought up the topic of FGM with my stepfather. I can't remember why, it could be when I'd just read Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy. I've been involved in fundraising for a charity that fights FGM, Forward UK (I made them a vulva-themed quilt, as you do), but I don't think I told my rather conversative parents about that. Anyway, he tried to convince me that it was OK, that the women involved want to do it, that they are in fact the ones carrying it out. I don't think he knew that much about FGM or how serious it is. I don't think he wanted to think about it at all. It's not a pleasant topic to think about. (Which is no excuse for sweeping it under the rug, of course, but realistically is going to be one of the reasons why that continues to happen.)

But still, why did he say that? Political correctness? No. That's usually a term used by bigots who don't like being told to stop spouting bigotry, so I'm not sure it applies anyway. If you mean fear of being seen to criticise another culture, perhaps, but I'm not sure that was all that much of a concern for him. He's not of our generation, he doesn't go onto the Internet and look up whether he's accidentally said something that is, say, culturally appropriative. I'm not saying that he's a bad man. He's a sweet old man, the sort who gets described as a "gentleman" in English and a "mensch" in Yiddish. So I was all the more horrified to hear him defending FGM.

When we talked about this on Twitter, Ava, you asked if he is from a culture that carries out the procedure. No, he's not. He's a white Englishman. But he is from a culture where male circumcision is pretty much mandatory, because he's an Orthodox Jew. I hadn't thought about that connection until you asked me that question, but I now strongly suspect that anyone raised in a culture where genital mutilation of male infants is the norm, where indeed it's a badge of belonging to a religious and ethnic group, has already been trained to accept genital mutilation in general, and may therefore be less likely to protest against genital mutilation of females. I was raised in a Jewish English family (though Reform, not Orthodox), so I can't speak for Muslims or for Americans, but from my perspective, there is massive resistance to talking about the problem of male circumcision. Even Liberal Judaism, which takes a more modern attitude towards scripture, prizes human rights highly, campaigns for same-sex marriage and so forth, considers that male circumcision (bris) is just what you do. There's a website against it, Jews Against Circumcision, and when my friend's nephew was due to be circumcised, I remember talking to the new grandmother, who confessed that she absolutely hated circumcision and couldn't stand to be in the room when it was going on. But that's about it. Even my Liberal Jewish cousin, who is in a same-sex marriage with a non-Jewish woman, had her son circumcised.

Going back to my friend's mother, she didn't suggest to the family that they refrained from circumcising the child. She's Orthodox too, she wouldn't dream of going against her religion to that extent. You just don't. It is rigorously normatised. People make jokes about it. I was just watching an episode of the West Wing where a character talks about the relationship between two other characters with, "I don't care if he did your bris." Some years ago, I came out to my mother as being very much opposed to circumcision. She was so freaked out by this that she told me that if I ever have a son (I can't have children, but hey, details), she would personally come up to where I live and circumcise him herself. She said it quite violently. I made the arguments as best I could, but she flatly refused to believe that circumcision could ever be harmful, and laughed off my explanations of the lifelong physical damage that can be caused. "No one ever complained about his bris!" she told me, as if the whole topic was a giant joke. There was no way she was going to listen.

Her reaction is rather more unpleasant than what you'd get from most Jews, because quite frankly my mother is a horrible person, but she's still reflecting how Jews tend to think. Especially diaspora Jews, who are extremely self-conscious about being a minority, about the prospect of the Jewish nation "dying out" due to intermarriage, about all the persecution they've experienced over the millennia. They are hanging onto their identity as Jews for dear life, and if that involves genitally mutilating babies, well, they'll just try not to think about what that actually means. Better still, they'll try not to think about the subject of genital mutilation in any way.

So yes, I suspect that a lot of Jews will swerve when it comes to the topic of FGM, because it's getting too close to a topic that we've spent a very long time constructing barriers around so that we don't have to think about how it shames us all.

That's Judaism. I can't speak for Islam, but I imagine that if you're Muslim in a country where Muslims are a minority, there will be similar issues with regard to identity and so forth. And then we get to America, where a huge proportion of the male population has been circumcised for a variety of reasons which don't hold water at all, many of which involve suppressing sexuality, and where men are heavily invested in not admitting that there's anything wrong with their penis. There are also people who are willing to admit that FGM is wrong, but not that male circumcision is, and who either get horribly racist in criticising one while defending the other, or are afraid of coming over as racist and shut up entirely, thus allowing both to go unchallenged. Countries are terrified of banning male circumcision because it will be seen as anti-Semitic and Islamophobic (they seem to be more worried about being seen as anti-Semitic, at least in Europe), and I think that also gets in the way of dealing appropriately with FGM.

So again, yes, I think it's worth discussing the two topics together. I'm not saying we should do so all the time. We shouldn't end up in a situation where you can't write an article about FGM without being obliged to put in at least two paragraphs explaining your attitude towards male circumcision. We certainly shouldn't end up in a position where you can't take action against FGM because of male circumcision. But yes, they're connected, the way people think about them is connected, so yes, they are a worthy topic for discussion.

One thing I should add is that when I realised that I was an atheist some years ago, I had to make a decision about whether, and to what extent, I still identified as Jewish. Circumcision is the main reason why I no longer wish to affiliate myself with Judaism in any way, except to mention that I'm ethnically Jewish where that's relevant. I'm not a religious believer, and I cannot consider myself part of a cultural group that condones and even mandates the genital mutilation of infants.
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elettaria

January 2014

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