What’s Wrong with the Movement for Genital Autonomy?

What’s Wrong with the Movement for Genital Autonomy?*

Since a German regional court in Cologne ruled in the summer of 2012 that the circumcision of a Muslim boy constituted “grievous bodily harm,” a movement was born that calls on governments across Europe to legislatively protect “genital autonomy.” The European debate is characterized by the fact that, unlike in the U.S., the majority of Christian and secular men are not circumcised. Depending on national context, the circumcision rate ranges between 0% (Finland), 1.5% (Spain, Denmark), 10% (Germany), up to a high of 15% (U.K.). Across Europe, circumcision is considered a ritual practice limited to Muslim and Jewish religious minorities. The German Bundestag was caught off guard by the Cologne court’s decision and sprang into action, mindful of the ominous consequences of this criminalization for Jewish (as well as Muslim) communities in the country of the Holocaust. By December 2012, German lawmakers passed a law defending the right of Jewish and Muslim religious communities to circumcise their sons—though not their daughters.

This spurred a movement across Europe that demanded the protection of boys’ bodily integrity in the name of gender equality. Their declarations and websites use gender-neutral language and declare “genital autonomy” a “fundamental right of each human being,” which includes “personal control of their own genital and reproductive organs; and protection from medically unnecessary genital modification and other irreversible reproductive interve. The Nordic Ombudsman of the Child Rights International Network issued a declaration in Oslo in 2013, signed by representatives from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland that called on their respective governments to outlaw boys’ ritual circumcision and “to work towards a situation where circumcision without medical indication may only be carried out if a boy, who has reached the age and maturity required in order to understand the necessary medical information, chooses to consent to the procedure.” Girls are not mentioned explicitly.

The reason for this silence is, as another website explains that “the problem of girls’ circumcision has been thoroughly discussed in the media and on the internet… while the ritual circumcision of boys has been remained completely taboo.” One website quotes Somali anti-Muslim activist Ayan Hirsi Ali, never known to shy away from controversy, as saying in an interview on Dutch TV: “I believe that male circumcision is worse than the incision of a girl.” The German site pro-kinderrechte.de asserts that “the male foreskin contains more than double as many nerve endings as the female and possesses much greater physiological significance.” Another website, intaktiv.de, maintains that “the amputation of the foreskin occurs usually against the will and without consent of the victim and causes considerable physical, sexual and psychological harm. It can and should therefore be called male genital mutilation (MGM). The comparability to female genital mutilation is given . . .The court decision [in Cologne] for the first time found the medically unnecessary amputation of the foreskin illegal bodily harm and explicitly gave boys the same self-evident right of genital autonomy which is generally accepted for girls.”

There are several reasons why this European push to criminalize ritual circumcision of boys is odious. First, there is the competitive edge that aims to outman the political battle against FGM, which is far from self-evident and generally accepted. Suddenly, men must be rescued from marginalization and traumatization and need support workshops with names like “Revealing the Wound-Restoring the Dignity,” as offered at the conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder in July 2014. The idea that ritual circumcision of the penile foreskin should be considered equivalent to the partial or total removal of the clitoris, the excision of the labia minor, and/or the infibulation of the vagina achieved by slicing (incision) and sewing up the vagina is ludicrous. The gender-neutral code of “genital autonomy” serves to conceal the “seamless garment” of coercive violence that aims to control women’s sexual and reproductive bodies. These practices cannot be compared at either the level of their painful physical and psychological impact or for their religious, political, and cultural meanings.

The religious reasons for men’s “mutilation” are fundamentally different from the arguments that drive the wounding of women. Women are cut for aesthetic reasons in order to purify and protect men from promiscuous female sexual pleasure. Women’s pleasure and agency is the target of the knife and it serves no religious signification. Men’s circumcision, on the other hand, does not aim at sensation and potency. On the contrary, men’s virility is enhanced by circumcision and loaded with religious meaning. God seals the covenant with Abraham promising him progeny, land, and everlasting life. The sacrifice of (fore)skin is more properly compared to the pain and blood of breaking the hymen. The promise of future offspring requires women’s sacrifice of bodily integrity (by penetration). The commandment given to Abraham to circumcise “the flesh of your foreskin … as a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old,” (Gen 17:11-12), is given within the context of the promise of descendants. Male circumcision and the penetration of women constitute the basis of the “covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant.” (Gen 17:7) Christian women who refused to sacrifice their hymen by pledging perpetual virginity (as Christian women did) radically reinterpreted the meaning of God’s covenant with “carnal Israel.” But for Jews, the regeneration of the covenant involves the sexual production of corporate peoplehood, which is ritually sealed in the flesh of the male foreskin and consummated in women’s reproductive labors.

It is precisely this religious quality of male circumcision that disturbs its secularist European opponents. The movement to criminalize ritual circumcision is spearheaded by uncircumcised men who feel morally obliged to protect innocent boys from “ancient stone age rituals” and “obedient submission to irrational laws of a tribal god.” It is Christian men who want to prevent the medically unnecessary suffering of Muslim and Jewish boys. All of their websites, especially those in German, categorically reject any suggestion that their campaign might advance anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim aims, and loudly proclaim their tolerance and opposition to antisemitism. But their denials are hollow. For instance, one website lectures: “Some Jews are afraid to recognize circumcision for what it really is and think that those who reject circumcision are antisemitic. That is ridiculous. Jews are not defined by their practices… People who advance the antisemitism-argument to undermine criticism of circumcision may be swayed by the following analogy: If 90% of all black people smoke, and one opposes smoking, one is not therefore a racist, but only an opponent of smoking. It is the practice not the people.” Surely, since circumcision is merely a bad habit, any reasonable person should be able to quit…. Such dismissive, arrogant, and self-righteous contentions reveal the true agenda.

Odd and rapidly shifting political and religious coalitions characterize the contemporary European scene. Emotional appeals to protect innocent children from the bloody knives of religious fanatics unite conservatives with progressives. Feminists, who work against sexual violence, such as FGM, are recruited into campaigns to outlaw gender-neutral ritual circumcisions thereby marginalizing and criminalizing Muslim and Jewish minorities. European Jews and Muslims are divided by the rise of antisemitism, which is increasingly committed by Muslim immigrants, radicalized by poverty, jihadi ideology, and anti-Israel politics, but find common ground in resisting this ban. Feminists should insist on the fundamental difference between male and female circumcision and speak out against criminalizing male circumcision in countries where such bans serve to marginalize religious minorities.

Comment: Boldfacing by me.

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