Circumcision, Religious Aspects of

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Throughout history different cultures have used genital alteration of males and females to express religious identity, inscribe social values, and enforce social norms of marriage, sexuality, and appropriate gender behavior. Societies differ greatly on whether they practice genital alteration on males and females, both, or neither, and on the stage of life at which procedures are done. Male circumcision, for example, is done on the eighth day of life by observant Jews, at around four or five years of age by Muslims in Turkey, and at puberty in some sub-Saharan African cultures.

Genital alteration became the subject of controversy toward the close of the twentieth century for a number of reasons. First, it is primarily performed on children and women, two groups perceived to be especially vulnerable. In the case of children, there is obvious lack of informed consent. Second, as immigrants from cultures that performed female genital alteration settled in Western countries, healthcare providers became aware of the procedures and of their negative effects on women's health. Third, a strong international feminist movement produced critics of the female procedures, both from within and without the indigenous cultures. Fourth, a century-long controversy in the United States over the health benefits of the male procedure began to move the practice away from routine recommendation of male circumcision. Fifth, a nascent children's rights movement began to question the ethics of performing surgery to excise healthy, normal tissue, with no proven medical benefit and, some argued, a diminution of sexual function.

The content of the controversy can be categorized into three parts. First, although there is no dispute over the lack of health benefit to females and the terrible impact of these surgeries on women's health, lively controversy exists over the negative and positive impact of male circumcision on males's health and sexual function.

Second, there is serious disagreement over appropriate language, reflecting the competing values in the debate. Male newborn genital alteration is almost always referred to as circumcision, a vaguely medical term that signals society's acceptance of this procedure. Conversely, the term uncircumcised, as opposed to intact or natural, signals the normative status of the circumcised male in American culture. When writers use circumcision to refer to the female procedure, there is often an outcry; opponents of the female procedure and defenders of the male procedure alike object to casting them in the same light. The term female genital mutilation, preferred by most opponents of the procedure and the term officially adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO), has its own problems. For one, as anthropologists Sandra D. Lane and Robert A. Rubinstein point out, "mutilation implies removal or destruction without medical necessity, " which logically ought to refer to routine male circumcision as well (Lane and Rubinstein, p. 35). Further, the term ignores the meanings of female genital alteration in the cultures in which it is practiced, in which not to be circumcised is to look weird and disgusting. Finally, the term polarizes people rather than inviting discussion. Cosmetic genital surgeries, as a term for male and female procedures, has the advantage of inviting comparison with more widely accepted surgical interventions, such as breast augmentation, but the disadvantage of misleadingly implying a surgical environment, a far cry from the primitive conditions that attend most female genital surgeries. This entry uses the neutral terms male and female genital alteration.

Third, there is debate about whether genital alterations stem from religion or culture, with the explicit or implicit inference that the former commands more respect.

Male Genital Alteration

The origins of male genital alteration predate any religion now in existence. It is certain that ancient Egyptians practiced some form of adult male circumcision; there are many theories about how and why the practice made its way from Egyptian culture to the Israelites, who became the first people known to genitally alter infants.

According to the Hebrew Bible, Abraham was the first Israelite to be circumcised; performing the operation on himself at the age of ninety-nine. He then circumcised all the members of his household. The Biblical injunction reads: "Every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout the generations" (Gen. 17: 11–12). Both of Abraham's sons were circumcised: Ishmael, the child of Abraham's servant Hagar, and Isaac, the son of Abraham's wife Sarah.

Male Genital Alteration in Judaism

While circumcision is the sign of belonging to the covenant, it does not confer Jewishness. Uncircumcised males can still be considered Jewish; Judaism does not practice female circumcision, but females are not thereby excluded from the covenant. In order for the religious obligation of circumcision to be fulfilled, the surgery must be set in the proper context, which includes the blessings, the correct procedure, the appropriate mindset, and the religiously mandated day of performance.

The Jewish ritual of male circumcision is called a berit milah, or a bris. It has two components: the cutting and the naming of the baby. The cutting is performed by a mohel, who may also be a physician. On the eighth day of the baby's life, the mohel comes to the home. The berit milah is a social occasion; friends and family are invited. Although there are many variations in how the ceremony is performed, the core ritual commonly begins with the lighting of a candle. One or two people have the honor of bringing the baby to the throne of Elijah, a special chair set aside for the male (often the baby's grandfather) who will hold the baby during the cutting. Traditionally, the mother remains in another room. After the ritual cutting, the baby is rediapered and allowed to nurse. The baby is given his Jewish name, and the mohel or rabbi, if one is present, recites blessings for the rapid healing of the baby and the continued recovery from childbirth of the mother. This is followed by a festive meal. The foreskin may be buried in the earth. In one custom, it is buried beneath a tree whose branches are later harvested to make the boy's wedding canopy.

Male Genital Alteration in Islam

In Islam male circumcision is performed for reasons of ritual cleanliness or purity; the term used is fitra, which implies both physical hygiene and inner purity. Cleanliness is required for prayer to be efficacious; the uncircumcised male faces the possibility that some trace of urine will remain under the foreskin and his prayers will be nullified. Circumcision is not mentioned in the Qur'an, but is part of the second source of Islamic law: hadith (the sayings and doings of the Prophet). Further, the obligation of circumcision can be inferred from the fact that Allah (God) told the Prophet Muhammed to follow the religion of Ibrahim (Abraham), and Ibrahim considered circumcision important enough to rectify his own uncircumcised state even at the advanced age of ninety-nine.

Depending upon the particular Islamic tradition and which scholars are most influential, male circumcision can be considered either obligatory or strongly recommended. The Prophet Muhammed recommended that circumcision be performed at an early age. In many Muslim cultures, the preferred time is on the seventh day after birth, and that is the common practice among North American Muslims.

Female Genital Alteration

It would be a mistake to assume an identity between Islam and female genital alteration. Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of the most conservative Muslim nations, abjure the practice, while non-Muslim minorities living in predominantly Islamic cultures sometimes embrace it. Further, traditional genital surgeries are performed in some non-Islamic African cultures. Nonetheless, the majority of people who practice some form of this custom identify with Islam, either as a religion or as a culture.

As is the case with male circumcision, the female procedure is not mentioned in the Qur'an, but claims for its legitimacy come from hadith. The use of the word sunna (meaning to follow the path of the Prophet) as the term signifying one form of the female procedure suggests that the practice is commendatory or virtuous. Similarly, the colloquial Arabic term for female circumcision is tahara¸ referring to a state of ritual purity. The hadith include a saying of the Prophet that ritual circumcisers should "not overdo it, because [the clitoris] is lucky for the woman and dear to the husband." This hadith (although considered somewhat weak in its authenticity) is used by some Muslims to argue against the more severe forms of female genital alteration (Winkel).

Religion and Culture Intertwined

The controversies over genital surgeries often include intense debates on the question of whether they are religiously or culturally inspired. In the United States, defining a practice as religious tends to surround it with an aura of heightened respect and protection not granted to those deemed merely cultural. However, it is often impossible to distinguish religious motivations from cultural ones.

Among all but the most traditional Jews, it is probably correct to say that the reasons for performing newborn circumcision are made up of religious elements, medical beliefs, and familial and communal motivations. In the United States, where approximately 80 percent of all males are circumcised, the practice of Jews is simply subsumed into the general norms. Although statistics are not available, it is generally believed that the majority of American Jews who have their newborn sons circumcised do not do so in a berit milah. Thus the circumcision does not fulfill the religious obligation, and will have to be repeated (in a nominal fashion) should the boy grow up to be a religious Jew. Other American Jews go through the religious ceremony, but do not partake of any other elements of Jewish religious or communal life. A high percentage of Jews genitally alter their sons in response to societal, community, or familial pressures, or simply so that a boy will look like his father. These reasons attest to the way in which male circumcision remains an important element of the communal glue that holds Jewish culture together, especially in tolerant America, where assimilation is feared more than anti-Semitism.

Some Jewish feminists have expressed criticism of berit milah because it surrounds the birth of a boy with more importance than that of a girl (although naming ceremonies for baby girls are becoming more common), and because it seems to imply a necessary connection between the male body and membership in the Jewish covenant. Miriam Pollack argues that the ritual cutting topples the mother from her rightful role as protector and nurturer of the baby, ignoring her biological instincts and "mother wisdom"(p. 171).

Female genital alteration is also practiced in response to a mix of religious, cultural, nationalist, and quasi-medical beliefs. A good example of this mix occurred in Egypt, where the proportion of genitally altered women is among the highest in the world. In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, a horrifying CNN film about female circumcision was shown, depicting the brutal cutting of a little girl. Members of Parliament responded with proposed legislation to criminalize the practice, but conservative religious authorities countered that female circumcision was an Islamic duty, and in integral component of Egyptian national identity. Other religious leaders claimed that female circumcision was a weak duty in Islam, at best, and that the issue should be decided by medical experts.

Anthropologists Lane and Rubinstein comment that, "Although it is not a practice of the majority of Muslims in the world, among those who do practice it female circumcision is nonetheless often considered to be legitimized by religion" (p. 34). Other reasons, often closely interwoven with religious ones, include the belief that without circumcision girls will run wild, become sexually active, and besmirch family honor (thus also flouting religious norms). The more extreme forms of genital alteration guarantee a daughter's virginity until marriage. In cultures in which some form of alteration is the norm, parents worry that uncircumcised daughters will be unmarriageable.

Group identity and communal cohesiveness are other motivations for female genital alteration. As new national boundaries threaten to disrupt historical tribal dominance in particular geographic areas, a process accelerated by urbanization, genital alteration can be seen as a way of marking and strengthening distinct village and tribal identities. In fact, war and dislocation can stimulate people to defend and display their cultural identity by intensified adherence to the practice. In 1997 women in displaced persons camps in Sierra Leone celebrated the end of war and their imminent return to their homes by holding a series of circumcision rituals. "'I decided to go to the bush and have this done now because I am a mature woman now, ' said Bateh Kindoh, a shy 16-year-old who sat with two other recent initiates to speak with a visitor. 'We will go back to our villages soon, and I wanted to become part of the Bondo [women's communal society] first. This is a happy time for us.'" (French, p. A4).

Male and female genital alteration has an abundance of layered meanings: religious, cultural, familial, and political. There are also economic incentives for professional circumcisers to continue to defend their practice. Any discussion of these practices must take these meanings into account.

dena s. davis

SEE ALSO: Anthropology and Bioethics; Body: Cultural andReligious Perspectives; Children: Rights of; Circumcision, Female; Circumcision, Male; Coercion; Harm; Feminism; Islam, Bioethics in; Judaism, Bioethics in; Medicine, Anthropology of; Sexual Behavior, Social Control of


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Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. Available from <>.