In which I approve of a comparison between FGC and Male circumcision

I said in my last post that I hate simplistic comparisons between female genital cutting and male circumcision. When carefully and well-informedly made, I think that a comparison along some axes can have some use.

This is the best comparison of the two procedures that I feel I’ve seen. You can find it here: http://www.fgmnetwork.org/intro/mgmfgm.html

It’s a table credited to Hanny Lightfoot-Klein that compares the procedures by picking up quotes from practitioners (some of the quotes may be fabricated, but as far as I can tell accurately reflect real attitudes).

For instance, the last two sets of quotes are:

On thoroughness:

Sudanese grandmother: “In some countries they only cut out the clitoris, but here we do it properly. We scrape our girls clean. If it is properly done, nothing is left, other than a scar. Everything has to be cut away.”

My own father, a physician, speaking of ritual circumcision inflicted upon my son: “It is a good thing that I was here to preside. He had quite a long foreskin. I made sure that we gave him a good tight circumcision.”

and:

On health ramifications:

35 year old Sudanese woman: “Yes, I have suffered from chronic pelvic infections and terrible pain for years now. You say that all if this is the result of my circumcision? But I was circumcised over 30 years ago! How can something that was done for me when I was four years old have anything to do with my health now?”

35 years old American male: “I have lost nearly all interest in sex. You might say that I’m becoming impotent. I don’t seem to have much sensation in my penis anymore, and it is becoming more and more difficult for me to reach orgasm. You say that this is the result of my circumcision? That doesn’t make any sense. I was circumcised 35 years ago, when I was a little boy. How can that affect me in any way now?”

The strength of this table is that it doesn’t need to elide the major differences between FGC and male circumcision. Those differences remain clear in the words of the practitioners. We know that it’s different to scrape away all external genitalia and to completely remove the foreskin, and those differences are right there in the table. But what the table does by putting the quotes in tension with each other is that it also shows, viscerally, the axes along which attitudes to the procedures *are* similar. Both the Sudanese grandmother and the physician strive for a clean, tight circumcision. Both the female and male victims of genital cutting have trouble relating their health problems to a normalized practice.

Over a broad spectrum of issues, I’m relatively anti-comparisons for political effect. Don’t call Bush Hitler — he’s evil in his own ways, thanks — and don’t call the oppression of Palestinians apartheid (I follow Friedman in this; call it its own thing, exile or nishul). Likewise, don’t say FGC and male circumcision are identical – like Hitler and Bush, both can be bad on their own.

This comparison is that rare beast that I do approve of. I feel comparisons are best when they work both accurately and at the gut. This table is written with a relatively light hand. By placing the words and attitudes of real people in tension with each other, Lightfoot-Klein allows the reader to see both realities and draw his or her own conclusions about the points on which they are comparable. There’s no need to create false equivalencies or to elide differences. Here, the differences are on the page and still the similarities sing — and they speak badly for those of us who live in a state with normalized infant male circumcision.

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21 Responses to In which I approve of a comparison between FGC and Male circumcision

  1. 1
    Barbara says:

    At a basic level of analysis, both procedures are a way of “placing” genders into culturally approved and generally very restrictive categories. Thus, FGM “contains” the sexuality of the female by, basically, eliminating the possibility of sexual pleasure. Male circumcision in contrast is a sign of acceptance and belonging, at least in most cultures that I know anything about the practice.

    That’s why male circumcision is so anomalous in the U.S., where there is no counterpart for female circumcision. In my snarkier moments, I would propose that the piercing of the ears of female infants is the closest equivalent.

    As to a post that was made yesterday regarding botched circumcisions, it’s important to keep in mind that the purpose of a procedure can be very different even if the results are equally catastrophic. Complications of many simple medical procedures are vastly more common in developing countries, where medical instruments are reused and antiseptic practice is not universal.

  2. 2
    Mandolin says:

    Thus, FGM “contains” the sexuality of the female by, basically, eliminating the possibility of sexual pleasure. Male circumcision in contrast is a sign of acceptance and belonging, at least in most cultures that I know anything about the practice.

    I would feel more comfortable about this assertion if the dialogue about female versus male circumcision were always substantively different in the societies that practice both. I’m pretty sure there are cultures (for instance, the Kikuyu) that view both as sustaining in-group viability.

    An overt motive for control of female sexuality is much more likely to occur in cultures that practice infibulation, as I understand it.

  3. 3
    Barbara says:

    It’s hard to generalize, that’s for sure. The practice of FGM that is most widely reported on involves significant cutting away of the clitoris. With or without infibulation this almost certainly makes much sexual activity less pleasurable. I am sure that it is viewed as an initiation rite by some cultures as well. These are probably more amenable to limiting the practice to make it more symbolic.

  4. 4
    Deborah says:

    My sense is that both FGM and male circumcision can be placed into the same container: Non-medically necessary surgeries on infants (usually unanesthesized) that mutilate the genitals.

    This doesn’t compare them, it puts them in the same group. That can be enlightening or helpful, or unenlightening and annoying. It really depends on the context.

    As another example, you can put Judaism, Islam, Wicca, and Latter Day Saints into the larger group “misunderstood minority religions in the U.S.” There’s certainly no reason to say these very divergent groups are alike, or that levels of prejudice and access are identical. Again, the comparison can enlighten, or it can demean.

  5. 5
    Anglofille says:

    I think this comparison is harmful to women and girls. I just had a post up about this on my blog and there was a big debate in the comment thread about it. First, the political context in which FGM and male circumcision happen are often vastly different. And I find it dismaying that whenever something bad happens to females, it only becomes legitimate when it can be compared to something equivalent that happens to males.

    Furthermore, most people do not look at male circumcision as something harmful. While it may indeed be very harmful, most people don’t think that it is, so these comparisons to FGM just make FGM seem like no big deal to many people. Go ahead and have an awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of male circumcision. But linking it to FGM just undermines efforts to protect women and girls.

  6. 6
    Elizabeth says:

    Am I remembering wrong, or is most FGC performed on older girls? The age ’9′ is sticking ou t in my head, but I’m not sure why.

  7. 7
    Barbara says:

    Yes, I was goint to comment earlier — circumcision is not always performed on infants, and FGM is rarely performed on infants.

    I agree that comparisons are unnecessary and most often used as a handy way of changing the discussion from harm done to women to focus on the relatively lesser harm done to males. There is nothing so disorienting as being in a discussion about domestic violence and having someone ask as a kind of gotcha whether the local shelter is willing to house male victims of domestic abuse.

    With the implication being that harm done to males should always and everywhere be at least equivalent if not the most important consideration on anybody’s agenda. Women never deserve their own issues.

    Okay, I’ll stop now.

  8. 8
    Brandy V. says:

    I’m sorry but… “scrape our girls clean”… ugh… that sounds like somebody taking a shaving razor and scraping all the skin off until all there is left are pelvic bones and string of meat. The very sentence makes me want to wretch and scoop these women and girls out of that country and buy them all vibrators.

    Western male circumcision definitely does not compare.

    But, maybe if you compared female genital mutilation with, say, genital mutilation of intersexuals, I might have agreed as well. Now that is a definite case of botching…

  9. 9
    Mandolin says:

    Comparisons to genital mutilation of intersexuals and to castration of men (still practiced involuntarily in some regions) are much more physically salient.

  10. 10
    Mandolin says:

    By the way, I wrote a very long informational post about FGC on this blog here: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/archives/2007/07/05/problematizing-legal-approaches-toward-stopping-fgs/

    It should answer questions about how the procedures are used in different cultures, and what meanings are created from them.

  11. 11
    Iggy says:

    Thank you for this post. I hate it when people respond to my attempts to show similarities in female and male circumcision with hostile admonishments that the two are nothing alike and can’t be compared. I don’t say they are exactly alike, and I would appreciate it if they would realize that they aren’t completely different (just like they aren’t completely the same).

    The only similarity I try to push is that both are cutting part of the genitals off of a kid without any immediate medial need. Regardless of the type of genitals, regardless of the amount of harm, regardless of the intentions of the adults, it’s not right to be cutting up healthy normal genitals. So in my opinion, you can’t outlaw one without outlawing both. You can’t allow one without allowing both. Saying one is bad and one is good takes some serious cognitive dissonance.

    That’s why at times I hijack American discussions of female genital cutting. I want our local genital cutting problems at home fixed before we try to go off fixing them in other countries.

  12. 12
    Barbara says:

    Because, you know, the problems of American men are SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT than the lives and health of foreign women. I mean, how does anybody live with themselves if they can’t see this?

  13. 13
    Mandolin says:

    “That’s why at times I hijack American discussions of female genital cutting. ”

    Please don’t do that. Among other things, it’s rude, and guarantees no one will take you seriously.

    On the other hand, this is a good place to make your argument.

  14. 14
    Iggy says:

    Yes. I don’t do hijack the FGM discussions much anymore. I learned my lesson from trial and error, so I’m posting here today.

    I’m not saying that American mens’ problems are more important than African women’s problems in a global sense, but I’m saying from the perspective of an American, that we should fix our local problems of the same type before taking the effort to fix it elsewhere. American men and African women both have the problem of adults cutting on their genitals before they are old enough to have control over it.

    Right now, USA looks like a big hypocrite telling Africans to stop cutting their vaginas and start cutting their penises (male circumcision as HIV prevention – whatever happened to condoms?). What I’m trying to say is that the Americans trying to stop female circumcision in Africa are having their cause harmed by the Americans trying to ramp up male circumcision in Africa and the Americans continuing male circumcision at home.

    Women’s problems are important. Men’s problems are important. Equality of the genders requires recognizing we both have problems, and when the problems are the same type, fit into the same container, we should fix them together.

  15. 15
    Barbara says:

    Having calmed down, let me say: could Iggy have proven my point any better? As a card carrying opponent of all circumcision, it’s totally up to me to determine whether I decide to spend more time and effort supporting women working to end FGM in their own cultures than I do opposing male circumcision in the U.S. I do not favor the circumcision of infant boys, but the injuriousness of the procedure is simply not the same in most instances. For the same reason, I would tread lightly in those places where the cutting of females is “trivial” rather than profound. I proceed based on the perceived urgency of the issue to the women involved, and the culturally imposed restrictions on their ability to end it.

  16. 16
    Mandolin says:

    “I proceed based on the perceived urgency of the issue to the women involved, and the culturally imposed restrictions on their ability to end it.”

    I would agree with this. To the extent that energies can’t be directed in multiple directions at once — it seems most important to work on ending infibulation, for instance.

  17. 17
    Iggy says:

    Then we’ll just have to disagree. You can work to stop FGM while I work to stop MGM.

    I also got worked up because your previous posts make it seem like you feel male circumcision is not worth opposing because the average male circumcision hurts less than the average female circumcision, thank you for clarifying that you do oppose it.

    To me, male circumcision is a pressing issue for its difference from female circumcision – most Americans not knowing that it’s medically unnecessary and at times harmful. If you go out on the street and ask 100 Americans, I bet 99 will oppose female circumcision, but only 20 or so will oppose male circumcision.

  18. 18
    Ampersand says:

    This is a case where there’s really no need to rank the issues, as long as everyone agrees that it’s legitimate for interested people to work on both issues.

    It’s not like people really choose what issues to focus on based on how objectively important they are; if that was how people worked, I doubt anyone would work on anything other than, I dunno, global warming.

  19. 19
    Mandolin says:

    “It’s not like people really choose what issues to focus on based on how objectively important they are; if that was how people worked, I doubt anyone would work on anything other than, I dunno, global warming.”

    Yeah, although I’ve argued before that I don’t think we benefit from talking about all forms of female genital cutting as if they’re indistinguishable. They require different forms of triage and cultural interaction.

    You’re right though that it’s not really relevant to the issue of what we work on first — because, of course, activists can and do multi-task.

  20. 20
    Mandolin says:

    “If you go out on the street and ask 100 Americans, I bet 99 will oppose female circumcision, but only 20 or so will oppose male circumcision.”

    Probably. :(

    My experience, which may not be represenatitve at all, is that there is progress being made with regards to the opposition to male circumcision. It seems like people are more aware of the fact that there are reasons to oppose it (even if they don’t agree with those reasons) than they were 10 years ago.

  21. 21
    Barbara says:

    “Then we’ll just have to disagree. You can work to stop FGM while I work to stop MGM.”

    I never said that I disagreed with your decision to devote your energies to opposing male circumcision — but I vehemently disagree with the following statements:

    “*I* want our local genital cutting problems at home fixed before *we* try to go off fixing them in other countries.

    AND

    “Equality of the genders requires recognizing we both have problems, and when the problems are the same type, fit into the same container, we should fix them together.”

    For me, FGM and male circumcision don’t fit in the same container, a legitimate point of disagreement that you seem unable to see. But aside from that, your first statement suggests that you think “we” [who is this we?] have to proceed according to “your” order of priorities. Do you even begin to understand how offensive that is?

    When I had the chance — that is, when I had a male child — I made sure he was not circumcised, everyone knows, and I defended it as vocally as was appropriate on pregnancy chat boards, and I still do.

    When I come here I read about issues (like transgendered) that I probably won’t actively do anything about. I don’t hijack those threads to whine about how “real women’s” issues are more important (others sometimes do). I can see how some people are motivated and well-placed to become transgender activists. It doesn’t offend me that they don’t see “my gender based issues” as the most important issues in the universe.