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Article 24, paragraph 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, of 20 Nov. 1989, stipulates:
The English language uses different terms to designate sexual mutilations. Generally, one speaks of circumcision for boys, and of circumcision, excision or infibulation (depending of the case) for girls. In this study, we shall use the terms male circumcision and female circumcision 4.
The legal Arabic jargon uses the word khitan for male circumcision and the term khafd or khifad for female circumcision. But the everyday language uses the term khitan for both mutilations. There is also taharah, meaning purification, these mutilations being said to be purificatory to their victims 5.
Female circumcision has triggered a passionate public debate in the West. Many national, non governmental, and international organizations are showing their concern 6. This debate has found somewhat of an echo in the Arab world. The feminist circles demand its abolition, while at the same time, the Muslim religious circles try as often as they can to justify female circumcision, only in the form called sunnah, which is said to be the one conforming to the tradition of Mohammed 7. But the Arabic juridical literature shows very little interest for this issue 8. The Arabic medical profession does not seem to be much interested either: constituted of a majority of men, its responsibility is to perpetuate social and moral values which are predominant in its society, thus blindfolding its members 9.
Contrary to female circumcision, male circumcision does not really interest anyone10. The debate on the topic is still taboo. This attitude can be observed in the previously mentioned article 24, paragraph 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In spite of a general wording, the preparatory studies prove that its authors had only female circumcision in mind and not male circumcision at all 11.
The distinction made between male circumcision and female circumcision might be justified for medical and cultural reasons. According to Wedad Zenie-Ziegler, an Egyptian woman:
Juridical logic cannot acknowledge the distinction between male and female circumcision, both being the mutilation of healthy organs and consequently damaging the physical integrity of the child, whatever the religious motivations lying underneath17.
Male circumcision is practiced by all Muslims and Jews and also by some Christians, as is the case for Christians in Egypt. It is also practiced by animist tribes in Africa.
As for female circumcision, it is neither practiced by all Muslims, nor by all Arabs. In fact, many if not most of the Maghreb countries as well as Turkey and Iran ignore this custom 18. On the other hand, one can find it among the Egyptian Christians19 and the Ethiopian Jews (Falachas) 20 who in all probability keep practicing it in Israel today, as do Africans living in France. Sudan (98%), Somalia (98%) and Egypt (75%) are among the largest Arabic countries practicing it. In Egypt, 97.5% of uneducated families impose circumcision upon their daughters compared to 66.2% of educated families 21. Other Arabic countries practice it too: Yemen, the United Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, some areas of Saudi Arabia, Mauritania. It appears to be done also in some Muslim countries of Asia such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and India under the name of sunnah circumcision, here with a reference to religion. But precise data on the subject are not available. In Africa, 28 countries appear to practice it, among them many animist tribes. It seems to affect about 75 million women 22.
Often, male or female circumcision is performed without anaesthesia in a barbaric manner, by persons without any medical training, such as barbers or midwives, using rudimentary instruments causing complications sometimes leading to death. We have many tragic testimonies on female circumcision but none on male circumcision as obviously nobody is interested. Still today, I can recall my youth and hear the screams coming from my young Muslim neighbours while they were being circumcised. Let us quote here the briefest and least shocking of the women's testimony, that of Samia, a Muslim girl born in a small Egyptian village close to the Sudanese border, who now lives in Cairo:
There are many different kinds of male circumcisions: The circumcision per se consisting of total or partial excision of the foreskin; phallectomy; castration; emasculation. Only the first kind is of interest to us due to its frequency and its ritual characteristics. The other three seem to be less common and we do not have enough information on them 24.
There are as well many different kinds of female circumcision:
Infibulation or pharaonic circumcision. It is practiced in Sudan and Somalia and involves the complete ablation of clitoris, labia minora and part of labia majora. The two sides of the vulva are then sewn together with silk or catgut stitches (Sudan) or with thorns (Somalia) in order to close the vulva, except a very small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual flow 28. On the wedding night, the groom will have to open his bride, more often than not with a double edged dagger. In some tribes, the woman is sewn back each time her husband goes travelling and is opened again each time he comes back. In case of divorce, the woman is sewn up to forbid her any possibility of intercourse 29.
1 This Convention came into effect on September 2, 1990.
2 Rapport sur les pratiques traditionnelles , Dakar, 1984, p. 85. The full name of this specific committee: Comit, inter-africain sur les pratiques traditionnelles ayant effet sur la sant, des femmes et des enfants .In 1984, its denomination was: Groupe de travail ONG sur les pratiques traditionnelles ayant effet sur la sant, des femmes et des enfants..
3 Rapport sur les pratiques traditionnelles , Addis Abeba, 1987, p. 77.
4 The term female circumcision is used by the WHO (World Health Organization). Its "position relative to female circumcision" was submitted in June 1982 to the United Nations Sub-Committee for Prevention of Discrimination against and Protection of Minorities, Workshop on Slavery. At the Conference on Traditional Practices, Addis Abeba, 1990, the delegates considered that the terms "female circumcision and excision could lead to confusion and possibly could not fully describe the different methods used for the practice". They recommended that they be replaced by female genital mutilations (Report on Traditional Practices, Addis Abeba, 1990, p.8).
5 Amin, Ahmad: Qamus al-'adat wal-taqalid wal-ta'abir al-masriyyah, Maktabat al-nahdah al-masriyyah, Cairo, 1992, p. 188.
6 Here are the most important organizations:
7 One should take note here that neither Rifa'ah Al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) nor Qassim Amin (1863-1908), two prominent personalities in the 19th-century fight for women's liberation, ever mentioned the issue of female circumcision.
8 I have studied many juridical works in Arabic relative to the penal code and to the protection of the child. Some of those papers devote a few lines to the phenomenon, drawing a line between excessive circumcision and minimal circumcision, the latter being considered a part of the prophetical sunnah (see for example Muhammad, Muhammad 'Abd-al-Gawwad: Himayat al-umumah wal-tufulah fil-mawathiq al-duwaliyyah wal-shari'ah al-islamiyyah, Mansha'at al-ma'arif, Alexandria, 1991, pp. 92 and 136-137). As customary in the Arab world, those works compare public international law to the Muslim law, stating that Muslim law preceded international documents in regard to the protection of the child (Ibid, pp. 15 and 251).
9 El-Saadawi, Nawal: The hidden face of Eve, Women in the Arab World, translated and edited by Sherif Hetata, Zed Press, London, 1980, p. 36.
10 Let us point out the three following associations which oppose male (and female) circumcision:
11 The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a guide to the "Travaux pr,paratoires", Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, London, 1992, p. 351.
12 Zenie Ziegler, Wedad: La face voil,e des femmes d'Egypte,, Mercure de France, Paris, 1985, pp. 139-140. See also Farah, Nadyah Ramsis (dir.): Hayat al-mar'ah wa-sihhatuha, Sina lil-nashr, Cairo, and Al-Saqr al-'arabi lil-ibda', Limassol, 1991, p. 37.
13 Report of the United Nations Seminar related to Traditional Practices affecting the Health of Women and Children, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Apr.29-May 3, 1991, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1991/48, Jun.12, 1991, p. 9.
14 El-Khayat-Bennai, Ghita: Le monde arabe au f,minin, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1985, p. 39.
15 Guidicelli-Delage, GeneviSve: Excision et droit p,nal, in Droit et Culture, Vol. 20, 1990 p. 203.
16 Conversation by phone on Jan.7, 1993.
17 On April 9,1981, the Belgian Department of Public Prosecutions declared male and female circumcision an assault on physical integrity and consequently contrary to the Belgian International Public Order; thus male circumcision should not be protected under the guarantee of freedom of religion. This decision was rejected by the Court of Appeal in Liege, which considered excision and infibulation to be of a different nature than male circumcision (without explaining how). Any physician who would practiced circumcision would be guaranteed medical immunity. However, the Court rejected a request from an Algerian father who wanted his son circumcised. The son, a minor, whose Belgian mother had been granted custody, had been baptised in the Catholic faith. In this specific case, the respect of the rights of the child demanded respect for his right to chose which ideology, religious or non-denominational, to embrace once he becomes an adult. (Revue trimestrielle de droit familial, 1982, pp. 331-334; Foblets, M.C.: Salem's circumcision, the encounter of cultures in a civil law action, a Belgian case-study, in Living Law in the Low Countries, special issue of the Dutch and Belgian Law and Society Journal, [1990?], pp. 42-56).
18 Gaudio, Attilio and Pelletier, Ren,e: Femmes d'Islam ou le sexe interdit, DenoSl/Gonthier, Paris, 1980, pp. 53-54.
19 Zenie-Ziegler: La face voil,e, op. cit., pp. 62 and 140.
20 Leslau, Wolf: Coutumes et croyances des Falachas (Juifs d'Abyssinie), Institut d'Ethnographie, Paris, 1957, p. 93.
21 El-Saadawi: The hidden, op. cit., p. 34.
22 Rapport sur les pratiques traditionnelles, Addis Abeba, 1990, p. 56; UNO, Economical and Social Council, E/CN.4/1986/42, Feb.4, 1986, p. 19.
23 Gaudio and Pelletier: Femmes, op. cit., p. 53. For other testimonies, see El-Saadawi: The hidden, op. cit., pp. 7-8 (She describes her own circumcision) and El-Masry, Youssef: Le drame sexuel de la femme dans l'Orient arabe, Laffont, Paris, 1962, pp. 39-44.
24 If one can trust unverified information, the Guards of the Holy Shrine of Islam in Saudi Arabia are said to be eunuchs. Where do they come from? Also the Israeli army in its repression of Palestinians often aims at their genitals. In a letter dated November 29, 1988, received by a priest in Jerusalem, one reads: "Witnesses often see the Army beating up boys on their private parts (lately in Ramallah and all around). The victims do not dare to talk too much about it, but they are not men any more, their mothers say. Isn't this a form of genocide ?" (Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, Sami A.: Discriminations contre les non-Juifs tant Chr,tiens que Musulmans en IsraSl, Pax Christi, Lausanne, 1992, p. 28).
25 El-Masry: Le drame sexuel, op. cit., pp. 46-47.
26 Ghawabi, Hamid Al-: Khitan al-banat bayn al-tib wal-islam, in Abd-al-Raziq, Abu-Bakr: Al-Khitan, ra'y al-din wal-'ilm fi khitan al-awlad wal-banat, Dar al-i'tissam, Cairo, 1989, p. 55.
27 Mahran, Maher: Les risques m,dicaux de l'excision (circoncision m,dicale), reprint of a paper published in Bulletin M,dical de l'IPPF, Vol.15, No.2, April 1981, p. 1.
28 Ibid., p. 1. See also the report of the WHO regional office for the Eastern Mediterranean, in Terre des Hommes: Les mutilations sexuelles f,minines inflig,es aux enfants , Press Conference of Terre des Hommes, Geneva, April 25, 1977, p. 9.
29 El-Saadawi: The hidden, op. cit., p. 40.
30 Report on Traditional Practices, Dakar, 1984, p. 61.
31 Terre des Hommes: les mutilations sexuelles, op. cit (intervention of Dr. Ahmad Abu-el-Futuh), p. 45.
32 Gaudio and Pelletier: Femmes, op. cit., p. 59.