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Article 24, paragraph 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, of 20 Nov. 1989, stipulates:

    States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children1.
 In 1984, the President of the Inter-African Committee stated:
    An erroneous idea of Religion has played a key role in maintaining the practice of excision and other practices which tend to relegate the woman to a lower status in relation to the man 2.
In April 1987, the Vice-President of the Inter-African Committee reiterated:
    I request more aggressive tactics to put an end to the practice of infibulation. I call for more active support especially from the religious leaders of Islam after it has been confirmed many times that this practice is contrary to the precept of Islam 3.
In this Committee's opinion, religion and Muslim religious leaders play an important role in the matter of female circumcision. The goal of this study is to define this role in male circumcision as well as in female circumcision. We shall on purpose avoid any use of the word Islam, as too abstract a notion, and we shall concentrate on the written sources of Muslim law and the opinions of contemporary Arab authors, mostly of Egyptian origin.



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:

    There is no similarity between male circumcision, a prophylactic measure recommended for boys in almost every society and female circumcision, the goal of which is to diminish, if not suppress sexual desire in women 12. During the UN Seminar in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), the majority of participants agreed that the justifications of female circumcision based on cosmogony and those based on religion "must be assimilated to superstition and denounced as such" since "neither the Bible, nor the Koran recommend that women be excised". They recommend ensuring that, in the minds of people, male circumcision and female circumcision be dissociated, the former as a procedure for hygienic purposes, the latter, excision, as a serious form of assault on the women's physical integrity 13. This reasoning is groundless and extremely dangerous. If female circumcision was in the Bible or the Koran, would it be allowed no matter what? And if one decided to put into practice everything that is said in the Bible and the Koran, starting with the law of retaliation?!
Another opinion came from Ghita El-Khayat-Bennai, a Moroccan woman:
    Women are not alone in being subjected to sexual mutilations. Every Jew all over the world for example is circumcised on the 7th day without much concern on the part of his parents. They keep circumcising their male offspring, even knowing this to be an extremely traumatic event, preferring to subject the little boy to pain rather than face their own fear and cultural taboos as adults 14.
Genevieve Giudicelli-Delage writes:
    No doubt the consequences are of lesser importance in male circumcision than they are in female excision (although some practices of minimal excision could be seen as identical to male circumcision). But nevertheless, to take a position in view of consequences alone would be a mistake. Custom justifies the most serious actions, even death: the essential here is not action, but culture. If a family from Mali may in France have a son circumcised, but may not have a daughter excised, it is because male circumcision belongs to a cultural order which is more or less ours, male circumcision belongs to this Judeo-Christian ideology which is the melting pot of our culture and this ideology does not know excision and never did15.
For Doctor Gerard Zwang, the reason for making a distinction between the two types of circumcision is simple: most sexologists and most men in charge of information about it are circumcised [Jews]. They oppose any debate on the subject of male circumcision16.

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:

    I was seven years old when I was excised. I recall the stories from women of my village who spoke of this operation as if their whole life had stopped there and then. The atrocity of their descriptions and at the same time a feeling of inescapable doom had triggered such a panic in me that when the terror-laden day came, I began to vomit. What happened then is still excruciatingly burning my flesh, so much so that I often wake up in the middle of the night screaming and calling for my mother 23.
Generally the victim is mutilated without anaesthesia, lying on her back, legs kept wide apart by helpers or by one only lying under the young girl, her ankles being hooked in the helper's feet. To immobilize a 7 years old, you sometimes need the help of 5 persons to restrain her head, arms and legs. When the girl is a toddler, one assistant alone can manage body and thighs at the same time, while holding her in a sitting position.
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:

    The female circumcision called sunnah or according to the tradition of Mohammed. The religious circles in favour of this type of female circumcision do not always give details on what is done. According to a classical author, Al-Mawardi, "it is limited to cutting off the skin in the shape of a kernel located above the genitalia. One must cut the protruding epidermis without performing a complete ablation" 25. For Doctor Hamid Al-Ghawabi, it is the ablation of the clitoris as well as labia minora 26. According to Doctor Mahran, the hood of the clitoris is excised as well as the most important parts of the labia minora 27.
    Clitoridectomy or excision. It consists of the ablation of the clitoris as well as labia minora. It is the operation of choice in Egypt.

    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.

 Let us mention that in the West, female circumcision and especially infibulation were performed in the past. One of those chastity belts was made by passing rings in the labia and vulva, wiring them shut or closing them with a lock, the key of which was kept by the husband especially when going away 30. In Russia, the Skopotzy (circumcisers) who are Christians, have practiced infibulation to insure perpetual virginity: they call upon Matthew 19:12: "... and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" 31. A particular type of female circumcision practiced by the Kikuyu tribes in Kenya is said to be performed today in some of the hospitals in Paris to accentuate the pleasure potential in some women of the upper class of society. The clitoris is disengaged and pulled back inside the vagina. Such a practice is said to add to women's sexual pleasure 32.
 Go to Chapter 2
Index | Chapter1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Conclusion


      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:
      • Sentinelles, 10 chemin du Languedoc, Lausanne, Switzerland, Tel. (021) 6173838. Founded in 1980 by  Edmond Kaiser, founder of Terre des Hommes. This former organization inaugurated a campaign against female genital mutilations with a press conference held in Geneva on April 25, 1977. This campaign is being kept alive by Sentinelles.
      • Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices affecting Women's and Children's Health. President: Mrs. Berhane Ras-Work, 147 rue de Lausanne, 1202 Geneva, Switzerland, Tel: (022) 7312420. Founded in 1984, this committee represents 23 African national committees.
      • WHO , Dr. Leila Mehra, Chief Family Planning and Population, Division of Family Health, 20, avenue Appia, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland, Tel: (022) 7913357.
      • Center for Human Rights, Service for Legislation and Prevention of Discrimination, Mr. Doglo Daniel Atchebro, Bureau D 416, Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, Tel: (022) 9173410.
      • UNICEF, Mrs. Marie-Pierre Poirier, Public Affairs Officer NGO, 16 avenue de Tremblay, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland, Tel: (022) 7910823.
      I wish to express my gratitude to these organizations for their support and encouragement in the preparation of this study.

      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:
      • Association contre la Mutilation des Enfants , 50 boulevard Jean JaurŠs, 92100 Boulogne (P.O.Box 220, 92108 Boulogne Cedex), France, Tel: 33 (1) 48 25 79 56. In line with organizations opposed to female circumcision, this organization has produced a video cassette on this form of child abuse by means of this unjustified surgical procedure.
      • National Organization of Circumcision Centers (NOCIRC), P.O.Box 2512, San Anselmo, CA 94979-2512, U.S.A., Tel: (415) 488 9883.
      • End the Horror of Infant Circumcision (E.T.H.I.C.): founder: Bettie Malofie, 1989. P.O.Box 42526, 1005 Columbia Street, New Westminster, B.C., V3M 6H5, Canada.

      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, GeneviŠve: 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, DenoŠl/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 IsraŠl, 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.