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 ofJews 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 ofJews 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"

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.

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