Janice Turner is one of numerous feminist columnists in The Times, the newspaper to which I subscribe anyway, there being no UK newspapers uninfected by feminists. She married Ben Preston, also a feminist, executive editor of The Sunday Times, a former editor of the Radio Times, and a former deputy editor of The Times. Ben won our Toady award whilst at the Radio Times.
A piece in today’s edition (emphases ours) below. Subscribers can read the piece and the interesting comments stream online here.
When a Jewish friend of mine was circumcised as an infant, the rabbi’s blade slipped, he lost blood, was taken to hospital and almost died. When his own son was born, my friend and his gentile wife debated circumcision at length before demurring: “It just felt barbaric.” Yet when I ask if he’d ban the practice, as is now proposed in Iceland, he instantly says no: “It is the mark of my tribe.”
I tell his story not to suggest hypocrisy but to show how a person can contain within them two conflicting ideas. My friend is an atheist and a Jew: the Enlightenment belief in freeing human minds and bodies from religious doctrine sits within him alongside a deeper, atavistic desire to share ancestral rites. But how can you reconcile them when the ritual involves slicing a piece off a newborn child?
The legislation before the Icelandic parliament would extend the law on female genital mutilation (FGM), basically exchanging the word “girl” for “child” and keeping the same maximum six-year jail sentence. In physical terms it is a false equivalence. At its most extreme, FGM involves the removal of the clitoris and the virtual sewing up of the vagina, whereas male circumcision removes only the foreskin. The former can make sex pleasureless and even unendurable for life; the other has few, minor reported downsides.
Yet as a feminist I oppose many far less extreme religious practices which limit the freedom of women: from tribes that banish menstruating girls to forcible covering with veils. Circumcision is virtually the only one that specifically affects men. If inflicting an unnecessary medical procedure upon girls is wrong, why not boys?
Jewish and Muslim leaders assure us circumcision involves a tiny piece of skin being removed with a momentary sting, now done expertly not by fumbling clerics. It delivers a male baby into an ancient tradition at little physical cost. Yet I have heard — once voiced by The Economist — a similar argument about FGM. Instead of trying (and in some countries failing) to wipe out the most extreme version, campaigners should facilitate the mildest type. A “symbolic nick” from a health worker on a little girl’s genitals, keeping them away from village huts and major surgery with rusty razor blades. Then they too could enter an ancient tradition with little harm. Are rabbis and imams fine with that too?
How much latitude religious parents should have over their children’s bodies is the battle of our age. At St Stephen’s School in Newham, east London, the Muslim head and governors banned the hijab for girls under eight, and fasting for young children — neither Koranic requirements — in an attempt to keep conservative Islam out of the classroom. But after a fierce online campaign, claiming a breach of parental rights, the school was forced to back down. Religious identity trumped the secular state.
In Iceland, this fight will be waged over a fragment of skin. The law is proposed by the centrist Progressive Party [J4MB: It’s not centrist, it’s leftist. The clue is in the name. This alone makes this article’s headline preposterous.] whose leader Silja Dogg Gunnarsdottir invokes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says countries should ban practices prejudicial to the health of children. Clear-thinking, rationalist Iceland, with a tiny homogenous, mainly Lutheran population of 350,000, is among the most equal societies on earth, has criminalised sex-buying as inherently exploitative and almost eliminated the gender pay gap. It breezily eradicates regressive practices, uninhibited by hand-wringing and liberal shibboleths.
But circumcision, say faith leaders, is a proxy war: what the government seeks is to restrict Muslim immigration. If passed, similar legislation will be picked up by Sweden, Norway and Denmark, all with a growing far right hostile to Muslims. As an Icelandic rabbi says, “we the Jews are the collateral damage”. Likewise in Britain, kosher butchery was practised unnoticed for centuries until it was caught in the cultural crossfire over ritual slaughter, as anti-Islamic feeling manifested itself in fury about halal.
Banning circumcision will be highly effective in making Jews and Muslims feel unwelcome, criminalise an ancient practice and turn established communities into outsiders. The law is being pursued without consultation with religious groups. [J4MB: If true, possibly because consultation would be utterly pointless?] No one yet knows how it will be policed and whether parents will be prosecuted if they take their sons abroad.
My view, torn both ways like my friend, is that male circumcision is wholly different to the “little nick” of “symbolic” FGM: it has a discrete objective, while girls are left with indiscriminate slashes. Moreover male circumcision began as a hot-climate hygiene practice designed to improve sexual health and virility, whereas the whole purpose of FGM is to hobble “dangerous” female desire. [J4MB: Feminist myth.]
Male circumcision is, however, still hard to defend. Religious groups would be better respected if they kept their ritual knives away from babies. Already there is a small shift in reform Judaism to introduce naming ceremonies instead. I don’t know how any mother who has beheld her newborn son’s delicate mushroom could let it near a sharp object. But Jewish and Muslim women face family and religious opprobrium if they speak out. In 2016, a non-Muslim mother took her Muslim husband to court to prevent him from circumcising their sons.
Since the NHS refuses to perform religious circumcision, [J4MB: On the contrary, the NHS performs plenty of them] campaigners would do better to set down protocols on how it should be practised and by whom, before advocating a ban. Because life is complicated: tradition and science, reason and faith battle in the heart. [J4MB: Apparently “life is complicated” with respect to MGM, but not FGM.] “I am both proud to share this ritual with all my forefathers,” says my friend. “And hopeful it will die out.”
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