Man has always applied on his body and the body of others all kinds of marks for all sorts of reasons, in truth contradictory: divine order, mortification, domination, beauty, punishment, identification, purification, check to sexuality, sexual excitement, fertility, marking of the offspring, song in choirs, etc. In this survey, we limit ourselves to male and female circumcision.
I) THE PRACTICE
Annually, about 15 millions of people are mutilated, thirteen millions are boys and two millions are girls. With each heartbeat, a child passes under the knife2.
Male circumcision is practiced in the five continents by about a billion of Moslems, three hundred millions of Christians, sixteen millions of Jews and an indeterminate number of animists and atheists.
Female circumcision was and continues to be practiced in the five continents by the Muslims, the Christians, the Jews, animists and atheists. But it is especially common in 28 countries, mainly African and Muslim3. In Egypt, brought on the foreground these days, 97% of women are circumcised: 99.5% in the countryside and 94% in urban areas4.
The Muslims are therefore the principal religious group that practice male and female circumcision. The latter is in expansion in the Asian Moslem countries under the effect of the Azhar that gives about hundred of scholarships to students coming of these countries. According to some informations, fundamentalist parties in Tunisia and Algeria are in favor of female circumcision while this practice is not known in these two countries.
2) Definition of male circumcision
Male circumcision consists of cutting, often without anesthesia, a smaller or bigger part (up to a third) of the skin (said foreskin) of the penis situated under the glans, sometimes damaging the “frenelum”.
Is Michelangelo’s David circumcised? Among Jews, the circumcision consisted initially in cutting a minute part of skin or to get a drop of blood from the penis (blood of the alliance). The present Jewish double practice to cut the maximum of skin (milah) and to pull the skin between the incision and the glans with a sharp finger nail (periah) was introduced in the second century of our era by rabbis, to prevent that the Jews hide their religious mark when faced with Greek-Roman hostility by pulling the skin of the penis above the glans. Lately, rabbis required redoing the circumcision of a young Hungarian who converted to Judaism and wanted to immigrate to Israel because the severed patch of skin was insufficient in their eyes5.
This debate is found among the Moslems. Some classical Moslem jurists are satisfied with a round cut of a small part of the foreskin. Others think that the circumcision must involve the entire foreskin in order to clear the glans completely. If the foreskin grows again to cover the glans, or if the circumcision is not complete, some Jewish and Moslem authors recommend redoing the circumcision. If the child was born without foreskin, the Jewish recommend to draw blood from the glans, and some Moslem propose to pass the knife on the site of the child's foreskin as a sign that divine command has been achieved6.
The circumcision among Jews is generally done at the eighth day. It is delayed in case of a health problem. The child is only spared if the mother already lost two, sometimes three other sons because of the circumcision7. One that converts to Judaism must undergo the circumcision even though he is older. If he is already circumcised, a drop of blood of his glans is drawn8. If a Jew dies and is not circumcised, one generally recommends circumcising him after his death9. With the Muslims, the circumcision must preferably been done at an early age, and inevitably before puberty. Blood will not be drawn of a circumcised man who converts to Islam. But as with the Jews, some Muslim jurists recommend to circumcise men who die without being circumcised10.
Circumcision among the Jews is accompanied with a religious ritual. The father does it, but he often delegates it to a specialized cleric called mohel, which can be a rabbi, rarely, a physician. Among the Muslims, there is less ritual, but some classical Shiites texts prescribe the recitation of a religious formula11. A barber, a professional or any physician does it. Among the Jews and the Muslims, festivities follow it.
In the United States, where the rate of circumcision among men is 60%, the medical body does the circumcision during the first days after birth, before leaving the maternity ward, often without anesthesia, without religious rituals and without festivities.
The cut foreskin has many uses. In certain tribes, it is served in the soup given to circumcised children, swallowed between two slices of banana by the father or the uncle of the circumcised child, worn on the finger by a family member like a wedding ring, or buried under a tree whose vigor foretells the child's vigor. In certain Jewish families, it is used against barrenness in women, or to insure the love of a husband while secretly making him eat it. In other families, the foreskin is dried up and is buried with the person who did the circumcision. In Syria, Muslims wrap it and put it before the door of a store. In Egypt, one throws it in the Nile. In modern medicine, it is used for the manufacture of hair oil, for medical research or for skin transplant (profitable market in the United States).
3) Definition of the female circumcision
Female circumcision consists of cutting, generally without anesthesia, partially or completely, the foreskin of the clitoris (anatomical equivalent of the foreskin of the penis) or the clitoris (anatomical equivalent of the glans of the penis). One speaks then of clitoridectomy or excision. Sometimes, the small and the big lips are also cut, partially or completely. In the infibulation, called a Pharaonic circumcision, the two sides of the vulva are sewn together with silk or catgut (in Sudan) suture or with thorns (in Somalia), so that the vulva is closed with the exception of a minuscule opening for the passage of urine and the menstrual flux12. During the wedding night, the husband should “open up” his wife, most often with the help of a dagger. In certain tribes, the woman is resewn after giving birth, if the husband leaves or in case of a divorce13.
One often finds the expression of Sunni circumcision (in conformity with the tradition of Mohammed). According to the classic authors, it consists of cutting the “skin in the shape of a pit which is at the top of the organ and that resembles the crest of a rooster”. One must therefore cut the protuberant epidermis, without complete ablation. This indication does not tell us if is about the hood of the clitoris, about the clitoris itself or about both as it happens in practice.
There is not any precise age for the female circumcision. It can vary from some months to 16 years. In certain Muslim settings, one recommends the woman be circumcised in case of conversion to Islam. A traditional midwife (daya) or a barber generally makes the circumcision, sometimes by the medical body. The operation rarely comes with festivities.
The severed skin of the female sex knows a fate similar to the male foreskin, with less imagination. The girl around the neck as a talisman sometimes carries it. In Egypt, one throws it in the Nile. Some have concluded that the circumcision derives from the ancient practice of sacrificing girls to get favors from the Nile.
4) Circumcision of the hermaphrodite
Jewish authors debate the circumcision of the hermaphrodite, a person having two sexes14. Muslim authors wonder if it is necessary to circumcise the two organs, to limit it to the organ that urinates, or to wait until one knows which one predominates to circumcise it. To be safe, modern Egyptian author Al-Sukkari, chooses to cut the two organs in order to avoid a mistake15.