When I write about the ritual infant circumcision of boys, I try to avoid lazy and crass comparisons to female genital mutilation. FGM, in the form of clitoridectomy (as commonly practised in countries like Somalia), is a horrific procedure that causes unfathomable pain and trauma at the time it is conducted, followed by lifelong sexual pain and dysfunction. There is no question that the physical impacts and health risks of FGM are genuinely incomparable to those of male circumcision, or to give it a less euphemistic description, ritual male genital mutilation.
So making trite comparisons between FGM and MGM is unhelpful and obscures differences. It is often unhelpful to even hint at comparisons. That is why I was appalled and repulsed by Lynne Featherstone MP, who at the Lib Dem Conference today used the exact inverse analogy to make a rhetorical point.:
“It’s a practice that has been going 4,000 years and, without wishing to be crude about this, quite frankly if it was boys’ willies that were being cut off without anaesthetic it wouldn’t have lasted four minutes, let alone 4,000 years.”
I’m guessing that Featherstone has never sat in a court and listened to testimony describing an untrained practitioner taking a pair of kitchen scissors to the penis of a four-week old boy, without anaesthetic, dabbing it with olive oil and then leaving him to bleed to death. I have. When I read her words, the first image that flooded my mind were those vivid descriptions of the death of Goodluck Caubergs in Manchester last year.
Perhaps Lynne Featherstone has never heard of Angelo Ofori-Mintah who died in London, aged 28 days, after a Rabbi told his parents to daub his uncongealed wound with Vaseline. He lost three quarters of his blood before he died of cardiac arrest. Perhaps she hasn’t heard of the baby in Bristol who suffered a fractured skull after falling off a table during a home circumcision. She may not know that Manchester children’s hospital treats an average of three babies a month with botched circumcision wounds, she may not know that 45% of babies circumcised at an Islamic school in Oxford suffered medical complications. She may not know that well over 100 baby boys die from complications after circumcision every year in the USA alone. While her eyes are on Somalia, she may have missed the story from South Africa where 30 boys died in one province alone during the “circumcision season”, with another 300 hospitalised with dehydration, gangrene and septic wounds, at least ten of whom had to have their penises amputated.
The truth is that nobody has got a clue what the true global toll of death and injury from male circumcision might be, because global bodies such as the World Health Organisation make no efforts to find out. With around 30% of the world’s baby boys being circumcised every year, many in countries with minimal medical care, it is likely to be in the tens of thousands at the least.
Yes, the probabilities of mortality or morbidity following female genital mutilation are certainly far higher. However the other side of that coin is that while FGM is prohibited and abhorred in all but a handful of cultures on earth, male circumcision is tolerated and encouraged. Around one in four baby boys born on the planet this year will be subjected to an unnecessary ritual mutilation, the overwhelming proportion of which will be carried out without anaesthetic and not under surgical conditions.
Featherstone said she didn’t want to be “crude” and in that, I suspect she meant by using the word “willies.” Her crudeness is not in her vocabulary, it is in the grossly tasteless indifference and ignorance she shows to the fact that for 4,000 years we have indeed been taking knives to baby boys’ willies, countless numbers have died as a result, innumerable more have suffered botched mutilations, sexual dysfunction, pain and suffering, and rather than “putting a stop to it in four minutes” we have turned our backs, averted our eyes to the blood, closed our ears to the screams and let it happen.