Monday, March 9, 2009

Circumcision and Binary Distinctions

Alice C. Linsley

How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.
I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof...

--Song of Solomon, Chapter 7:6-8

In November 1982, Anthropologist Janice Boddy's fascinating essay on Pharaonic circumcision appeared in American Ethnologist. The essay was titled "Womb as Oasis: The symbolic context of Pharaonic circumcision in rural Northern Sudan" (Vol.9, pgs. 682-698). Here Boddy sets forth her research on Pharaonic circumcision among the Sudanese.  Circumcision appears to have originated among the ancient Kushites. Sudan was part of ancient Kush and Abraham's ancestors came from this part of Africa.

In Pharaonic circumcision, the clitoris and labia minora are removed. Then the labia majora is sewn closed, leaving a small opening at the vulva for the release of urine and menstrual blood. Among the Sudanese this practice of female circumcision parallels the circumcision of males and emphasizes the binary distinction between females and males.

Boddy explains: "In this society women do not achieve social recognition by becoming like men, but by becoming less like men physically, sexually, and socially. Male as well as female circumcision rites stress this complementarity. Through their own operation, performed at roughly the same age as when girls are circumcised (between five and ten years), boys become less like women: while the female reproductive organs are covered, that of the male is uncovered. Circumcision, then, accomplishes the social definition of a child's sex by removing physical characteristics deemed appropriate to his or her opposite: the clitoris and other external genitalia, in the case of females, the prepuce of the penis, in the case of males" (Boddy, pg. 688).

The Afro-Asiatic worldview maintains binary opposites. The complementarity of the opposites is evident only when their distinctions are clear. So it is important that women become less like men and men less like women. The lingam (male organ) and yoni (female organ) of Hinduism represent the eastern expression of the Afro-Asiatic worldview. Both are displayed in Hinudism. However, in the western Afro-Asiatic tradition, phallic pillars such as the one shown at right are displayed, but the female organ is never shown. It covered or hidden. This fits the binary distinction between revealed and hidden found in Genesis. It also fits the Sudanese view of the complementarity of gender roles which assigns firm structure to males and softness and fluidity to females.

It is likely that among Abraham's ancestors (Horim) both males and females were circumcised among the ruling classes. That the female reproductive organ is not mentioned in the Bible is not surprising. The female organ was not represented among the ancient Horim. Neolithic fertility symbols are often associated with female imagery among the other peoples, but at Kfar HaHoresh, for example, only phallic figurines have been found.

Gender Roles as Complementary

The Sudanese who practice Pharaonic circumcision believe that the fetus is formed from the union of a man's seeds with his wife's blood. Sexual intercourse causes the woman's blood to thicken or coagulate and she ceases menstruation until after the baby's birth. In their thinking, the child receives its bones from its father and its flesh and blood from its mother. This reflects their observation of the roles that males and females play in society. As Carol Gilligan also observed in her book In a Different Voice, males insist on rules and structure. It is from them that a society receives its rigidity (bones). It is through women that it receives fluidity and integration (its blood and flesh) (Boddy, pg. 692).

As the Sudanese believe that life is in the blood, it is especially important for the women of their society to conduct themselves as women. Boddy explains, “In Sudan, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, a family's dignity and honor are vested in the conduct of its womenfolk" (Boddy, pg. 686). Femininity is stressed and Pharaonic circumcision is seen as an enhancement of the woman’s femininity, potential fertility and purity.

Likewise male circumcision was seen as an enhancement of maleness. The complement to the circumcised male could only be a circumcised female.

Even today African men boast of their sexual strength and are careful about not spilling their seed. As Laura Bohannan discovered when she attempted to tell the story of Hamlet to a group of West African men, the chief is to have more than one wife so that his seed will "build up his house". He is grateful to the wife who bears him many children.

This also explains why barrenness is such a pitiable condition among the women of Genesis. Those unable to bear children were perceived as less than fully female. The woman's lack of fruit implies a deficiency of femaleness. Sarah's lament over not being able to have children was met by the divine promise that she would bring forth a son in her old age. This promise came after years of sorrow and humiliation, and though Sarah finally bore a son, she would not have seen herself as Abraham's perfect complement - not when his other cousin wife, Keturah, bore him 6 sons.

We understand something of Rachel's grief in not being as fruitful as her sister. Though she was clearly loved by Jacob, this was not sufficient to console her. It was Leah, the one less loved of Jacob, who proved most fruitful and therefore a perfect complement to Jacob.

Fertility and the Date Palm

Among Abraham's people, the traditional cure for sterility was to place a date from the date palm (tamar) in the vagina of the barren women. The date nut (below) and coconut (shown right) resemble the vagina and the womb. The date palm was known from the first Pharaonic dynasties and among Abraham's people was a symbol of fertility.

The oasis or well is the natural habitat of date palms and also the place where unmarried men could met unmarried women. Abraham met Keturah at the Well of Sheba (Beersheba) and Moses met his future wife at a well or oasis frequented by Midianites.

Female circumcision is practiced in rural areas of Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Nigeria and Niger. According to a 2002 study done in Nigeria, female circumcision does not reduce sexual activity and circumcised females experience sexual arousal and orgasm as frequently as uncircumcised. However, circumcised females are more likely to find husbands of standing. Uncircumcised females are regarded as loose women, just as the Jews regarded the uncircumcised as unclean.

Here are some first-hand conversations that express the respect and gratitude felt toward circumcised mothers in Africa.

A Somali man said: “You had better treat your mother with more respect, boy! A circumcised woman! A woman whose womb has brought forth three sons into this family! That is a circumcised woman, my son, not some loose woman who can be treated as of little account. Without her, this family would have no one to pass along the name! Now you listen: you start giving her gifts, you cast your eyes down when she enters a room; do you hear me?”

A Sudanese man said: “Is this how you speak to your sister-in-law? Have you forgotten that she is circumcised? If this is how you treat circumcised women, then does your own family mean nothing to you?"

Related reading:  Circumcision Among Abraham's People; Binary Distinctions and Kenosis; Blood and Binary Distinctions; Binary Sets in the Ancient World


Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting and enlightening article! Maybe we in the West should think twice before calling someone else's traditions "mutilation."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Indeed, Angela!

Hugh7 said...

But you are both making a false binary distinction. Female genital cutting can have the cultural significance you ascribe to it AND be a mutilation and a breach of human rights. (So can male genital cutting.) There are many traditions with deep cultural significance that we now unequivocally condemn - suttee, human sacrifice, slavery, child marriage, foot-binding, to name but a few. Genital cutting is no different. The only real difference is that those others are now (mostly) in the past, their defenders dead.

Alice C. Linsley said...

I didn't makes this distinction, Hugh. Circumcision reflects a worldview that sees these binary opposites in creation. The world view of binary opposites probably originated in ancient Nubia and went from there to Egypt.

Groups that seek to eliminate circumcision do what you have done: lump this with practices that are unrelated. I wonder sometimes what is behind this push to destroy a cultural pattern? Is it another form of cultural imperialism?

I am not defending the practice, only suspicious of the motives of people and organizations workig to eliminate circumcision.

Hugh7 said...

I understand the binary distinction you are talking about, but it is one imposed by those peoples. What do they do when an intersexed child is born? (What we do is bad enough.)

The false distinction I was referring to was between a culturally significant practice and a mutilative human rights abuse. Genital cutting can be both.

The detachment of cultural relativism is appropriate when studying anthropology. Yet by almost any standard I can think of, a society that does not practice, say, human sacrifice is measurably a better society than one that does, and the latter cultural pattern should by any ethical means be transormed into the former. You may call that outlook "cultural imperialism", but I don't see any alternative to it for a humane person.

The central issue that unites those practices is that the culture imposes them on individuals, usually regardless of the individuals' informed consent. I have no issue with adults consenting to their own genital cutting, or even, I guess, their own suttee (though I would be very doubtful about the authenticity of their consent), but I draw the line at doing any of those things to children. I see no need to respect the rights of any community (an amorphous entity with no centre you can address, and no responsibility) over those of its individual members.

Why do you question the motives of people like me who want to protect children from having parts cut off? In any other context our motives would be self-evident and universally applauded. Why don't you question the motives of the many people (some in positions of power, in our own society) who are so desperately keen to cut parts off the genitals of children?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Hugh 100%. Just because something is a "tradition" or part of a culture does not mean that it is right. Look at the people of the Peace Child story. They just about destroyed their whole civilization because of the warfare between groups. Some would also say that we should not impose Christianity to others because they have their own culture. It is also a reason that people won't change or even look at what their culture is saying - "we've always done it this way."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Circumcision is but one of many expressions of the binary worldview of the ancient Afro-Asiatics. It is a worldview which prepared the ground for astronomy, philosophy, geometry, chemistry, architecture, computer science, and many other disciplines. Our civiization is built upon this foundation.

You are political quite correct in your antagonism and tone. Taking such a stance actually leads to ignorance since you've closed your mind to consideration of what circumcision symbolizes. Bias that causes us to ignore or misconstrue profound symbolism feeds ignorance.

Hugh and Anonymous, kindly take your passion to another blog where your concerns are shared. This is NOT the place for debate about circumcision - male or female.

Eldro said...

In regards to Hugh's argument, you must understand over your own ignorance that you are imposing cultural and moral prejudices on an alien culture. I do not believe in circumcision myself, did not circumcise any of my sons and would even support legislature to prevent male or female circumcision in our society. But every society creates its own rules and nothing can be 'right' or 'wrong' universally and objectively, including human sacrifice even. That culture which you see as oppressive and violating human rights, is not an amorphous entity but is rather the only provider of 'human rights' that its members have, and of necessity will restrict and compromise their personal freedom. Open-minded anthropology looks at a culture's values from their own perspective, not from ours'.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Well, Eldro, you may get your wish:

Will they outlaw infant Baptisms next? In Baptism we die with Christ.

Aviyah said...

G-d has already made male and female opposite, naturally. The male circumcision at 8 days not only marks a difference between those in covenant with G-d and those who aren't, but it has well known health advantages according to the field of medicine.

The feelings or tradition of a particular society does not make them correct.

Female mutilation neither benefits the woman's health or sexual pleasure, nor is it a mitzvot in the Torah.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Circumcision of both males and females originated in Sudan and is older than Judaism. It is another aspect of the binary set male-female. I'm not endorsing circumcision, but I'm also not in favor of calling the circumcision of females genital mutilation. This misrepresents the practice. Nobody would think to call male circumcision "genital mutilation."

Anonymous said...

Gondwanaland too! People tend to forget about the land of the dreamtime lore. Excerpt from an indigenous publication:

"Call me Myongo. I am what modern people call an "aborigine" of Australia. Before my ancestor's land was raided by outsiders, we lived in peace with the land and our Gods. Times have changed, and those who have overtaken the land do not respect or understand our ways or culture. This is the reality we face every day, and we must fight to keep our culture and tradition alive.

Most outsiders do not understand or appreciate our customs or spiritual ceremonies. We are labeled as "primitive" and are assumed to be unenlightened. One must understand, however, that our rites and ceremonies have a deep and profound spiritual meaning. They must not be seen from a Western or European viewpoint; they must be respected as a vital part of our spirituality and culture.

This being said and understood, I would like to introduce one important ceremony from my people. It may be a sensitive topic for those who have been educated by the Western systems, yet it remains a normal and sacred part of the evolution of a man from my area. It is the significant rite of Subincision.

The initiation of a young boy into the spiritual life has many phases. A boy must be circumcised - this is one of the first and most basic ceremonies that bring a boy into the spiritual and adult life. A few years after this process, a boy continues on his initiatic path to the subincision rite. This is a very sacred and spiritual ceremony, and the laws of the spiritual initiation do not allow me to share the full meanings and significance behind this event. In fact, a young man who is passing through this time in his life is taken into seculsion, away from the eyes of the village and, especially, the women (a woman must never hear of or witness the male initiation rites or ceremonies, as it is "man's business". Similarly, men do not witness or take part in female initiation rites, as it is "women's business").

The operation itself, when performed, takes about ten minutes. The young man is placed on a human "table" - older men taking part in the ceremony are placed on the backs of local and visitor participants, forming a human platform for the operation. The young man is given a boomerang to help with any pain he might experience during the ceremony. As the underside of his sex is cut, his urethra is also severed. After the operation, the young man stands over a ceremonial fire, allowing the blood from the operation to drip into it.

Later in their lives, many men go through the subincision ceremony again, having their subincision lengthened. This usually takes place at subincision ceremonies in which younger men are getting their first subincision - a special ceremony is not usually required for an older man. Again, the reasons behind the ceremony are purely spiritual reasons which I am not permitted to share.

The introduction of Western culture, ideologies, and values has had an impact on this ritual. Many outsiders cannot understand the significance and sacredness of our traditional ceremonies, and there is great pressure to stop performing our rites. Meanwhile, those who are fighting to keep the traditional life, spirituality, and culture perform initiation rites and spiritual ceremonies, holding fast to our deeply holy spiritual knowledge and practices. It is not for those who do not understand to judge the morality of our ceremonies and culture."

Alice Linsley said...

When I was in Australia 3 years ago, I sensed the great antiquity of the symbolism on the Aboriginal peoples. I was on the edge of a city at a retreat center that stood high on a hill. I could see where the great wilderness began in the distance and I wondered about the Red Ocher Men.

The oldest blood rites are binary and the shedding of blood is always a solemn offering. Respect for the Creator and respect for the blood go hand in hand.