Wow, I rarely find myself disagreeing with PZ, Melissa, and Samhita, but I have to say that I don’t really see the problem with the American Academy of Pediatrics advising doctors to offer a “ritual nick” in lieu of the more serious forms of female circumcision that are often on offer in some other parts of the world. The practice is something that is done in modern places that want to have a link to tradition without actually doing any real harm to little girls, from what I understand. All they do is prick your genitals, or make a small cut that heals over, but nothing is removed. You’re basically scratching the girl. It’s not awesome—and from what I understand, in some places they just wave the razor over the girl’s genitals but don’t touch her at all—but comparing it to more severe forms of female circumcision troubles me.
People do this sort of thing all the time, and usually they get applauded for it. They realize a religious or cultural tradition is backwards—silly at best, oppressive at worst—and they’re faced with a choice. Do they abandon their heritage, or do they compromise? Obviously, being a big time atheist, I wish people abandoned their traditions more, but as someone who still gets a kick out of Christmas, I understand the urge to hang on to some stuff. Doctors offering a relatively harmless, ritualistic alternative to more severe cutting could go a long way towards encouraging the view of it as merely a ritual, and not something that has to produce long-term damage to count.
PZ titles his post “Whatever happened to ‘first, do no harm’?” This is where I’m forced to jump in and point out that pediatricians mutilate genitals in a far more severe way all the time, and no one bats an eyelash. Obviously, I’m referring to the more common form of circumcision performed in the U.S., where the foreskin of baby boys is removed. This is far more dangerous and disfiguring than the little nick I suspect the AAP is talking about, and since it’s done on babies (I’m guessing the little girls involved in the ritual nicking will be a little older, which is usually tradition), the chances of botching it are way higher, since we’re talking very tiny penises. Babies have had the heads of their penises cut off, or have lost the organ altogether. Granted, botching is rare, but even one botched circumcision is too high a price to pay for what is a useless practice done in the name of tradition.
And yet, I don’t blame pediatricians for offering it. Why? Because of the reasons the AAP suggested they should offer ritual nicking of girls—it builds trust through cultural sensitivity. And it’s safer than letting people take the practice underground. Maybe doctors could try to eradicate the practice through refusing to offer it, but I suspect more than a few Jewish Americans would feel like they’re facing prejudice due to their religious traditions.
The argument against the ritual nicking is that mothers who’ve been defending their daughters against fathers who demand circumcision will now be forced to give in. But that cuts both ways (pardon the pun). I suspect in as many or more situations where there’s a struggle, this compromise will allow both spouses to back down, with no real damage to the little girl. Again, part of me wants a feminist riot of women around the world, wherein we stop dealing with men altogether until they start acting right, but the realist in me knows that’s simply not the way that change happens. Turning an actual mutilation into a ritual hinting is a strong step in the right direction, though. This is in fact part of the reasoning:
In some countries in which FGC is common, some progress toward eradication or amelioration has been made by substituting ritual “nicks” for more severe forms…..
Most forms of FGC are decidedly harmful, and pediatricians should decline to perform them, even in the absence of any legal constraints. However, the ritual nick suggested by some pediatricians is not physically harmful and is much less extensive than routine newborn male genital cutting. There is reason to believe that offering such a compromise may build trust between hospitals and immigrant communities, save some girls from undergoing disfiguring and life-threatening procedures in their native countries, and play a role in the eventual eradication of FGC. It might be more effective if federal and state laws enabled pediatricians to reach out to families by offering a ritual nick as a possible compromise to avoid greater harm.
And it’s not like Western culture is so free of blatantly misogynist traditions, either. Part of me wishes that we had a two minute nicking at the doctor instead of the entire painfully misogynist wedding tradition that persists in the name of tradition. Everything from white gowns to bouquet tosses to the father “giving” the bride away—all about reducing women to objects that exist strictly to fuck and marry men, if not suggesting that we’re male property. But people hang onto it, because it’s tradition. And we applaud every nudge in the right direction, from refusing to be given away to keeping your name, instead of suggesting that anything but a marriage boycott for all is inadequate.