On rites and rights

By JubileeCentre 23 Jul 2014

by Njoki Mahiaini, 23rd July 2014

“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.   No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God” – Romans 2:28-29 (NIV)

girl-summitPoliticians, activists and survivors of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) came together in London yesterday for a global summit aimed at ending the controversial practice.

FGM, also known as ‘cutting’ (or, misleadingly, as female circumcision) involves the partial or near-complete removal of the female sex organs in a ritual generally performed during the prepubescent phase. Ceremonies are often performed in unsanitary conditions by unqualified practitioners without anaesthetic and girls are left not only physically mutilated but deeply traumatised. Even where the practice is carried out in hospitals or similarly regulated establishments, the psychological scars which develop from this highly invasive procedure are visible long after stitches heal.

The reasons this barbaric rite of passage persists among some Asian, Middle Eastern and African communities are myriad. While the pervasive role of tradition cannot be underestimated, FGM apologists cite reasons ranging from social reputation to hygiene to chastity. The latter explanation, quite understandably for Western observers, provides the greatest source of outrage. FGM is most prevalent in parts of the world where pre-marital sex is considered taboo. A girl’s sexual purity, or at least the impression of such, is highly considered and even more highly valued at the point of assessment for marriage suitability. Advocates for cutting therefore argue that by forcibly restricting the capacity for sex or limiting its scope for pleasure, the girl being cut will find a new incentive to retain her virtue.

In discussing ways of combatting this practice, faith groups are sometimes called upon to condemn FGM to correct the mistaken impression that it forms part of a religious requirement or rite. Although often associated with Muslim communities, forms of FGM have been practised among those of other faiths including Coptic Christians. However, the practice has no basis in any religion at all. The problem therefore is that in considering the notion of purity or virtue, FGM supporters conflate action with status.

The Bible makes clear that sin is not just possible in deed but also in thought and word (Matthew 5:27-28). Therefore purity cannot be reduced to a simple binary whereby one who cannot – in this case for fear of injury or pain – perform a sinful act is deemed righteous. Jesus emphasised that both purity and impurity emanate from the heart, and are free moral choices (Mark 7:14-23). FGM is, at its heart, a violent form of female repression carried out in the name of culture and faith. It erodes a girl’s right to physical integrity and damages bodies of people made in the image of God. As a means to an end, it is indefensible.

Of course, physical rituals are often associated with faith or culture. In scripture, from Genesis 17 onwards there are many references to the importance of circumcision in marking out the Israelite men as holy, set apart for God. Until the mid-20th Century male circumcision was widely practiced by Western European Christians and is still a majority practice in the United States today. Circumcision also remains common among men of the Abrahamic faiths worldwide in addition to being a rite of passage for many ethnic groups and adherents of traditional faiths, especially in Africa. Unlike with FGM there is little discourse regarding sexual behaviour and commentary focuses on piety, acceptance or maturity. There is also no long-term biological impact to the male from the procedure.

In reflecting on the issues surrounding FGM we must remember that God does not ask people to perform rituals (e.g. sacrifice in the OT, baptism in the NT) to prove their worth but to demonstrate their obedience. Moreover, whether male or female we must recognise that our bodies are not our own and were bought at a price (1 Cor 6:19-20). As we seek to strengthen and nurture these temples of the Holy Spirit, and honour God through them, we must speak out in defence of those whose bodies have been maimed through the misguided practice of FGM.

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