"Snip Snip Chop Chop"

Now that I have embraced pattern and relegated our bodies to the dust bins of historical antiquity, (http://www.giraffe.com/gr_see.html) I find myself intrigued by rituals, particularly those involving the human body. Did you know, for example, that “pollution by females” is an endemic thread in some cultures in the New Guinea highlands, akin to “saving face” in Japan and the “macho man” in hispanic cultures?

Did you also know that a North American group called the Nacirema believe that the human body is ugly and prone to disease and disability? The Nacirema live between the Yaqui of Mexico and the Arawak of the Antilles. According to their beliefs, humanity's only chance to escape its negative fate is through ritual. Added to their distrust of the body is their horror of the mouth. Without sacrifice rituals, the Nacirema are convinced that their teeth would fall out, their jaws would shrink, their gums bleed, and their lovers and friends forsake them. They hold daily private mouth rituals, involving the use of hog hairs, and annual or semi-annual mouth exorcisms presided over by a holy-mouth-man.

There are numerous studies of ritual, and ritual abuse, by scholars in the field. Since 1987 a Journal of Ritual Studies has been published. Essentially ritual abuse tends to be practiced on the vulnerable, the young, and the helpless. It has been defined as “psychological, sexual, and/or physical assault on an unwilling human victim by one or more people whose primary motive is to fulfill a prescribed ritual in order to achieve a specific goal or satisfy the perceived needs of their deity.”

Ritual circumcision of newborn males fits this description. Apparently circumcision began as an Egyptian religious ritual originating in snake worship. The Egyptians believed that snakes experienced rebirth after shedding their skin. Eventually snakeskin and foreskin became synonymous. Much later in history, between 1920 and 1950, circumcision was performed to eliminate masturbation, since the surgery decreases sensitivity and inhibits movement of the penile shaft.

By now all but one of the medical justifications for ritual circumcision have been disproved. In fact in 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that “the potential medical benefits of infant circumcision aren't significant enough and therefore they do not recommend it as a routine procedure.” Other justifications include the “like father like son” argument, or “it's tradition”. Such slogans trivialize an intensely painful procedure on a powerless newborn. The one recently-announced exception is to reduce the chances of getting HIV in Africa.

There is an increasing number of religious families today who question the necessity of ritual circumcision and are holding symbolic circumcision ceremonies that eliminate the infliction of pain. Unfortunately such questioning is discouraged by those who dominate the religion and resist change. Fear of dissenting from the group can be a powerful motive for silence and acquiescence, so that too often the acceptability of amputating healthy tissue from a helpless newborn is not aired or debated.

My seven-year-old grandson recently witnessed the circumcision of his newborn baby brother. His comment, proclaimed in a large poster at the front door, was: “Snip Snip Chop Chop”. I couldn't have said it better.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2006