Much Ado About Foreskin

Is circumcision of young boys an affront on their bodily rights?


That is according to a regional court ruling in Cologne, Germany, last spring. This case arose after the circumcision of a four-year-old Muslim boy led to medical complications. The doctor who had performed the operation was taken to court and the court ruled that the boy’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity” had been violated. This ruling caused a lot of hue and cry among Muslims and Jews since they viewed it as an affront to their religious freedom. Although German lawmakers eventually passed a legislation that ensures that parents have a right to have their boys circumcised, this controversy touches on a lot of raw nerves. It is clear that while activists against female circumcision in most countries easily get their arguments across to the targeted societies, intactivistshave a hard time getting theirs across.

I find this particular case to be very interesting for many reasons. Beyond its medical benefits, circumcision means many things to different societies. For Jews and Muslims, circumcision is of great religious significance and has been practiced by these societies since time immemorial. For those African societies that practice it, circumcision is an important rite of passage that signifies a transition from childhood to adulthood. Some American and European societies also practice circumcision; and they too have their own reasons for doing so.

When social/religious practices conflict with personal rights/state laws, which one should take precedence? Does a boy born into a Jewish family have a right not to be circumcised? Obviously, an eight-day old boy cannot exercise such a right, so someone, usually the parent, assumes the responsibility. What happens then when the said boy later decides to renounce their religious beliefs? Or when he decides that the slight loss of sexual sensitivity as a result of circumcision is a big deal for him? Obviously, he cannot reverse the procedure. Could he then possibly sue the parents and the hospital for doing that to him? Or the state for allowing the parents to do ‘such grievous harm’ to his body?

Another twist to the circumcision issue is when national laws or beliefs conflict with the practices of one particular society within the country. Do the majority get to decide for the minority whether they get to keep a distinct part of their culture? While there exists grounds for arguing whether the German court was right in some sense, it is doubtful whether we can say the same about the guys who did this!

The German case has another dimension to it beyond that of the merits/demerits or circumcision and religious/personal rights. The fact that Germany has a long and tragic history of anti-Semitism immediately throws the other arguments out the window. While it is true that in Germany, circumcision is “unfamiliar to the general public, even to most lawmakers”, it is very important to think about the message such a ruling sent to the world about how Germans (or their judiciary) feel about minority groups in their society. To the court, it might have been a straightforward case of what the law allows and doesn’t, but it sure did appear otherwise to the world.

Anti-gay sentiments in Africa

Every time I read an article about the growing anti-gay sentiments in Africa, I shudder in horror at the pain and violence inflicted on my fellow Africans by my fellow Africans simply because of their sexual orientations.

I grew up in a homophobic society, but articles in the newspapers of violent acts against gays and lesbians weren’t as frequent as they are today. What are the reasons behind this sudden rise in anti-gay movements across Africa? One credible reason might be that people are increasingly being open about their sexual orientation. This situation is compounded by the explosion in telecommunication technology which has made it possible for events happening in one continent to quickly spread to other continents. This increase in awareness of what is happening in other continents makes it possible for real time discussions in Africa of events such as the appointment of Gene Robinson as the first gay Anglican Bishop in the US. As more news relating to gay issues reaches conservative societies, most of them often react defensively to this perceived transgression or moral decay.

However, the one possibility that I would like to address is the West’s involvement in the issue of gay rights in Africa. Particularly, I would like to look at the situation in Uganda where a bill that would sentence to death those perceived to be gay has been repeatedly brought into the country’s parliament since 2009 by one Mr. Bahati (ironically, this means ‘luck’ in Swahili). Particularly depressing is the fact that MP Bahati brought this bill into parliament with the support and urging of American evangelicals as per this New York Times article. Conservatives who are intent on exporting the West’s ‘culture war’ have been funding like minded organizations and politicians in Africa to sponsor bills that would result in the outlawing of gay lifestyles and tough sentences for those found to be gay.

Western governments’ responses to this situation have been mostly impressive and have led to such laws being defeated in legislatures or watered-down versions of the originals passing into law. However, the recent stance by Britain and the US to tie foreign aid to African countries to the upholding of gay rights is misplaced. I would like to see the rights of gay people upheld across Africa! However, a move by Western governments to impose on African societies a new culture smacks of neocolonialism. Using the threat of withholding foreign aid in order to bring about a culture change is nothing short of blackmail. Such actions do a lot of damage to Western diplomacy in Africa. They not only cause an increase in anti-Western sentiments, but also breathe life into the already existing anti-gay movements.

Some might posit that this is just like any other area where Africa has to be brought into parity with the world, and I agree with them to some extent. No one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. At the same time, changing a society’s way of understanding its world should be done in a manner that respects that society’s independence. Having two Western camps fighting their cultural war in Africa only serves to alienate African societies and make their needs secondary those of the feuding parties.

So, the big questions are: When the anti-gay camp fails to get its social policies passed into law in the US, is it acceptable for them to use their resources to get the same failed policies passed into law in some poor African country? And is it right for Western governments to use their economic might to blackmail African countries into accepting a new way of looking at the world that they are not ready for?