Eran Sadeh is a Jewish Israeli father who broke with cultural conventions by refusing to have his son circumcised. Here he explains how we must learn from the Chinese if we want to stop male circumcision being seen as “normal” in circumcising cultures and communities such as Muslims, Jews, North Americans and Africans.
Nine years ago when my son was born I wasn’t debating whether to circumcise him or not. The thought of not circumcising did not even cross my mind. I did feel a strong resentment, though. I hated the feeling that I’m doing this against my will, just because it is a cultural dictate. And of course I recoiled from the idea that my son’s penis would look weird. In fact, I had no idea how an intact penis looked like.
Three things saved my son from the knife:
- information against circumcision which I stumbled upon online
- an online forum, where parents and activists offered support and shared their experience
- and the third thing was Ronit Tamir
Ronit has a 15 year old intact son and since the year 2000 she organizes meetings between parents who did not circumcise their sons and parents who debate whether to do it or not. Until I met Ronit, the idea of not circumcising felt virtual, because it was confined to information and people I found on the internet. Meeting Ronit in person was a great leap for me that helped me to finalize my decision.
Our families told us it was wrong to leave our son’s penis intact
However, the fear that I’m making my son a freak did not die so quickly. Two months later my wife and I went to a meeting Ronit organized, where we met several couples who did not circumcise their sons. It was very reassuring for me to hear their stories; to learn that their sons were not being bullied for having an intact penis, and that this issue was a non-issue.
Our families did not like our decision to leave our son intact. They told us that what we are doing is wrong for our son, that he would hate us when he grows up, that circumcision is healthy and that an uncircumcised penis is disgusting, and that there are some things that you simply do, period.
So, how do we change a social norm that has such strong religious, historical and cultural roots? I suggest we take a good look at the successful campaign to end footbinding in China.
Footbinding afflicted most Chinese women for a thousand years, from the 10th century to the 20th century. During the 17th century the Manchu emperors tried to abolish footbinding by issuing edicts forbidding the practice, but their efforts failed entirely despite intimidating penalties.
The similarities between footbinding and circumcision are as follows:
- Both are an ethnic marker
- Both customs are practised by parents on children
- Both customs are defended and supported by parents
- Both are perceived by the parents as culturally mandatory
- Both are perceived as a prerequisite for marriage or love life
- Both are self-enforced by social pressure, by fear of shame
- Both are believed to promote health and defined as aesthetically pleasing compared with the natural alternative
- In the communities where they are practiced, they are nearly universal, persistent and practiced even by those who oppose them.
The successful campaign to end footbinding started in China at the end of the 19th century, and two decades later the custom was virtually ended. The campaign was comprised of three elements:
- Explaining that the rest of the world did not bind women’s feet and that China was losing face in the world and was subject to international ridicule
- Education about the advantages of natural feet and the disadvantages of bound feet
- Forming natural-foot groups whose members pledged not to bind their daughter’s feet and not let their sons marry women with bound feet
Two very important principles guided the anti-footbinding activists:
- Respect for the parents. They understood that mothers bound the feet of their daughters not because they are evil but rather they are motivated by a strong desire to guarantee marriage prospects of their daughters.
- A law cannot by itself change a deeply rooted social norm. They understood that the change must come from within the community, by forming small groups all over the country.
I think that the combination of these elements should be a blueprint for our efforts as well.
Eran Sadeh campaigns for all children to enjoy the right to genital autonomy and he runs the website Protect the Child—Gonnen Al Hayeled. The content of this article is taken from a talk that Eran presented at Genital Autonomy 2014.
—Photo credit: flickr/epSos.de