When genital mutilation is an act of conscience

Bridegrooms of the Dawoodi Bohra sect, wait their turn for blessings by his holiness Dr. Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin at the collective marriage of 300 couples in Bombay, 6 Sept. 2004. (Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, I was shocked to see on TV my colleague, Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, getting arrested in connection with a case in Michigan of genital mutilation, which quickly became international news. 

Now I know Dr. Attar as a doctor for at least 20 years and I trust his excellence and judgment as a family physician so much that recently, when I had to be briefly hospitalized myself, I chose him to be my attending over all other doctors of St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia, Michigan. 

Dr. Attar a criminal? Give me a break! He is the nicest person you will ever run into. There is not a mean bone in his body. If a man like him can be turned into a common criminal, arrested, shackled and dragged in front of cameras in order to broadcast his pictures across the globe as a villain to be hissed at, this country is getting scary.

One cannot help but wonder if this is not yet another edition of the Salem Witch Hunt (every societal evil has at least nine lives) which America periodically indulges in – here one is reminded of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Senate hearings on “Un-American Activities” of the 1950s — now raising its ugly head against American Muslims.

While the mumbo-jumbo of moral and legal justification to do so is couched in the current trends of political correctness, the anachronistic mindset to punish somebody out of proportion to their transgression is not different than what it was in the 17th century in Salem, Massachusetts. 

All genital mutilations in both sexes are variants of circumcision. Circumcision has been part and parcel of human behavior for a very long time. It was practiced by ancient Egyptians who, because of it, considered themselves cleaner and superior to their uncircumcised neighbors.

Moses and his followers brought the custom into Judaic-Arabic lands with the Exodus. Islam, which is an offshoot of Judaism, adopted the tradition aggressively and spread its practice through many Muslim cultures, sprouting many variations of it through extending it to the female sex.

In modern times, to curb masturbation and other out-of-control sexual inclinations of adolescence and to supposedly improve hygiene, it became part of American and European medical culture (though done in days after birth and done with no anesthesia, which is sadistically barbaric and in all probability far more traumatic to the brain than its practitioners are willing to admit).

For the psychiatrist, it is obvious that its origin has little to do with good medicine or hygiene, but as beautifully described by Sigmund Freud in his “Totem and Taboo,” building upon a conjecture of Charles Darwin, that it is a vestige of a phase of human prehistory when we lived in small clans where a despotic father kept all the females to himself and castrated pubertal boys so they would not pose a challenge to his unlimited authority over the clan. 

Humans must have lived in such small clans for a very long time and castration must have been a prevalent practice, for the behavior, or rather its remnants (for only schizophrenics in psychotic frenzy actually castrate themselves), has left an indelible impression upon the human psyche and it has become an integral part of all human cultures.

While it is no longer castration, it certainly is a rite of passage of puberty where the rituals allude to it. Some of the practices which anthropologists have catalogued as symbols of transition into adulthood are the knocking out of a tooth, skin-cutting, scarring, tattooing, piercing of body parts, beating, fasting, trials of pain, permanent placement of ornaments through ear or nose, prolonged seclusion.

In many Hindu cultures, shaving of the head or putting a thread across the torso as a warning to keep one’s aggressive and sexual impulses within bound, seem to be variant of the same process.

While emphatically enforced by the entire community, these ceremonies are done ritualistically to hide their cruelty. In a good number of societies, this rite of passage is outright circumcision in males and in some, mostly Islamic cultures, crossing the gender lines, it is also practiced on females as some form of genital mutilation, from very minute to outright clitoridectomy. 

This societal anachronism - the purpose of which is to weaken the strength of sexuality and aggression and thus juvenile delinquency, is certainly cruel, and has lost all relevance in today’s world – can often be quite mild and not more than symbolic though it can get as barbaric as clitoridectomy.

In Bohra Indian Muslim culture, from which Dr. Attar comes, it is just a symbolic removal of a small piece of genital tissue. While in no way condoning this behavior, one should see it in perspective and realize a person, even if he is a physician, may exhibit “cognitive dissonance” and may not envision he is breaking the law when he is following the edicts of his conscience. 

The good doctor in all probability had no idea he was indulging in something wrong and being a profoundly pious man – even to the hospital he often comes in traditional Bohra attire and devotes most of his free time to mosque activities - was just viewing it as enrichment of the practice of his religion and a promotion of morality in general. 

Coming down on cultural practices which once were greatly celebrated but are now deemed unlawful should not be quashed with a sledgehammer but viewed with more understanding, and while punished, should take into consideration the mindset of the transgressors whether they did it with a criminal intent or simply they were victims of their own upbringing and unable to oppose the strongly internalized moral codes of conduct instilled in them by their religion. 

Also, exaggerating the seriousness of a crime so the prosecutor can get maximum punishment for his career enhancement, or to make it into a social media circus, or for vindictiveness and abuse of power against someone who cannot fight back, does not increase respect for the law but makes us more cynical and breeds in the long run a tendency, often unconscious, to paradoxically indulge in lawlessness to balance out the unusually harsh punishment one was meted out for a minor crime.

Dr. Surendra Kelwala is a practicing psychiatrist in Livonia, Michigan. He is author of "Blood Money: Modern Medicine's Abuse of Power" which was published in 1994.

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