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"Barbaric" Rituals?

A response to Susan Okin's "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?"
Sander Gilman
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Copyright (c) 1999 Princeton University Press. This article is now available in an anthology titled IS MULTICULTURALISM BAD FOR WOMEN? edited by Joshua Cohen and Matthew Howard, from Princeton Univerisity Press, 1999. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission, in writing, from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For COURSE PACK and other PERMISSIONS, send e-mail to Princeton University Press.]
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Susan Okin's essay reminds us of the importance of a historical sensibility in our reflections on religious ritual and cultural tradition. Her language and images take us back 150 years, when the focus would not have been on female circumcision/ritual mutilation but on infant male ritual circumcision/ritual mutilation. (Yes, that term was used!) Those terrible Jews and their repulsive practice of marking the bodies of their male children was, as Enlightenment "thinkers" such as Voltaire stated, clear proof of their inherent inhumanity. For Okin it is the "patriarchy," but a patriarchy which still evokes the image of Jewish difference. No less a feminist critic than Susannah Heschel has shown, in her insightful work on the image of the Jews in contemporary feminist thought, how the evocation of the "patriarchy" comes to be defined as the special domain of the Jews. Okin's covert history of the "patriarchy" begins with the binding of Isaac as the key to all further images of the exclusion of women. (It is this text, one might add, which is used over and over again since the Enlightenment as proof of the Jewish proclivity to murder their own and others' children. If you are willing to kill your own child, a bit of mutilation is nothing in comparison!) In the Enlightenment, Jews could become good citizens, but they could do so only if they were no longer different--if they only abandoned their ritual practices, such as the brith melah.

Such a desire underlies Okin's argument--all people can become happy and well-adjusted once they abandon these pesky rituals of difference. And she makes the distinction between her notion of the normal and the repressive based on her notion of what is acceptable practice, i.e., the absence of certain types of ritual--which (surprise, surprise) turns out to mirror her own beliefs and background. She labels certain practices as "barbaric" because these rituals create (in the mind of the external observer) physical images of difference. In doing so she speaks for those engaged in ritual practices, for they are clearly victims of false consciousness. No one could really want to undertake such rituals and therefore it is clear that women who might advocate them are "brainwashed." And in this state some one else must speak for them. Thus Dohm and the Abb Grgoire spoke for the Jews of the Enlightenment--certainly advocating their civil emancipation but also their need for physical regeneration!

Okin claims that "women" are the prime victims of religious practices. But can one really speak of "women" as a unitary category? Her representation of "woman" as a singular, monolithic category is difficult to understand at the close of the millennium. The claims of the Enlightenment construction of "man" as a universal category have been (since Adorno) shown to be specious; Okin's "woman", suffering under the patriarchal rule of "religion," is a similar, composite creature. And "she" must be rescued from the ignorance of superstition! There are women and there are women, as feminists have argued for the past decade. The claims which Western (or Westernized) bourgeois women have for speaking for all women are the same claims which were exploded in discussions within and beyond the Nairobi meeting on the status of women a decade ago.

Recently these claims of speaking for the Other have surfaced in the debates about ritual circumcision. The discussion by American "women of color," such as Alice Walker, about the bodies of women in Africa in the context of rituals of infibulation have been dismissed by many women within these cultures as misrepresenting their own autonomy. In the pages of this journal critics such as Yael Tamir, Martha Nussbaum, and Frances Kamm expressed their opposition to this practice because of its impact on female sexual pleasure.1 At virtually the same moment, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, my colleague Edward O. Laumann released a study of circumcision based on a sample of 1,410 men 18-59 years old, interviewed in 1992 as part of his National Health and Social Life survey. He argued (based on that most modern of devices, the self-reporting questionnaire) that circumcised men, because of the loss of sexual pleasure, are forced to resort to weirder and weirder sexual practices (such as fellatio--yuk!) in order to get pleasure. Here he seems to be following the claims of John R. Taylor at the University of Manitoba, whom he does not cite. Taylor claims that the small sheath of foreskin tissue removed during circumcision is filled with extremely sensitive nerve endings and mucus membrane cells and its removal permanently blunts erotic stimulation. Laumann's reading of such experimentation--given his claim of an increase in sexually transmitted diseases of all kinds among circumcised men--is a pathological one. Such tropes about the pathology of those who circumcise and are circumcised appear from St. Paul to the present. In the seventeenth century, when de-circumcision came into vogue, Gabriel Groddeck commented that the Jews "imagined their fleshly desires could be fulfilled by greater stimulation if they were provided with that little bit of skin, and they believed also that they would give pleasure to their harlots and sweethearts, who broadcast in a depraved manner their very great pleasure if they have slept with a man who either never had the foreskin removed or had it restored." Does no one actually ask those who are circumcised about the quality of their pleasure? Is it possible that the projection of Western, bourgeois notions of pleasure onto other people's bodies is not the best basis for any body's judgment?

Observers of the new Africa know that the discussions of the "ritual mutilation" of the African body has been a claim of the modernizing forces, whether the body was that of a man or of a woman. Indeed, the wide practice of adult male circumcision has been actively opposed by the African National Congress in the new South Africa as a sign of the barbarism of ancient tribal rituals--much to the dismay of the ritually circumcised Xhosa president of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Mandela understands and advocates the ritual of circumcision because it formed his and his contemporaries experiences of themselves as Xhosa men. What many in South Africa understand is that abolition of ritual will not further the stated goals of the creation of a complex, composite South African identity. If the problem is one of infection rather than difference, the answer should be found in the introduction of antisepsis, as was the case with infant male circumcision in the nineteenth century. A more reasonable answer to the number of deaths in this practice does not seem to be its abolition but rather its medicalization. It would seem the movement which paralleled the acculturation of infant male circumcision through its medicalization in the late nineteenth century could be paralleled by the claim (as heard recently in Egypt) for the medicalization of female circumcision. But such a movement would take seriously the claims of ritual in the culture in which it is practiced. Such rituals are not "merely" superstition, even if they are debated hotly within the religious cultures themselves. For one person's defining ritual is another person's meaningless superstition. Remember that Helene Deutsch, one of the mothers of psychoanalysis, foresaw a future when the pains of childbirth would be so lessened that women would seek new rituals of investiture and coming-of-age and would turn to infibulation as their new ritual practice.

Here is the problem with Okin's world-view. In advocating the abolition of other people's rituals, she does not see those in her own culture as limiting and abhorrent. Only the world of ritual (as she defines it) holds this power. The "bizarre" rituals of Anglo-American culture are for her the norm. The power invested in Anglo-American class structures is less evident to her than the power invested in the patriarchy in those ritualized belief systems that she rejects.


1 See Yael Tamir, "Hands Off Clitoridectomy," Boston Review 21, 3-4 (Summer 1996) and responses, BR 21, 5 (October/November 1996).

Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review



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