Transcultural, Multireligious, & Interdisciplinary Dimensions
of Appropriating Universal Paradigms
Regarding The Human Rights Challenge Of Genital Mutilation

Anastasios Zavales

Presented at
The Third International Symposium on Circumcision,
University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland
May 22-25, 1994.

       An awareness of the complexities of human rights debate is the first step toward developing a method of debate...

       I am convinced that there will be no appropriate solution to any of the issues that we shall be considering in the coming days, even the most technical, unless we bear in mind the fundamental dialectical conflict between the universal and the particular, between identity and difference...

       To move from identifying inequality to rebelling against injustice is only possible in the context of a universal affirmation of human rights. Ultimately, it is this idea which allows us to move from ethical to legal considerations and to impose value judgments and juridical norms on human activity...

       [H]uman rights become the common language of all humanity...
                         --United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
                         Opening address to the World Conference on Human Rights.
                         Vienna, June 1993.

       Any discussion on human rights brings with it a litany of liabilities and limitations. The most predominant frailties of talking about human rights are the languages used and their applications. Never has any universal language expressed a unified design of the assorted characteristics of human history. Obviously, certain anthroprocentric biases have overshadowed the recording of history based on millenia of diverse factors and confounding variables such as nationalistic pride, political megalomania, religious imperialism, gender narcissism, racial audacity, financial insolence - and the list goes on. Often the loudest voices are not the most articulate.

       What models of language are dominant regarding human rights? And how does one listen to the kernel message of each sound? The tethers and checks of universal language are best reviewed analogically. Indeed, the art of language is comparable to cartography, the specialty of mapmaking. Language creates maps and charts of the mind. Two-dimensional maps are used as general representations with predisposed symbols to designate certain points of reference: Distance, topography, direction, demographics, time, and the like. All interpretations of these global elements are directly relative to their mapmakers and to their peculiar intentions, both covert and overt. If a distorted or corrupted world view is sketched, people's mental images of the world are deceived. Not only are certain graphic charts and maps corrupting physical reality, but also the psychic and affective maps instilled and cultivated throughout society regarding, for example, different groups, individuals and nationalities. For thousands of years humanity held unusual mind-maps of women. These maps cast predesignated roles and boundaries for their life and work in society. Only recently has humanity begun to revise and restructure maps of women. Similar historical cases can be made about the mental templates and patterns of people of color, of sexuality, of cultural differences and religious traditions.

       One may consider human rights development like cartography, products from antiquity requiring constant review and upgrading. Regardless of the generation, each era re-sees the earth with the best tools available. To retradition human rights advocacy toward embracing the rights of intact and whole genitalia is like trying to accept new world maps, seemingly distorted to new viewers, incredibly familiar, yet somewhat uncomfortable, both fascinating and repulsive. In like fashion, human rights advocates need to get accustomed to the apparently unique and re-envisioned maps of human physiology, women and men with admirably intact genitals. Many people approach the plight of millions of victims of genital crimes with apprehension, somewhat recognizing familiarity, but preferring to resort to the old, to the convenient, to the complacent, to the immediately known, even if these elements deny universal human rights. So the present human rights imperative is to listen to the living sound of people in tragic community, the cries and screams of the victims, sounds behind the obscured verbal or recorded articulations of human rights history. As a new historical reality, human rights language forges new maps for the world's progress as a global family. Any effort to transform a three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional representation takes in some misshaping, significant corruption, and perpetual misreadings. So what happens to the language of human rights when one attempts to transcribe human experience onto paper? Review the oppression, warfare, exploitation, and suffering of universal history.

       One must differentiate between fact and inference, betweem prima facie appearances and underlying meanings, between semantics and semiotics. The meanings-behind-the-meaning is, concerning genital mutiliation, relative to and indicative of the practices-after-the-practice. Genital mutiliation inflicts not only instant physiological trauma and amputation, but also successive psychological and spiritual disorder and regression, distorting and predisposing social, cultural, religious and political conditions. Social breakdown comes about when people are exploited and manipulated by public officers and high-level professionals. Cultural failure rises out of improper historical adaptation. Religious and spiritual disorder ensue when the significance of a loving, merciful God is superseded by anthropocentric standards and by incompetent religious management. Political chaos transpires because legal systems are disabled by illusive legislation and civil service dishonesty. In time, add to these medical deception, educational deficit, ethical subversion, and more. To inhibit and prevent these social ills, a new language must emerge for citing infractions of human rights, a language reflective of the victims, not the heroes.

       Communicating universal human rights infractions is a demanding, painstaking process - still-becoming, never finished, always evolving. This unique language issues from the tormented, frequently clouded and murky, often obscured and veiled, typically muffled and uneasy powerless voices of society; nonetheless, their cries are audible to those with intact ears. When the United Nations General Assembly issued the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" in 1948 it was not yet clear how these human rights were applicable globally under all local and regional situations. In brief, the U. N. categorizes human rights into two distinct divisions: immediate and progressive human rights. The first holds to civil and political human rights and the second to economic, social and cultural human rights. Immediate and progressive human rights are not disclosed in the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," but are defined respectively in two additional documents: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. So what are the parameters of cultural, religious, and discipline-specific human rights advocacy? And can these areas of human merit share a common vocabulary?

       Human rights infractions and their reporting structures are weakened and depreciated by the global disparity among common models of language. To distinguish and address particular human rights crimes, especially those founded on subtle and delicate social and cultural nuances, one must engage the issues from within the parameters of standarized paradigms, in particular, the United Nations' model for reporting human rights infractions.

       Certainly, bureaucratic glitches restrict the processes of reporting. Nevertheless, no human rights offense will be studied internationally unless the human rights document is organized and presented according to current United Nations layouts. The United Nations has compiled its own directives, policies, procedures and practice for reporting violations of human rights. Although demanding and laborious, the United Nations prototype outlines a universal format for all governments and all nongovernmental organizations to follow. Reports on human rights infractions are not convergence papers, that is, compendia of dissimilar theories and positions. Rather, human rights texts must be predetermined as reception documents, a global consensus instrument applicable to and received by its recipients without condition.

       To step back for a moment, the immoral worldwide practices of vaginal and penile torture, damage, abuse and amputation are uncountable features of humanity's history for over six millenia. These violent practices most often suffer infants and children without their informed consent, without medical necessity, without anesthesia, without social justification, and without humanitarian regret. The world witnesses with apathy these violations of human rights, crimes of medical ethics, desecrations of religious doctrines, failures of cultural norms and social standards, deviations of sexual values, disorders of psychological well-being, and sacrilege against the holy. To dismember the vulva, excise the clitoris, amputate the foreskin and deform the penis, are unmerciful evils against all human rights without exemption.

       Historical global study, or ecumenics, holds the existing worldwide mandates of reporting violations of human rights accountable for human rights equity. No deviation, reduction and rationalization from full compliance of international human rights can be permitted or condoned. Often critical inquiry is posed at national and global humanitarian agencies, and at religious and spiritual traditions constituting the majority of public opinion. International solidarity mandates much more than isolated worldwide attention, or lifeless documents on shelves, and towering paperwork stockpiles. The living, ongoing experiences of local communities calibrate the benchmark for all human rights activities. In fact, grassroots advocacy must be endorsed and mobilized as the leading delivery room of the emerging international human rights heritage, while hierarchal systems hold a secondary mission of intervention.

       Specific elements of religious and spiritual traditions must be underscored. A global working definition of spiruality is: The universal human expression of internal processes of transformation of the whole person towards more developed states of being that must be self-initiated in all instances and shared with the sensible world. Now, in theological principle, all religious and spiritual traditions recognize and venerate universal human rights through the ecumenical concepts of justice, peace, liberation, promise, and hospitality. No religious or spiritual tradition disregards or renounces an unreserved justice and equity for all people, a lasting and secure peace among every nation, the liberation of captives and the independence of the marginalized, the promise for a sustained cosmic harmony, and an unconditional hospitality for all members of the human family. Religious and spiritual traditions are, by necessity, global advocates of preventative diplomacy, and are international mediators of conflict resolution. For the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, genital mutilation is an extreme form of idolatry. In striking contrast to the human rights advocacy of religious and spiritual traditions, genital mutiliation is an explicit act of devotion and adoration of visible and tangible gods: The excised clitoris, infibulated vulva, or circumcised penis. Idol worship is the conviction and co-dependent reliance on visible signs and images. The clitoris, natural vulva, and complete foreskin have been represented as impediments to the faithful and authentic glory of human genitalia. Therefore, monotheistic idolatry interprets the abolishment of genital mutilation as equivalent to physiological heresy. In other words, to remain intact and whole is considered by some individuals and groups to be both biological blasphemy and bodily impiety.

       Although idolatry is the summit offense of the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic traditions, individuals mutilating genitalia in the name of God are mistakenly considered pious, blessed, sanctified, and godly. And the victims are thereafter called by deceptive and manipulative concepts such as perfect, flawless and recreated. Truth shows the prey of genital mutilation as incomplete, reduced, defective, desecrated, and limited. Vaginal and penile torture, amputation and idolatry are blatant insults to the God of the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic families of faith by unconscionable psychotic genital offenders. Any country's so-called "Religious Right" and treacherous "Moral Majority" execute genital hate crimes and torturous procedures as acts of religious hostility, cultural indignation and ideological racism. South Africe attained a new level of human rights wing to the overwhelming bloodshed that preceded the abolishment of apartheid. Humanity's vulvas and foreskins are the blood-martyrs constituting the universal foundation for religious and ideological rights of human genitalia.

       In 1981, the United Nations General Assembly authorized the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The text upholds religious or spiritual belief as "one of the fundamental elements in one's conception of life." How may one determine whether this United Nations text protects and regulates the right to complete, intact genitalia irrespective of religious, cultural or ideological parochialism? Are present scientific, educational, and technological experiences disclosing human history in new, unprecedented ways? The advances in religious and spiritual study and analysis are interdisciplinary: From artists, historians, social scientists, archeologists, geologists, linguists, physicists, medical practitioners, and translators, to name a few, as well as from clergy, theologians and others. New histories are emerging by reviewing time-worn marginalized trajectories. The student is now able to to be equal to or surpass the teacher and society may now hold its religious and civic leaders not only answerable for fraud, but also deserving of retribution. Retraditioned, ecumenically-inclusive historical study witnesses to the slaughter of vulvas and foreskins; Western scholastic study contemplates only its own image and likeness, a narcissism that corrupts the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic God of universal history.

       The Torah account of Noah and the Great Flood reveals God's initial ecumenical concern for all creation. After the deluge, God recants by covenanting God's self with all the earth, placing the rainbow as the universal, tangible sign of the covenant between God and humanity, signaling a global promise for all creation. In latter days, God's covenanting becomes more specific with Abraham. Through Noah, God promises to protect and preserve all creation; but through Abraham, God promises to make a singular great nation. Judaic tradition is, from the start, concerned with all creation and all nations of humanity. As a descendant of Abraham, Moses establishes the new life in the Torah setting Israel as the nation commissioned to care for the life of the world.

       Less known, yet significantly cited by Judaic scholars, is God's covenant with the whole world at the time of Noah. The Noahide Laws, or The Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah, is the founding set of commandments given by God to the whole inhabited world. In brief, the Noahide Laws refer to all humanity; later the Jews are directed to adhere to exclusive and community-specific laws. Through Abraham, the Jews received the particular Mosaic law. But at the time of Noah, the world received seven universal, generic mandates and among them circumcision is neither listed nor implied.

       Some individuals may take umbrage at the circumcised non-Jewish male, citing that the circumcised non-Jew as an affront to Judaism's prerogatives. And others find circumcision among non-Jews to be a type of contemptous idolatry since circumcision is of no value whatsoever to the non-Jew. In other words, there are two states of being in the world of Judaism, two peculiar ontologies: On the one hand, non-Jewish communities are bound to only seven laws, none suggesting or valuing circumcision; and, on the other, the Jews, tied to over 600 laws with the unusual practice of foreskin bloodletting. Special note must be added about Abraham, the so-called father of the circumcision covenant. While Abraham was yet intact, uncircumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, God found favor with him and made divine and everlasting promises to him. The act of circumcision is an incidental element in the faith story, a rite not associated by any means to the piety and devotion of Abraham to his God. The foreskin bloodletting of Abraham was a physical by-product of the greater faith act that came before.

       If God found favor with an uncircumcised man to be the father of the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic traditions, then there was no confusion or mistake when the early Jewish Christians denied and nullified the law of circumcision. The non-Jewish world, the Gentiles, the Noahites, had no command for circumcision. When the message of Christianity was spread to non-Jews, retraditioned laws were applied along with the new life of Christian worship and doctrine. In Jesus, the world was seen as cleansed and reborn, similar to the world after the Great Flood, typified by the practice of baptism or full immersion. According to Christian ideals, God became human in Jesus and reconciled human nature to its fullest so humans may take on God's nature, so each member of humanity becomes a God.

       Jesus signals not only the resurrection of the body, but also the reintegration of the entire person as an intact being made whole physically, spiritually and emotionally. Christianity's unique calling takes humanity and makes it complete and whole in relation to the entire created universe. In the natural order of creation, circumcision is neither established or necessary. Christians who circumcise, or who advocate circumcision, not only contradict the New Testament's scriptural account on circumcision's insignificant nature, but also endorse a dismembering of the living body of Christ, a violation against the reborn, whole, and restored church. Remarkably, the original physiological condition of the penis and vulva reflects the fundamental state of creation: intact, whole, covered and safeguarded by God's grace and exceedingly sensitive and vulnerable to the pleasures of being in personal communion with God, exposing one's most private substance. So circumcision of the flesh has an understandable metaphorical relation to circumcision of the heart, implying a lifelong relationship of passion. Judaism communes with God through the Torah; Christianity, through the observance of the Mystical Supper; and Islam, through God's divine light. The heart of God and the heart of humanity engage in communion, not limited or downgraded affiliations based on physical or bodily qualifications.

       Communion with God is considered the utmost goal of Islam, a mercy that is given by God as light, an illumination that is God. This light is the mark of ultimate unity with God known in the heart. Muhammad reveals that God's light is greater than the prophet himself. No matter what one does in practice or belief, one acquires the light of God by God's will, not by human acts. Since this light is the essence of God's own self, to receive this light is to receive God, and to be in full communion with God. God's light unifies creation owing to God's compassion, benevolence and love. Human intervention is ineffectual to bring holiness and peace to the world. The very best a Muslim may do is live a type of religious experience making the whole person recipient or open to acquiring God's light. One cannot demand, requisition or compel God's light. No physical ritual or practice, especially excision, infibulation, circumcision and foreskin bloodletting, will bring God's light of interpersonal communion. Since circumcision is not required by the Koran, then what is? The Muslim is obligated to live a Koranic life according to the Five Pillars of the faith: To proclaim and recite the oneness of God and the unequaled distinction of God's rasul, God's prophet Muhammad; to pray five times every day at predesignated times; to give charity and offerings; to honor and participate in the holy month of Ramadan; and to make pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once. For Islam, genital mutilation is an insignificant option, a useless choice, not a leading requirement. Again, to be in communion with God is only by God's decision, not by any human thought or deed. No human can move the will of God - neither Muhammad, nor even the prophet's own personal example. How to be globally human regarding human rights is still not developed or ascertained by world religions. The discernment between canonical texts and secondary commentaries, determine, among many things, the birthright, or lack of, intact genitalia.

       All popular theories and practices on implementing universal human rights are spontaneously put into global disrepute as long as genital mutilation is readily sanctioned and practiced as a norm by any individual, group, or society. The techniques of human creation and evolution, both symbiotic processes, are, on the cosmic level, relative to the human responses, perceptions, feelings, awareness, and reactions to simple, vulnerable, modest human items, such as evidenced historically by human genitals. Humanity cannot progress as a global spiritual family until the foreskin as a metaphor of the essence of being human, the least of all to defen itself, is spoken of with respect, cared for with compassion and elevated to an equitable status with the human heart, mind and spirit. The concept of the foreskin as societal metaphor is suffused throughout western history and the predominant Judeo-Christo-Islamic traditions.

       For thousands of years the foreskin has held the metaphorical theme of the ontological nature of people. Somehow the foreskin represents the very being of humanity. Incarnate by the Philistine archetype, the foreskin takes on a pejorative identity in the Torah. As an opprobrious and ill-famed epithet of an unclean, disobedient, unproductive and obstinate people, the foreskin separates the believers from rejected, worthless and shameful races. The prophet David personifies the mutilated, yet devine, foreskin-haters; and Goliath, the ungodly prey with a visible well-known foreskin. Circumcised David overcomes not only the intact, offensive non-believer, but also mutilates thousands of Philistine penises with unmerciful brutality in the name of God by the command of Saul. Although Christianity attempts to preserve and protect the restored image of humanity, for Judaism and Islam the foreskin is identical with the essence of being human. A man's penis determines whether he is with God or not. Even women are instructed to marry the circumcised, and if they fall in love with uncircumcised men, the men must sacrifice their precious foreskins to approach the women with righteousness, purity, and godliness. Clearly, the foreskin is a symbol of the powerless, exploited marginalized and oppressed in religious history, male and female. The Torah even furthers the negative motif of the foreskin as metaphor to distinguish immature, undeveloped or transplanted trees, warning people not to eat their uncircumcised fruit until full maturity, until the trees are circumcised.

       The ecumenical agenda for advocates of reporting human rights infractions of genital mutiliation is above commonplace humitarian models. In fact, such paradigms of human rights advocacy do not exist. Then how does one envision and act upon a global economy for reporting human rights violations of genital mutilation when no such models are to be found?

       The U. N. promotes non-governmental organizations as the primary strongholds securing the universal consequences for reporting infractions of human rights. The two types of direct-care, hands-on NGOs appropriate to abolish genital mutiliation are GSOs and MSOs: Grassroots support organizations and membership support organizations. Solely dedicated to the advancement of the daily, ongoing lifestyles of people, GSOs are primary grassroots mechanisms. GSOs serve individuals and households, linking and empowering people with the ideals and actions of other organizations. MSOs network local agencies and neighborhood groups with like-minded institutions. Since both GSOs and MSOs deal with complex local-level issues, these are the immediate agents for human rights advocacy, not high-tech administrations and extravagant bureaucracies. The tensions between grassroots innovators and out-of-the-way officialdom continues to set the pace for undue turf wars based on human pride and the absence of humility. Still, international human rights advocates must empower local communities, the critical grassroots horizon, for all universal applications of human rights.

       >From the 5th to the 13th of September 1994, in Cairo, the United Nations is calling to order the International Conference on Population and Development, convening governmental officials, non-governmental and inter-governmental delegates. Through this official assembly, the U.N. `hopes to draft and adopt an international resolution to establish a new international concensus demanding that the issue of global population be the nucleus of all economic, social, political, and environmental developments. This writer attended some of the preparatory sessions for the conference at the United Nations in New York last month. During these day-long, taxing rounds the significant, if not exalted, role of NGOs was outstanding on the agenda of all plans of action for human rights. The consequential effect of NGOs on the United Nations agenda is concise: Human rights advocacy can neither be inaugurated or actualized without NGOs. Established ministries and their red tape are unproductive forces to facilitate human rights on the grassroots level. In the face of the NGOs, the U. N. both admits to its own downside and restrictions.

       However, having reviewed, researched and reassessed the unique processes of violations of human rights, the international reporting method, and the plethora of global factors concerning crimes of genital mutilation, especially in light of the instruments and supervisory mechanisms of the United Nations, this writer substantiates and presents the following counsel to the Third International Symposium on Circumcision as the only diplomatic response to the urgent necessity to document global infractions of human rights, both immediate and progressive:


Formulate and mobilize a senior level ad hoc working group of international experts on violations of genital mutilation with a prime objective to prepare and present an extensive consensus document or human rights statement, according to U. N. reporting protocol to the U.N. Centre on Human Rights in Geneva no later than the 10th of September 1998, Human Rights Day, the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations "Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


       Perhaps through the enduring birthpangs of the first three International Symposia on Circumcision, humanity will escape the deficient, debilitating western motifs of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic Philistine archetype and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and arrive at the sacred, unimpaired ideas of the foreskin as societal metaphor and the egalitarian paradise of the eastern mystics as illustrated by Thoreau's Walden Pond.

       The majority of U. N. Member States have signed and committed themselves to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, although the USA has objected to cooperate, having yet to join the other nations' wherewithal to protect and assure the prerogatives of all children. Summoning the nex round of universal birthright advocacy, excerpts from the Convention on the Rights of the Child best conclude this report and define the historic life and reputable work of the International Symposia on Circumcision:


[T]he United Nations recognizes that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in... an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding....

Bearing in mind that, as indicated in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the child, by reason of his or her physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth..

[The U.N.] shall ensure that the institutions, services, and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform to the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety and health, in the number and the suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision...

No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy.

[And the United Nations] shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parents, legal guardians or any other person who has the care of the child.

Such protected measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programs to provide necessary support for the child.

No child shall be subjected to torture or to other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

       Human genitalia are the least of all to defend themselves from historic violence and global misappropriation. Reporting human rights violations of genital mutilation is the inevitable process of a type of global foreskin-regeneration, that is, the uncircumcising of the collective unconscious. Yet the language for human rights is incoherent and ambiguous. Certainly there are unconditional global mandates embracing all human rights infractions imposed upon victims of genital mutiliation. The implications of the foreskin as a pejorative societal metaphor is imbedded in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic families of faith and, in turn historically, into the collective unconscious of humanity. Reporting global human rights infractions is based not only on United Nations instruments and processes, but also, and mostly, on local, grassroots activity, education and intervention.


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