A Rose By Any Other Name? Symmetry And Assymmetry In Male And Female Genital Cutting

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A Rose by Any Other Name? Symmetry and Assymmetry in Male and Female Genital Cutting
R. Darby and J.S. Svoboda

from Fearful Symmetries: Essays and Testimonies Around Excision and Circumcision, ed. Chantal Zabus (New York: Rodopi, 2009)
Also available on the Attorneys for the Rights of the Child Website

A Rose by Any Other Name_Symmetry and Assymmetry in Male and Female Genital Cutting

Note: This is a revised and substantially expanded version of the article originally published as “A Rose by any other Name: Rethinking the Similarities and Differences between Male and Female Genital Cutting,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 21 (September 2007).


The essay offers a critical examination of the tendency to segregate discussion of surgical alterations to the male and female genitals into separate compartments – the first known as circumcision, the second as genital mutilation. It is argued that this fundamental problem of definition underlies the considerable controversy surrounding these procedures when carried out on minors, and that it hinders objective discussion of the alleged benefits, harms and risks. The variable effects of male and female genital surgeries are explored, and a scale of damage for male circumcision to complement the World Health Organization’s categorization of female genital mutilation is proposed. The origins of the double standard identified are placed in historical perspective, and a brief conclusion makes a plea for greater gender neutrality in the approach to this contentious issue.