Shaping Genitals, Shaping Perceptions: a Frame Analysis of Male and Female Circumcision

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Human rights claim universal validity, which implies that bias in their applicability as well as in their application should be avoided. From this perspective it is rather remarkable that female circumcision is a major cause for human rights concerns, whereas male circumcision is rarely addressed in the context of human rights. This raises the question whether practices of female circumcision are really that different from forms of male circumcision. There is at least some evidence that there are more similarities between male and female circumcision than commonly perceived. Taking this as a starting point, on the basis of facts, figures and rationales, we distinguish three types of circumcision: the ‘African’, the ‘American’ and the ‘Abrahamic’ type. Whereas male circumcision may fulfil the characteristics of any of these three types, female circumcision seems to fit only the African type. The typology allows for an analysis of the frames used in the debate to justify or delegitimise male and female circumcision. Frames that feature in the debates on male circumcision are a ‘medical/health frame’ and a ‘cultural/religious frame’, both with an ‘accessory human rights frame’. The debate on female circumcision (mostly referred to as female genital mutilation or FGM), on the other hand, is predominantly a ‘women’s rights frame’. The differences in normative framing as well as the consequences thereof for the human rights protection of men and women do not seem entirely justified by the differences between the practices of male and female circumcision. We discuss three forms of bias – related to culture, religion and to gender – that may help explain the diverging normative framings. Irrespective of one’s normative assessment of the compatibility of circumcision practices with human rights norms, the universality claim of human rights requires the application of the same standards to similar practices, regardless of sex.