Male & Female Circumcision Among Jews, Christians and Muslims: Religious, Medical, Social and Legal Debate

Author: Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh

Male & Female Circumcision Among Jews, Christians and Muslims: Religious, Medical, Social and Legal Debate by Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh. Warren Center, Pennsylvania: Shangri-La Publications, 2001. 400 pages. $36.00 (paper); $44.50 (hardcover). Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

This long-awaited book by well-known intactivist and Swiss Institute of Comparative Law Professor Sami Aldeeb is a fitting counterpoint to Lisa Bisque’s You Call This Love? Aldeeb’s work presents readers with an awe-inspiring wealth of information on many pertinent aspects of circumcision. Even the most dedicated advocate of genital integrity is likely to find much that is new here. It is delightful to read a book, possibly the first ever published, that comprehensively treats male and female genital cutting on an equal footing, in keeping with Aldeeb’s own personal enthusiasm for halting both practices. I found the author’s synthesis of the various different positions regarding male and female genital cutting to be highly intriguing and thought-provoking. The section on genital mutilations and human rights (pages 316-336) is particularly strong.

The downside is that the book is littered with regrettable typographical errors as well as many nonfelicitous translations from the Arabic in which the book originally appeared. As is inevitable with a work aspiring to this level of achievement, it also unfortunately contains a number of factual inaccuracies, though probably more than it needed to if it had undergone a more stringent pre-publication editorial process. For example, it is rather jarring to read on page 183 that physicians “hold that uncircumcised persons are more exposed to illness than uncircumcised ones.” (The author evidently meant to write “circumcised ones.”) On page 193, Aldeeb writes of Wiswell’s deception in using relative terms to express the difference between the rate of contraction of urinary tract infections, but claims that Wiswell thereby came up with a 10% increase in UTI’s for intact boys, whereas actually Wiswell calculated the rate was ten TIMES or 1,000% larger. Again, on page 197, Aldeeb refers to the United States as having the sixth largest NUMBER of AIDS cases in the world, whereas the data he presents clearly shows that we have the sixth largest RATIO PER CAPITA of AIDS cases. The problem with such errors is they cannot help but leave the reader with lingering doubt regarding the accuracy of some of the other information in the book that is not as easily checked.

Periodically, the reader may find that engaging but relatively pointless stories creep into the text, such as the tale on page 282 of the man who stole the circumcision board. While it is useful to have summaries of other authors’ writings on pertinent subjects, it is odd to read two-page block quotations taken from these works with little or no editorial comment inserted by the author. On the other hand, such information would be very useful if placed in context with critical analyses provided by the author.

Male & Female Circumcision at times reads like the author’s notes for an encyclopedia on the subject of genital mutilations. The information is a goldmine; the presentation and organization somewhat regrettable. We can hope for a second edition of this work that may correct many of these errors, add further updated information, and allow for careful fact checking. Such an edition would do well to cite primary sources rather than secondary ones, particularly those tending toward the obscure. The pervasive nonstandard English should be remedied and the many typographical errors should be repaired. Finally, our paperback edition is already starting to fall apart, not a hopeful sign for a reference work that should prove useful for years to come.

Despite all this, I highly recommend Sami Aldeeb’s passionate work for the large amount of information it contains which cannot easily be found elsewhere, and for daring to make the first stab at globally addressing many aspects of genital mutilations within the covers of one book. For all its shortcomings, I consider this to be one of the most important books ever written about genital integrity, and highly recommend that every reader seek out a copy for his or her perusal and personal library.