When Linda’s son was just over a week old her husband did something so unforgivable it destroyed their marriage.
Respecting his beliefs
Linda, 39, from Sydney had always described her ex-husband Neil as a non-practising Jew, even though his family adhered strictly to the tenets of the Jewish faith and he had been circumcised as a newborn.
“When Neil and I first met, his parents strongly disapproved of our relationship because I’m not Jewish,” says Linda. “But Neil had always rebelled against every aspect of his upbringing – he never went to Temple or observed any of the faith’s dietary requirements – and he was very angry that his parents didn’t treat me the same as their other daughter’s-in-law. Neil’s brothers had all married Jewish girls in traditional Jewish ceremonies and were raising their children in the Jewish faith. Neil was the first of his family for generations to marry outside the faith and his parents refused to attend our secular wedding.”
Linda describes the hostilities she faced from Neil’s parents during the build-up to their wedding, “They gave money and expensive gifts to the wives of Neil’s brothers but instead I received a letter listing all the ways I wouldn’t be a suitable wife for their son, including not supporting the tradition of circumcising male infants.”
“I had always tried to be respectful of their religious beliefs and customs, even though I didn’t share or understand them,” Linda continues, “but I could not condone the genital mutilation of a baby, whether the idea has a 3000-year-old history or not. Gradually his parents came to accept me and after our daughter was born I also got the lavish gifts.”
Linda and Neil continued to live outside the faith, so she was surprised when Neil brought up the idea of circumcision during her second pregnancy.
“I flatly refused and eventually he dropped the subject but when our son was 8 days old he took him to visit his parents and, without my knowledge or consent, they held a Bris had him circumcised. The trust in our relationship was gone and the damage was irreparable. We separated and later divorced. I could never understand or forgive him,” Linda recalls.
Circumcision is a surgical procedure which alters the appearance of the genitals and involves the removal of the foreskin by pulling it away from the head of the penis, clamping it and cutting it off.
In the Jewish faith the circumcision is performed at a ceremony called a Bris by a circumciser known as a mohel. The circumcision traditionally takes place without anaesthetic in a non-medical environment when the infant is eight days old.
Muslims are the largest religious group to circumcise boys. In Islam the circumcision is also known as Tahara meaning “purification”. It is not compulsory but it is an important ritual aimed at improving cleanliness for prayer and is regarded as a sign of belonging to the Islamic faith. There is no fixed aged for circumcision for Muslims and the procedure is usually carried out by doctors in a clinic.
Circumcision has experienced a steep rise and fall in Australia; in the prudish Victorian era, doctors in Britain and its colonies adopted circumcision of both males and females to control sexual behaviour and to prevent STDs. Female circumcision was banned in 1867 but male circumcision continued well into the 20th century, performed by doctors who felt it necessary for good health.
As the century and medical science progressed practitioners began to understand the lack of necessity and inherent dangers of the operation and incidences of circumcision began a rapid decline, from 85 percent in the 1950s to around 12 percent in 2012 (Australian Bureau of Statistics). Today, babies born in rural areas are more likely to be circumcised than those born in urban areas and incidences are higher in communities where doctors are older and less up to date with modern medical practices.
Circumcision is a controversial subject which provokes fierce arguments both for and against. Despite the absence of support from any medical organisation in the world, those in favour of the procedure cite religious, cultural and health reasons (circumcision may prevent the transmission of STDs, urinary infections and cancer of the penis); those against say the alleged medical benefits do not justify the disfiguring of a boy’s genitals which can lead to excessive bleeding, discomfort and infection.
Linda’s main criticism is that her son’s procedure took place before he was able to give informed consent. “Without medical justification, nobody has the right to make that kind of decision on someone else’s behalf. My son is circumcised whether it is something he wants or not.”