Friday, 17 April 2015

The importance of academic freedom and open debate

Today, The Jewish Chronicle published a letter in which a cross-section of Jewish academics, including myself, condemned the undermining of academic freedom at the University of Southampton.

This letter is too little, too late, at least from the point of view of this particular academic conference, which has now been indefinitely postponed. But let's hope that the support for unhindered academic freedom expressed by a spectrum of Jewish academics, as well as by many Jewish communal figures (albeit primarily in private so far), will make Jewish organisations think twice before bringing pressure to bear on universities to limit open debate in the future. 

Below is a copy of the text and a full list of signatories, together with a photograph of the letter as it appeared in today’s print edition:

Dear Editor,

As Jewish academics in the UK, we condemn the pressure that has been brought to bear, in our names, on the University of Southampton, and which led to the withdrawing of permission to hold the conference "International Law and the State of Israel” on its premises. We are deeply concerned by reports that organisations, including the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council, pressured the University to limit open debate. 

The unhindered airing and rigorous critiquing of ideas, especially controversial ones that may make some feel uncomfortable or offended, is at the core of the academy and the intellectual process. Academic freedom should not be restricted because some people disagree strongly with ideas being expressed or because such ideas are against their strongly held convictions. Rather, those people should challenge such ideas with counter-arguments based on sound analysis and evidence. Meanwhile, academics should decide what constitutes acceptable academic debate, unless the subject breaches UK law, which neither the conference's description nor outline appear to do. 

Restricting the spaces and places available for debate is not only intellectually lazy and against the principles of academic freedom, but also sets dangerous precedents. In this instance, those precedents include legitimising the interference and intervention of outside interest groups on campus; limiting academic debate; silencing critical voices; and setting the stage for further moves to boycott academic events and individuals. None of this is acceptable, and we feel we have a duty to stand up against it now. 

We also wish to express our disappointment in the University of Southampton for failing to uphold free academic debate in this case. We hope that the University realises that the reported actions of some Jewish organisations in relation to this conference do not speak for all Jews, and that many of us - including those who disagree vehemently with the viewpoints of some of the conference presenters - are nevertheless dismayed by what has happened.

Yours,

Prof Geoffrey Alderman, University of Buckingham
Prof David Feldman, Birkbeck, University of London
Dr Bernard Gowers, University of Oxford
Prof Paul Hyams, Universities of Cornell and Oxford (Emeritus)
Mr Charles Keidan, City University London
Dr Liora Lazarus, University of Oxford
Dr Amir Paz-Fuchs, University of Sussex
Prof Avi Shlaim, University of Oxford
Dr Rebecca Steinfeld, London School of Economics
Prof David Steinsaltz, University of Oxford
Mr Bernard Sufrin, University of Oxford
Dr Adam Sutcliffe, King’s College London
Dr Ruvi Ziegler, University of Reading

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

High Court judge grants permission to take my partner's and my equal civil partnerships case to trial

A High Court judge, Mrs Justice Elisabeth Laing DBE, has granted my partner, Charles Keidan, and me permission to proceed with our legal case against the government’s continued barring of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. The judge has also granted us a Protective Costs Order (PCO) to limit our liability for the government’s legal costs in the event that our case is unsuccessful. The judge’s granting of permission and PCO make clear that our case is of public importance and is in the public interest.

As our solicitor, Louise Whitfield, a partner at Deighton Pierce Glynn, put it: “This is an important case about discrimination and human rights affecting thousands of people; in granting permission the judge acknowledges the case is arguable and should be heard; PCOs are not awarded lightly, but only in cases of real public importance which it is in the public interest for the court to decide.”

Donations are now URGENTLY required to enable the case to proceed since we could still be liable for up to £70,000 of legal costs if we lose – an extremely onerous amount for us with a baby on the way! So we have launched an appeal for new contributions via crowd-funding website GoFundMe. Please consider donating now, as well as signing our petition.


For further information about today's news, please see the following article in Pink News.  

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Hysteria: Male circumcision is a feminist issue too

Below is an interview I gave to Tove Lyssarides at Hysteria, a periodical and platform for feminist activism, about why male circumcision is a feminist issue too.

In it, I argue that "it’s time to re-examine our gender and cultural assumptions about genital cutting, and take a non-discriminatory, intellectually consistent approach. We either accept that the loss of some individual rights of both boys and girls is the price of societal diversity, or we respect the rights of all children, both girls and boys, equally." 

Please let me know your thoughts @beccasteinfeld, and consider sharing it with your networks.

---

MALE CIRCUMCISION IS A FEMINIST ISSUE TOO

A CONVERSATION BETWEEN DR. REBECCA STEINFELD & TOVE LYSSARIDES








T: You have argued that male circumcision is a feminist issue. Why do you think this is the case?
R: Feminism, at its best, encourages us to think broadly and critically about the potentially harmful effects of gender constructions on both men and women. It is so much more than a narrow interest group of women who care only about ‘women’s issues’ or women’s rights. Feminism is much bigger than that. It is about identifying and challenging discourses and practices that engender all of us. Male genital cutting (MGC) has been described as “a gendering practice tied to masculinity and the management of male sexuality” that “parallels the ways in which feminist scholars have argued that female genital cutting (FGC) serves to fix gender in women.” As such, like FGC, MGC is a feminist issue. Furthermore, not challenging MGC while condemning FGC reinforces sexist attitudes about female and male bodies. It perpetuates the idea that male bodies are resistant to harm or even in need of being tested by painful ordeals, whereas female bodies are highly vulnerable and in need of protection, and as such propagates the notion that vulnerability is gendered. Finally, from a strategic point of view, making foreskin cutting a feminist issue strengthens efforts to eliminate female genital cutting. How can activists expect to convince a mother to leave her daughter uncircumcised if her husband is able to continue circumcising his son? That double standard is counter-productive. T: What are, according to you, the most important and powerful arguments against male circumcision?

R: First and foremost, the argument that all children, whether female, male or intersex should be protected from having parts of their genitals cut or removed unless there is a pressing medical indication, regardless of the cultural or religious affiliations of the parents. This is the standard approach in medical ethics, and is tied to ideas about the importance of bodily integrity and personal autonomy. Second, the child’s right to an open future: A boy who has been circumcised must live forever with his parents’ choice, thus undermining his self-determination. Third, circumcision can cause physical, psychological and sexual harm: In 2011, in Birmingham Children’s Hospital, 11 boys under the age of one were treated for life threatening haemorrhage, shock or sepsis relating to circumcision. Though defenders of circumcision often point to parents’ rights to freedom of religion, the right to manifest one’s religion is not absolute and is limited by the harm caused to others. It does not justify exposing a child to disease, injury or death.

T: Don’t you think the comparison between FGM and male circumcision is problematic and runs a risk of neglecting the sexist and harmful elements of FGM?

R: I understand why some resist the comparison between female and male genital cutting. The media tends to juxtapose the most severe forms of female genital cutting with the least severe forms of male genital cutting, leading to the impression that the former is always barbaric and the latter is always benign or even beneficial to health. But the reality is much more complex.

First, FGC exists on a spectrum from nicks in the clitoral hood through to removal of the clitoris and labia, and sewing up of the remaining flesh (known as infibulation). MGC also exists on a spectrum from removal of the foreskin to sub-incision (slicing open the urethral passage on the underside of the penis from the scrotum to the glans) to testicular crushing.
Second, though FGC may in some cultures involve a sexist expression of patriarchal values and an attempt to contain women’s sexuality within marriage and reproduction by reducing sexual pleasure, some women have challenged the representation of FGC as inherently barbaric. It is nearly always carried out by women, many of who believe it is a beautifying, empowering and important rite of passage with high cultural value. Consequently those women vigorously defend it against Western efforts to wipe it out, which they regard as culturally imperialist. Meanwhile, some have pointed out that MGC can also be bound up with patriarchy. Judaism only requires the circumcision of boys as part of the divine covenant, suggesting inherent sexism. And the Jewish sage Maimonides and the Victorians advocated MGC to reduce lust and masturbation, indicating that both FGC and MGC have sought to shape bodies and control sexual desire.
There are several other overlaps: Both occur without the consent of the child, and irreversibly violate the child’s human rights to bodily integrity and an open future. Both can cause serious, long-term physical, mental and sexual harm (severe bleeding, problems urinating, infections, and, in the case of FGC, infertility, complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths). Both prioritise the cultural or religious beliefs of parents over their child’s right to self-determination.
So the two practices may in fact be much closer in reality that they appear in the public imagination. Drawing attention to these overlaps doesn’t trivialise the harm done to women, it simply highlights that men too can be harmed by genital cutting. It is important to remember that this is not a harm competition: One can believe, as I do, that both girls and boys have a right to be protected from nonconsensual non-therapeutic cutting of their genitalia.
T: How, according to you, should the (liberal) state deal with this issue?
R: There are three possible approaches: First, the state could continue accepting that, in the case of only male infant genital cutting, personal freedom is the price of societal diversity – approach rooted in a respect for pluralism and multiculturalism. To preserve the community, one sacrifices some individual rights, in this case those of the individual boy. The problem is that sacrificing basic concepts like individual rights and bodily integrity to a particular worldview focused on community could be a slippery slope. Plus, it would require rethinking opposition to FGC, and perhaps even re-allowing it on the basis of parents’ religious beliefs or cultural preferences. In my opinion, this should be unconscionable.
The second approach is more purist and more rights based. It would involve banning non-therapeutic infant male circumcision outright in order to safeguard the rights of the child. This would send a powerful symbolic message. But there are problems here too, since prohibition could have troubling side effects, such as driving the practice further underground or putting parents off seeking post-surgical medical help for fear of prosecution. This could put more children at more risk.
A third approach is to reduce the harm caused to children by constraining the practice in ways that minimally infringe on religious rights, such as prohibiting circumcision without anaesthesia, insisting that it only be performed by a properly qualified paediatric surgeon in a hospital, and outlawing certain religious practices such as sucking blood from the wound. The challenge to this approach is that while it alleviates actual harm, it fails to overcome the fundamental issues of the lack of consent to an irreversible procedure, and the undermining of the child’s right to bodily integrity.
Either way, it’s time to re-examine our gender and cultural assumptions about genital cutting, and take a non-discriminatory, intellectually consistent approach. We either accept that the loss of some individual rights of both boys and girls is the price of societal diversity, or we respect the rights of all children, both girls and boys, equally.
T: Many proponents of male circumcisions argue that it is a long tradition that people (parents) will continue to practice even though it gets outlawed. Is it not better to keep male circumcision controlled by the state to ensure clean, hygienic methods for this practice?
R: First, neither the longevity nor meaning of a particular practice are usually accepted as sufficient moral justification to override individual rights. As one Orthodox Jewish father, Elie Jesner, puts it, “Mankind has been doing horrendous things for thousands of years: slavery, capital punishment, condemning homosexuals, oppressing women. That is not a club of actions I want to be part of.”
Second, not all parents would continue to circumcise their sons if the practice was legally restricted. A 2006 online survey reported in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper found that nearly a third of parents of boys would prefer to forgo circumcision, but have it done primarily for social reasons. Enforcement of existing child protection laws or an explicit ban could actually provide these parents with the legal and moral support they need to effectively stand up against the communal and familial pressure to circumcise. A ban could also send a powerful symbolic message that would no doubt prompt many more people to reconsider their decision to circumcise. So there are advantages to this approach. But, there are also disadvantages. As I said before, it could drive the practice further underground or put parents off seeking post-surgical medical help for fear of prosecution, putting more children at more risk.
The advantage of regulation is that it could reduce the harm caused to children by constraining the practice in ways that minimally infringe on religious rights. The problem is that it fails to overcome the fundamental issues of the lack of consent to an irreversible procedure, and the undermining of the child’s right to bodily integrity. Only voluntary or legally enforced cessation of the practice could address those issues.
T: What kinds of reactions have you received for your criticism of male circumcision?
R: A mixture. Some have refused to engage with my ethical and legal questions outright, and dismissed me as a self-hating Jew, while others have been extremely supportive. When I first wrote publicly about this issue in The Guardian in 2011, I was subjected to three weeks of character assassination in one of the UK’s main Jewish newspapers, The Jewish Chronicle, and was fired from my role as an Under-35 Observer to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Two years later, when I wrote about the overlaps between female and male genital cutting, I was criticized again, but this time by anti-FGM campaigners unwilling to consider the overlaps between all forms of infant genital cutting. So you’ve got to have a thick skin to enter this fray!
But, at the same time, many people have reached out to me both in public and private. Some have expressed their agreement, and thanked me for raising these issues or confided in me about their own dilemmas. Others have challenged me, thoughtfully and respectfully. I have had several stimulating and lengthy discussions over email and Facebook about the ethics, legality and health issues surrounding the practice. Several Jewish friends and acquaintances told me in confidence that they feel deeply uncomfortable with their decision to circumcise (some even regret it) or are struggling to decide what to do. I have enormous empathy and sympathy for the position they are in. I think it’s crucial that well-intentioned Jews who continue to circumcise their sons should not be maligned, and that the significant religious and cultural value they ascribe to circumcision is appreciated and understood. But, at the same time, I think Jews who question circumcision from the point of view of human rights and medical ethics should also be respected, not demonized. And reconsidering the practice in light of its human rights and ethical implications should be encouraged.

Dr Rebecca Steinfeld is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History at Stanford University. She is also a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker and Haaretz Jewish Thinker. She researches the history and politics of reproduction in Israel, and genital cutting, and tweets @beccasteinfeld

Artwork © Erin Solomon

 
- See more at: http://www.hystericalfeminisms.com/male-circumcision-is-a-feminist-issue-too/#sthash.W2P1ik4O.dpuf
T: You have argued that male circumcision is a feminist issue. Why do you think this is the case?
 
R: Feminism, at its best, encourages us to think broadly and critically about the potentially harmful effects of gender constructions on both men and women. It is so much more than a narrow interest group of women who care only about ‘women’s issues’ or women’s rights. Feminism is much bigger than that. It is about identifying and challenging discourses and practices that engender all of us. The legal scholars Marie Fox and Michael Thomson describe male genital cutting (MGC) as “a gendering practice tied to masculinity and the management of male sexuality” that “parallels the ways in which feminist scholars have argued that female genital cutting (FGC) serves to fix gender in women.” As such, like FGC, MGC is a feminist issue. Furthermore, not challenging MGC while condemning FGC reinforces sexist attitudes about female and male bodies. It perpetuates the idea that male bodies are resistant to harm or even in need of being tested by painful ordeals, whereas female bodies are highly vulnerable and in need of protection, and as such propagates the notion that vulnerability is gendered. Finally, from a strategic point of view, making foreskin cutting a feminist issue strengthens efforts to eliminate female genital cutting. How can activists expect to convince a mother to leave her daughter uncircumcised if her husband is able to continue circumcising his son? That double standard is counter-productive.

T: What are, according to you, the most important and powerful arguments against male circumcision?

R: First and foremost, the bioethicist Brian Earp’s argument that “all children, whether female, male or intersex should be protected from having parts of their genitals cut or removed unless there is a pressing medical indication … regardless of the cultural or religious affiliations of the parents.” This is the standard approach in medical ethics, and is tied to ideas about the importance of bodily integrity and personal autonomy. Second, the child’s right to an open future: A boy who has been circumcised must live forever with his parents’ choice, thus undermining his self-determination. Third, circumcision can cause physical, psychological and sexual harm: In 2011, in Birmingham Children’s Hospital, 11 boys under the age of one were treated for life threatening haemorrhage, shock or sepsis relating to circumcision. Though defenders of circumcision often point to parents’ rights to freedom of religion, the right to manifest one’s religion is not absolute and is limited by the harm caused to others. It does not justify exposing a child to disease, injury or death.

T: Don’t you think the comparison between FGM and male circumcision is problematic and runs a risk of neglecting the sexist and harmful elements of FGM?

R: I understand why some resist the comparison between female and male genital cutting. The media tends to juxtapose the most severe forms of female genital cutting with the least severe forms of male genital cutting, leading to the impression that the former is always barbaric and the latter is always benign or even beneficial to health. But the reality is much more complex.

First, FGC exists on a spectrum from nicks in the clitoral hood through to removal of the clitoris and labia, and sewing up of the remaining flesh (known as infibulation). MGC also exists on a spectrum from removal of the foreskin to sub-incision (slicing open the urethral passage on the underside of the penis from the scrotum to the glans) to testicular crushing.

Second, though FGC may in some cultures involve a sexist expression of patriarchal values and an attempt to contain women’s sexuality within marriage and reproduction by reducing sexual pleasure, some women have challenged the representation of FGC as inherently barbaric. As Earp points out, it is nearly always carried out by women, many of who believe it is a beautifying, empowering and important rite of passage with high cultural value. Consequently those women vigorously defend it against Western efforts to wipe it out, which they regard as culturally imperialist. Meanwhile, some have pointed out that MGC can also be bound up with patriarchy. Judaism only requires the circumcision of boys as part of the divine covenant, suggesting inherent sexism. And the Jewish sage Maimonides and the Victorians advocated MGC to reduce lust and masturbation, indicating that both FGC and MGC have sought to shape bodies and control sexual desire.

There are several other overlaps: Both occur without the consent of the child, and irreversibly violate the child’s human rights to bodily integrity and an open future. Both can cause serious, long-term physical, mental and sexual harm (severe bleeding, problems urinating, infections, and, in the case of FGC, infertility, complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths). Both prioritise the cultural or religious beliefs of parents over their child’s right to self-determination.

So the two practices may in fact be much closer in reality that they appear in the public imagination. Drawing attention to these overlaps doesn’t trivialise the harm done to women, it simply highlights that men too can be harmed by genital cutting. It is important to remember that this is not a harm competition: One can believe, as I do, that girls, boys and intersex children have a right to be protected from non-consensual, non-therapeutic cutting of their genitalia.

T: How, according to you, should the (liberal) state deal with this issue?

R: There are three possible approaches: First, the state could continue accepting that, in the case of only male infant genital cutting, personal freedom is the price of societal diversity – approach rooted in a respect for pluralism and multiculturalism. To preserve the community, one sacrifices some individual rights, in this case those of the individual boy. The problem is that sacrificing basic concepts like individual rights and bodily integrity to a particular worldview focused on community could be a slippery slope. Plus, it would require rethinking opposition to FGC, and perhaps even re-allowing it on the basis of parents’ religious beliefs or cultural preferences. In my opinion, this should be unconscionable.

The second approach is more purist and more rights based. It would involve banning non-therapeutic infant male circumcision outright in order to safeguard the rights of the child. This would send a powerful symbolic message. But there are problems here too, since prohibition could have troubling side effects, such as driving the practice further underground or putting parents off seeking post-surgical medical help for fear of prosecution. This could put more children at more risk.

A third approach is to reduce the harm caused to children by constraining the practice in ways that minimally infringe on religious rights, such as prohibiting circumcision without anaesthesia, insisting that it only be performed by a properly qualified paediatric surgeon in a hospital, and outlawing certain religious practices such as sucking blood from the wound. The challenge to this approach is that while it alleviates actual harm, it fails to overcome the fundamental issues of the lack of consent to an irreversible procedure, and the undermining of the child’s right to bodily integrity.

Either way, it’s time to re-examine our gender and cultural assumptions about genital cutting, and take a non-discriminatory, intellectually consistent approach. We either accept that the loss of some individual rights of both boys and girls is the price of societal diversity, or we respect the rights of all children, both girls and boys, equally.

T: Many proponents of male circumcisions argue that it is a long tradition that people (parents) will continue to practice even though it gets outlawed. Is it not better to keep male circumcision controlled by the state to ensure clean, hygienic methods for this practice?

R: First, neither the longevity nor meaning of a particular practice are usually accepted as sufficient moral justification to override individual rights. As one Orthodox Jewish father, Elie Jesner, puts it, “Mankind has been doing horrendous things for thousands of years: slavery, capital punishment, condemning homosexuals, oppressing women. That is not a club of actions I want to be part of.”

Second, not all parents would continue to circumcise their sons if the practice was legally restricted. A 2006 online survey reported in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper found that nearly a third of parents of boys would prefer to forgo circumcision, but have it done primarily for social reasons. Enforcement of existing child protection laws or an explicit ban could actually provide these parents with the legal and moral support they need to effectively stand up against the communal and familial pressure to circumcise. A ban could also send a powerful symbolic message that would no doubt prompt many more people to reconsider their decision to circumcise. So there are advantages to this approach. But, there are also disadvantages. As I said before, it could drive the practice further underground or put parents off seeking post-surgical medical help for fear of prosecution, putting more children at more risk.

The advantage of regulation is that it could reduce the harm caused to children by constraining the practice in ways that minimally infringe on religious rights. The problem is that it fails to overcome the fundamental issues of the lack of consent to an irreversible procedure, and the undermining of the child’s right to bodily integrity. Only voluntary or legally enforced cessation of the practice could address those issues.

T: What kinds of reactions have you received for your criticism of male circumcision?

R: A mixture. Some have refused to engage with my ethical and legal questions outright, and dismissed me as a self-hating Jew, while others have been extremely supportive. When I first wrote publicly about this issue in The Guardian in 2011, I was subjected to three weeks of character assassination in one of the UK’s main Jewish newspapers, The Jewish Chronicle, and was fired from my role as an Under-35 Observer to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Two years later, when I wrote about the overlaps between female and male genital cutting, I was criticized again, but this time by anti-FGM campaigners unwilling to consider the overlaps between all forms of infant genital cutting. So you’ve got to have a thick skin to enter this fray!

But, at the same time, many people have reached out to me both in public and private. Some have expressed their agreement, and thanked me for raising these issues or confided in me about their own dilemmas. Others have challenged me, thoughtfully and respectfully. I have had several stimulating and lengthy discussions over email and Facebook about the ethics, legality and health issues surrounding the practice. Several Jewish friends and acquaintances told me in confidence that they feel deeply uncomfortable with their decision to circumcise (some even regret it) or are struggling to decide what to do. I have enormous empathy and sympathy for the position they are in. I think it’s crucial that well-intentioned Jews who continue to circumcise their sons should not be maligned, and that the significant religious and cultural value they ascribe to circumcision is appreciated and understood. But, at the same time, I think Jews who question circumcision from the point of view of human rights and medical ethics should also be respected, not demonized. And reconsidering the practice in light of its human rights and ethical implications should be encouraged.



T: What kinds of reactions have you received for your criticism of male circumcision?
R: A mixture. Some have refused to engage with my ethical and legal questions outright, and dismissed me as a self-hating Jew, while others have been extremely supportive. When I first wrote publicly about this issue in The Guardian in 2011, I was subjected to three weeks of character assassination in one of the UK’s main Jewish newspapers, The Jewish Chronicle, and was fired from my role as an Under-35 Observer to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Two years later, when I wrote about the overlaps between female and male genital cutting, I was criticized again, but this time by anti-FGM campaigners unwilling to consider the overlaps between all forms of infant genital cutting. So you’ve got to have a thick skin to enter this fray!
But, at the same time, many people have reached out to me both in public and private. Some have expressed their agreement, and thanked me for raising these issues or confided in me about their own dilemmas. Others have challenged me, thoughtfully and respectfully. I have had several stimulating and lengthy discussions over email and Facebook about the ethics, legality and health issues surrounding the practice. Several Jewish friends and acquaintances told me in confidence that they feel deeply uncomfortable with their decision to circumcise (some even regret it) or are struggling to decide what to do. I have enormous empathy and sympathy for the position they are in. I think it’s crucial that well-intentioned Jews who continue to circumcise their sons should not be maligned, and that the significant religious and cultural value they ascribe to circumcision is appreciated and understood. But, at the same time, I think Jews who question circumcision from the point of view of human rights and medical ethics should also be respected, not demonized. And reconsidering the practice in light of its human rights and ethical implications should be encouraged.
- See more at: http://www.hystericalfeminisms.com/male-circumcision-is-a-feminist-issue-too/#sthash.W2P1ik4O.dpuf






T: You have argued that male circumcision is a feminist issue. Why do you think this is the case?
R: Feminism, at its best, encourages us to think broadly and critically about the potentially harmful effects of gender constructions on both men and women. It is so much more than a narrow interest group of women who care only about ‘women’s issues’ or women’s rights. Feminism is much bigger than that. It is about identifying and challenging discourses and practices that engender all of us. Male genital cutting (MGC) has been described as “a gendering practice tied to masculinity and the management of male sexuality” that “parallels the ways in which feminist scholars have argued that female genital cutting (FGC) serves to fix gender in women.” As such, like FGC, MGC is a feminist issue. Furthermore, not challenging MGC while condemning FGC reinforces sexist attitudes about female and male bodies. It perpetuates the idea that male bodies are resistant to harm or even in need of being tested by painful ordeals, whereas female bodies are highly vulnerable and in need of protection, and as such propagates the notion that vulnerability is gendered. Finally, from a strategic point of view, making foreskin cutting a feminist issue strengthens efforts to eliminate female genital cutting. How can activists expect to convince a mother to leave her daughter uncircumcised if her husband is able to continue circumcising his son? That double standard is counter-productive.
T: What are, according to you, the most important and powerful arguments against male circumcision?

R: First and foremost, the argument that all children, whether female, male or intersex should be protected from having parts of their genitals cut or removed unless there is a pressing medical indication, regardless of the cultural or religious affiliations of the parents. This is the standard approach in medical ethics, and is tied to ideas about the importance of bodily integrity and personal autonomy. Second, the child’s right to an open future: A boy who has been circumcised must live forever with his parents’ choice, thus undermining his self-determination. Third, circumcision can cause physical, psychological and sexual harm: In 2011, in Birmingham Children’s Hospital, 11 boys under the age of one were treated for life threatening haemorrhage, shock or sepsis relating to circumcision. Though defenders of circumcision often point to parents’ rights to freedom of religion, the right to manifest one’s religion is not absolute and is limited by the harm caused to others. It does not justify exposing a child to disease, injury or death.
T: Don’t you think the comparison between FGM and male circumcision is problematic and runs a risk of neglecting the sexist and harmful elements of FGM?

R: I understand why some resist the comparison between female and male genital cutting. The media tends to juxtapose the most severe forms of female genital cutting with the least severe forms of male genital cutting, leading to the impression that the former is always barbaric and the latter is always benign or even beneficial to health. But the reality is much more complex.
First, FGC exists on a spectrum from nicks in the clitoral hood through to removal of the clitoris and labia, and sewing up of the remaining flesh (known as infibulation). MGC also exists on a spectrum from removal of the foreskin to sub-incision (slicing open the urethral passage on the underside of the penis from the scrotum to the glans) to testicular crushing.
Second, though FGC may in some cultures involve a sexist expression of patriarchal values and an attempt to contain women’s sexuality within marriage and reproduction by reducing sexual pleasure, some women have challenged the representation of FGC as inherently barbaric. It is nearly always carried out by women, many of who believe it is a beautifying, empowering and important rite of passage with high cultural value. Consequently those women vigorously defend it against Western efforts to wipe it out, which they regard as culturally imperialist. Meanwhile, some have pointed out that MGC can also be bound up with patriarchy. Judaism only requires the circumcision of boys as part of the divine covenant, suggesting inherent sexism. And the Jewish sage Maimonides and the Victorians advocated MGC to reduce lust and masturbation, indicating that both FGC and MGC have sought to shape bodies and control sexual desire.
There are several other overlaps: Both occur without the consent of the child, and irreversibly violate the child’s human rights to bodily integrity and an open future. Both can cause serious, long-term physical, mental and sexual harm (severe bleeding, problems urinating, infections, and, in the case of FGC, infertility, complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths). Both prioritise the cultural or religious beliefs of parents over their child’s right to self-determination.
So the two practices may in fact be much closer in reality that they appear in the public imagination. Drawing attention to these overlaps doesn’t trivialise the harm done to women, it simply highlights that men too can be harmed by genital cutting. It is important to remember that this is not a harm competition: One can believe, as I do, that both girls and boys have a right to be protected from nonconsensual non-therapeutic cutting of their genitalia.
T: How, according to you, should the (liberal) state deal with this issue?
R: There are three possible approaches: First, the state could continue accepting that, in the case of only male infant genital cutting, personal freedom is the price of societal diversity – approach rooted in a respect for pluralism and multiculturalism. To preserve the community, one sacrifices some individual rights, in this case those of the individual boy. The problem is that sacrificing basic concepts like individual rights and bodily integrity to a particular worldview focused on community could be a slippery slope. Plus, it would require rethinking opposition to FGC, and perhaps even re-allowing it on the basis of parents’ religious beliefs or cultural preferences. In my opinion, this should be unconscionable.
The second approach is more purist and more rights based. It would involve banning non-therapeutic infant male circumcision outright in order to safeguard the rights of the child. This would send a powerful symbolic message. But there are problems here too, since prohibition could have troubling side effects, such as driving the practice further underground or putting parents off seeking post-surgical medical help for fear of prosecution. This could put more children at more risk.
A third approach is to reduce the harm caused to children by constraining the practice in ways that minimally infringe on religious rights, such as prohibiting circumcision without anaesthesia, insisting that it only be performed by a properly qualified paediatric surgeon in a hospital, and outlawing certain religious practices such as sucking blood from the wound. The challenge to this approach is that while it alleviates actual harm, it fails to overcome the fundamental issues of the lack of consent to an irreversible procedure, and the undermining of the child’s right to bodily integrity.
Either way, it’s time to re-examine our gender and cultural assumptions about genital cutting, and take a non-discriminatory, intellectually consistent approach. We either accept that the loss of some individual rights of both boys and girls is the price of societal diversity, or we respect the rights of all children, both girls and boys, equally.
T: Many proponents of male circumcisions argue that it is a long tradition that people (parents) will continue to practice even though it gets outlawed. Is it not better to keep male circumcision controlled by the state to ensure clean, hygienic methods for this practice?
R: First, neither the longevity nor meaning of a particular practice are usually accepted as sufficient moral justification to override individual rights. As one Orthodox Jewish father, Elie Jesner, puts it, “Mankind has been doing horrendous things for thousands of years: slavery, capital punishment, condemning homosexuals, oppressing women. That is not a club of actions I want to be part of.”
Second, not all parents would continue to circumcise their sons if the practice was legally restricted. A 2006 online survey reported in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper found that nearly a third of parents of boys would prefer to forgo circumcision, but have it done primarily for social reasons. Enforcement of existing child protection laws or an explicit ban could actually provide these parents with the legal and moral support they need to effectively stand up against the communal and familial pressure to circumcise. A ban could also send a powerful symbolic message that would no doubt prompt many more people to reconsider their decision to circumcise. So there are advantages to this approach. But, there are also disadvantages. As I said before, it could drive the practice further underground or put parents off seeking post-surgical medical help for fear of prosecution, putting more children at more risk.
The advantage of regulation is that it could reduce the harm caused to children by constraining the practice in ways that minimally infringe on religious rights. The problem is that it fails to overcome the fundamental issues of the lack of consent to an irreversible procedure, and the undermining of the child’s right to bodily integrity. Only voluntary or legally enforced cessation of the practice could address those issues.
T: What kinds of reactions have you received for your criticism of male circumcision?
R: A mixture. Some have refused to engage with my ethical and legal questions outright, and dismissed me as a self-hating Jew, while others have been extremely supportive. When I first wrote publicly about this issue in The Guardian in 2011, I was subjected to three weeks of character assassination in one of the UK’s main Jewish newspapers, The Jewish Chronicle, and was fired from my role as an Under-35 Observer to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Two years later, when I wrote about the overlaps between female and male genital cutting, I was criticized again, but this time by anti-FGM campaigners unwilling to consider the overlaps between all forms of infant genital cutting. So you’ve got to have a thick skin to enter this fray!
But, at the same time, many people have reached out to me both in public and private. Some have expressed their agreement, and thanked me for raising these issues or confided in me about their own dilemmas. Others have challenged me, thoughtfully and respectfully. I have had several stimulating and lengthy discussions over email and Facebook about the ethics, legality and health issues surrounding the practice. Several Jewish friends and acquaintances told me in confidence that they feel deeply uncomfortable with their decision to circumcise (some even regret it) or are struggling to decide what to do. I have enormous empathy and sympathy for the position they are in. I think it’s crucial that well-intentioned Jews who continue to circumcise their sons should not be maligned, and that the significant religious and cultural value they ascribe to circumcision is appreciated and understood. But, at the same time, I think Jews who question circumcision from the point of view of human rights and medical ethics should also be respected, not demonized. And reconsidering the practice in light of its human rights and ethical implications should be encouraged.

Dr Rebecca Steinfeld is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History at Stanford University. She is also a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker and Haaretz Jewish Thinker. She researches the history and politics of reproduction in Israel, and genital cutting, and tweets @beccasteinfeld

Artwork © Erin Solomon

 
- See more at: http://www.hystericalfeminisms.com/male-circumcision-is-a-feminist-issue-too/#sthash.W2P1ik4O.dpuf
T: What kinds of reactions have you received for your criticism of male circumcision?
R: A mixture. Some have refused to engage with my ethical and legal questions outright, and dismissed me as a self-hating Jew, while others have been extremely supportive. When I first wrote publicly about this issue in The Guardian in 2011, I was subjected to three weeks of character assassination in one of the UK’s main Jewish newspapers, The Jewish Chronicle, and was fired from my role as an Under-35 Observer to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Two years later, when I wrote about the overlaps between female and male genital cutting, I was criticized again, but this time by anti-FGM campaigners unwilling to consider the overlaps between all forms of infant genital cutting. So you’ve got to have a thick skin to enter this fray!
But, at the same time, many people have reached out to me both in public and private. Some have expressed their agreement, and thanked me for raising these issues or confided in me about their own dilemmas. Others have challenged me, thoughtfully and respectfully. I have had several stimulating and lengthy discussions over email and Facebook about the ethics, legality and health issues surrounding the practice. Several Jewish friends and acquaintances told me in confidence that they feel deeply uncomfortable with their decision to circumcise (some even regret it) or are struggling to decide what to do. I have enormous empathy and sympathy for the position they are in. I think it’s crucial that well-intentioned Jews who continue to circumcise their sons should not be maligned, and that the significant religious and cultural value they ascribe to circumcision is appreciated and understood. But, at the same time, I think Jews who question circumcision from the point of view of human rights and medical ethics should also be respected, not demonized. And reconsidering the practice in light of its human rights and ethical implications should be encouraged.
- See more at: http://www.hystericalfeminisms.com/male-circumcision-is-a-feminist-issue-too/#sthash.W2P1ik4O.dpuf

Sunday, 25 January 2015

A Jewish couple's battle for civil partnership equality in the U.K.

In last week's Haaretz, I explained why my partner, Charles Keidan, and I are campaigning for equal civil partnerships‬ in the UK - and why that might seem like a diasporic luxury to those in Israel...

Below is my piece. Please do share your thoughts via Twitter @beccasteinfeld - I would love to hear them. Also, please consider sharing my piece with your professional and social networks.

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A Jewish couple's battle for civil partnership equality in the U.K. 
 
Opposite-sex couples in Britain should have the option to choose civil partnership instead of marriage, just like same-sex couples do.

 

Those of you, who, like me, love a sneaky peak at the Jewish Chronicle’s “hatches, matches and dispatches” over Friday night dinner at your parents’ might have noticed a first-of-its-kind and slightly unusual announcement in December 2013: My partner, Charles Keidan, and I announced our engagement to become civil partners. I say “unusual” because U.K. law continues to ban opposite-sex couples’ access to civil partnerships. 

Not the types to take this kind of blatant discrimination lying down, last month Charles and I launched a petition and legal challenge to the U.K. government in the High Court. Consequently, a year after our original announcement, we’ve found ourselves back in the Jewish Chronicle. I’m not sure which story brings our families less nachas...

To readers in Israel, our struggle for equal civil partnerships might seem like a diasporic luxury. After all, in Israel there is no civil marriage. Mixed faith couples are prevented from getting married, as are same-sex couples. Jews can only be legally married by an Orthodox rabbi, violating the freedom of conscience of those belonging to other Jewish denominations, like Conservative and Reform. In fact, Israel finds itself amongst the world’s more oppressive states when it comes to marriage law.

Thankfully, the situation in the U.K. is very different. Religious and civil marriage have coexisted since 1836, and in 2013, a major milestone was reached with the legalization of same-sex marriage. The social significance and symbolism of opening marriage to same-sex couples cannot be overstated. My partner and I campaigned for equal marriage, including via British Jews for Equal Marriage, a social media campaign we set up with friends.

Sadly though, even in the U.K. full relationship equality has yet to be achieved. Six aspects of discrimination remain, including legislation explicitly banning the Churches of England and Wales from performing religious same-sex marriages, and discrepancies in pension inheritance rights between same- and opposite-sex married couples. Another prominent inequality is the continued prohibition on opposite-sex couples’ access to civil partnerships.

This restriction is problematic for long-term cohabiting couples who do not wish to marry but nevertheless want legal protections, like exemption from paying inheritance tax on their deceased partner’s assets and entitlement to their deceased partner’s pension. To many, marriage is a meaningful expression of their love and relationships, and of course lots of couples have established equality within their marriages. But it is impossible to deny that marriage as a social institution, both in the past and in many places in the present, has been bound up with the mistreatment of women.

This inequality is evident within the context of the Orthodox Jewish community in which I grew up, as well as in secular civil marriage. Though rituals surrounding weddings, such as virginal white wedding dresses and segregated bachelor and bachelorette parties, can be avoided, the social and familial pressure to participate in them remains considerable. And at least in the U.K., some of the problematic aspects of marriage are unavoidable since they are grounded in law: The bride and groom must list their “condition” as either “bachelor” or “spinster,” “widow” or “widower.” There is no space on the marriage certificate for details of the mothers of the contracting parties, only for those of the fathers, meaning marriage, as an instrument of public record, serves only to trace patrilineal dynasties, effectively writing women out of history. Upon marriage, a woman may change her name with only her marriage certificate whereas a man must officially change his name via deed poll, a more complicated and costly procedure. Even if the couple regard themselves as partners, in law they become husband and wife, terms that connote gender roles and expectations, such as breadwinner and homemaker.

By contrast, civil partnerships are a modern, symmetrical social institution free of the patriarchal baggage and lingering sexist trappings of marriage. As a couple who want to be partners in law as well as in life, Charles and I thought an official civil partnership would perfectly capture and express the essence of our relationship whilst giving us almost identical legal rights and responsibilities as marriage.

But when we sought to give “notice of intention” to form a civil partnership at our local registry office in London in October 2014, we were refused by the registrar, explicitly on the basis of our genders and sexual orientation. We are trying to change this status quo by asking the U.K.’s Minister for Women and Equalities Nicky Morgan to open civil partnerships to all, regardless of sexual orientation.

The response to our efforts has been overwhelming. In only one month, more than 1,000 people have signed our petition and contributed over $10,000 to our legal fund. Dozens have sent messages of support and offers of help, including many Jewish friends and colleagues. Media outlets, amongst them the BBC and The Guardian, have taken notice. Prominent human rights campaigners, like Peter Tatchell, have given us their backing. Even critics have ultimately concluded that it doesn’t make sense to prevent opposite-sex couples from accessing civil partnerships.

There is also political support. The Liberal Democrats, part of the current government coalition, passed a resolution in 2010 calling on the government to open civil partnerships to all. And a current cross-party Private Members Bill proposes an amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to enable opposite-sex couples to become civil partners. Sadly though, the U.K. Government Equalities Office, the very body responsible for eliminating inequality, has so far refused to acknowledge the disparity in access or take action to open civil partnerships to all.

We hope that 2015 will be the year that full relationship equality finally comes to the U.K. But, as with the struggle for same-sex marriage – and with struggles against discrimination and inequality all over the world – hope alone may not suffice. Instead, significant legal, public and political pressure will be needed to change the law. Then, perhaps Charlie and I will finally make it into the Jewish Chronicle’s “Faces and Places” section. 

Dr. Rebecca Steinfeld is a political scientist researching the politics of reproduction and the body. She tweets @beccasteinfeld

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This article was originally published by Haaretz. For the full article, click here 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

A Jewish couple's battle for civil partnership equality in the U.K.

In today's Haaretz, I explain why my partner, Charles Keidan, and I are campaigning for equal civil partnerships‬ in the UK - and why that might seem like a diasporic luxury to those in Israel...

Below is the opening of my piece - I will publish the remainder here on my blog in 48 hours. Please do share your thoughts via Twitter @beccasteinfeld - I would love to hear them. Also, please consider sharing my piece with your professional and social networks.

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A Jewish couple's battle for civil partnership equality in the U.K. 

Opposite-sex couples in Britain should have the option to choose civil partnership instead of marriage, just like same-sex couples do.

Jan. 20, 2015 | 7:33 AM 

Those of you, who, like me, love a sneaky peak at the Jewish Chronicle’s “hatches, matches and dispatches” over Friday night dinner at your parents’ might have noticed a first-of-its-kind and slightly unusual announcement in December 2013: My partner, Charles Keidan, and I announced our engagement to become civil partners. I say “unusual” because U.K. law continues to ban opposite-sex couples’ access to civil partnerships. 

Not the types to take this kind of blatant discrimination lying down, last month Charles and I launched a petition and legal challenge to the U.K. government in the High Court. Consequently, a year after our original announcement, we’ve found ourselves back in the Jewish Chronicle. I’m not sure which story brings our families less nachas...

To readers in Israel, our struggle for equal civil partnerships might seem like a diasporic luxury. After all, in Israel there is no civil marriage. Mixed faith couples are prevented from getting married, as are same-sex couples. Jews can only be legally married by an Orthodox rabbi, violating the freedom of conscience of those belonging to other Jewish denominations, like Conservative and Reform. In fact, Israel finds itself amongst the world’s more oppressive states when it comes to marriage law. 

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This article was originally published by Haaretz. For the full article, click here

Monday, 12 January 2015

Holocaust Memorial Day 2015: Tuesday 27 January

I am pleased to learn that the University and College Union (UCU) will be giving permission to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust to add two UCU-made films - ‘The Holocaust’ (2012), to which I contributed, and ‘Journeys to Safety: Memories of the Kindertransport’ (2013) - to their list of resources. This is a great opportunity for the two films to reach a wider audience and is a great way to progress Holocaust education.    

In the film ‘The Holocaust’ (2012), I share some of my family's tragic stories with a wider public. Though it was difficult to talk about the experiences of my family and the impact of these experiences, especially on film, I think it is very important that we commemorate the Holocaust annually and try to constantly raise awareness of these critical issues. I think I have a particular responsibility in this regard as an educator. After all, if society is to change, it has to come through the education system. So I hope that this film will continue to not only commemorate and honour those killed in the Holocaust, but also stimulate thinking about genocide, ethnic cleansing and racism more broadly. 

The Holocaust: This film features UCU members who speak passionately about the impact of the Holocaust on their families and themselves. It won joint first prize for the TUC Communications Award in 2013.

Journeys to Safety: Memories of the Kindertransport: This film features three Kinder children (Lord Dubs, Ruth Barnett and John Fieldsend) who all gave their account of leaving their families via the Kindertransport. 


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In addition, the Jewish Human Rights Organisation, René Cassin, will be screening another film, Valley of Sighs, to mark Holocaust Memorial Week. My partner and I intend to attend the screening, as well as the Q&A with the film's writer and director afterwards, and to show our support for René Cassin's important work.
 

Between 1943 and 1945, the Nazis deported 25 000 Romani people to Transnistria. Half of them died of hunger, cold and other causes. This powerful documentary remembers a forgotten genocide - and provides historical context to the endemic discrimination that Gypsy, Roma and Travellers are still experiencing today. 

Professor Rainer Schulze of the University of Essex will introduce the screening. Attendees will then have the chance to discuss the film with its Romanian writer and director, Mihai Andrei Leaha. 

Event Details
Date: 31 January 2015
Time: Doors open at 7pm for a 7.30pm start
Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL
Cost: £6

Book your tickets here.
 





Friday, 2 January 2015

Campaign and legal challenge for #equalcivilpartnerships

In December 2014, my partner, Charles Keidan, and I took the next step in our legal challenge to open civil partnerships to all, regardless of sexual orientation: We issued our judicial review claim at the High Court, and then served these on the two defendants - the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and the Government.

The BBC's legal affairs correspondent, Clive Coleman, reported from outside the High Court. He said that our legal case was an outcome of the inevitable collision course between the exclusionary Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the inclusive Equality Act 2010.

During the day, we spoke to several BBC radio and TV stations, including:

1) Jane Garvey at BBC Radio 4's Woman’s Hour (from 01.10 to 10.28)

2) Mark Mardell at BBC Radio 4's The World at One (from 35.26 to 41.24)
 

3) Clive Coleman for BBC Radio 5 Live, who interviewed us outside the High Court (from 01.50.43 to 01.56.07) 

4) We were also interviewed by BBC London News, and for an article on BBC News Online

The human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, who has been a consistent and principled advocate of both same-sex marriage and full civil partnership equality, and who set up the Equal Love campaign to that end, joined us outside the court. In a statement, he said: "In a democracy, we should all be equal before the law. Denying opposite-sex couples the right to have a civil partnership is just as wrong as denying same-sex couples the right to marry. We now have a situation where gay couples have two options, civil marriage or civil partnership, whereas heterosexual couples have only one option, marriage. This anomaly is unfair discrimination and could be easily remedied by opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, as has happened in many other countries.”


We have put in place an outstanding legal team to challenge both the registrars at Chelsea Register Office, who refused to register our notice of intention to form a civil partnership on the basis of our genders and sexual orientation, and the Government, which continues to discriminate against long-term cohabiting opposite-sex couples.
Our solicitor, Louise Whitfield from leading public law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, is working with a top equalities barrister, Karon Monaghan QC. Louise helped Caroline Criado-Perez successfully challenge the Bank of England to include a woman on UK bank notes. Karon wrote THE book on Equality Law, and was awarded Liberty’s Human Rights Lawyer of the Year Award in 2010.

To support our campaign, please sign our petition and consider contributing to our fundraising drive. Please also
encourage others to support our efforts by signing and donating. We anticipate additional costs in the future and are appreciative of any help you may be able to give us.


Here’s to full relationship equality in 2015!



Monday, 26 May 2014

Heterosexual Civil Partnerships on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour

Earlier today, my partner, Charlie Keidan, and I contributed to a discussion on heterosexual civil partnerships on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour. In it, we explain why it's important for us to formalise our commitment to each other within a modern social institution that reflects our egalitarian values. We highlight the principle of equality that is at stake in opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, and explain that discrimination against heterosexual couples will continue in the absence of swift government action on this issue. We point out that the UK is behind the times in this regard, since other states - in particular France, the Netherlands and New Zealand - already have provisions for opposite-sex couples to form civil partnerships. We hope that the UK government will follow suit and commit itself to true civil partnership equality by immediately extending civil partnerships to all.

You can listen to our interview here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b044gmfd