Cultural victory over children’s human rights? The ritual circumcision turn

My deliberation on the question of the ritual circumcision of male minors on this blog (Scandinavia’s ritual circumcision debate: a socialist response and Ritual circumcision of male minors, and the political befuddlement of Eric Lee) started with a comment that I’d read by Frank Furedi, in which he tosses into a wave of European anti-immigration, anti-gay, and anti-abortion reactionarism: “In Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, a cultural crusade against the circumcision of boys…”

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(Wikimedia Commons)

Below is a timeline of key events and forces in this debate. Conclude for yourselves on whether this story is one of a cultural victory over the far-right in Europe, who foster anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, or a cultural victory of religion over children’s human rights fought for by medical professionals, children’s rights advocates, and secularists.

  • Norway, May 2012: a two-week old baby boy dies in Oslo after complications arising from circumcision, fuelling a debate on the practice.
  • Germany, May 2012: in response to a case of ritual circumcision in which the male child had to be hospitalised, a Cologne district court ruled the circumcision as “grievous bodily harm”.
  • Germany, 2012: a number of children’s rights organisations and doctors petitioned for a consideration of the law on this issue, questioning the interference of a child’s bodily integrity.
  • Germany, December 2012: a national law was passed that legitimates the parents’ right to ritually circumcise their male children.
  • Norway, September 2013: a statement was released titled “Let the boys decide on circumcision” signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, and eleven paediatric experts from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. An interview in 2012 with the Children’s Ombudsman of Norway, Dr Anne Lindboe, explains her position:

  • Finland, October 2013: the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology released “A statement on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys” supporting a ban.
  • October 2013: the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution against the non-medical circumcision of boys as “violation of the physical integrity of children.”
  • Norway, 2014: 72 per cent of a public opinion survey state that they are against the practice of the ritual circumcision of male minors.
  • Norway, February 2014: the Norwegian Nurses Organisation joined the call for a ban on non-medical circumcision of boys under the age of 15-16. Its director, Astrid Grydeland Ersvik, stressed the need for boys to be able to decide for themselves, and drew parallel to female genital mutilation.
  • Norway, June 2014: the parliament passed Act on Ritual Circumcision of Boys, by the ruling right-wing Conservative-Progress coalition, which permits non-medical circumcision of male minors in the presence of a medical supervisor although the procedure itself can be carried out by someone else.

Ricky Reel and the Magnet dispute: affective struggles that shaped me

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I came to revolutionary socialist politics in 1996 at the age of nineteen. These two badges still have a deep affect on me – stirring a raw political passion for justice and a personal sense of responsibility to ‘do something’ in the face of injustice. Moreover, the badges are a reminder of the impact of two courageous women.

Justice for Ricky Reel Campaign

On the night of the 14th October 1997 Ricky Reel was 20 years old. I was 21 years old. Like me, he was a second-generation British Asian. That night, he went missing. That was probably the night he died. His body was found a week later in the River Thames. The three friends Ricky had been out with reported that they were verbally abused by two white youths – shouting “Pakis go home” – and physically attacked. The four of them split up, but later only three reunited.

What happened thereafter was and remains a grave injustice of institutional racism:

When Sukhdev’s husband Balwant asked the police to take a statement, they refused, saying they couldn’t investigate missing people until 24 hours had lapsed. Balwant pointed out that there had been a racial attack, a criminal offence. The police ignored him. “The officer then said, your son may not want to come home, or he may have run away with a girlfriend that you don’t approve of. Then he winked and said: ‘You never know your son may have even run away with a boyfriend.’ Yes?” […] The police told the Reels that Ricky had been found with his flies undone, so he must have fallen in the river while urinating. They never looked for the two white racists, and they ignored evidence undermining their conclusion: Ricky’s bladder was full, his flies could have been forced open in any number of ways, Ricky was a good swimmer, and he was terrified of open water. (The Guardian, 1999)

Ricky’s mum, Sukhdev Reel, spearheaded the Justice for Ricky Reel Campaign. The two police investigations into Ricky’s death incredulously never established how he exactly died. At an inquest in 1999 an open verdict was recorded. I heard Sukhdev Reel speak at a student activist meeting in London in the late 1990s, and was moved by just how emotionally honest and politically articulate she was. In the face of such an unimaginable personal wound, Sukhdev fought against a wider injustice and, alas, still does.

Does she ever laugh now? “No. I can’t.” She returns to the day of his funeral. “With his coffin on my shoulders I felt I’d put all my happiness, my laughter, my love, everything into that coffin. My tears as well.” She stops herself – maybe not all her tears. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard I try to stop my tears falling from my eyes, I can’t do that. But laughter – he’s got my laughter.” (The Guardian, 1999)

Postscript: This past summer (2014) the Ricky Reel case was back in the news, but sadly not to report a move closer to justice, rather to reveal claims that Sukhdev Reel was spied on by undercover Scotland Yard officers in 1998 and 1999. Sukhdev has called for a public inquiry.

The Magnet dispute

During the years 1994-1997, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Magnet dispute began in August 1996 when 320 factory workers in Darlington were sacked for demanding (through an official strike) a pay rise after a four year pay freeze. New workers were immediately brought in. It was an early morning minibus from Newcastle that took me to my first ever picket line at the Darlington Magnet factory. It was a cold morning. What I vividly remember is the scene, and the emotions that went with it, as the replacement workers crossed the picket line into the factory grounds while jeering the sacked workers. In that instant, I understood the meaning of the word “scab”. In 1997, Magnet’s financial reports noted that productivity went up by 15% at the Darlington plant with profits increasing from £4.2 million to £11 million.

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Shirley Winters, a self-defined “grandmother”, was Secretary of the Magnet Women’s Support Group and, for me, an exemplar of the potential of class struggle for women’s empowerment. Whenever I heard Shirley speak in public, which was several times during the dispute, she gave me goosebumps. Here’s her contribution to a Workers’ Liberty symposium in 1997:

Tony Blair and Alan Milburn, who’s now a Health Minister, are our local MPs. I got a ten minute interview at one of Tony Blair’s surgeries. After a few minutes he asked if I could clarify something for him: “What exactly do Magnet make?” Before that I couldn’t wait for Labour to get in. I’ve always voted Labour and, suddenly, here was my hero and he wasn’t going to do anything. We asked Alan Milburn to table a motion in Parliament eight months ago. We’re still waiting for that. He hasn’t attended any of our rallies. His usual excuse is that he objects to someone on the platform. I think it’s time the unions got up off their knees and put our case. This is the only country in Europe where you can be sacked on an official dispute. The unions need to tell the Government that we expect them to do something about it. The workers at Magnet were decent, hard-working people. Many had gone straight from school to Magnet. Some had worked there for over 40 years. The bully-boy management who took over in 1993 — Beresford’s — wanted to take £35 off my husband’s take home pay of £189 a week — then attack his pension, guaranteed working week and entitlement to sick pay. In the same year the head of the company was on a thousand pounds a day, and one director got a £130,000 bonus. If the Labour Government are going to stand by and let these people get away with this then there’s something terribly wrong. Tony Blair says he wants to govern for all the people. But sometimes you have to take sides. You have to say: “These people are being wronged and I’ve got to stand on the side of justice,” — not just side with somebody because they’ve got a few million in the bank. I have people approaching me when I speak up and down the country, and things like the four increases in the mortgage rate or reductions in benefit — these are hurting. We had to bow down to the bosses for 18 years and you think that when Labour come in it’s going to be the happiest day of your life. Then you find you’ve got another Tory Government in. I spoke to one of the original Jarrow marchers. He said it’s worse for us now, in the 1990s, than it was for them in the 1930s. The trade union movement and the ordinary working people in this country have got to stand up and tell Tony Blair and this Government that we will not go away until something is done.

I named my touring bike after Shirley Winters.