Health And Family

'Tuli' or not 'tuli' (or the boyhood rites of summer)

- Ricardo T. Pamintuan -

MANILA, Philippines - Students are scrambling to submit school requirements. Graduation is in the air. Vacation plans are being made. Old swimsuits are being resurrected with the naïve notion that they will still be in fashion or fit as nicely as they did last year. But for a small group of Filipino boys on the verge of adolescence, summer is when they will literally have to make the cut.

By the time they leave elementary school, they will have to answer a serious query: “Tuli ka na ba?” (Are you already circumcised?) Their response will most likely have a profound effect on their self-esteem as they enter their teenage years, for in the macho Filipino society, every boy is expected to be circumcised before he becomes a man. It is a mindset molded by centuries of Catholic tradition under Spanish rule.

But what is circumcision? The World Health Organization defines it as the “surgical removal of all or part of the foreskin of the penis.” Cutting this definition into its elements reveals a few debatable points. 

Is it always surgical? In most developed countries, perhaps, it is, with licensed doctors the only ones allowed to do it. In less progressive nations like the Philippines, however, there are still village quack doctors who prefer a machete over a scalpel to perform the procedure, with the “patient” using guava leaves he himself chewed as a post-op pain-killer and antibiotic. For the menfolk in such a setting, boys circumcised by medical doctors are seen as sissies.

Does it always require a removal of the foreskin? For men obsessed with size, every millimeter matters, so why cut off precious skin? In traditional (a.k.a. barbaric) circumcision, it is actually lopped off — sometimes more than what the boy may be comfortable with — to create what is known as the German cut (in vague reference to the helmets of Nazi soldiers). But in safer, more sanitary, medical procedures, doctors would sometimes simply make a slit at the tip of the foreskin, thus, allowing the penis to peer through the flower top, as the pattern is sometimes called.

Is circumcision exclusive to boys? In the Philippines, at least, it is a boy’s rite of passage. In some countries, however, female circumcision is still observed, more in keeping with tradition and religious belief than due to medical exigencies, like preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Some African tribes remove the clitoris of the young girls in their village, then bury the bloody appendages in the ground as part of a ritual to keep the land fertile. So ingrained is this practice in the culture of some people that even if they have moved to other countries, they risk running afoul with the law by continuing to perform it.

The Philippines traces its circumcision history to the arrival of the Spaniards and the Catholic faith. After all, although circumcision is a Jewish rite, Jesus is the Christian god. He is also recognized as such in Islam, which explains why the WHO declares that about 68 percent of circumcised men worldwide are Muslims, including Filipino Muslims.

It is true that religion plays a big part in this practice, but society imposes an equally strong pressure on every Filipino male. For boys, being one of the first in a group to be circumcised is a badge of honor; it gives him the right to call any other uncircumcised boy supót, which carries the stigma of cowardice. Since peer pressure is greatest in high school, boys troop to their doctor of choice during the sweltering months after graduating from elementary school, in order to get it over with and smoothly join the pack.

This “right” of passage is equally precious to the father and his son. If the son is excited about the mutilation, especially after being conditioned by his peers who are similarly experiencing a spike in their testosterone levels, there should be no problem; heck, he’ll even volunteer to undergo the surgery himself, possibly with his friends.

But what if the boy is averse to the whole idea of circumcision? It would take a father’s finest persuasion skills in a serious man-to-man talk to convince his son that this procedure is necessary for health, religious and social reasons. After a successful pep talk and an equally successful surgery, both can only hope for a positive boost in the boy’s confidence and self-esteem.

The father can probably take refuge in some myths, already discussed at some length by noted medical anthropologist Dr. Michael Tan and Dr. Edward Cagape. It is believed that circumcision will make the boy grow taller and his voice deeper. Of course, this myth gains credence when the procedure is done during adolescence, when hormonal activity normally induces growth spurts and concomitant changes in voice pitch. Perhaps this is why male circumcision is typically done in the pre-teenage to early teenage years.

The adolescent really has no say on the matter except on who will make the cut and when it will be done. In any case, dad can invoke another myth or two to banish adolescent fears. One is that circumcision will make the penis longer. Where this idea originated is buried in local lore. The other myth is that circumcised men are more fertile and, therefore, will have a better chance of siring children than “hooded” men. Here again the idea waits for scientific verification.

Tuli or not tuli, that is the question Hamlet would ask today. If anyone asks, “Tuli ka na ba?” you can simply smile. In this land of macho men, silence can be golden.

* * *

 For more information about circumcision, you may visit http://www.circumstitions.com/Philippines.html.










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