Circumcision is no Laughing Matter
There are a lot of malicious jokes making the rounds of Manila's
coffeeshops on the Berkhatan ceremony which the President will attend in
Brunei. The circumcision of the Crown Prince of Brunei has become the
latest butt of gossip. Isn't circumcision part of our culture, too?
Just look at the classified advertisements under "professional services"
and you'll see dozens of clinics offering "painless circumcision" and
offering a variety of styles to choose from: Filipino style, German
style, among others. Isn't it part of our "pamahiin" that a boy starts
to grow taller only after he has been uncircumcised, or that children of
uncircumcised father develop lots of "muta?"
Perhaps some people are against the latest presidential trip because
they were not included in the entourage? Analyzing it in the context of
our culture, circumcision is kept secret by the "binyagan," his barkada
and the manunuli. Under no circumstances should a woman be present, as
a mere gaze from a woman is believed to produce the swelling
(nangangamatis) that follows the operation. Perhaps this is the
subconscious reason why the males have been giving the President so much
unsolicited advise to forego this trip. What these narrow-minded
individuals don't understand is the significance of this rite of passage
for the Crown Prince of Brunei.
In our Catholic culture, baptism is public acceptance of a new person
into the community, which is also why similar rites are performed in
other cultures. Circumcision is a sacramental operation performed on
Jewish males eight days after birth. Thus if you consult a Catholic
liturgical calendar, the first of January is not marked as "New Year's
Day" but as "Circumcision de Nuestro Senor Jesucristo."
Nowadays parents do not pick the names of their children from a hospital
calendar, which is why nobody believes me when I write or tell them that
some people born on New Year's Day are actually given the name
If you want concrete proof, consult the index of the 55-volume Blair
Robertson and you will find the name of a Recollect father in the
Spanish colonial period -- Jose de la Circumcision!
In the late sixteenth century, the Spaniards who wrote on their
impressions of Filipinos and their customs almost always described
circumcision. The first Governor-General, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, in
describing the "heathens and the Moros," says the latter that they "have
little knowledge of the which they profess beyond practicing
circumcision and refraining from pork." In 1582 Miguel de Loarca say
that the practice came about "for health and cleanliness." The
Archbishop of Manila, Domingo de Salazar, in a letter to Felipe II in
1588 reports on the Muslims building mosques and circumcising boys.
There are more accounts to prove that circumcision was a pre-Hispanic
Around 1903 the first treatise on the Filipino custom in English was
written by Lieutenant Charles Norton Barney of the U.S. Army Medical
Department, who was station in Bulacan in 1899 to 1900. The article
"Circumcision and Flagellation Among the Filipinos," was published in
the Journal of the Association of Military Surgeons in the U.S., making
him an "authority" on the Philippines overnight.
Barney noted that this ancient custom probably had its roots in Muslim
tradition in which males are circumcised by priests in a religious
ceremony, making them eligible for marriage. What he couldn't
understand was the fact that circumcision has no religious association
for Catholic Filipinos; "neither is it among them done on any account of
cleanliness but from custom and disinclination to be ridiculed. The
friars were not able to root out the custom as it was an ugly subject to
treat from the pulpit."
Barney added that "being uncircumcised is looked upon as a defect, so
much so that children of both sexes cruelly taunt the uncircumcised.
They apply to them, with intent to insult, the term "suput" which
originally meant 'constricted' or 'tight' but has come to mean one who
cannot easily gain entrance in sexual intercourse."
I never knew suput has such meanings, because today's dictionaries
simply define suput as "uncircumcised." Many Tagalog words have changed
their meanings. Thus, "bakla" is defended as a "womanish man or
hermaphrodite." In colloquial usage it can mean "homosexual," but do
you know that in the Pasyon, when Christ was confused he was described
as "nabakla"? "Bakla" was we know it today was different centuries ago.
The funniest part of Barney's article documents the fact that "When
American troops first came to Hagonoy and bathed in the river, the fact
that they were uncircumcised was a subject of great gossip in the market
place." Filipinos must have had a ball calling the Americans suput,
until the latter discover what it mean after they were called such
behind their backs.
In 1697 the British adventurer, William Dampier, wrote about his trip
"around the world," which contains some sections in the Philippines. It
was in Mindanao that he noted the circumcision of boys starting from age
11 or 12. He said that when he was in Mindanao, he had been invited to
a circumcision ceremony for the son of a certain Raja Lot and was told
there had been no circumcision in years, because a general circumcision
was only held when a sultan, general, raja or some other VIP had a son
fit to to be circumcised. This general circumcision was held with great
ceremony followed by days of feasting.
This is the context in which the Berkhatan ceremony is being performed.
I guess many people in our society need to open their minds to other
cultures instead of making fun of things they don't understand.
Ocampo, Ambeth R., "Looking Back," Anvil Publishing Inc., 1990.