Wrong to cut our girls
|Azrul Mohd Khalib works on HIV/AIDS, sex and human rights issues. He is becoming cynical and is in danger of losing his sense of humour and mind. He also runs and is battling an addiction to the "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series. Azrul can be contacted at [email protected]|
DEC 3 — Warning: The following article contains graphic descriptions of injuries done to women and girls in the name of the preservation of morality, cultural practices and perversely, religion. Though it directly impacts infants and young girls, this article may not be suitable for younger audiences.
It must be great to be a member of the National Fatwa Council these days. Gone are the boring days when you ruled on social and family issues. These days you get to be involved in everything. A secretariat member for the council, during his presentation at a recent conference, boasted that there had been more than 600 rulings or fatwas covering everything from women wearing men’s clothing to vaccines and human cloning. Very cutting-edge stuff.
If someone were to claim that Muslim affairs only affect Muslims, the involvement of the National Fatwa Council and the religious authorities on issues such as construction and public health contradicts that very statement. Fatwas, though considered to be religious opinions in other Muslim majority countries, often have a shadowy and unaccountable effect akin to laws in this country.
Though the government feels compelled to ensure that the fatwas are adhered to, it is often done in an irregular and inconsistent fashion. For example, there is a fatwa that has determined smoking to be haram. But Muslims (including many a religious leader) do it anyway and nobody is caught and punished for it.
As such, I am alarmed at a recent development where in rapid response to a 2009 National Fatwa Council ruling on female circumcision, the Ministry of Health is developing guidelines to medicalise the practice of female circumcision in Malaysia.
It is taken as a matter of fact for many Muslims in Malaysia that female circumcision is routinely carried out on infants and girls. It is a practice that barely raises an eyebrow even among human rights and women’s rights activists in the country.
What many people don’t realise is that this procedure has no medical benefits whatsoever, is not required by religion, and is predominantly a cultural practice.
One of the common responses to the practice of female circumcision in Malaysia is that we don’t do it the way it is done in Africa. That basically, it is OK to do it.
Let’s get one thing straight, any harmful procedure which is carried out on the female genitalia for non-medical purposes is female genital mutilation which is also known as female genital cutting. Female circumcision is female genital cutting. The euphemistic term of female circumcision and the abovementioned response has been used time and again to make it sound better and justify the practice.
The World Health Organisation has four classifications of female genital mutilation:
● Type I is clitoridectomy — partial or total removal of the clitoris and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce or clitoral hood (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
● Type II is excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora or “the lips” which surround the vagina.
● Type III is infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
● Type IV includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes. This includes the procedure of pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.
WHO has also concluded that in comparison to male circumcision where there are clear, demonstrable benefits ranging from improved hygiene and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, there are absolutely no medical benefits from female genital cutting.
Shockingly, Malaysia has Type 1, 2 and 4. Thank God, we do not have the practice of infibulation, a form of FGM which has traumatised, scarred and damaged the lives of thousands of girls and women in Africa and some parts of Asia.
The following might sound familiar to the thousands of women and young girls who have undergone this procedure at some point of time in their lives:
“You know, the blade used in those old Gillette shavers which you can buy at the convenience store? The blade is lightly run across the clitoris and the labia.”
“It was just a pinprick aja. A hole was made into the clitoral hood.”
“A small bit of the labia or the clitoral hood was sliced off.”
“I remove a centimetre of the clitoris.”
Yes, we have three out of the four forms of female genital cutting in our country.
The first and last quotes were from a traditional practitioner while the rest are some of the common descriptions given by women and girls who have been subjected to the procedure which was described to them by the mothers. They are also some of the usual options offered by private hospitals and clinics. The fees range from RM50 to RM400.
Interestingly, an older Ministry of Health circular specifically prohibits the practice of female circumcision in all public health facilities.
The point is that in clear comparison to male circumcision, the female version is neither standardised nor medically beneficial for the person going through the procedure. Yet mothers insist on having their infant daughters’ genitals circumcised. Why?
A recent University of Malaya study on the status of female circumcision in Malaysia indicated the following findings:
● More than 90 per cent of Malay Muslim female respondents were circumcised.
● None of the non-Malay female respondents were circumcised.
● More than 93 per cent of women also circumcised their daughters.
● The primary reasons for female circumcision were cited as it being a religious obligation, personal hygiene, cultural practice and to control the girl’s sexual desire.
And you know what? Turns out that female circumcision isn’t even required under Islam. There are no medical benefits from the procedure. There is also no evidence that female circumcision does anything to control sexual desire (unless it is absolutely traumatic in which sex would be painful or impossible).
Yet, you hear mothers saying that their daughters have to be circumcised to prevent them from becoming liar (wild) and sexually out of control. Turns out too that it might not even be part of our own culture but rather adopted from the Middle East in the often mistaken belief that adopting practices from that region would make us better Muslims.
In 2006, Al Azhar University declared female circumcision as un-Islamic. Since then several Muslim majority countries have banned the practice including Egypt and Indonesia (despite the ban, the cutting of girls persists in many rural areas). A few days ago, the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee adopted a resolution which declared female genital cutting to be a harmful practice and a serious threat to the psychological, sexual and reproductive health of women and girls.
Why are we moving in the opposite direction? The National Fatwa Council in 2009 made the practice obligatory (wajib) for girls. Yet, their rationale couldn’t even find the necessary references under the Quran and Sunnah, and had to utilise arguments from a different mazhab (Maliki). Read the rationale yourself and you know that it is on very shaky ground.
If there is no medical benefit, no religious obligation, or any benefit whatsoever to performing female circumcision, then why do it?
Rather than medicalising the practice, we should instead be prohibiting female circumcision to be done and protect our infant daughters and girls from harm.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.