The Islamic Monthly: “A Tiny Cut”: Female Circumcision in South East Asia

Authentic discussion of HGM in Malaysia … Note how legitimate FGM has become in Malaysia  – similar to MGM (Male Circumcision) in the USA …

“I am a Muslim of Malay ethnicity, who was born in Singapore, where Malays are an ethnic and religious minority today, and lived there until I was 24 years old. The Malays, of whom 99 percent are Muslim, are the indigenous people of Singapore and the Malay archipelago. Until the arrival of the British colonizers in the early nineteenth century, this area (which covers what is south Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and south  Philippines today) shared many cultural and linguistic similarities.

When I was about six years old and attending a kenduri, or ritual feast, for two male cousins who had just been circumcised, I whispered to my mother, “Are girls circumcised too?” Growing up in Singapore in the 1990s, boys were commonly circumcised before puberty (around eight or nine) – making it seem like a rite of passage into adulthood. The six year-old me observed the fuss and attention they got: they were not allowed to eat certain foods, they could only bear to wear a kain sarong for up to two weeks due to the pain, and had to be fanned at night to keep the wounds dry. These ritual feasts to celebrate a boy’s circumcision are less common today, partly due to the increasing use of doctors to carry out circumcision, and usually on infants a few weeks old.

My mother explained to me girls were indeed circumcised, and that sunat perempuan (Malay for ‘female’ sunnah, or ‘tradition’) involved “a tiny cut”, without giving any more details. At that age, it didn’t occur to me to ask if any women I knew had been cut, because there were never any ritual feasts. Later, I would discover that this female genital cutting, as it happened historically and today, has undergone various changes and yet, many aspects of this ritual remained the same…

… The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia follow the Shafii school of law, which declares FGC as wajib, or obligatory. In contrast, the other three Sunni schools, together with the Shia schools, consider FGC a sunnah or a recommended act. Just like male circumcision, there is no mention of it in the Quran. The form of FGC taking place in Southeast Asia seems to follow this general and gender-neutral rule from al-Nawawi to remove the prepuce at a young age, but also at an older age if it causes no ‘harm’.[xvi] This ruling is found in his chapter on taharah or purity, indicating that the concern was for the cleanliness of the genitals, especially the area under the prepuce, and consequent validity of acts of worship. Indeed, about half of the reasons mentioned above by midwives and parents for the practice reflects a concern for hygiene.

With regards to hadith, or Prophetic sayings, there is much debate on which are considered authentic, and therefore authoritative enough to be taken as a source of law. The most commonly-cited hadith(here) mentioning circumcision has been used to both promote and discourage FGC. Other hadith that mention circumcised parts (here and here) are also making a larger point about purifying one’s body after sexual intercourse, but not necessarily ordaining circumcision. Other hadith whose authenticity cannot be confirmed variously urge to not “cut deeply”, “abuse”, “cut into”, or “exceed the limit”, but instead to “trim”, “reduce the size of the clitoris”, or to “cut off only the foreskin”.

In short, there is no fully authentic text in which the Prophet Mohammad required or recommended the circumcision of women any more than the circumcision of men. There may have been FGC in the Prophet’s society, but there was no equivocal ban on it. This type of minimal FGC as practised in Southeast Asia has also been identified as the ‘mild’ type of cutting found in early Islamic societies, which was aimed to protect women’s “dignity and well-being” or make her “honourable”. Thus, it is dangerously framed as the ‘real’ or ‘most Islamic’ FGC. [xvii]

However, most Muslims do not make a direct link between their everyday actions and textual evidence, learning instead from our immediate forefathers the rituals, symbols, and acts that make us Muslim (or not). For example, we pray by first imitating movements from our parents or other authority figures in our lives and often only learn the significance of the words and movements when we are older. Likewise, while FGC may have started in Southeast Asia as an “Arab custom”, today it is a religious norm that parents seek for their children, because everyone else in the family or in the village has done it, for generations…”

 

Click for full article: The Islamic Monthly: “A Tiny Cut”: Female Circumcision in South East Asia

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