FEMALE CIRCUMCISION: CULTURE AND RESISTANCE by Samir Harith
When my daughter was born, I remember there being a huge rush of nurses, doctors, students and various other medical attendants swirling around the doors of the delivery room. On a whiteboard next to the entrance was a hastily drawn-up list of all the various expecting mothers who were delivering at the time. Drawn in smaller fonts right next to the name of the mothers were the words indicating whether the mother was Muslim or not, the expected sex of the baby, and if the baby was a girl born to a Muslim mother, whether she would be circumcised or not. Before long a medical attendant came rushing up to me and asked me whether I wanted my daughter to be circumcised. Before I share with you my decision, let us consider the facts, myths and issues surrounding female circumcision.
Female circumcision is probably one of the least well-known facts about the Malay community. Some non-Malay men who have married Malay women are not even aware of this fact. But its there, it happens and it is even conducted by medical professionals. There has been a general eﬀort by WHO and various other medical and women’s NGOs to eliminate the practice of Female Circumcision (or Female Genital Mutilation as some quarters call it) around the world. These eﬀorts are often met with strong resistance from the local populace due to the strong connection the practice has with local cultures and traditions.
From a cultural perspective, female genital mutilation or FGM has had strong roots in the Middle East, Northern Africa and even parts of Southeast Asia. These roots even pre-date the coming of the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism). As such, the rite of circumcision is one that is culturally ingrained into the very fabric of society, much like it is in the Malay community. WHO has provided a categorization for the four diﬀerent types of FGM widely practiced around the world.
FOUR MAJOR TYPES OF FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION
1. CLITORIDECTOMY: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
2. EXCISION: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
3. 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.
4. OTHER: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g.pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
The extreme Type 3 FGM is typically performed in parts of Africa and has been known to cause bleeding, haemorrhaging, cysts and various other illnesses, not to mention that brides have to be cut open during their wedding night and similarly, mothers have to be cut open to give birth. Type 3 FGM has been strongly campaigned against by many movements in the African Sub-Continent and fortunately, the numbers are reducing.
THE NOTION THAT A FEMALE’S SEXUALITY CAN BE VIOLATED IN A MISGUIDED ATTEMPT TO ‘DE-SEXUALISE’ HER IS SIMPLY BEYOND THE LOGICAL GRASP OF MODERN MEDICINE.
Typically within the Malay community, the majority of circumcisions carried out are of the Type 1 nature, as evidenced by this interesting brief on the practice of female circumcision within the Malay community found here (website in Malay language). It is said that the practice of female circumcision, while incurring no health beneﬁts whatsoever, helps to dampen the sexual desire of the female, thus preventing her from succumbing to her baser temptations and giving herself up before her marriage. While research on this matter has been sketchy at best, there is a rising number of teenage pregnancies occurring here in Malaysia, which does bring into question the use of circumcision as a preventive measure for early sexual contact. However, that being so, circumcision is still an important aspect of Malay culture. I remember attending a marriage course and listening to an Ustaz sharing his personal experience regarding the birth of his daughters. Apparently his daughters were born in Saudi Arabia, where female circumcision is against the norm. So he shared how diﬃcult it was to ﬁnd a hospital that would circumcise his daughters and how he had to wait until the whole family ﬁnally went back to Malaysia, only then could he circumcise his daughters, because, as he neatly put it ‘We Malays have to circumcise our daughters’.
From a religious perspective, there seems to be some debate on whether female circumcision is called for by Islam, the religion that forms the basis of Malay culture. To read this brief from earlier, it seems that there is limited support for it, however, some quarters say it is necessary, nay, compulsory for females to be circumcised, unless the situation disallows it. Scholars from Al-Azhar University have called the practice ‘disallowed by religion’ and most modern Muslim scholars discourage its practice. However, the practice still persists in Malay communities due to it being a centuries-old cultural practice and also due to the relatively non-hazardous nature of procedure (as compared to the more dangerous Type 2 and Type 3 FGMs, which involve the use of anaesthetics).
Resistance, especially towards Type 2 and Type 3 FGMs, is strong, most notably so in Africa and the Middle East. Renowned Egyptian feminist physician, Nawal El Saadawi has strongly spoken out against FGM and has framed it as an attack on basic human rights. In Ethiopia, eﬀorts by Bogaletch Gebre and KMG-Ethiopia to engage the community leaders have resulted in a drastic decrease in incidences of FGM within certain communities. Both WHO and UNICEF have strongly advocated against the practice of FGM in other parts of the world. In fact, the WHO strongly urges medical professionals to not provide female circumcision services, something which is still widely done in Malaysia. The notion that a female’s sexuality can be violated in a misguided attempt to ‘de-sexualise her simply beyond the logical grasp of modern medicine.
Yet FGM still remains a thriving practice. While the more severe Type 3 FGM has been receiving the most focus in terms of elimination eﬀorts, the relatively less hazardous Type 1 and Type 2 continue to be practiced widely in parts of the world, including Malaysia, where Type 1 FGMs are typically conducted on infant Malay females. Resistance towards this practice is thin because, as mentioned earlier, a Type 1 FGM only involves a clitoridectomy, a partial removal of the clitoris or the clitoral hood. The fact that it is relatively harmless and is grounded in the notion of preserving one’s daughter’s purity means that the practice has not yet met any signiﬁcant resistance.
While I don’t openly call for resistance against the practice of female circumcision in Malaysia, I do believe that the Malaysian people have the right to know that such practices are losing popular support in other parts of the world and that from a religious point of view, it is wholly unnecessary.
However, I have made my small contribution towards stemming the prevalence of female circumcision in Malaysia. When the medical attendant asked me if I wanted to circumcise my daughter, my answer was clear: No.
WRITER’S PROFILE: Samir ‘Sam’ Harith is an aspiring business academic, single dad and amateur writer. He is currently based on the Malaysia-Thai border and wishes our education system had done a better job in preparing our Malaysian undergraduate students for university. When he isn’t busy trying to convince his students that accounting and ﬁnance are exciting topics, he can be found cooking topless in the kitchen.
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