“A Tiny Cut”: Female Circumcision in Southeast Asia

I once asked my mother why boys had to be circumcised, but girls didn’t. Growing up in Singapore in the 1990s, it was more common for boys to be circumcised at the age of 7 or 9, where it resembled more of a rite of passage. They were not allowed to eat certain foods, had to wear a kain sarong for less discomfort, and had to be fanned at night to keep dry. My mother said that it wasn’t compulsory for girls, and anyway, the procedure was just “a tiny cut” — something that she felt was negligible, unnoticeable, and probably not a big deal if it wasn’t done.

Recenlty, photographs taken by Stephanie Sinclair of a mass sunat perempuan (female circumcision) ceremony in Bandung, Indonesia, in 2006 and published in 2008, surfaced again late last year. The ceremony that Sinclair attended was organised and sponsored by Yayasan Assalaam Bandung, a foundation that provides Islamic education and social welfare services. Yayasan Assalaam sees itself to be an open, inclusive, moderate, and dynamic organisation.

Via New York Times

I called my mother and asked her if she had been circumcised, or if my sister and I had been. She said that she was, and my sister too. I asked her to elaborate on the extent of the circumcision. She explained that at the age of one or two weeks (around the time when the umbilical cord heals), she had had her clitoral hood snipped at the tip (to make it flat instead of hanging over and covering the clitoris), while my sister had a different procedure — her clitoral hood was scraped. She explained that this was the trend by the time my sister was born in the 1980s.

Both of these procedures had been done by a mak bidan, or post-partum midwife whose role is to help mothers to help mothers with their babies and also get back into shape after a natural birth with the use of tummy wraps, herbal drinks, herbal applications, massage, and bathing of the newborn baby. One day when the mak bidan was bathing my sister, she announced to my mother that my sister’s circumcision had been completed.

When my mother was growing up, there was a lot of mystery surrounding the practice. Coupled with the certainty of being ridiculed for asking questions, this practice was passed down quietly and without protest. It was “just tradition”.

The experiences that my mother had described to me were consistent with what I had read. In the province of Satun in South Thailand, the bidan has the “exclusive authority to perform female circumcision and reject the idea of this operation ever passing into the hands of medical personnel” for physical and ritual/religious reasons. In Indonesia, traditional circumcisers say they “learn the practice from other women during several years of apprenticing.

While there is a lot of debate on female genital cutting in Africa, the literature on the same practices in Asia is sparse. In Malaysia, a university survey of 1000 respondents found that over 90% of Muslim women reported being circumcised. In Indonesia, the figure is upwards of 86%, with 90% of adults supporting it. In her study “Sunat For Girls in Southern Thailand“, Claudia Merli (2008) applies the same description to the province of Satun, because of cultural and regional proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia. However, in Singapore, my personal estimate based on anecdotal evidence[T3]  is that the incidence of female circumcision is very, very low, perhaps due to different economic circumstances.

Via New York Times

Some of the reasons given for female circumcision are to be “clean“, to “purify the genitals and bestow gender identity“, to “control women’s sexual urges”, because they can only be beautiful if chaste, and help them not be “as wild”, which will “make men more excited in bed”. In Singapore, some of the older generation do argue that the reason that some young women are “wild” today is because they are not circumcised. Some also feel that there is not much harm because of the very small amount of flesh removed (described as the size of a quarter-grain of rice, a guava seed, a bean, the tip of a leaf, or the head of a needle), and the importance of supposedly avoiding the clitoris. Merli (2008) gathered a testimonial from Wati, a villager from Satun on her decision-making process:

“She had discussed the topic of sunat with a man well versed in Islamic law who had not let his own daughter be circumcised, claiming that the practice is neither necessary nor compulsory because it is not mentioned in the Koran. Despite this conversation, Wati and her husband decided to follow the local tradition, with a sense of pressure coming from other villagers, whose disapproval they wanted to avoid. The local bidan was not taken on as she was ill-famed for cutting away “too much,” some even said the whole clitoris. Another bidan was summoned from another location.”

Worryingly, there seems to be a trend towards institutionalising and medicalising this practice in the contemporary era (even for cosmetic purposes!). Merli noted that the trend towards medicalisation was worrying because while it may reduce pain or struggling, it would also allow a deeper excision, a practice that was being promoted in the village by some missionaries from India.

In Malaysia, the Fatwa Committee of Malaysia’s National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs ruled in 2009 that female circumcision,  was “obligatory for Muslims but if harmful must be avoided“. More recently, in Indonesia, the Indonesian Council of Ulema ruled in favour of female circumcision and added that although it can not be considered mandatory, it is still “morally recommended”. The leader of this council, Kiai Hajj Amin Ma’ruf, however warned to avoid “excesses” in the removal or cutting of the clitoris — a position supported by several hadith

In late 2006, the Ministry of Health in Indonesia banned doctors from performing it on the grounds that it was “potentially harmful”, but this ban was not enforced. Hospitals continued to offer sunat perempuan for baby girls, sometimes as part of “birth packages” (which include vaccinations and ear piercing).Yayasan Assalaam also links the practice to celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, and even provides incentives like money and food to the parents who bring their daughters to their annual ceremony.

Local explanations for female circumcision centre around the lack of harm that it does to the girl, and that it indeed has positive benefits. However, anecdotal evidence includes pain while passing urine, or desensitivity of the clitoris and reduced ability for sexual pleasure. In any case, these explanations are situated in a web of political, social, and economic phenomena: preserving one’s Muslim identity by ensuring that the practice will continue through law and medical justification (as male circumcision has become), controlling the sexual urges of girls in the light of increasing teenage pregnancies, and the influence of Wahhabi or Salafist elements on Islam in Southeast Asia. The target audience in this debate are not the midwives or the medical practitioners, but the attitudes of parents vis-a-vis their daughters’ sexual and physical health.

I asked my mother if I had been circumcised. She said I wasn’t, because by then the mak bidan was nowhere to be found. She had come over from Malaysia through family contacts for my mother’s post-partum birth rituals, and she was part of a dying trade in an economically-growing Singapore.

“Why didn’t you ensure that I was circumcised?”

“It’s a sunnah anyway, it’s not that important.”

For some, defining female circumcision as “a tiny cut” means it is considered “harmless.” I can only say I am glad that my mother felt that this “tiny cut” was equally “harmless” if not done.

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  • http://hudasnomadicadventure.blogspot.ca/ Huda

    Calling it ‘a tiny cut’ is a horrendous way to belittle the pain and physical mutilation of a young girl and her future sexual pleasure as adult with her husband/partner. Its no tiny cut when someone decides to cut apart your clitoris and sews your labia together. I find it absurd and completely lacking in any Hadeeth or Quranic evidence to circumcise young girls, yet from this article and the many ‘fatwa’ in these countries the claim of some Islamic knowledge is the justification.

    In Somalia, my parents and most people knew it has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with culture and dogmatist method of controlling, if not eradicating a woman’s sexual identity and pleasure, disguised as protection. I remember a conversation I had with my grandmother (who went through the brutal version of Circumcision in East Africa without any medicine) and how the Prophet (SAW) was asked about circumcising girls and his response was in rejection of such a practice.

    • Noor

      The “tiny cut” comes from the hadith. Muslims do this because of a weak hadith where the prophet pbuh says the cut should be little. BUT it is an extremely weak hadith and even the narrator of the hadith said it is highly doubtful it is authentic.

      So all these girls suffer such a horrendous procedure because of a highly doubtful hadith.

      This is a pre-islamic practice. Evidence of FGM is found on mummies in Ancient Egypt. Unicef says that this practice could be eradicated in one generation despite it existing for thousands of years.

      What bothers me is when people use it to support their negative opinions about Islam. This is not about Islam; it is about girls being hurt. It is not only Muslims who do it. There are Christians doing it, etc.. Its so important to stay focused on FGM and not get engaged in the usual arguments about Islam.

  • Shawn

    No human being under the age of 18 should be circumcised unless they give 100% consent, male or female. We need equality with that and religious rights do not trump human rights so that card cannot be played.

  • http://susu-pekat-manis.blogspot.nl/ Sya

    “She explained that at the age of one or two weeks (around the time when the umbilical cord heals), she had had her clitoral hood snipped at the tip (to make it flat instead of hanging over and covering the clitoris), while my sister had a different procedure — her clitoral hood was scraped.”

    When I use the term “a tiny cut”, I am quoting my mother. I’m certainly not belittling the act, for the same reasons that you gave.

    However, the kind of female circumcision that happens in Southeast Asia tends to be Type IV of the WHO classification (scraping, pricking, cutting off a very small piece of ONLY the clitoral hood). The type that you described I can’t say I’ve found to have existed in Southeast Asia.

    I do agree with the lack of Quranic evidence or other textual proof for female circumcision. But the various hadith available do not clearly support or ban it, making it fodder for both sides of the argument. Even worse, some are touting the Southeast Asian form of circumcision as the ‘true’ circumcision! That being said, there are Muslims who realise that this is not an Islamic obligation. The practice is virtually eradicated in Singapore.

    The main issue I have with female circumcision is that of the education of parents and the (non)consent of babies and for that reason I am also against infant male circumcision. It is a wholly different matter for an adult to choose to undergo such a procedure for religious cosmetic reasons.

    • Noor

      Actually, the narrator of the one hadith that mentions it said he himself doubted the authenticity of the hadith. Its so important to acknowledge that.

  • Shafi Khaled, MSS, MA, Ph.D.

    Corrected version: Sorry. JAK.

    It’s an important topic – women’s circumcision, in that it is happening at all in this day and age. I was surprised to note that this African and Arabian practice had skipped the entire Indian Subcontinent and landed on the shores of SE Asia. So, it is a superfluous and unnecessary cultural ritual that has been mindlessly accepted along with Shahadah.
    Ordinary people cannot control the inertia of the society. So, it’s hard to blame parents, grandparents, the bidan (Malay female(?) quacks), or the village chief, for example. But the wishy-washiness of the council of Ulema is difficult to excuse. One wonders whether that is a part of the mental makeup of not being confident about one’s Niyyah, ‘ilm and sometimes being paranoid in thinking what if my decision is wrong. This type of caution is understandable, generally. But this was acting on a hunch, not knowledge. It’s not about the ulema’s personal life-choice but the life-choice of others that an opinion (fatwa) of this type causes. In effect, is it not like insisting on everyone else to follow this person’s notion of holiness? That is not being authoritative, but being an authoritarian, albeit innocent looking! Humans are required to be Muslims, but no one is required to be Mu’min, Muttaqui or Muhsin. Achieving these maqam (stations) depends on niyyah, ‘amal, khushu, ikhlas, ‘adl, karamah, halimah, ‘afu, soundness of the heart, etc. That is the Jihad-e-Akbar!
    Besides, the male circumcision is to protect from disease, typically in hot water-short climates of the world. But it helps everywhere else by improving personal hygiene. Now, a woman’s clitoris is hidden away and does not have the same chance of being infected. That is God’s design. One can easily do research of women’s health and find out the percentage of women in countries without female circumcision get infected on that account. So, it’s a purposeless routine that is a hangover from another era, being a practice among a particular group of people.
    If Islam is a purposeful religion as we proudly claim, a natural (of fitra) religion, and the religion of the middle way that can act as a standard for all other people, then this practice should be labeled as it must be – a nonsense, a sham passing for religiosity, a superstition unsupported by science, and a measure of a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, matriarchs drive this patriarchy.
    So, this procedure is not a fard (compulsory) – for female or for male. It is not a condition of becoming a Muslim. I can understand and I accept the tradition of the Prophet (sm) for men as a mustahab (recommended), but for women it is mubah – neither recommended/desirable nor prohibited. But given its Israf (waste) nature, health risk, excessiveness or unevenness of implementation from region to region or generation to generation, it is probably makruh (not recommended). We do know that the women around the Prophet (sm) were subjected to this. And the Prophet (sm) asked that such procedure be done carefully and with smaller incision for it is better for the girl and more liked by the husband. We know the purpose of circumcision – hygiene and disease prevention for men. Does it reduce men’s sexuality? Can any ulema say that about his circumcision? So, how can that argument be used to perform this procedure on girls, new born or not? Besides, sexual behavior is impacted by hormones, not by a normal, healthy clitoris. Furthermore, often the family size impacts parents’ ability to nurture their children in a gentle, logical manner. So, an easy route to manage girls has been figured – marry them off early, have them circumcised, don’t give them an education, don’t allow them to drive, etc. This is really the parent’s problem, not their daughter’s! How much fitnah should we reduce for men’s welfare? Make women invisible!
    Already our women are covering their awrah (private parts) – sometimes more, still do we not trust them? Are they to be punished to prevent something they have not even begun to feel and think about? So, it is punishment for a sin well before its conception. Then never again should such Muslims proudly trumpet that Islam has no original sin as in Christianity. So, in that Deen the idea of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was introduced in order that Esa (asm) be protected from the original sin flowing into him. Since both Adam and Hawa (asm) were forgiven for their violation of Allah (swt)’s bidding in Jannah, it is over. None of their progeny bears their shame of failure for two reasons: they did not cause it and there was forgiveness from the Tawwabur Raheem! This is the Qist (Justice) of Allah. So, what about the command: ‘’ati ullaha” – follow Allah, the Ultimate Sunnah? Remember, too, not everything our forefathers did is sanctioned by the Quran. This was not an important human rights issue at the time of the Nabi Kareem (sm), but it is now. Our ‘adat (customs, practices and expectations) has matured enough in 1400 years that it can sustain a sensible position of prohibiting this type of meaningless procedure. This is not a violation of Aquidah. Violating the rights of our girls is violating at least one of the five things protected under the Shari’ah – Life, Property, ‘Aql (Mind or Intelligence), Deen (Religion) and Dignity.
    So, let’s stop making the spurious arguments supporting this old-world, pre-Islamic, Jahiliya (uninformed), superstitious, female-subjugation custom. We have enough real problems on our plate. We have been sitting on our hands for over 300 years arguing on useless, peripheral matters. In the meantime, we have eaten/used up our inherited endowments gathered over centuries like unmeritorious, wasteful children of rich parents. If we are to recover, we have to get organized, get a proper perspective and have a priority list. As to the mark of civilization being organization, discipline and unity, please read Suratul Mulk (67). Therein, Allah (swt) asks us to look at Heavens to find any anomaly, discord or dissonance. He points that we will find none. Our eyes will be tired trying to find an error or a fault. There is order and rules. The societies that value these standards have or will progress. The examples are staring in our faces for more than a century in the form of Europe, America and Japan in the past and now in Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and China. Let’s get real, in-shaa’ Allah!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

    Moderator note: As per MMW’s commenting policies, let’s stick to the more specific comment of Sya’s post, rather than rehashing extensive histories and/or theological arguments about circumcision.