With no medical reasons or links to religion, why are women still being circumcised?

Published: April 3, 2017

In this photograph taken on February 20, 2017, toddler Salsa Djafar (C) cries during a circumcision ceremony in Gorontalo, in Indonesia's Gorontalo province. PHOTO: GETTY

Africa and certain parts of the Arab world are not the only places where the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) prevails, as Indonesia is currently on the hot seat for allowing female circumcision on girls as young as one-year-old. 

On March 27th, a disheartening video of an Indonesian toddler surfaced which shook people around the world. In the said video, Salsa Djafar is shown decorated in a crown with ribbons and shiny clothes, ready to be circumcised. The video is not to be watched by the faint-hearted as it truly captures the pain of the little baby girl while she screamed and shrieked as the healer covered her with a white sheet and sliced off a piece of her genitals with a knife.

The knife is typically used to peel off a tiny piece of skin from the hood that covers the clitoris and is then inserted into a lemon. This gesture marks the end of the painful and derogatory procedure in hopes of protecting the child from sin and to let the world know that she is now officially a Muslim.

In Africa, FGM is predominantly practiced with the intention and attempt to control women’s sexuality and modesty, and to make sure that girls conform to their perceptions of beauty standards. Aside from being considered an obligation, traditional healers think that girls who are left uncut or uncircumcised will grow up to develop mental illnesses and other disabilities. Furthermore, the concept that God will not accept nor hear prayers from uncircumcised women is also quite commonly believed. FGM in Indonesia is closely interlinked with religion and culture, which is why in areas like Gorontalo, girls are circumcised before their third birthday in a special ceremony known as ‘mongubingu’ to prove their compliance to Islam.

Realistically speaking, FGM in Indonesia is less harsh as compared to other countries where girls have to go through dreadful processes of having their entire clitoris removed. This remains the reason why many people in Indonesia argue that the practice in the country is not truly genital mutilation. Another reason why it is not considered mutilation is because it doesn’t lead to major health issues such as infections, difficulty in passing menstrual flow and urine, development of cysts, sometimes the inability of getting pregnant, and complications during delivery, like they arise from FGM related procedures that take place in other countries. One major health effect it does have, however, is the limitation of a girl’s ability to orgasm. Even though this may not be a majorly painful side effect, it is definitely related to the inherent value that is tied to sex and gender here. In every patriarchal society, the sexual conquest of women has become a method through which manhood is proven. According to Gayatri Spivak, a feminist who deconstructs hegemonic discourse,

“FGM is the direct result of a particular hegemonic discourse wherein the body, especially with regard to sites on those bodies that are mapped as sources of pleasure, is construed as a challenge to the phallic economy.”

In layperson’s term, because the clitoris is not a penis, it doesn’t functionally serve any reproductive purpose. Since the clitoris is merely a location of pleasure, its removal does not compromise the reproductive organ of the female. However, Spivak argues, and rightly so, that this small piece of the body is comprised of so much power in symbolic terms that it must be systematically removed from the bodies of millions of women around the world. The idea that women can experience pleasure shakes up the status quo of society as a whole because women’s sexual pleasure is understood to be a taboo subject. In a patriarchal world where men assume all pleasurable positions, women are taught and encouraged to remain hush about their sexual preferences. Despite owning reproductive organs, they have little to no autonomy over how to address issues related to the vagina.

Legally speaking, the Indonesian government has moved away from old attempts to ban the practice all together in order to accommodate cultural and religious viewpoints. In 2006, the health ministry tried to ban doctors from carrying out female circumcision since there wasn’t any medical benefit. However, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) passed a fatwa saying that only women who undergo the procedure would be considered noble. Resultantly, the government, instead of strengthening the ban, proposed safer methods to carry out the procedure. Due to the government’s lack of ability to take action against the practice, Indonesia and the prevalent practice received immense backlash from local human rights activists and the international community.

The United Nations has also condemned the practice several times and disagrees with the Indonesian government’s standing, declaring FGM as “harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes”. Regardless of countless efforts to stop the practice worldwide, it has been difficult to stamp out the tradition entirely. However, due to international pressures and social awareness of the procedure’s health effects, the UN passed an impactful resolution in 2012 which helped curb the situation in the past decade.

Atas Habsjah, vice-chairwoman of the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (PKBI), states that many Indonesian women still undergo some kind of circumcision, and clinics continue to offer female circumcision because it’s “good business”.

Islam has nothing do with female circumcision simply because there is no mention of it in the Holy Quran and has no medical indication either. Simply put, it is a grave violation of human rights and it’s about time the bubble is burst and people realise the truth.

The truth of the matter is that controlling women’s sexuality is played upon for several reasons which benefits and maintains certain hierarchies. Female circumcision reinforces the ‘blame the victim’ narrative which forces women to ‘protect their honour’ instead of teaching the men to behave responsibly to bring about a cultural change that could make societies safer for women.

How long will these harmful practices against women continue?

Women who are culturally bound by higher authorities need to thoroughly understand that they are tricked into believing that FGM has any link to religion. They need to be made aware of the pain inflicted upon young women for no reason in order to realise that this practice needs to end. Women cannot be their own worst enemies anymore.

Purniya Awan

Purniya Awan

The writer is a Gender Studies graduate from York University, has been nominated as a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum, is a former member of Youth Parliament Pakistan and is a founding member of Courting The Law. She is a women's rights activist and frequently writes on feminist and human rights issues. She tweets @purniyaA (twitter.com/PurniyaA?lang=en)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Shah Saeed

    I Have Been to Saudi Arabia Turkey UAE and Right Now I Am Living In Pakistan Where ever I Have Been I Have Never Heard of Female Circumcision In My LifeRecommend

  • Shah Saeed

    Certainly More Peaceful Than Sanathan DharmRecommend

  • wb

    Sati was eradicated a 100 years ago. Are you telling me that Muslims are behind Hindus by at least 100 years? I’d be so surprised! I thought, Muslims are at least 200 years behind Hindus in progress. LOLRecommend

  • ThePrincekhan999

    The Fact Is These Things Do Not Exist There.

    There Are Lots Of Loud Mouthed Women Activists In These CountriesRecommend

  • Shah Saeed

    “Vanishing States” Wow It Is Always An Entertainment Reading Indian Comments On ETRecommend

  • Rohan

    Your very own historian Ayesha jalal used that term to describe Pakistan ,learn some history and educate yourself before coming hereRecommend

  • Sayydah Garrett

    Exactly!!Recommend

  • Sayydah Garrett

    WRONG!!!Recommend

  • Sayydah Garrett

    Glad to see that you’re absolutely correct. Recommend

  • Sayydah Garrett

    peaceRecommend

  • anum

    It is practiced in Pakistan. Get your facts straight before making such statements.Recommend

  • Ella

    Could you please share the link about the Dawoodi Bohra who shared her experience?Recommend

  • ella

    Would you have more stats on FGM? How much it happens in Pakistan etc. It would be of great help.
    ThanksRecommend

  • Ahmar

    Care to enlighten me where it is being practised? Recommend

  • Zaynah

    i am from Pakistan n i assure u that its not practiced anywhere in PakRecommend

  • Zaynah

    when u dont know whts there in Islam and whats not then dont put ur nose in it… go get some knowledge before starting a debate.
    Preventing zina is important in islam but not on the cost of suppression of women’s right .. Doing halal or haram is a person’s own choiceRecommend