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, Sexuality and Women’s Studies graduate from York University. She has been nominated as a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum, is a Founding Member of a Pakistani legal blog, Courting The Law, and is also the Co-Founder of The Gender Stories (TGS). She identifies as a feminist, and is currently working in Pakistan as a Publicist and as the Head of Social Media Marketing. 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.

  • vinsin

    Same reason why men are circumcised by Muslims? Looks like gender studies didnt help the author to talk about gender equality.Recommend

  • Rohan

    Because Islam is a religion of piece Recommend

  • Hidayat Rizvi

    A very touching and sad narration and a very true one. In India its like is you ask question what about Dalits? and you get back answer , what about them? There is a collective emnasia. Discrimination and violence faced by Dalits don’t have a match with any society around the world. In America there is black life matters movement, no voice for Dalits here. This is so midival like dark ages in Europe, even worse given its happening in 21st century. You see, caste system will never go away until you marry your daughters and sisters to SC/ST boys. Growing number of people argue that the caste system was a British construct have been brainwashed by Hindutva theoreticians who want to deflect the problem. If the British and Muslims are responsible for caste, why don’t the Hindus give it up ? Inter caste marriage may not be the right recommendation as 99% marriages are arranged within caste. Ambedkar had the right recommendation : conversion. Ambedkar made a mistake converting to Buddhism. With Buddhism, caste will come from the back door as the Hindus claim Buddhism is part of Hinduism. Conversion to Islam and Christianity is the only way to end this cruel social system which is the obstacle to India’s development…!!.!!Recommend

  • M Sarmad

    I get the feeling that your are pointing this taboo towards Islamic practices. As I come from very religious can confirm that it is not an Islamic practice and it was a pre-Islam practice in ancient Egypt and Africa; although followed by many Christians, Muslims and Africans because they saw it as a way to dominate women(as it was very commom back then)Recommend

  • M Lyndon

    The people that do it (mostly cut women) claim both medical and religious reasons. Some of them believe it actually improves their sex lives.

    You might be interested in the Hastings Center report “Seven Things to Know about Female Genital Surgeries in Africa”:

    “Western media coverage of female genital modifications in Africa has been hyperbolic and onesided, presenting them uniformly as mutilation and ignoring the cultural complexities that underlie these practices. Even if we ultimately decide that female genital modifications should be abandoned, the debate around them should be grounded in a better account of the facts.

    1. Research by gynecologists and others has demonstrated that a high percentage of women who have had genital surgery have rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction, and their frequency of sexual activity is not reduced.

    2. The widely publicized and sensationalized reproductive health and medical complications associated with female genital surgeries in Africa are infrequent events and represent the exception rather than the rule.

    3. Female genital surgeries in Africa are viewed by many insiders as aesthetic enhancements of the body and are not judged to be “mutilations.”

    4. Customary genital surgeries are not restricted to females. In almost all societies where there are customary female genital surgeries, there are also customary male genital surgeries, at similar ages and for parallel reasons. In other words, there are few societies in the world, if any, in which female but not male genital surgeries are customary.

    5. The empirical association between patriarchy and genital surgeries is not well established.

    6. Female genital surgery in Africa is typically controlled and managed by women.

    7. The findings of the WHO Study Group on Female Genital Mutilation and Obstetric Outcome is the subject of criticism that has not been adequately publicized. The reported evidence does not support sensational media claims about female genital surgery as a cause of perinatal and maternal mortality during birth.”Recommend

  • Zeeshan Karim

    People who say it has nothing to do religion is wrong, because according to Shafa’i school of thought it is mandatory for both male and female to circumcised.Recommend

  • Amer

    So, remind me why this is an issue to be discussed in a Pakistan web blog ?
    Probably because no one was listening in the countries where it matters.Recommend

  • wb

    First of all, it’s not circumcision. It’s genital mutilation or genital distortion. There is a vast difference between cutting off a piece of your skin and cutting off a piece of your flesh (or organ). Being good butchers, Muslims should know this difference.

    Second, there is a very genuine reason for FGM. As per Islam zina is a crime punishable by death. So, the best way to prevent a woman from seeking pleasure outside of marriage is to ensure the organ that needs pleasure is chopped off. It’s a very good way to prevent women from becoming promiscuous.

    Did you ask, “Why not chop off men’s privates to prevent them from doing zina?”

    Well, women enjoy second class status under Sharia. So, you cannot ask such questions.Recommend

  • intellectual.pseudo

    Before trolls take over, let me make it clear that it has nothing to do with Islam and a regional tradition in Africa and other parts of the world.

    and I repeat again that It has nothing to do with IslamRecommend

  • 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

  • Rex Minor

    It would seem that there are no women activists In the countries you visited. Try Indonesia and the Alamic clericks are not enlightened yet to rid the people of ancient cults.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Ali S

    Female circumcision has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with culture (like a lot of other things), only Jewish and Muslim males are ritually circumcised.Recommend

  • Adi Pranoto

    Majority of Indonesian Muslim women never get circumcised. Female circumcision in Indonesia practiced only by certain tribes, including Gorontalo tribe.

    (AdPran. Java island, Indonesia)Recommend

  • MJ

    It must have been to help eradicate “Satti” from India.Recommend

  • 4skin4life

    All cutting of children’s genitals is wrong. It is without question abuse. No boy or girl should be subjected to having part of their sexual organs removed to please their parents religious beliefs, cultural beliefs or personal preferences. Trumped up medical benefits are just that. NO excuse for child abuse. Recommend

  • 4skin4life

    Circumcision of children, boys and girls, is abuse.Recommend

  • Shah Saeed

    Certainly More Peaceful Than Sanathan DharmRecommend

  • nimra

    Dont be so naive, circumcision reduces risk of sexually transmitted diseases in men. It gives protection against penile cancer and reduces risk of cervical cancer in female sex partner, prevents balanitis (inflammation of the glans). I am not saying it because I am a muslim, medical science supports it and gives reasons for doing so,
    while reason for FGM is mere suppression of female’s sexual pleasure and preservation of so called NOBILITY. Recommend

  • Rohan

    Not really but jihad ,yesRecommend

  • Rohan

    Yea that’s why we have vanishing states like Pakistan and the Ones in Middle East Recommend

  • Russell Mills

    If the people who practice a custom believe that they are practicing it for religious reasons, then it IS a part of their religion whether or not a book like the Koran mentions it. Consider, for example, the case of religions that have no holy books at all — such as the ancient Wiccan religion of Europe. None of the practices of this religion were mentioned in a holy book, yet it would be silly to claim that these practices were not a part of the Wiccan religion.Recommend

  • wb

    Sir/Madam, first you blame the Jews, Christians and Hindus for your million problems and now you’re blaming Gorontalo tribe?

    You said, majority of Indonesian women never suffer FGM. What is your basis? Do you have a national registry where every time an FGM happens it is recorded?

    Trust me. Nobody in your neighborhood will go about yelling out, “Yesterday, I did FGM on my daughter, here is the sweets.” or “Yesterday, I my husband raped me when I didn’t want sex. So, congratulations!” Or “Yesterday, I beat up my wife because she did not cook.”

    FGM, Marital rapes, domestic abuses happen very silently.

    Until two years ago, I thought FGM happened only in Africa and Arabia, until a brave Dawoodi Bohra woman wrote about it in on NDTV expressing how she went through it as a child.

    So, let’s just say, it happens frequently.Recommend

  • wb

    Even Burqa has nothing to do with Islam. But you practice it anyway. I challenge you to quote me one verse from Quran about burqa.

    Even eating cows is not mandated according to Quran and in fact called a poison in Hadith. Yet, you eat it just to hurt the Hindus.

    So, stop giving excuses.Recommend

  • wb

    How did you measure that Islam is more peaceful than Sanathan Dharma? Based on the number of suicide bombings/target killings/honor killings in Pakistan and India?Recommend

  • 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

  • Ahmar

    Continuing stupidity from Feminists. FGM isn’t even practised in Pakistan.

    Just change the name of express blogs to feminists’ blogs already >_>Recommend

  • maya

    Gosh you are such a hater!
    There is no FGM in islam..do your research. it was an old practice followed by certain cultures..not permitted by Islam. Please provide a reference if you are such an expert in Islam.
    I just see you trolling on every other post. This hate is consuming you.. so full of spiteRecommend

  • maya

    No it isn’t . Please provide a referenceRecommend

  • Jupiter

    You do know that FGM is not an Islamic practice, right? It’s a cultural practice which has been practiced in different regions within Christian and Muslim majority population. Reza Aslan has addressed the issue in detail. Conflating culture and religion to demonize Islam is an old approach. Try something new!Recommend

  • Shah Saeed

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

  • Shah Saeed

    Only Mahabharat A Billion People Were Killed To Establish Dharma’All Campaigns of Muslims Combined Don’t Even Total A Tenth of That AmountRecommend

  • Shah Saeed

    Let Me Tell You What Is Silly Comparing Islam With Wiccan Religion.
    Islam Is What Mentioned In The Quran and Hadith.Muslims Are At The End Of The Day Human and Not Perfect Also There Are Many Hangovers From Pre Islamic Times That Still Exist In Muslim Societies .Their Actions Do Not Count As ReligionRecommend

  • Rohan

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

  • Russell Mills

    I wasn’t trying to ‘compare’ Islam with the Wiccan religion — I was using the Wiccan religion as an example to show that religious practices consist of more than what is written in religious texts. I could just as well have used, as an example, the Jewish religion as it existed in ancient times before its oral traditions were written down.

    The point is that if we claim that a religion consists only of what is written down, then we would be saying that prior to the invention of writing, there were no religions in the world. And that would be a silly claim.Recommend

  • wb

    I never said FGM is in Islam. Read my comment. I said FGM is used by men to ensure that women don’t do zina. And preventing zina is important in Islam.

    Also, there are many things that are not in Islam. Like triple talaq or halala or burqa. Yet, you practice it and you’ve made it Islamic.Recommend

  • wb

    Hahahaha…my dear, Mahabharatha is a story. Like Harry Potter. Do you not know the difference between an epic story and reality?Recommend

  • Shah Saeed

    So You’re Saying That Hinduism Is Based On Fairy Tales????
    Your Words Not Mine

    Anyway If You Want Something From Historical Records We Can Always Talk About Mihirakula and Pushyamitra Sunga
    Persecuting BuddhistsRecommend

  • Sayydah Garrett

    It’s not the same thing. Male circumcision is practiced for completely different reasons. If the author chose to write about apples, would you have asked her to include information about lemons and oranges? I think not. Actually, vinsin, why don’t YOU write a scholarly thesis about gender equality? Please let us know when and where it will be published.Recommend

  • Sayydah Garrett


  • Sayydah Garrett


  • Sayydah Garrett

    Glad to see that you’re absolutely correct. Recommend

  • Sayydah Garrett

    So? It doesn’t mean that FGM isn’t practiced elsewhere. 200 MILLION WOMEN AND GIRLS HAVE UNDERGONE FGM AND 8,000 GIRLS ARE SUBJECTED TO FGM EVERY SINGLE DAY. DO SOME RESEARCH. ACTUALLY, VISIT MY WEBSITE http://www.pastoralistchildfoundation.org Recommend

  • Sayydah Garrett


  • Sadaf

    No, beef is not consumed to hurt anyone. It is a staple diet of many
    countries as well as many religious denominations including Jews and
    Christians. There is no such hadith regarding beef. There is very little
    that is absolutely forbidden in Islam, it is an easy and natural
    religion to follow. The forbidden food items are expressly mentioned in
    the Quran. On a practical note, it is encouraged to have a balanced diet
    and avoid greed or excess of anything; a very common wisdom from the
    sunnah is to stop eating when there is a little hunger left to avoid
    over-eating and help digestion. Also fasting is encouraged. The Caliph
    Omar (rz) regulated the selling of meat to encourage healthy eating
    habits as well as prevent overburdening the economy for production of
    food, as naturally it requires less resources to cultivate crops, fruits
    and vegetables for food.Recommend

  • 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.

  • Ahmar

    Care to enlighten me where it is being practised? Recommend

  • Sayydah Garrett

    Hi Ella. If you google “FGM statistics” the best results are from UNICEF and WHO (World Health Organization). We have some info. on our website – http://www.pastoralistchildfoundation.org about the different types of FGM and the harmful effects.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