Today is the International Day of Zero Tolerance For Female Genital Mutilation.
Unfortunately, despite this being 2020, there are too many in our society who continue to defend the practice of female genital cutting (FGC). It is alarming that there are even some medical professionals, rather than depending on science, place supposed religious and cultural practices at the centre of their arguments defending it.
Until this past decade, hardly anyone realised that it was actually an accepted thing to do to infants and young girls in Malaysia, particularly among the Malay-Muslim community. It is in fact routinely carried out, particularly in private hospitals.
But just because everybody does it, does not make the practice right.
Those who defend FGC have systematically and conveniently ignored the fact that there is no scientific data or medical evidence whatsoever which justifies the need or benefits for performing this procedure.
The supposedly “less harmful” term of female circumcision has been coined and used repeatedly by defenders of this practice to make it sound better, justified and an acceptable practice.
One of the common defences to the practice of female genital cutting in Malaysia is that we don’t do it the way it is done in Africa. So, it is acceptable to do it.
We hear this again and again.
Let me be clear, any harmful or invasive procedure which is carried out on the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, whether minor or major, is female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting.
The reality is that female circumcision is female genital cutting.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has four classifications for FGC:
- Type 1 is clitoridectomy – partial or total removal of the clitoris and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce or clitoral hood (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
- Type 2 is excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora or “the lips” which surround the vagina.
- Type 3 is 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.
- Type 4 includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes. This includes the procedure of pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.
Malaysia has Type 1, 2 and 4. We do not have Type 3 which is the practice of infibulation, a form of FGM which has traumatised, scarred and damaged the lives of thousands of girls and women in Africa and some parts of Asia.
Studies show that male circumcision has clear, demonstrable benefits ranging from improved hygiene and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
Unlike male circumcision, there is absolutely no scientific data or medical evidence whatsoever which justifies the need or benefits for performing this procedure.
The following might sound familiar:
“You know, the blade used in those old Gillette shavers which you can buy at the convenience store? The blade is lightly run across the clitoris and the labia”
“Just a pinprick aja. A hole was made into the clitoral hood.”
“A small bit of the labia or the clitoral hood was sliced off.”
“I remove a centimetre of the clitoris.”
The first and last quotes were from a traditional practitioner, while the rest are some of the common descriptions given by women and girls who have been subjected to the procedure which was described to them by the mothers.
Those are some of the usual options offered by private hospitals and clinics. The fees range from RM50 to RM400.
Based on descriptions of the procedure as implemented around the country, three out of the four forms of female genital cutting are practiced in Malaysia.
A 2010 University of Malaya study on the status of female circumcision in Malaysia indicated the following findings:
- More than 90 per cent of Malay Muslim female respondents were circumcised.
- None of the non-Malay female respondents were circumcised.
- More than 93 per cent of women also circumcised their daughters.
Despite all that we know, mothers continue to insist on having their infant daughters’ genitals cut. Why?
The primary reasons identified by study were religious obligation, personal hygiene, cultural practice and to control the girl’s sexual desire.
In 2006, Al Azhar University declared female circumcision as un-Islamic.
Since then, several Muslim-majority countries have banned the practice, including Egypt and Indonesia (despite the ban, the cutting of girls persists in many rural areas). In 2012, the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee adopted a resolution which declared female genital cutting to be a harmful practice and a serious threat to the psychological, sexual and reproductive health of women and girls.
For some reason, the National Fatwa Council in 2009 was determined to make the practice obligatory (wajib) for girls. Yet, their rationale couldn’t even find the necessary references in the Quran. Female circumcision isn’t even required under Islam.
In comparison, slavery is not only mentioned in the Quran, but it is also provided for as an accepted practice in certain circumstances. Yet, we don’t accept or practice slavery today. We condemn it. Last I checked, none of the Muslims I know owned any slaves.
An older Ministry of Health circular actually prohibits the practice of female circumcision in all public health facilities. Rather than medicalising and regulating the practice, MOH should extend that prohibition to all healthcare facilities, private and public.
There are no medical benefits from the procedure. There is also no evidence that female circumcision does anything to control sexual desire (unless because of the circumcision, the sex act is so traumatic that it would be too painful or impossible).
If there is no medical benefit, no religious obligation, or any benefit whatsoever to performing female circumcision, then why do it?
We must call for the prohibition and criminalisation of the practice of female circumcision to protect our infant daughters and girls from harm. No ifs, buts or caveats.
Azrul Mohd Khalib is CEO of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.