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Female Circumcision as a Violation of the Human Rights


By Apnizan Abdullah

August 7, 2019

FEMALE Khitan (circumcision) is practised widely among Muslims based on the assertion of its obligatory status by many clerics/jurists in certain jurisdictions.

Malaysia is no exception. Malaysia has implemented it due mainly to the national fatwa (religious edict) issued by the National Fatwa Council on April 21-23, 2009.

The council decided that female circumcision is obligatory except in cases where it becomes harmful to the subject.

It should be noted that any fatwa issued by the National Fatwa Council becomes binding only when it is adopted and gazetted by the states as part of their laws relating to the administration of Islamic law.

This is because the National Fatwa Council is a mere coordinating body for the administration of fatwa in Malaysia.

Constitutionally, Islamic laws concerning Muslims are matters under the states’ power. Each state is free to administer its own Islamic law the way it thinks fit.

In relation to the female circumcision in Malaysia thus far, states have issued different views or fatwa.

The Fatwa Committee of the Islamic Religious Council of Perlis for instance, decided on April 18 and 19, 2017 that the Hukum (ruling) for female circumcision varies from one person to another depending on the conditions of their genitals as advised by medical experts.

The committee held that should a female Muslim find herself in need of circumcision upon the advice of an expert, circumcision in her circumstance attains the status of makrumah (respected) based on the hadith of Ummu‘Atiyyah. Otherwise, circumcision should not be performed.

The committee emphasised that the khitan procedure that is carried out rampantly on female Muslims babies in the country without consulting experts is baseless in the eyes of Shariah.

The Johor Fatwa Committee on the other hand, is of the view that the procedure is permissible provided it is carried out by a trained and/or certified medical practitioner, as decided in its meeting on June 14, 2012.

Generally, all the above-mentioned fatwa do not differentiate between the circumcision procedure practised on the female Muslim adult and the female minor.

Hence it is inferred that they serve as a blanket edict to be followed by all.  Malaysian Muslims have basically practised it based on culture and religion.

A seminal study released in 2011 entitled, ‘The Status of Female Circumcision in Malaysia’, revealed that over 90 per cent of Malay Muslim women and their daughters had been circumcised.

The majority were infants between newborn and preschool age.

The study also found that the practice was associated with Islam and Malay ethnicity where the women largely cited religious obligation (80.4 per cent), hygiene (41.3 per cent), and culture (31.9 per cent) as the justifications.

This study was commissioned by the Health Ministry, World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Fund for Population Activities.

According to WHO, female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

It is classified into four major types. The first three types begin from the least invasive and move on to type two and type three, and their sub-categories, which become increasingly more invasive. We need not, perhaps, go into the more technical aspects of these procedures, which the interested reader can in any case access on the Internet.

The last of the four types includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.

According to WHO, there are more than 200 million girls and women alive today who have been circumcised or mutilated in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is largely performed.

It calls for the total banning of FGM on the premise that it is regarded as a violation of the human rights of girls and women since the procedure is harmful and does not carry any proven health benefits to them.

According to Dr Zakiah Mohd Said, female circumcision as practised in Malaysia was classified under Type IV in 2008 but reclassified 10 years later under Type 1(a) after a presentation to the CEDAW Committee in 2018.

Professor Harlina Halizah Siraj asserted that since there is no medical benefit proven to merit a continuance of the practice among Muslims, hence it should be banned unless there is a necessity in certain isolated cases as advised by medical experts.

Both expressed their views at a closed roundtable discussion on “Isu Khitan Wanita Di Malaysia: Biar Wanita Berbicara”, organised by Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia on Feb 27.

A similar call to denounce and discourage the practice was made by Professor Mohammad Hashim Kamali, a renowned Shariah scholar, in an article in the New Straits Times on Dec 14, 2018.

Thus, it is timely for the National Fatwa Committee to revisit its fatwa on female circumcision since there is no injunction on its obligatory status in the Quran or Sunnah.

This issue merits further study and the formulation of a cogent Shariah-based policy that may hopefully stand harmoniously with human rights principles.

Apnizan Abdullah is a research fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia