By Majidah Hashim
February 1, 2019
Baby girls: to circumcise or not to circumcise, that is the question.
One of the most enduring arguments to perpetuate female circumcision in Malaysia is that the way girls are circumcised here is a far cry from the savage mutilation experienced by girls in Africa. In Malaysia, it really is just a matter of a prick so small, the tiny infant will probably have no memory of the ordeal at all.
So why are we making such a big deal about it, really?
You see, there seems to be quite a bit of discrepancy over the notion of “harm” and what it really means at a physical, psychological and societal level.
The truth is, the physical harm factor does exist. At the 69th Cedaw session in February 2018, the representative from Malaysia’s health ministry reported that 83-85% of Muslim baby girls have been circumcised by medical professionals at private clinics with absolutely no complication at all.
But how about the other 15-17%?
Let’s flip the table on this for a moment: are there any physical benefits at all which warrant circumcising girls? It is medically clear that circumcision for boys is done for hygiene purposes. But this is not true for girls. In fact, for most girls, there is hardly any scarring or physical evidence that circumcision was done at all. Claims that girls are circumcised for cleanliness are disputable and, frankly, do not make sense given that the entire procedure is simply a prick.
If something has an over-15% chance of going wrong and has zero medical benefit, why are we still doing it?
Because our mothers had it done. And our grandmothers had it done. And all our aunties and their cousins had it done. And they think your daughter should do it, too, because it is part of the set of customs that we make practice whenever babies are born.
As a firstborn daughter, I remember my family telling me about all the traditions they proudly upheld in initiating me to their culture.
They held a big kenduri around the first time they brought me outside our house in the upacara pijak tanah, where the soles of my feet touched the earth for the first time. At the same kenduri, I also experienced tahnik whereby a tiny piece of sweet date was placed in my mouth, and adat naik buai where I was placed on a suspended cloth swing and lulled to sleep. Needless to say, it was quite the party for me. For my family, on the other hand, it was a joyous day of celebration with all the merriment one would expect whenever friends and loved ones gather.
Customs are important to us as a matter of identity. It encapsulates a sense of inclusiveness into a culture and a community. To have all these has a psychological effect – obviously not for the baby, but for the parents.
To have participated in the perpetuation of the customs of our ancestors brings a sense of pride to parents. They have not only fulfilled their “obligation” to their traditions; they have officially, with all these practices, passed on the torch to the next generation.
The truth is, the baby has zero recollection of her circumcision experience. But the parents can now boast that she has done it, and another item in the culture checkbox is ticked off. Particularly for the mother, who is often on the receiving end of such inquiries, it is quite a relief.
What is most disturbing, however, is how at a societal level, Islam is still being used to justify circumcising girls.
In the first place, we are not even doing it the way the prominent fiqh references of the syafie school of jurisprudence (mazhab) in the Nusantara region tells us to.
In the Kitab Nihayah Al Zain Fi Irsyad Al Mubtadiin, the Tuhfah Al Mauduud Bi Ahkami Al Mauluud and even the Fiqh Al Sunnah, circumcision of girls clearly describes precision cuts (in most cases, the removal of flesh) to the clitoral area above the vagina. The area where the tear is to be made has been described as shaped like a rooster’s crown.
These cuts are a far cry from the mere prick dismissed by many proponents of female circumcision. Why have cuts been reduced to pricks? Did a realisation of harm occur along the way? Or better yet, a realisation that it really did not make any difference at all? If this is so, at least we can agree at this point that the act is merely symbolic.
This explains why there is such a variation in the method applied in performing female circumcision today. Some people use scissors, while others use blades, scalpels, razors, knives, needles or nails, all of which make and leave different scars.
Secondly, there is a very open disagreement among scholars of the syafie school on whether circumcision is even mandatory (wajib) for girls. The reason for this disagreement stems from the fact that the Quran neither condemns nor promotes circumcision for girls. In fact, the Quran does not mention circumcision for girls at all.
Every hadith that has ever claimed to promote circumcision for girls has been disputed as dhaif (weak). According to Sheikh Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, an Islamic theologian, in Fatawa Mu’ashirah, there is not a single piece of evidence which is sahih (authentic) and sareh (clear) from either the Quran, Sunnah, Ijma’ or Qiyas which makes circumcision religiously mandatory for girls.
Darul Ifta Al Masriyah says the clear evidence that circumcision is not necessary for girls is the very fact that our beloved Prophet himself never had any of his own daughters circumcised.
In the absence of textual evidence, we must look at the maslahah (greater good) which the practice has for baby girls and society at large.
Recently, claims have been going around that uncircumcised girls are the cause of teenage pregnancies, dumped babies and zina (adultery). These allegations stem from the ancient belief that girls are born with such an insatiable amount of lust that they must be tamed through circumcision, which is thought to reduce these sexual prowls to more “controllable” levels.
Firstly, unless one seriously mutilates the girl in such a way that her genitalia becomes practically unusable (as in the case of how circumcision is done in some African nations), there is no medical evidence at all which proves that circumcising girls does anything to reduce their sexual expressions.
But secondly and more importantly, isn’t it absolutely unfair that these so-called social issues are all the fault of girls? With the rising number of rape cases, why aren’t we doing anything about the sexual appetite of boys?
Because the answer lies in control. Specifically, the control that society wants to have over girls.
It may come as a surprise to some, but sex – of all things – seems to be at the core of society’s grip over women.
When they are little girls, they are told to be quiet and submissive. When they grow into young women, they are told that their bodies are a source of shame and sin.
When they become wives, they are told to be dutiful and obedient to their husbands. And when they have daughters, they are told that they must be tamed through circumcision.
Oh, one last thing to dispel before I end this article: that the call to end female circumcision is liberal Western propaganda encroaching into our conservative Eastern values. Malaysia’s insistence on continuing the practice drew flak from both the UN Cedaw committee in February 2018 and the Universal Periodic Review in November of the same year, with many Muslim-majority countries echoing the call to end the practice.
While Malaysia retreats to the playground retort that their circumcision is not the same as our circumcision, what we also need to wake up to is the fact that when those countries ended their brutal versions of female genital mutilation, they did not replace it with our docile pricking version of circumcision. Not even for symbolic purposes.
Ultimately, the absence of the requirement for female circumcision in most of the Muslim world proves that Muslim women can live dignified and respectful lives without having been circumcised.
It is high time that Malaysia ticks this off its box of things to do. There really are so many other more important things over which we should be exerting our energy. Ending female circumcision is just a no-brainer.
Majidah Hashim is communications manager for Sisters in Islam.