by: Ala’i Nadjib
Circumcision in the Javanese coastal language, the district of Jepara-Pati-Rembang and surrounding areas, is often referred in term nyelamake. Not knowing the basic word, nyelamake or nyelamaken applies to both males and females.
While based on the narrative of Snouck Hurgronje, Dutch political adviser who also studied the culture of Aceh in early 20th century, nyelamaken comes from the word selam (salam) which means to make a Muslim. According to his records, in Java, women were circumcised on same day as their brothers. But the guests came only knowing the one being circumcised was her brother only. Here was implied a message, how insignificant the existence of women, including her “intent” of circumcision did not need to be known to public. On the contrary, among priyayi (people with high social status), female circumcision are celebrated as male circumcision.
The history of female circumcision, in addition to be found in Egyptians, is also found in Nile valley; namely Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. In Indonesian areas of Banten, Gorontalo, Makassar, Padang Sidempuan, and others, the practice is found in various forms. Unlike the practice in Sudan where there are many complaints because women lost their sexual satisfaction. Whereas the teachings of Islam affirm the wife is “clothing” for the husband and vice versa.
Women’s rights activists make prohibition of female circumcision as an urgent agenda. In fact, in the eyes of Nawal el Saadawi (2001), circumcision should be prohibited, whether for men or women. According to Nawal, a medical doctor, man has been created by God in perfect form, ahsanii taqwiim. Why should we throw or cut one part of the body? It is unclear how the Egyptians’ reaction to her statement about male circumcision that she also thinks unnecessary.
There are variety of experiences from different communities regarding female circumcision. In some communities, many girls are circumcised when they do not know anything or still babies. Aqiqah ceremony (the Islamic tradition of animal sacrifice on occasion of a child’s birth) which serves yellow sticky rice on pincuk, a plate made of banana leaf inside berkat (means blessing; rice and food of festivity to be taken home). The author herself and her sister were also circumcised as infants.
Such practices are still common in both maternity hospitals and in homes, by midwives, shamans or dukun beranak. Usually dukun beranak performs the female circumcision with a welat (sharp bamboo blade). While the midwife usually smears the baby’s vital organs with alcohol then scratches it with a needle and gives some Betadine (antiseptic medicine). There is no sound of crying babies, but incision of pain was felt by the author; to bear in mind the practice is often based on reasons of religious views and cultural excuses which have some misogynistic nature.
In fact the practice has diverse modes. My usual doctor informed that an ear piercing and circumcision package is now a trend in various maternity hospitals, both regular and high class hospitals.
However in society there are also doctors who perform female circumcision symbolically to “rescue” baby girl’s parents from demands of large families who want female circumcision to be done. In this case, a doctor pretends to slash or to apply turmeric on baby’s vital organs. Afterward the parents invite relatives and neighbors in a thanksgiving ceremony.
“Actually the food is good,” explained a doctor, “I like it. But, there is no need for female circumcision. Invite me to eat at home. Later we can do a symbolic circumcision. What is important in the eyes of big families and guests; there is a circumcision and there is a medical expert who did it.” But there are still people who engage in female circumcisions in their families because of religious reasons with no critical understanding.
Viewing the growing practices in Indonesia, the Ministry of Health in 2004 prohibits the practice. World Health Organization (WHO) also sees many practices of female circumcision in various parts of the world, as violence against women. Many do not agree with the Ministry of Health’s policy. The Head of Office Department of Religious Affairs in Banda Aceh, when the author met him in 2006, questioned the reason of prohibition. He could not accept because he thinks female circumcision has religious basis.
Public in general also has mixed responses about female circumcision. There are pros, cons, and also in the middle position. The issue seems should be returned to its basic principle as the occurrence of violence in women. Furthermore, it needs some efforts to make the prohibition of the practice become acceptable in the society. Because the frontal prohibition of female circumcision, will lead to illegal practices that are very possibly unsafe and unhealthy by irresponsible parties. The public of Indonesia should also be given an understanding to accept that it is not a religious teaching, so to disengage in female circumcision.
Apparently, a cultural approach is an alternative that can be taken to achieve that goal. Circumcision in Andre Feillard’s research (1998) is already deeply rooted in the society. To prohibit it, is not enough with a Minister’s appeal or instruction that may change in the future. We need to learn from the experiences of the Family Planning Program in National Population and Family Planning Board (BKKBN) regarding the concept of “Prosperous Family”. There should be a wisdom and patience to prevent female circumcision in consideration of women’s reproductive rights and health, and reviewing of religious traditions that tend to be accepted without any reserved.