Focus Edition 27:
Women and the Tradition;
Reasons Behind Female Circumcision

Monday, August 10, 2009 

Her name is Sarah, 36 years old. She lives in Sawangan, Depok, West Java. Some traumatic memories are still imprinted while telling her story to Tempo Interaktif, in 2006. When she was only 9 years old, the father took her to the hospital to meet a midwife. In the examination room, she was asked to sit and look at the ceiling. The midwife injected an anesthetic, before incising an equipment into crevice in her groin. Unfortunately the anesthetic was not working optimally. Sarah screamed and wriggled.

Nong Darol Mahmada, a young mother and one of the women activists in Jakarta, also had similar experience. Without her consent, her baby girl was circumcised by a medical officer at a maternity hospital in Jakarta. She told the story in a documentary film “Pertaruhan” (the Stakes) by a young filmmaker Nia Dinata with Kalyana Shira Foundation.

 Although since 2005, the Ministry of Health of Republic of Indonesia has issued a ban on the practice of female circumcision by shaman (dukun), midwives or other medical personnels, but in reality, female circumcision still continues to be practiced in the sosciety. Why is that? What is the real motivation behind this practice? Female circumcision in reality is still a big problem, given the effects on reproductive health and female sexuality.

Female Circumcision in Various Countries
Various practices of female circumcisions are still widely practiced in more than twenty countries, especially in the Muslim societies with the Shafi’i school of thought. In Africa for example, female circumcision occurs in Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Mauritania, Chad, Northern Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Mali, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. In Asia, this practice is commonly practiced in Philippines, Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia.
In Latin America, this is done in countries like Brazil, Eastern Mexico, and Peru. Meanwhile, some Western countries affected by this practice are UK, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, America, Australia, and Canada. In these countries female circumcision is still carried out by immigrants from countries that used to do so, even though the law has banned it. Female circumcision is also practiced in United Arab Emirates, South Yemen, Bahrain and Oman. But this is not common in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. On the contrary, Turkey with the Hanafi school of thought, doesn’t recognize such practice. So do Afghanistan and other Maghribi countries.

Although laws in Egypt in 1959 have prohibited female circumcision, this practice still takes place in countrysides. Even practice of infibulation (cutting all parts of the clitoris, labia minora, and some labia majora) is still reported to occur. This phenomenon also exists in Sudan and certain Middle Eastern countries.

 There is a growing assumption, female circumcision is only done to Muslim women. In fact however, non-Muslim women in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Chad, they also experience the practice.


Some historical literature mention that circumcision for girls is not really a tradition of the Muslim society. It has existed in the history of religions before Islam, like in Judaism and Christianity. Only later, as the passage of civilization goes, man continues that ritual until now. From an anthropological study for instance, found female circumcision already existed in the mummy (the corpse preserved) daughters of the ancient rich and powerful Egyptians. But this is rarely in the mummies of the commoners in the 16th century BC. At this time, it is hinted that female circumcision is intended to prevent the entry of evil spirits from the female vital organs.

Other literature also mentions, the circumcision has been introduced by the Torah holy book to be obeyed by the Jews, the Israel descendants. This book contains the teachings of the Abrahamic religions brought by Prophet Moses. Even before, the circumcision had been done by Prophet Abraham. as inspiration from God. Circumcision in Torah is used as a sign that distinguished the Israelites from other origins. The sign is related to the promise of coming Messiah (Prophet Isa) who will descend from lineage of Israel, especially from Jews. In addition, circumcision at that time was reserved for men only, while women were not ordered to have it. While for some Catholics and Muslims, the circumcision also applies to women.

Different “Forms” of Female Circumcision Practices
The word sunat (circumcision) is actually derived from Arabic which generally means cutting. In fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in general, the circumcision is to cut some skin covering hasyafah (the head of the penis), circumcision for women is mentioned with another term, khifadh.
In Indonesia, the practice procedure of female circumcision differs from Africa. In Africa female circumcision is done in extreme ways, such as slashing or cutting all parts of clitoris. In Indonesia, female circumcision is usually done in simple ways. For example, cutting small part of genital (tip of clitoral hood), or simply done symbolically. This symbolization is usually done by sharpened turmeric to incise the girl’s clitoris. But in some areas, some are using sharp tools, or even with gemstone rubbed on the girl’s clitoris.

Based on World Health Organization (WHO) data in 2004 there are several types of female circumcision. These are, first, removing surface area, with or without the partial or complete removal of clitoris. Second, the clitoris removal, followed by removing parts or all parts of labia minora. Third, the removal of parts or all parts of the external genital organ followed by sewing or narrowing the vaginal opening (infibulation). Fourth, puncturing, piercing, or stretching the clitoris and labia, followed by pulling and burning the clitoris or its surrounding tissue. Fifth, damaging the tissue around the vaginal opening (angurya cut) or cutting the vagina (gishiri cut). Sixth, inserting destructive ingredients or plants into the vagina to cause bleeding, narrowing the vagina, and other actions that can be categorized in the definitions. These types are not all known and practiced in different countries.

From these types, there are more or less four types that are known and practiced in general. First, circumcision, it is the removal of the surface and tip of clitoral hood. However, this form includes a more subtle and less destructive way.

Second, excision or clitoridectomy. This is the removal of the clitoris which is often followed by the removal of the labia minora. Third, infibulation or pharaonic circumcision. This type is removal of clitoris followed by removal of labia majora and attaching both sides of the vagina by sewing or unifying naturally injured tissue using media such as thorns, silks, or threads from cat’s intestines. In infibulation, this will leave only a small hole in the size of a match tip for the release of menstrual fluid. The type is one form of extreme female circumcision, and very damaging female vital organs.

In extreme practices, it is usually done by using a cutter such as broken glass, thin iron, scissors, tweezers, needles or other sharp objects. So, infibulated children and women, will not have normal vital organ. The small hole of vital organ, cannot perform sexual activity. The main purpose of infibulation is to keep ‘virginity’ of unmarried women. If a woman who underwent infibulation wants to have sexual intercourse, she has to undergo reopening or defibulation, and hers also be opened more for the sake of labor. In WHO records, all types and sorts of female circumcision are categorized in Female Genital Mutilation or commonly abbreviated as FGM.

The procedure of female circumcision, usually performed by older women, dukun, barbers, midwives and professional doctors. The circumcision procedure usually give extreme pain for the women, at the time and after the circumcision process. But strangely, most female circumcision is done by women themselves, and rarely implemented by men.

The women age for female circumcision varies greatly, depends on customs and culture of the community. It is done usually when the women are still infants, children aged 7 to 10 years, teenagers and adults. For example, in Somali society, female circumcision is often done at the age of 18 to 68 years. In Ethiopia the age is usually in the age range of 30 to 52 years. Of the age criteria, the most widespread is the range of age 4 to 8 years. In Indonesia alone, the average age of circumcision is done when women are still infant or at least 7 days after birth, and frequently performed by medical personnels, midwives, doctors, and dukun bayi.

Various Reasons of Female Circumcision
According to some experts, female circumcision is done for the first time in Egypt, as part of a ceremony for women who have grown up. The tradition of female circumcision in Egypt is a cultural acculturation between people of Egypt and Rome who at that time lived in Egypt. From this cultural acculturation, the tradition of female circumcision began to run by the Egyptian society. The word “infibulation” was derived from the Roman word fibula which means to unite or to attach. At that time, the Romans applied the practice of infibulation to their female slaves to increase the selling power in the market. While the Egyptians adopted the practice of infibulation for the purpose of making Egyptian women more desirable and at the same time to maintain their virginity.

Gradually, the practice of female circumcision is also carried out by certain religious groups and become a popular tradition. But the religion is not the main reason every society does that. The reasons people often use are, first, cultural identity issues. There are assumptions in society, to run that traditional or cultural ritual is the initiation stage for a woman to enter the stage of adulthood and become an official part of a community group.

Second, the issue of gender identity. The part of clitoral removal is considered as the process of removing male organ in the female body so female femininity will be perfect. The practice of circumcision is also intended to form the compliance and weakness of women caused by trauma, so the women are easily taught about  her role in society.

Third, the issue of sexual control and women’s reproductive function. Here it is believed that women who experience circumcision will have less sexual desire, in order to avoid the practice of sex outside of marriage. Furthermore, the women who do not get circumcision will be very doubted of their loyalty to their husbands.
Fourth, the reason of cleanliness, health and beauty. Female circumcision by the community is usually associated with the act of purification for women. For this reason people believe women will be more fertile and easy to give birth.

The Agenda Behind Female Circumcision
There is an ideological issue in female circumcision that complicated to be proven, because it is often a strong reason that does not appear on the surface. Some prominent figures have their opinions related to this. Nawal El Saadawi, was very critical of dismantling the ideological issues behind the practice. She was a female figure, a doctor, as well as a victim of the practice of excision, once said female circumcision is actually done to maintain virginity and minimize or reduce female sexual desire. With circumcision, a woman is considered to be able to take care of her dignity and family.

More according to Nawal, the practice is an act intended to dominate women in a patriarchal society. Even under these circumstances, usually a man (husband) will hope to legitimize his actions to have more than one wife, using the woman (wife)’s sexual weakness as an excuse.

In line with Nawal, Farha Ciciek, the leading women activists in Indonesia. According to Ciciek, female circumcision is the actual expression of patriarchal ideology operation in which a woman’s body is made as an object, including a sexual object.
Moreover Ciciek assessed, in patriarchal society there are various dichotomies that try to be immortalized. In the context of human existence, the dichotomy of “mind and body” is known. This is where women are considered bodily beings as representation of the “body”, while men are rational or “mind” creatures. Of course “mind” will be considered more dignified than “body”. Thus, the practice of female circumcision is still widely implemented as a form of embodiment of this biased dichotomy.

 Interestingly, in Indonesia too, the practice is carried out because of tendency of “women’s existence”, and religious rituals. Many young families did not practice female circumcision. However they actually practice circumcision on their daughters on the grounds of fulfilling religious advice.

Why the practice in Indonesia is not considered a problem, and tends to be denied, even though almost every family practices it? The literal answer, it is not denied because in literal sense, cutting the clitoris, has never been reported.

Indeed in Indonesia there are hardly any reports of practices with any degree of brutality, and leaving negative impacts that medically endanger women’s reproductive and sexual health such as those in Africa, or to certain ethnic groups in the world. But when analyzed by an ideological approach, however symbolic, the reasoning behind the practice is exactly the same as the reason for genital mutilation in Africa. Among others, the reason is nothing more than an initiation process into the maturity for women, or self purification, or reason to control women’s sexual urges. Of course, the reasons for hygiene and health are still very necessary to be questioned. A Collective assumption which states dirt clinging to clitoris can make female libido out of control, has no accurate medical evidences.
In society there are also many practices for reasons of cultural traditions and economic motives. For the profession as executor of female circumcision is a hereditary work of a mother to child, which becomes the family’s economic support. If the practice is banned, the family income will automatically be lost. Among medical practitioners, the practice is also providing an economic income. Midwives or other medical personnels in hospitals or in private practices, it is common to offer delivery, female circumcision packed with ear piercings. They do not want to dismiss the additional cost of piercing and circumcision. Though few parents complained of sudden acts without being asked, just immediately being informed that their daughter was circumcised.

Circumcision in the Perspective of Islam and Women’s Rights

Female circumcision from function and benefits, it is different from circumcision for men. Circumcision for men brings benefits to body. The meat at the tip of the vital organ which is the nest of disease is being removed. So the circumcision makes men’s vital organ become healthier and holier. It is also creating sexual pleasure when they have sex with their spouses.

 In contrast to men, female circumcision according to A.H. Taba, WHO’s former Regional Director for the Middle East, will create health problems to children and women. According to him, all types of surgery on the genital organs will cause serious physical and psychological disorders for women. The physical or mental disorders can occur in short term, or may also appear in the long run, depend on the level of self resilience of children or women, psychosocial environment, and other factors.

Psychologically, female circumcision is intended to reduce or eliminate tissue sensitivity in genital area, especially the clitoris, to reduce female sexual drive. But, this precisely gives bad effects for women. Women will not to be able to enjoy sexual relationship in marriage. Even from the side of sexual psychology, female circumcision can leave a lifelong impact of depression, tension, inferiority and sense of imperfection.

Physically, the direct impact of circumcision will also cause pain, bleeding, shock, urine retention, and injury to the surrounding tissue. Bleeding and infection in certain cases will be fatal, lead to death. The long term impacts besides pain and sexual dysfunction, are the emergence of cysts and abscesses, cheloid and disabilities, as well as difficulty in childbirth.

 Regarding the practice of female circumcision, Islam is actually a religion that maintains integrity of human beings, both inner and outer aspect. Therefore, body cutting violates the integrity and demeans God’s creation which is considered perfect and not need to be refined. There is no strict command in Al Qur’an or Hadith for the clitoris to be cut or modified. It is God’s creation and therefore should not be cut or reduced in size or function.

Sexual pleasure is also the rights of both sides, a wife and husband. Surah Al Baqarah: 187 states that wife and husband are like each other’s apparel, complementing, and completing each other. Similarly in Surat Ar-Rum verse 21, God puts love and compassion in between. Therefore female circumcision is a violation of women’s rights because it eliminates pleasures God gives.
In any forms, circumcision has existed long before Islam. This has been practiced by certain tribes in the age of ignorance long before the Prophet’s presence. According to Hamim Ilyas, Reproductive Health Specialist from Indonesian Family Planning Association (PKBI), as a tradition that has existed for long, it is not introduced by Islam. Al Qur’an does not mention about circumcision, either for men or women. What Al Qur’an has is the teaching of sexual relationship in marriage which is a shared pleasure as a gift from God.

Al Qur’an as the source of Islamic religious law does not include the female circumcision. Al Qur’an only mentions a verse that commands men to follow the teachings (millah) of Prophet Abraham. According to KH. Husein Muhammad, the commentators (mufasir) who gave understanding that circumcision is one of the Abrahamic traditions to be followed.

Basically, religion never orders women to be circumcised. Only men are ordered to be circumcised, and only Muslims and Jews. It is tradition that encourages the implementation. Opinions that legalize female circumcision cannot be separated from the context of interpreting religious texts encompassed by a gender biased patriarchal background.

Hence, Muslim world has sought to eliminate practices that oppress and destroy the women’s humanity. Egypt, has been implementing laws that strictly prohibit female circumcision practices. Article 12 of The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), it is also considered a form of violence against women.

Indonesia, as the country with largest Muslim population in the world, has implemented the regulation through the Directorate General of Health which prohibits medical practice of female circumcision since 2005. So far, the practice does not have medical evidences of its benefits for women. To uphold Islam as a rahmatan lil ‘alamin (mercy to all creation), we should do something immediately to save women from those harmful practices. Wallahu’alam (Allah knows best). []


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