Making The Cut: On Circumcision, Social Pressure And The Things You Learn

It began with a link that was shared by a family friend on Facebook. In it, my friend expressed her anger at the fact that someone was considering to make female circumcision obligatory for Muslim girls.

My first responses were, “Who’s making it obligatory?” and “What the fuck?”

Anyone who grew up in the nineties and read Time Magazine and Reader’s Digest would have known who Waris Dirie was, and would have been introduced to what the WHO describes as “Type III FGM”, and might have remembered the Al-Azhar’s University’s condemnation of the practice, stating that the ritual itself had no basis in Islamic law.

And yet, there is a national fatwa condoning what it calls “female genital mutilation”.

Hence the shared link, and the outrage.

When Sunat Is Wajib

In examining the fatwa as written on the website, I noticed several things:

  1. That the text of the fatwa itself makes little differentiation between the differing forms of female genital cutting — from the drastic genital mutilation done to minors that was done to Waris Dirie, all the way to how, what is recommended by Imam Shafi’e: the trimming of the clitoral hood, or the prepuce. In all cases, the fatwa refers to the procedure as “female genital mutilation”.
  2. The ruling appears to use the authority of scholars from the four schools of Sunni Islamic thought — I had initially thought it had used the opinions of scholars from only the Maliki school — without noting the multiple differing opinions from Islamic jurisprudential authorities, whose opinions ranged from considering FGC obligatory to considering it forbidden.
  3. One of the stated reasons in stating that the practice was obligatory was the argument that there is no evidence that the process of female circumcision could bring upon harm to a woman’s life. The argument is either so badly worded — by redefining “female genital mutilation” as something other than what it describes, or it is specious beyond belief.
  4. Confusingly, in the fourth point of the argument, the fatwa defines the act of female circumcision as defined by the document is different from the WHO definition of female genital mutilation. So that makes it okay, then.

The irregularity of how the fatwa was presented would have made the ruling of female circumcision1 as “permitted” (harus) instead of “obligatory” (wajib) quite problematic, but relatively uncontroversial. Instead, based on this e-fatwa, not only is the fatwa itself problematic, I’ve become unsure of the basis of this ruling — nothing apart from “these scholars totally said it was obligatory, and we’re going to ignore the other scholars who disagree”. We are2 also unsure what process, exactly, is deemed obligatory by the National Fatwa Council.

Also, I’m somewhat unclear as to the utility of female circumcision itself. Male circumcision — a topic I’ll return to in a bit — at least has the excuse that it makes it easier for men to perform the obligatory major ablutions after sex3 . What benefit to women, exactly, does female circumcision offer? The Shafi’e school mandates that a woman’s prepuce is trimmed4, and it is debatable whether this in itself is analogous to male circumcision, since it is a delicate operation — more so when the person undergoing this process has not yet gone through puberty. And since that has medical risk to the person undergoing the procedure, especially in the hands of someone untrained and with unsafe equipment, that does mean that abandoning this practice is obligatory… right?


Imprecision Cuts Both Ways

In either case, it doesn’t help that this e-fatwa was covered by a publication I have problems with. In this case, the post on UnScientific Malaysia also has a hard time differentiating between FGM, FGC, and “female circumcision” defined by the fatwa itself, which does apparently not associate itself with anything defined by the WHO5.

The post in itself actually attempts to differentiate between “female circumcision” and FGM, and yet comes to the reasoning that since the WHO describes all FGM as harmful and with no positive medical benefits, therefore there is no reason for any Muslim woman in Malaysia to be obligated to perform the process, or subject their children to the process.

And yet this distinction is hazy, and easily lost; the post itself ends with a comic panel6 which seems to frame the view that FGM is akin to butchery, and that female Muslim children must be rescued from their bestial male Muslim counterparts, and their silent female adult Muslim parents.

In a (very short) “discussion” that occurred on the my family friend’s Facebook wall, it became very clear that at least for one commenter, FGM is barbaric, and that it spoke ill of Islam in general. Gone from the discussion was the simple fact that Muslims can and have disputed the ruling, the discussion varies between considering the practice obligatory, to banning it outright, to making qualifications that any harmful procedure should be abandoned, and yet making the procedure obligatory, to even questioning the act of making such qualifications and yet maintaining the obligations for the practice.

Again, I suppose this speaks to how easily individual opinions of Muslims are easily smeared out, turning Muslims around the world into part of an alien, bestial monolith, incapable of being reasoned with and existing only to be “civilized”. Not only is this detrimental to Muslims who may find themselves being discriminated indirectly for the horrors their “kin” may perpetrate, but it closes off discussion — both among Muslims and among non-Muslims — on how contemporary power structures in modern society may be able to reinforce what is “acceptable” and what is not by evoking the fear of the Other, no matter how “rational” or “scientific” such fear may be.

How Dare You Question

Of course, fellow Muslim readers can easily ask the question — “Why do you question the ruling of a council of learned scholars in Islamic law?”

Good question. Can’t I?

Since I was a child, I was raised to believe that Islam had several things going for it: that it was not merely a religion, that it was a way of life, that the principles espoused by it is universal, and that it strives for — constantly — for justice.

In other religions, I was made to understand, there may exist a priestly class, who had the role of being intermediaries between the mortal world and the divine7. Not so with the Muslims — our connection to God was direct, our actions, once out of puberty, our complete responsibility, and no one else’s.

Except, apparently, the bits about questioning the decisions made by Islamic authorities.

The Need for and Limits of Expertise

Now, one argument of this is that I shouldn’t be questioning the opinions of experts, who have had years of training and experience in their specific job-fields. True, if we take the example of other fields, I’m not supposed to, say, perform surgery on a patient. That’s the job of a surgeon. I’m not the one who designs bridges — that’s the job of an engineer. I don’t have the knowledge or the resources of a scientist — therefore I shouldn’t be looking for the cure for cancer. Neither do I have the training of a lawyer or an accountant, so I shouldn’t really be practicing law or auditing my accounts without help.

There are consequences in not heeding or consulting experts in difficult matters, I agree. And yet the opinions of experts can and have been questioned, and at times that questioning was useful and led to better solutions. After all, experts, too, are human, and have been known to err.

And even if the judgement of experts are can be correct, they’re not uniform. After all, there seems to exist a diversity of opinions not only for female circumcision, but for male circumcision as well. If one disagrees with a doctor’s opinion, a second opinion can be sought out; if one engineer’s assessment is disagreed with, or even if one desires more than one expert’s opinions, others can be found as well. While there is no guarantee that the solution found will be necessarily better8, one can at least be satisfied that one had gone through all avenues of inquiry.

Obligatory PDMG Moment: Making It All About Myself

Pull back for a minute though, and consider my own experiences with circumcision, at least the male kind.

I had, some time ago, while volunteering, been introduced to someone who was vociferously, adamantly, against circumcision of any form, male or female. We had agreed at least that female genital mutilation, at least as defined by the WHO, was not only bad in terms of the cause of harm it caused, but also served no purpose other than to control and subjugate women.

It got a little strange when we discussed male circumcision. My acquaintance believed the same for male circumcision — that it was cruel, barbaric practice forced upon male boys, and would permanently be scarred for life, victims of an ancient practice that had served no medical utility.

As I sat there listening to him fulminate against that cruel practice, one that scarred boys forever, and then later looked at our male Muslim counterparts, and myself, who had never really given much thought about the horrors that had been inflicted upon us. I’m not sure any of us would have been able to report about the kind of loss we felt to our sexual function or to our sense of bodily autonomy.

I’m not sure what the others would have said, really — because unlike most Malay boys, I was circumcised, due to medical reasons9 — when I was 6 months old. To me, the default had truly been a ‘cut’ penis, and it was only after meeting other boys had I realized I was different.

Learning New Stuff: “Wait, what?”

Anyway, back to topic. If anything, the “discussion” that I had on Facebook on this matter was rewarding in some ways — not only was there discussion on the fatwa and reactions to the fatwa itself, but I finally learned of someone who had gone through the purported “female circumcision”.

That person was my baby sister10.

According to her and my mother, she had taken my sister and some of my cousins to Pusat Islam in Jalan Tun Razak, where they were subjected to a short procedure where a needle was used to draw a drop of blood from the clitoris of the participant. And that was it. Apparently, according to both my mother and sister, they went swimming afterward.

Compare and contrast this to male circumcision, which usually leaves the boys walking around without any pants on11, and more or less incapacitated for about two weeks or more.

Now I do note that this experience isn’t uniform — in discussion with some of my friends online, it turns out that while some communities do this ceremony and do not seem to be any worse off afterwards — my sister’s doing fine, thanks — others go through what the Shafi’e school apparently mandates, which is the removal of the clitoral hood13. A friend of mine related the story of a Malay woman who had gone through a more extensive procedure, which she credits to the her loss of the ability to orgasm.

A Matter of Choice

I actually had this post on for about a week, as you can imagine — the UnScientific Malaysia article was posted some time ago. During that entire time, I had passed drafts of this post around for discussion, and listened to people affected by this ruling talk about how the topic affected them.

And to me, I still don’t know what I’d do in the event that I’d have children. I had not, for example, thought about whether I’d subject my children to circumcision. My first impulse, at that time, was to say that if I had a daughter, I wouldn’t be getting her circumcised14 ; but had I gotten a son, I would have unthinkingly — like a lot of Malay men, I suspect — assumed that I’d sent my son to be circumcised without a second thought.

Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with my wife of five years at all. “I would tell my kids all about circumcision,” she said to me, “I’d tell them of what it would involve, the social necessity, and the kinds of pressure they’d go through — from their grandparents, from their peers15. I’d tell them that it’s their body, and their choice, and wait for them to make that decision. If and when they’re ready, we’ll go. But not before then.”

Fair enough.


[1] You know, I’m kind of sick and tired of weaving between “Female Genital Mutilation” (FGM), “Female Genital Cutting” (FGC) and “female circumcision” — that mysterious process that is apparently obligatory for Muslim women to do, according to the National Fatwa council. I’m going to call the process that the Fatwa Council deemed obligatory as “female circumcision”, and restrain FGM/FGC to the WHO’s four types of FGM.
[2] Okay, I am.
[3] In which water from a clean and pure source is spread across the entire exterior of the human body. In this case, the glans of the penis is considered an “outside”, since it is exposed to the air on occasion.
[4] Which, incidentally, makes this a form WHO FGM Type Ia.
[5] You may note that this includes WHO FGM Type IV, which, while completely dissimilar to Types I to III, is still considered “harmful”. Which means that you still can’t do it, according to the reasoning within the fatwa.
[6] 50% off! Blood-covered apron! Slavering dog! Meat cleaver! Crazy eyes! Flies!
[7] Yes, I know it’s quite significantly more complicated than that. I’m repeating the propaganda I received as child.
[8] Nothing can be as unproductive as a roomful of experts quarreling. Except maybe a roomful of ignorant people quarreling.
[9] When this topic came up in the Facebook discussion, and I made a short summary of what had occured, I got shouts of “TMI!” from my friends. Let’s just say that it involved a clot and significant amounts of blood.
[10] Yes, I know. How the hell could I have not noticed? Well, in my defense, she had gone through it when I was an oblivious, self-absorbed teenager, more concerned about my angst than, you know, anything my family was doing at the time.
[11] In Lat comics and National Geographic documentaries, that meant that you spent the next two weeks wearing a sarong and gingerly keeping the front of the sarong away from your nethers, while being confined to the house. In the case of one of my younger relatives… that meant running around without pants, literally, while watching a lot of cartoons. It was… interesting12.
[12] Actually more traumatizing to be honest.
[13] Which is more an analogue to the male form of circumcision.
[14] I still don’t think the ruling for female (or male, when you get down to it) circumcision is obligatory. What are they going to do — bring down the wrath of the Sunat Police on my head?
[15] You can tell that I actually have her next to me, correcting and clarifying what I’ve written down, can’t you?

6 thoughts on “Making The Cut: On Circumcision, Social Pressure And The Things You Learn”

  1. I first learned of FGM/female circumcision from Geraldine Brooks’ “Nine Parts of Desire.”…and have participated in debates relating to this ever since. In summary:

    1- As much as parents are responsible for their children, there’s a fine line between being parents and letting your child make their own decisions. In this case, I agree with your wife to let children make up their own minds on when they are ready, and having been given enough information to make their own decisions, of course. While parents need to…learn to let go.

    2- The justification of female circumcision in order to “repress sexual urges” is bullshit. Women has the same rights as men to enjoy the pleasures of sex. While male circumcision has been shown to improve their general health (removal of foreskin allows better overall hygiene leading to reduced risk of bacterial/viral infections), the same cannot be said for females, as well, we are anatomically different.

    3. Religion and cultural practise are now intertwined- and while this issue was/is associated with the religion- it began, supposedly, from a cultural practise of tribes in south africa.

    my two cents.

    1. Hi Lyana!

      In response to your comments:

      Pretty much. Although Hani did ask me about my circumcision, and concluded that we could just skip all the drama and any of our (any potential) son running around pants-less if we circumcise him when he’s six months old or something. Because, yeah. As much as we’d like to respect our son’s bodily autonomy, we’re also lazy people.
      I think it’s pretty much bullshit, too. Following that logic, it is very clear that unbridled male sexual urges cause more harm than female sexual urges (because males can repeatedly impregnate multiple partners, while a pregnant woman can only give birth to illegitimate children one at a time), and thus the logical solution to prevent infidelity and the social ills that stem from that is to collect large amounts of sperm samples of every male that enters puberty — since it’s proven that sperm cells degrade in quality as males age — followed by mandatory castration to remove male desire. That way one can control bloodlines and reproduction is done in a controlled, rational manner. The only reason why I don’t hold with this rather egregious violation of human rights is that I don’t believe “sexual desire” is the cause of social problems, oh and I’m not an idiot.
      Yeah, you know, when someone brings up the whole “it’s not the religion, it’s the culture” argument, I feel the urge to point out that no religion exists in isolation from the culture that bears it — heck, no belief system exists in isolation from the culture that bears it. So while yes, just because Northern African cultures and some Arabic cultures perform the more egregious forms of FGM, and often they use Islam to justify their actions, and we shouldn’t not dismiss them because “it is part of their culture”, not Real Islam, I still think that… well, we do respond to it. We have been arguing about it, condemning it, and working with it before Westerners came by and became all horrified and righteous about it. Mainly because we’re people. Not hijab-clad Daleks.

      Thank you for your contribution! Do stay for the discussion!

      1. If I absolutely had to have my male child circumcised, my personal preference might be to have it done before I left the hospital after giving birth to the baby boy…

      2. Re A: yes, this is my main thought. In something that affects their body it would be best to leave the decision to the child, but OTOH if it’s a minor procedure not impairing function like male circumcision, it might be worth just getting it done when they’re so small they won’t remember or be much inconvenienced by the pain. Like getting your ears pierced — some of my friends had this done when they were so little they don’t remember it, saving them the year of agony I endured when I tried piercing my ears at 16. >_<

  2. ….. There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity

    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D.

    * Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D.

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective by Miriam Pollack

    Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack has some great commentary on Foreskin Man in this recent interview.

    Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors ……………….

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