No Basis for Banning of Female Circumcision

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WAFIQ wishes to clarify several facts concerning female circumcision (FC) which was recently discussed in the launching of the report of “The Status of Women’s Human Rights: 24 years of United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in Malaysia” by a group of women’s NGOs.

But first, it is refreshing to note that the panelists had used the term FC instead of the Female Genitalia Mutilation (FGM), the latter which in the past, had misled United Nations CEDAW committee members into believing that Malaysia  practices FGM.  It must be stressed that there is a huge difference between FGM on the one hand, and FC on the other under the Shafii school of Islamic jurisprudence.

Female Circumcision Has A Religious Basis

However, contrary to the statement by Sisters in Islam executive director Rozana Isa, that FC is nothing more than a cultural tradition, FC has a religious basis. The Fatwa Committee of the Malaysian National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs in 2009 stated that FC is mandatory. We would like to take this opportunity to enlighten readers that there are 2 views amongst Muslim scholars regarding FC; one view is that it is compulsory as male circumcision, and another view is FC as a “sunnah”, which means an act of worship that is encouraged in Islam, but not obligatory.

In Malaysia, FC has been religiously followed according to the Shafii school of law. Federal Territory Mufti Datuk Seri Dr Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri said “circumcision is mandatory for men and women”, and the argument that female circumcision is “unlawful in Islam” is arguable. Most states follow the Shafii school of law on female circumcision. The Perlis Fatwa Committee, in 2017, following the second view, decreed that circumcision is obligatory for men and sunnah for women.

Both views are based on narratives from the Hadith. One narrative was when Caliph Uthman ibn Affan had invited an old woman who was a slave with other young women from Rome to accept Islam. When the old woman and a young girl accepted Islam, Uthman had ordered for them to be “circumcised” and “purified”.

This narrative was graded “daif” or weak.

Another narrative was of a woman who performed circumcision in Madinah. It was said that Prophet Muhammad had told her: “Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.”

This narrative was graded “sahih” or sound by al-Albani, and the hadith has been reported in Sunan Abi Dawud, Book 42, Hadith 5251. Two other narratives are almost similar — it was narrated that Prophet Muhammad had said: “Do not cut off too much as it is a source of enjoyment for the woman and more likeable to her husband”, and “When you circumcise, you must not cut off too much as it is a source of loveliness of the face and more enjoyable for the husband”.

It can be seen from the narratives that Prophet Muhammad did not forbid female circumcision, but encouraged it as commendable acts in religion.

According to the Hanafi school of law, female circumcision is permissible, but not a “sunnah”. The Maliki school of law considers it a “preferred act” (mandub). The Shafii school of law says circumcision is an obligation for both men and women. This is the official ruling.

The Quran, however, does not condemn female circumcision as long as it does not compromise the health of the female.

Contemporary Muslim scholar Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi said: “It must be ascertained that there is no mutilation by those who handle the affairs of their daughters in the manner that comes from the Hadith. It cannot be labelled as a form of crime as committed in the 21st century, except in cases that violate the agreed rules in syariah, excessive cutting, and controlled by ignorant people from the midwives and beyond … and it should not use the medicines that might barren the child.”

Female Circumcision and Medical Complications 

We also welcome the views of the panelists that FC as practiced in Malaysia is no longer seen as harmful practices. This is in agreement with the data from the Ministry of Health which reported in 2015 that as many as 83-85% of Muslim babies attending the government clinic had reportedly been circumcised while 15-17% of Muslim babies did not undergo circumcision. All Muslim babies who had been circumcised did not report any complications.

As to the question of should there be scientifically proven medical benefits to validate religious practices, it must be emphasized that the rulings of Islam ie the obligation to perform prayer, fasting and circumcisions, just to mention a few, were ordained to Muslims 1400 years ago as part of our faith. We had never known the medical benefits of many of these practices before modern science comes yet they were religiously observed by the faithfuls Thus, medical benefits are not the pre-requisite to maintain a religious practice.

Rather, it is the presence of medical harms, that show how Islamic rulings may be relaxed based on Maqasid Syariah (the purpose of Syariah). A severely diabetic patient for example does not have to fast, if by doing so, he may succumb to hypoglycaemia.

We also respectfully disagree with Mary Shanthi Dairiam, the founding director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW), who claimed that FC perpetuates a “harmful ideology” that women were not equal to men. There is simply no evidence to back this up.

A 2012 study conducted by Dr. Maznah Dahlui, an associate professor at the University of Malaya’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, found that 93 percent of Muslim women surveyed had been circumcised. The fact that this practice is normally done in private by the family when a child is at a very young age that she is unlikely to remember it, and the fact that FC is hardly a subject one discusses openly , there is simply no correlation that the practice confers a harmful ideology. This is of course in contrast to some cultural practices which had been banned in African countries as the much older girls are subject to surgery that technically suture their labia minora or labia majora as a form of FGM.

The claim that FC as a harmful ideology needs to be substantiated with how women in Malaysia have progressed all these years we were practicing FC. In 2015, in The Millennium Development Goal Index (MDG) which was a 5-year assessment tool of United Nation praised Malaysia for our women’s achievement where women had surpassed men in both enrollment and completion of their primary and secondary education, as high as more than 95%. Almost 70% of enrollment to the universities are females.

In the 69th Session of (CEDAW) in 2018, Naéla Gabr from Egypt and Ismat Jahan from Bangladesh stated that Malaysia should ban FC following their countries footsteps. Local women’s NGOs have urged Malaysia to follow suit. We need to ask ourselves, what is considered as tangible measures for success in women? Thus, we compared the Global Gender Gap Report for 2017. The Global Gender Gap report benchmarks 144 countries on their progress towards gender parity across four thematic dimensions: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. In women’s health and survival, Malaysia was at ranking 53, with Egypt at 99 and Bangladesh at 125. For educational attainment we were at 77, Egypt at 104, and Bangladesh at 111. For economic participation we are at 87, Bangladesh 129 and Egypt at 135. Bangladesh scored highly in one thematic, the Political Empowerment as compared to us because, it has a woman as a prime minister. So does banning of FC play any roles in women’s progress?

Having said that. we truly believe that there are plenty of rooms for Muslim women to succeed but we call for a more objective analysis of an issue backed up by reliable and validated data, rather than assumption based on intuition which will not help in effective policy making.

Jointly written by :

By: Assoc Prof Dr. Rafidah Hanim Mokhtar, President of the International Women’s Alliance for Family Institution & Quality Education (WAFIQ) and Lecturer and Researcher, Faculty of Medicine and Health Science Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) and,

Dr. Nur Saadah Khair, WAFIQ’s Quran & Hadith Research Exco and Lecturer of Faculty of Quranic and Sunnah Studies, USIM.

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