FGM was banned by the UN in 2012. It is still practiced in at least 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
I heard one of my friends
Became a hero
Because she went for a procedure
That make her so
I knew my day will come anyway
It was never an option, it was compulsory
I had to bite my lips
Hold back the tears in my eyes
Because if I cried, they will inform other kids
That I was a coward and I will never go a step forward.
(An excerpt from a poem by a Somali FGM survivor. Read the full poem here)
UNICEF estimates that globally, 200 million girls and women who are alive today have been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It is still practiced in at least 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
What exactly is FGM?
Female genital Mutilation (FGM) is the practice of pricking, nicking, excision, cauterisation, infibulation, or clitoridectomy performed on female external genitalia. All of are aimed at mutilating the clitoris and labia to some extent.
Why is it practiced?
Throughout the ages, women’s sexuality has alway set off alarm bells. Ways have been devised to keep them in control, whether through chastity belts or seclusion or via modesty clothing, which include even burqas.
FGM is one of these ways. The female external genitalia, or the clitoris, is a sensitive and integral part of sexual pleasure for a woman. Removal or mutilation of the clitoris seriously impairs pleasure.
It is widely believed that FGM makes a woman more womanly (as a clitoris is said to be a female penis) but unless being womanly means a lifetime of pain, I don’t see how that is achieved. The procedure is not only extremely painful, pain which can continue throughout one’s life, it is also extremely harmful to one’s health. It can lead to difficulty while passing urine, can lead to getting infections, and can cause injury to nearby genital tissues. In cases where bleeding is severe, FGM can cause even death through haemorrhage or shock.
“The pain inflicted by FGM does not stop with the initial procedure, but often continues as ongoing torture throughout a woman’s life”, says Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
One explanation for why it is practiced is that it is a rite of passage for a woman, and marks her puberty in certain counties. Another reason given is that both girls and boys undergo FGM.
But there is a world of difference between the male and the female procedures. Male circumcision is simpler. In no way does it put the person at risk. In fact, it is said to increase sexual pleasure.
Another claim, that FGM is practiced for purity and improving complexion, appears bizarre and more like an old wives’ tale.
I am extremely happy to hear that a PIL has been filed in the Supreme Court by Sunita Tewari to put an end to this barbaric practice in India where the Dawoodi Bohra sect practices it.
This is completely in sync with the ban imposed on FGM by the United Nations in 2012. The PIL cites Article 39 of the Indian Constitution (Directive Principles of State Policy), as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to which India is a signatory.
On July 9, questions that were very justly raised by the Supreme Court were, “Why should anyone have the power based on religious practice to touch the genital of a girl?” and “Why should the bodily integrity of a woman be subject to a religious practice?”
The Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), through its lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi, argue, “There is a distinction between FGM and female circumcision. The latter is a minute process which is practiced by two Islamic communities, supported by 95 per cent of the women, involving Articles 25, 26 and 29 as well as Article 14.” This was countered by Attorney General KK Venugopal, when the bench sought his stand. According to him, “The rights under Article 25 and 26 are subject to public order and morality. This practice has to be stopped. It has been declared as a crime in the USA, UK, France and 27 African countries.”
On July 30, Chief Justice Dipak Misra observed, “The principle of gender sensitivity is entrenched in the Constitution… a practice (FGM) which is engaged in solely to make a woman more appealing to her husband cannot be constitutional…in view of the numerous health hazards associated with it, FGM associated with it, FGM amounts to a violation of Article 21 which accords primacy to health… when you are thinking of affirmative action in favour of women, you cannot suddenly reverse the process.”
While we await the judgment by the Supreme Court, let us examine the religious aspect that is being cited in support of FGM.
Does FGM have religious sanction?
There are no two ways that this practice should be banned, whether it does or does not have religious sanction, without even debating if it is a minor procedure or iif it nvolves infibulation.
However, if we read and understand The Quran, we will find that there can be no religious sanction for it.
Verse 2:187 of the Quran says “They are a garment for you and you are a garment for them…”
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, in one of the most widely accepted translation and interpretation of the Quran, has interpreted this as, “Men and women are each other’s garments i.e. they are for mutual support, mutual comfort, and mutual protection, fitting into each other as a garment fits the body. A garment also is both for show and concealment.” Thus the question of limiting female sexual pleasure is totally wrong.
Islam nowhere puts a restriction on female pleasure and in fact, Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, former President of the Islamic Society of North America, says, “It is also emphasized in Islam that a husband should not deny his wife’s physical needs. Both of them are related to each other, as Allah says in the Qur’an.” (Al-Baqarah: 187)
There are many hadith, which refer to the wife’s rights. The Prophet advised Abdullah bin Amr bin Al-As (who spent all day fasting and all night in prayer) to fast sometimes and not at other times; to pray at night and to sleep at night.
“Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you and your wife has a right over you.” (Sahih Bukhari, Vol.7, No. 127)
How can such a religion advise the mutilation of a female body to deprive it of sexual pleasure? And ‘rite of passage’ is a very tribal custom and improving purity and complexion sounds more superstition than religion.
There are some things in Islam which are prescribed in the Quran and there are some which are traditions based on hadith which are the sayings of the Prophet.
The one hadith, which is oft quoted, in which the Prophet is supposed to have advised a woman who performed the female circumcision to not cut severely, is very weak and not considered authentic.
We must also keep in mind that many hadith were written on hearsay quite a number of years after the Prophet’s passing away and so once again fact and fiction got intertwined. In fact, the most reliable Hadith by Bukhari called Sahih e Bukhari was written approximately 200 years after the Prophet.
As for reasons of health and hygiene, while there are many benefits of circumcision for men, none have been found for women.
Sunnat and Farz
The word ‘Sunnat/ Sunnah’ means that which the Prophet practiced/followed but which is not written about or prescribed in the Quran. The acts, which are obligatory, are called ‘fard/farz’.
In India, the male circumcision is called ‘sunnat’. This clearly shows that it’s not compulsory but something which should be emulated. So this gives rise to the question that since male circumcision is not a ‘farz’ but a ‘sunnat’ act, how can Female circumcision be compulsory? We keep confusing with Islam, the patriarchal society that practiced female infanticide and believed in the suppression and repression of women. Islam was a religion that gave rights and respect to women.
Verse 2:228 of the Quran says
“And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of responsibility) over them. And Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise”
For the medieval society of Arabia, this was a revolutionary concept.
The First Lady of Islam, Khadija, was a prosperous businesswoman whose money funded the initial expansion of Islam. She was not only successful but also emancipated enough to send a proposal to Mohammed who was her employee and younger than herself, because she recognized his noble qualities. Isn’t it truly ironical that the women of the religion to which she was the first female convert are so suppressed and repressed in the name of Islam?
Halal and Haram
The fact is that in Islam we have the concept of haram (forbidden) and halal (allowed).
Many customs/traditions, which were a part of everyday Bedouin life because they were not specifically forbidden, were continued and gradually found acceptance in the religion. This does not mean that they were encouraged or permitted by the religion itself, just that the Muslims of the area did not frown upon them.
Understanding the Quran
I am not a scholar of Islam but I am a practicing and a questioning Muslim. I question blind faith which so many of us seem to be putting in what we are hearing, whether it’s from the clergy, the clergy’s spokespersons or just ordinary people who keep propounding on religion. I feel that this tradition of playing Chinese Whisper with the Holy Book, The Quran, has gone on for far too long.
Most of us can’t/ don’t or haven’t read the Quran with translation for ourselves and so believe whatever we are fed by various agencies.
The reward for reading the Quran with translation and understanding it is far greater, and more recommended than just simply reading it without understanding.
It was narrated that Anas bin Mâlik said: The Messenger of Allah said, “Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim”.
(Sunan Ibn e Majah, Book of Sunnah, Hadith no 224, Classified as Sahih By Allama Albani)
And true knowledge does not come passively. You have to question and probe in depth to get answers.
Those who seek to give religious sanction to FGM, do read the Quran.
FGM is one of the many local/ tribal customs that found acceptance only because it was not specifically forbidden. In fact, in parts of Africa where FGM is prevalent, it is not restricted to Muslims and many Christians also follow the practice.
FGM is an atrocity and it is time we stopped committing atrocities in the name of God.
Rana Safvi is an author, historian, blogger and is engaged in documenting of India’s Syncretic past.