Female Circumcision: A Disconcerting Social Problem

Female baby circumcision

Female Circumcision, or more accurately put, Female Genital Mutilation is an oppressive traditional practice that is inflicted upon the female population in numerous countries around the world. Although this custom is often associated with only African or Middle Eastern countries, it is not restricted to these areas and occurs sporadically elsewhere around the world (including the “so-called” liberated West). The reasons given for female genital mutilation vary, but wherever practiced it prepares the girls/women for marriage by helping to ensure pre-marital purity. It has staggering physical and mental health consequences as it is rarely an “operation that is performed with ‘surgical tools’ or skill, knowledge of anatomy or the use of anesthesia” (Seager & Olson, 1986). Despite the fact that this “social surgery” is not a part of the Muslim faith (i.e. Islam), it occurs in several Muslim countries. Unfortunately, Muslim people, who practice female circumcision, are either ignorant or heedless to the fact that it is not required by Islamic Law, but rather merely a cultural custom. I believe that the only solution for this problem is education, and especially Islamic education for the Muslims who practice female circumcision (of which there a numerous types). Hence, I shall attempt to offer an Islamic solution as the societal response to this problem.

There are four different types of female circumcision operations utilized today, only one of which approximates the meaning, “circumcision”. Firstly, there is the Sunna or Circumcision method which is the mildest form of female genital mutilation. The word “Sunnah“, which means to follow the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) (the final prophet of Islam), is used erroneously here, as it is not recommended by Islam. Sunna circumcision, according to El Dareer (1982), “…consists of removing only the tip of the prepuce of the clitoris, and is therefore, analogous to male circumcision”(p.2). This mild form of female genital mutilation is the least common amongst the illiterate of Sudan (both Muslim and non-Muslim). The second form of female genital mutilation, Excision, entails the “…removal of the clitoris and labia minora but without stitching” (El Dareer, 1982, p.8). Thirdly, Intermediate circumcision, as McLean & Graham (1983) report, requires the “…removal of the clitoris and some parts of the labia minora or the whole of it,” and “sometimes slices of the labia majora are removed and stitched” (p.3). The Intermediate type often “…has various degrees, done according to the demands of the girl’s relatives” (McLean & Graham, 1983, p.3). Lastly, the Pharaonic or Infibulation procedure is the “…oldest and most prevalent type, accounting for more than 80% of the cases surveyed (in Sudan)” (El Dareer, 1982, p. 1). There exists two types of Infibulation, the classical and the modern. Classical Infibulation necessitates the removal of the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora, with the two sides of the wound being brought together via various means. The modern mode entails the removal of the clitoris, labia minora and much of the anterior parts of the labia majora, then the two sides are stitched together. Often, the wound is stitched together with an egg mixture or with thorns and the bleeding is stopped by pouring warm tea over the area. Sometimes the girl’s legs are bound together and she remains immobile for one to two weeks in order to allow the wound to heal (El Dareer, 1982).

The operation is typically performed by older village women, both trained and untrained, on girls as young as a few days old or on girls in their late adolescence. The operation decreases sexual desire, thereby reducing the temptation for girls/women to have pre-marital intercourse, this is fundamental where virginity is mandatory for the bride-to-be. Some cultures consider female genitals to be unclean and thus, “…circumcision serves literally to smooth and ritually purify them” (Seager & Olson, 1986, p. 19). Some groups, due to their ignorance of human biology, use circumcision as a means of contraception. The practice of female genital mutilation frequently leads to various physical/mental problems and sometimes even death may result. There are both immediate and delayed complications to female circumcision and they vary depending on the type of circumcision used. Some of the immediate complications include: bleeding, shock, swelling, fever, wound infection/failure to heal, urine retention. Possible delayed complications might be: painful scar, vulvar abscess, inclusion cyst, recurrent urinary tract infection, difficulty in passing menses, pain during intercourse, difficulty in penetration.

Female genital mutilation is extensively practiced in Africa and in the Middle East where “excision and infibulation are practiced by Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Copts, Animists, and non-believers” (McLean & Graham, 1983, p. 7). McLean & Graham (1983) maintain that many countries continue to practice female circumcision, specifically, “… more than twenty in Africa, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Eastern Mediterranean” (p. 6). It has also been reported in other parts of the world where non-consenting females are being operated on. For example, in Sweden there are accounts of mutilations being performed on the daughters of immigrants in Swedish hospitals. “In France, women from Mali and Senegal are reported to bring an ‘exciseuse’ to France once a year to operate on their daughters in their apartments” (p. 6). Even in Canada, there was at least one reported case of an African woman (a recent bride) who was deinfibulated (stitches were taken out) in her own home by a fellow African woman. Of course, several other women had to hold her down for this painful ordeal to take place.

Generally-speaking, education has had a great impact on the prevalence of female circumcision, especially amongst the Sudanese. El Dareer (1982), asserts that “the effect of religious education is demonstrated by the fact that the most common circumcision chosen by Khalwa-educated (i.e., Qur’anic or Islamic schooling) fathers was the sunnah type” (p.22). Furthermore, statistical evidence shows that there exists a definite relationship between the level of parents’ education and the chosen type of circumcision. The data indicates that highly educated parents tend not to circumcise their daughters at all, or if they do so, there is a preference for the sunnah or the intermediate type rather than the pharaonic. The majority of the mothers studied and almost half of the fathers were illiterate. Of those illiterate parents, the majority chose the most severe form of female circumcision for their daughters (i.e., the pharaonic). Perhaps its worth mentioning that illiterate parents would also be uneducated Islamically, and therefore would be unable to read the Qur’an and the Sunna (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – Peace Be Upon Him). Consequently, these parents would be ignorant of the true teachings of Islam and would be inclined to adopt the superstitious ways of the predominant culture.

Lightfoot-Klein (1989), states that there is a “…virtual absence of female circumcision in most Islamic countries today,” and that it “…does not appear to have originated in Islam” (p. 41). According to Hosken (1982), “in many African countries, a woman who is not excised is considered illegitimate and cannot inherit money, cattle, or land” (p. 3). This practice is a huge violation of women’s rights under Islamic Law wherein she is guaranteed her right to inheritance and property regardless of local customs. The Qur’an makes no reference to female circumcision and it is not a requirement for Muslim women, although it is mandatory for Muslim men. Dr. Hassan M. Hathout of the Faculty of Medicine at Kuwait University, maintains that “it is incorrect to assert that female circumcision is sunnah (tradition) in Islam. Only male circumcision is sunnah in Islam, a tradition taken from the Prophet Abraham which remained and is still performed in Judaism” (McLean & Graham, 1983, p. 7). Islam, as revealed through the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (PBUH), regards the sexual urge “…as a natural appetite to be gratified, albeit in moderation and under particular conditions” (Lightfoot-Klein, 1989, p. 64). ‘Gratifying one’s sexual urge’, for both the Muslim male and female, is to be done only within the confines of marriage. In fact, “Islam has a very positive attitude toward sexual activity for both men and women which is accompanied by a strict insistence on fidelity and chastity” (Lightfoot-Klein, 1989, p. 64).

Female circumcision is a social problem as it effects mothers raised within these “circumcising cultures” and will in turn, effect their daughters. My ideas for solving this problem revolve around the necessity for an attack of the problem at its root, thereby slowly allowing the custom to erode. This can readily be accomplished via Islamic education for the Muslim groups who practice female circumcision. As for the other non-Muslims who perform genital mutilations, perhaps one could educate them on basic human anatomy and human rights. The reasoning behind such “social surgery” seems to have originated in the minds of superstitious males who feared female sexuality, perhaps due to their own feelings of insecurity. The intense female sexual response was perceived as a threat to male dominance and therefore, had to be “put down”, so to speak. Ultimately, women became responsible for the perpetuation of the custom and are amongst its most zealous devotees.

If one were to educate both the village men and women as to the negative consequences of female circumcision and the Islamic arguments against it were put forth, then perhaps there could be some basis for dialogue. Since the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) do not encourage genital mutilation, the Muslim scholars could give sermons on this topic, in order to discourage its widespread practice. Several arguments could be established, based on Islamic Law, that would serve to sway peoples’ opinion in favor of eradicating this inhumane practice. First, the Sunna (Hadith) or traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) clearly stipulate that one should not physically (or mentally) harm one’s self or others. Female genital mutilation would most definitely qualify as “harming one’s self or others” and therefore, Islamically, it is wrong. As mentioned earlier, Islam encourages both the male and female to seek sexual satisfaction and fulfillment after marriage. Furthermore, the Muslim male is required, by Islamic tradition to be gentle with his wife and to ensure that she is sexually satisfied. Of course, this becomes a difficult challenge for the husband if his wife has been circumcised. Divorce sometimes occurs in situations such as this, where the man feels rejected (due to the circumcised wife’s cold unresponsiveness, or even pain) and guilty, for his failure to satisfy his wife. Thus, circumcision can become the cause of domestic problems and an unhappy wife. This contradicts the Hadith wherein men are encouraged to treat their wives, mothers and daughters with the utmost compassion and kindness. It is said (in the Sunna tradition) that the best amongst men are those whose wives are happy with them. In the Hadith, it states that in order to enter paradise one must treat one’s mother with the greatest fondness and care, as “heaven lies at the feet of mothers”. The dignity, respect and rights given to the Muslim woman, by Islam, need not be further emphasized except to say that these basic human rights are denied to both Muslim and non-Muslim women via female genital mutilation. To reiterate, people who practice female circumcision are following a tradition which dates back to pre-Islamic times, as “it was a custom brought over from Egypt in ancient times and had nothing whatsoever to do with religion” (Lightfoot-Klein, 1989, p. 13).

In order to slowly eradicate this custom completely, McLean & Graham (1983) contend that female circumcision be replaced by another cultural custom, so as to compensate for its absence. This is required because of all the rejoicing, singing, beating of the drum, and gift-giving occurs the days prior to any girl’s circumcision. Essentially the girl is treated like a bride-to-be and is even given gold and new clothing to wear. But she is not a bride, she is in fact to be butchered and perhaps even put to death. Islam encourages the celebration of women, girls and babies, at the time of birth, when they are given a special party called a “aqeeqah”. In addition, friends and relatives are encouraged to make the brides wedding day as festive as possible by beating the drum, singing Islamic songs and beautifying the bride. In Islam both males and females are required to be virgins prior to marriage and therefore, this becomes a personal act of faith. Whether or not the Muslim chooses to abide by Islamic Law is an individual decision, between the Creator (Furthest is He from every imperfection) and his creation. None of us, in the Islamic tradition, is accountable for the actions of another and therefore, Islam would never encourage genital mutilation as a deterrent for infidelity. A Muslim’s motivation for abstaining from pre-marital sex and adulterous affairs, must come from within, and is a question of how much the Muslim fears, loves and believes in God (Furthest is He from every imperfection) and in his holy book, the Qur’an.

By Asmaa Ibrahim Hassan

Research Paper (1995) –  FGM: A Disconcerted Social Problem (solutions thereof)*
El Dareer, Asmaa (1982) “Woman, Why Do You Weep? Circumcision and Its Consequences.” London, England. Zed Press.
Hosken, F.P. (1982) “The Hosken Report, Genital & Sexual Mutilation of Females.” Lexington, MA: International Network News.
Lightfoot-Klein, Hanny (1989) “Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into Female Genital Circumcision in Africa.” Binghamton, NY.
Mclean, Scilla & Graham, Stella E. (1983) “Female Circumcision, Excision and Infibulation: the facts and proposals for change.” Report #47, Revised 1983 edition: Minority Rights Group.

All articles published not necessarily the official points of view held by islamonline