By Denise Noe for SiA Magazine (www.siamagazine.com)
The relatively mild nature of the female circumcision practiced in Malaysia has not prevented the country from coming under attack for the procedures. For example, a February 2018 session of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that was held in Geneva, Switzerland harshly criticized Malaysia for permitting “FGM.”
In November of that same year, Geneva was the venue for the 31st session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group of the United Nations Human Rights Council that also faulted the country for allegedly allowing its women to be “mutilated.” The Malaysian delegation retorted that Malaysia “does not practice FGM but female circumcision,” contending the Malaysian “type of circumcision is mild” and performed by “accredited medical professionals.”
Anti-FGM Organizations in Malaysia
There are also organizations within Malaysia campaigning against female circumcsion. One is the aforementioned Sisters in Islam. “It is a cultural tradition,” asserts Rozana Isa, Executive Director of Sisters In Islam. “It is something we can change because culture can change for the betterment of women and girls.” Sisters In Islam, and other similarly-minded women’s groups, urged Malaysia’s health ministry to educate people that female circumcision serves no medical purpose.
Founding Director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW) Mary Shanthi Dairiam argues that female circumcision supports a “harmful ideology” that devalues women. “It may not be seen to be harmful but there may be an ideology behind it that perpetuates the inferior status of women,” Dairiam asserts. “Female Genital Mutilation comes in this category. It may seem like a minor thing – it doesn’t hurt, it has no repercussions, it has no harmful effects on the body and, therefore, some people may be questioning why we want to get rid of it.”
So what is purported as the harmful ideology behind female circumcision?
Dairiam believes the practice reflects a fear of Malaysian women “going wild” sexually and “shows that women and men are not equally valued and perpetuates that inequality.” But is the idea that circumcision helps to tame sexuality unique to females? There is plenty of evidence to show that in many cultures, including the US where male circumcision is prevalent, the idea that male circumcision eliminates excess desire, reduces masturbation and curbs sexual appetite in men was also widespread. (source: Brian)
Nor Azrina Surip, Chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee for Rights and Gender Equality, contends that Islam does not require female circumcsion but, unlike Dairiam, believes the term “Female Genital Mutilation” is inapplicable to the country. “It is a tradition only in some parts of Malaysia,” Surip states. “The practice in Malaysia is not Female Genital Mutilation. The medical operation is minor and often does not draw blood.”
"Who are you to tell us what to practice and what not to practice?” Abdul Khan Rashid, Penang Medical College
Although some Malaysians stoutly oppose any sort of female circumcision, they also contest the prominence of Western groups in the anti-FGM campaign. According to Abdul Khan Rashid, a professor at Malaysia’s Penang Medical College, to assert, “The problem with the West is that it’s just so judgmental. Who are you to tell us what to practice and what not to practice?” Rashid suggests that outlawing female circumcision would be counterproductive: “A lot of women now do it in private clinics in safe conditions, but if you’re going to make it illegal, the practice will just go underground.”
Pro-Female Circumcision Movement in Malaysia
On January 26, 2019, Free Malaysia Today ran an essay by Dr. Rafidah Hanim Mokhtar and Dr. Nur Saadah Khair attacking major contentions of the campaign against female circumcision. They began by observing that the International Women’s Alliance for Family Institution and Quality Education (Wafiq) had stated that it wanted to “clarify several facts” about the practice as discussed in “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.” Mokhtar and Khair acknowledged that they found it “refreshing” that “panelists had used the term female circumcision instead of Female Genital Mutilation” because the latter term has “misled United Nations CEDAW committee members into believing that Malaysia practices FGM.”
“Medical benefits are not the pre-requisite to maintain a religious practice.” Mokhtar and Khair, 2019
The authors took issue with Rozana Isa’s assertion that “Female circumcision is nothing more than a cultural tradition.” Mokhtar and Khair insist it has a “religious basis.” They acknowledge dispute among Islamic authorities about female circumcision. For instance, there is a “Hanafi school of law” that sees female circumcision as “permissible,” a “Maliki school of law” seeing it as encouraged but not required, and a “Shafii school of law” that believes “circumcision is an obligation for both men and women.”
Mokhtar and Khair assert that the absence of “scientifically proven medical benefits” hardly invalidates a religious practice as this could be said of practices like prayer. The writers note, “Medical benefits are not the pre-requisite to maintain a religious practice.”
The United Nations praised Malaysia for our women’s achievements where women had surpassed men in both enrollment and completion of their primary and secondary education, more than 95%. Almost 70 % of students who enrolled in our universities are female.”
The authors “respectfully disagree with Mary Shanthi Dairiam” that female circumcision “perpetuates a ‘harmful ideology’ that women are not equal to men.” They point out that the practice of female circumcision in Malaysia has not prevented Malaysian women from making tremendous strides in education: “In 2015, in the Millennium Development Goal Index (MDG), a five-year assessment tool, the United Nations praised Malaysia for our women’s achievements where women had surpassed men in both enrollment and completion of their primary and secondary education, more than 95%. Almost 70 % of students who enrolled in our universities are female.”
Mokhtar and Khair end their piece by calling for a discussion based not on “assumptions” but “objective analysis” supported by “reliable and validated data.”
Fearless Women: Muslimahs for Female Circumcision on the Internet
It is probably because of the high level of women's education in Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia, that several of them have taken to the internet to body promote Islamic female circumcision and educate the world about the medicalized practice of sunnah circumcision (usually classified as WHO Type Ia, partial or complete removal of clitoral foreskin). These women campaigners, called Muslimahs for Female Circumcision compare the Islamic practice with the legalized cosmetic procedure called hoodectomy or clitoropexy among western women.
In a recently circulated blog, narrator describes the duty of Muslim women to practice female circumcision as well as the health, hygiene and aesthetics benefits of sunnah.
Whatever the case, controversy about female circumcision is likely to continue in Malaysia and much of the world. It is my hope that people examining questions about female circumcision, or any other issue, will base their conclusions and recommendation on “reliable and validated data.”