By Zofia Reych
Walls in the reception of the Global Ikhwan clinic in Rawang, north of Kuala Lumpur, are pale pink and a nice, if medical, scent is hanging in the air. A fashionable headscarf conceals the black hair of Najwa, a 24-year old woman, standing at the counter. She is wearing high heels and light blue denim trousers. Holding her five-year-old daugher firmly by the hand, Najwa is making an appointment with Dr. Mighilia Aziza, an obstetrician and a gynecologist.
A big day awaits Najwa’s daughter – in accordance with Islamic law, her clitoris will be cut off.
A 2012 United Nations resolution deemed both full and partial removal of the clitoris a “human rights violation”, and the World Health Organization (WHO) clearly states that the alteration of female genitalia for non-medical reasons has no health benefits, but can in fact cause severe complications. However, female circumcision is still not illegal in Malaysia.
“There is a big difference between circumcision and female genital mutilation”, argues Dr. Ariza Mohamed from the KPJ Ampang Puteri Specialist Hospital in Kuala Lumpur. “We are very much against what is going on in other countries like Sudan,” added Ariza, referring to procedures performed in a non-sterile environment by a local cutter, often in a girl’s home and without anaesthesia.
In 2009, the National Fatwa Council announced that female circumcision was obligatory for all Muslims. Fearing an increase in procedures performed in substandard conditions, the Ministry of Health announced a planned institutionalisation of the practice.
“When it comes to female circumcision, the position that has been taken is that if it does no harm, why not do it? Well, if there are no benefits to doing it, why do it?”, asks Azrul Mohamad Khalib, a human rights activist known for his liberal opinions.
However, for women such as Najwa, the answer is simple. In accordance with the local version of Islam it is wajib – obligatory. The sunat, as the procedure is referred to in Malay, is designed to protect a woman from the impurity of premarital sex. Interestingly, as many anti- female genital mutilation (FGM) campaigners point out, there is no mention of female circumcision in the Qur’an.
“Previously it was a cultural practice, but now, because of Islamisation, people just relate everything to Islam,” said Syarifatul Adibah, from Sisters In Islam, a Kuala Lumpur-based association campaigning for greater women’s rights.
Medical professionals in private clinics around the country perform the procedure on girls aged one to six at their parents’ request.
“I just take a needle and slit off the top of the clitoris, but it is very little, just one millimeter,” says Dr. Mighilia describing the surgery, and admitting that every now and then, she also performs a more severe circumcision.
Regardless of its type, the WHO clearly states that female genital mutilation “reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women”.
However, for most Muslim women in Malaysia, circumcision is part of their identity. “[It] is different from genital mutilation. It only involves a slit compared to having the whole thing chopped off […] I don’t feel any less of a woman”, explains Fa Abdul, a young journalist and a practising Muslim. Abdul was circumcised as a small child and had her infant daughter circumcised as well.
Yet, as Abdul admitted herself, her words were merely a form of protecting herself from the truth. For a Muslim following the teachings of the Qu’ran, there is no need to sentence oneself or your child to an inhumane practice.
“To Muslim parents, I urge you not to put your baby girls under the blade. Raise your girls well so they are strong enough to protect themselves from sinful acts. Have some faith in your child,” urged the journalist in a powerful piece for Free Malaysia Today.
Yet a study conducted among over 1000 of Malay Muslim women in 2010-2012 by Dr. Maznah Dahlui at the University of Malaya found that 62-90% of her respondents were circumcised. Most of them chose the same for their daughters and quoted religion as the main reason, with nearly half of them also pointing to hygiene.
The procedure is increasingly a symbolic one, involving just a scraping of the flesh. However, in accordance with the WHO stance, the tradition of sunat perempuan is not only physically harmful but highlights a deeply rooted imbalance between the genders. As pointed out in one personal account, the male circumcision is celebrated with a feast and is a reason for pride. Female circumcision is performed with no fanfare and is designed at extending control over a woman who might otherwise give in to her sexual desires and become too “wild”.
“The problem with the West is that it is so judgmental. Who the hell are you to tell us what to practise and what not to practise?” rages professor Abdul Khan Rashid from the Penang Medical College.
The truth is that in Malaysia most communities simply lack information. Even among young parents who otherwise embrace a Western way of living, with its perks and drawbacks, female circumcision is a choice dictated by a tradition that isn’t questioned. As pointed out by Syarifatul Adibah, the growing Islamisation and institutionalisation of the practice adds to its increasing popularity.