“A Tiny Cut”: Female Circumcision in South East Asia

“A Tiny Cut”: Female Circumcision in South East Asia

by: Sya Taha

My Story

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I am a Muslim of Malay ethnicity, who was born in Singapore, where Malays are an ethnic and religious minority today, and lived there until I was 24 years old. The Malays, of whom 99 percent are Muslim, are the indigenous people of Singapore and the Malay archipelago. Until the arrival of the British colonizers in the early nineteenth century, this area (which covers what is south Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and south  Philippines today) shared many cultural and linguistic similarities.

When I was about six years old and attending a kenduri, or ritual feast, for two male cousins who had just been circumcised, I whispered to my mother, “Are girls circumcised too?” Growing up in Singapore in the 1990s, boys were commonly circumcised before puberty (around eight or nine) – making it seem like a rite of passage into adulthood. The six year-old me observed the fuss and attention they got: they were not allowed to eat certain foods, they could only bear to wear a kain sarong for up to two weeks due to the pain, and had to be fanned at night to keep the wounds dry. These ritual feasts to celebrate a boy’s circumcision are less common today, partly due to the increasing use of doctors to carry out circumcision, and usually on infants a few weeks old.

My mother explained to me girls were indeed circumcised, and that sunat perempuan (Malay for ‘female’ sunnah, or ‘tradition’) involved “a tiny cut”, without giving any more details. At that age, it didn’t occur to me to ask if any women I knew had been cut, because there were never any ritual feasts. Later, I would discover that this female genital cutting, as it happened historically and today, has undergone various changes and yet, many aspects of this ritual remained the same.

When I asked my mother again recently, she revealed that she and her seven sisters had all undergone sunat. In Singapore in the 1940s, sunat involved cutting off a piece of a girl’s prepuce or clitoral hood, making it flat instead of naturally covering the top of the clitoris. By the time my sister was born in the 1980s, it was more common to practice a symbolic form of sunat in the form of scraping of the prepuce using a penknife or scissors.

Both of these procedures had been done by a mak bidan, or post-partum midwife, whose role was to help mothers with bathing and nursing their babies, and also get back into shape after a natural birth with the use of tummy wraps, herbal drinks, herbal applications, massage, and bathing of the newborn baby. The mak bidan had performed the sunat after bathing my sister, who was then just a week old.

My mother was too young to remember when she had her own sunat done, guessing it was probably when she was a few weeks old. During her childhood, undergoing sunat was a big deal for both girls and boys, but only boys enjoyed social celebrations in the form of ritual feasts and processions. In contrast, sunat perempuan was carried out by the midwife, often in the presence of only the mother, quickly and without much fuss. When my mother tried to ask her own mother any questions or to attend the procedure, she was dismissed as being mentel, or excessively curious in matters of sexuality.

The term female genital mutilation (FGM) is considered by its supporters to be a negative judgment of the act. The World Health Organisation has four classifications of FGM, with first and final category describing the kind of procedures going on in Southeast Asia.[i] Others use the term ‘female circumcision’ (FC) or ‘female genital cutting’ (FGC) to maintain a sense of neutrality. However, I feel that the term ‘female circumcision’ is also not technically accurate, because circumcision means ‘to cut around’, which is overwhelmingly the method of male foreskin removal.

To remain faithful to the point of reference, which is Southeast Asia, I will use the term FGC and sunat perempuan and interchangeably to refer to a variety of invasive procedures such as cutting off a small piece of the highest part of the clitoral hood (also known as the prepuce or foreskin), drawing blood by scraping or pricking, as well as non-invasive procedures such like spreading blood or spreading antiseptic on the area.

Symbolic sunat perempuan such as cutting a peeled turmeric root placed over the clitoris, spreading chicken blood onto the clitoris, or cleansing with antiseptic and then blowing over the area, are significant and the first two rituals were estimated by Basilica Putranti to make up half of all incidents in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in 2002. These procedures were often done on girls as they reached puberty, though there was a trend by the 1980s to lower the age to a few weeks old.[ii]

How did FGCbegin in the region?

While there is a much debate about FGC as experienced in the African continent, the literature on the subject generally disregards the ritual as practiced in Southeast Asia. Some scholars contend that when Islam spread to Southeast Asia in the 13th century, female cutting was also introduced to the region. However, there exists scarce literature on the beginnings of FGC in this area. The most informative source on the incidence of FGC in Southeast Asia can be found in a chapter of a recent anthology about Muslim women’s rights. The chapter details the history of the practice based on local reports dating from the colonial Dutch East Indies and contemporary sociological and anthropological research.[iii]

There exists no convincing evidence that any form of FGC predated the spread of Islam to the region. In fact,, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs prevailed in Southeast Asia before Islam and the followers of both  faiths reject both male and female circumcision. Further, some 19th century syncretist Muslims in Java rejected FGC as well, considering it an ‘Arab custom’. However, most of the population declared it to be optional. The royal families of Java also employed a non-Arabic word for FGC such as kres or tetesan (‘pricking’). Among the orthodox Muslims, the term sunat perempuan or khitan perempuan (‘female circumcision’) is more commonly used, until today. [iv]

What is happening today?

Photographs taken by Stephanie Sinclair in 2006 of a mass sunat perempuan ceremony in Bandung, Indonesia, were published in 2008 and surfaced again late last year, making public a ritual that usually takes place behind closed doors.[v] Her pictures show girls ranging from nine months to nine years of age undergoing the ritual as done by a team of middle-aged women. The sunat, as described, involved cutting of a piece of the clitoral hood (the size of a “nail clipping”) using a sterilised pair of scissors. Sinclair had attended a ceremony organized and sponsored by Yayasan Assalaam Bandung, a foundation that provides Islamic education and social welfare services and sees itself as an open, inclusive, moderate, and dynamic organisation.[vi]

In Malaysia, a university survey of 1000 respondents found that over 90 percent of Muslim women reported being circumcised.[vii] A study in Kelantan found that all of the women in the labour ward had undergone FGC.[viii] In Indonesia, the figure is upwards of 86 percent, with 90 percent of adults supporting it.[ix] In her study of southern Thailand, Claudia Merli applies the same description to the province of Satun, because of cultural and regional proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia.[x] However, there have been no surveys done in Singapore. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the incidence today is much lower than in Malaysia or Indonesia.

During my mother’s childhood, much mystery surrounded the practice, which was passed down the generations, quietly and without protest. It was “just tradition”. In south Thailand, the bidan has the “exclusive authority to perform female circumcision and reject the idea of this operation ever passing into the hands of medical personnel” for physical and ritual/religious reasons.[xi] In Indonesia, traditional circumcisers say they “learn the practice from other women during several years of apprenticing.”[xii] Nevertheless, more and more doctors are performing FGC today.

Various reasons are offered for female circumcision, for example, to keep “clean”; to “purify the genitals and bestow gender identity”; to “control women’s sexual urges”; because women can only be beautiful if chaste; to help them not be “as wild”;  to make them “more beautiful in the eyes of their husband”; or to make the latter “more excited in bed”.[xiii] In Singapore, some of the older generations point out that the reason that some young women are “wild” today is because they are not circumcised. Others also argue that there is neither much harm nor pain because of the very small amount of flesh that is removed (described as the size of a nail clipping, a quarter-grain of rice, a guava seed, a bean, the tip of a leaf, or the head of a needle)[xiv]. They also stress the importance of supposedly avoiding the clitoris. A midwife known for cutting away “too much” flesh might be boycotted:

She had discussed the topic of sunat with a man well versed in Islamic law who had not let his own daughter be circumcised, claiming that the practice is neither necessary nor compulsory because it is not mentioned in the Koran. Despite this conversation, Wati and her husband decided to follow the local tradition, with a sense of pressure coming from other villagers, whose disapproval they wanted to avoid. The local bidan was not taken on as she was ill-famed for cutting away “too much,” some even said the whole clitoris. Another bidan was summoned from another location.[xv]

Religious opinions

The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia follow the Shafii school of law, which declares FGC as wajib, or obligatory. In contrast, the other three Sunni schools, together with the Shia schools, consider FGC a sunnah or a recommended act. Just like male circumcision, there is no mention of it in the Quran. The form of FGC taking place in Southeast Asia seems to follow this general and gender-neutral rule from al-Nawawi to remove the prepuce at a young age, but also at an older age if it causes no ‘harm’.[xvi] This ruling is found in his chapter on taharah or purity, indicating that the concern was for the cleanliness of the genitals, especially the area under the prepuce, and consequent validity of acts of worship. Indeed, about half of the reasons mentioned above by midwives and parents for the practice reflects a concern for hygiene.

With regards to hadith, or Prophetic sayings, there is much debate on which are considered authentic, and therefore authoritative enough to be taken as a source of law. The most commonly-cited hadith (here) mentioning circumcision has been used to both promote and discourage FGC. Other hadith that mention circumcised parts (here and here) are also making a larger point about purifying one’s body after sexual intercourse, but not necessarily ordaining circumcision. Other hadith whose authenticity cannot be confirmed variously urge to not “cut deeply”, “abuse”, “cut into”, or “exceed the limit”, but instead to “trim”, “reduce the size of the clitoris”, or to “cut off only the foreskin”.

In short, there is no fully authentic text in which the Prophet Mohammad required or recommended the circumcision of women any more than the circumcision of men. There may have been FGC in the Prophet’s society, but there was no equivocal ban on it. This type of minimal FGC as practised in Southeast Asia has also been identified as the ‘mild’ type of cutting found in early Islamic societies, which was aimed to protect women’s “dignity and well-being” or make her “honourable”. Thus, it is dangerously framed as the ‘real’ or ‘most Islamic’ FGC. [xvii]

However, most Muslims do not make a direct link between their everyday actions and textual evidence, learning instead from our immediate forefathers the rituals, symbols, and acts that make us Muslim (or not). For example, we pray by first imitating movements from our parents or other authority figures in our lives and often only learn the significance of the words and movements when we are older. Likewise, while FGC may have started in Southeast Asia as an “Arab custom”, today it is a religious norm that parents seek for their children, because everyone else in the family or in the village has done it, for generations.

Social responses

Today, in Southeast Asian society, we are witnessing a growing trend towards institutionalising and medicalising FGC. In 2008, the Ministry of Health in Malaysia reported that 88 percent of their female staff had their daughters circumcised by doctors in the private practice.[xviii] Another study in Indonesia revealed that 65 percent of FGC was performed in hospitals.[xix] In Singapore, a woman Muslim doctor admits to “circumcising five to six patients a day”, mostly babies and prepubescent children.[xx]

In late 2006, the Ministry of Health in Indonesia banned doctors from performing the procedure based on the grounds that it was “potentially harmful”, but this ban was not enforced. Hospitals continue to offer sunat perempuan for baby girls, sometimes as part of “birth packages” which also included vaccinations and ear piercing. Yayasan Assalaam, an Islamic foundation that runs a mosque and several schools,  also links the practice to celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, and even provides incentives like money and food to parents who bring their daughters to their annual sunat ceremony.[xxi]

In Malaysia, the Fatwa Committee of Malaysia’s National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs ruled in 2009 that female circumcision, was “obligatory for Muslims but if harmful must be avoided”.[xxii] More recently, in Indonesia, the Indonesian Council of Ulema ruled in favour of female circumcision and added that although it cannot be considered mandatory, it is still “morally recommended”.[xxiii] The leader of this council however warned to avoid “excesses” in the removal or cutting of the clitoris — a position supported by the hadith mentioned earlier. A similar advice is given by the Islamic Religious Authority of Singapore on their website.[xxiv]

The trend towards medicalisation is also worrying because while it may reduce pain and struggling, it would also allow for a deeper or more severe excision – as was being promoted in a village in south Thailand by some missionaries from India.[xxv] The institutionalisation of FGC in countries with parallel laws for Muslims and non-Muslims may aggravate existing socio-religious problems, especially if fatwa have been passed to make this practice obligatory.

There are currently no active campaigns against eradicating FGC in Southeast Asia. This is perhaps due to the high acceptance of the practice in Malaysia and Indonesia for socio-religious reasons. However, in Malaysia there are studies being done and public talks hosted by research centres such as the Women’s Development Research Centre of University of Science, Malaysia (USM) and women’s rights organisations such as Sisters in Islam. AWARE, a secular women’s rights organisation in Singapore, has a web page dedicated to explaining FGC in the Singaporean context.[xxvi]

Contextualising sunat

Local explanations for female circumcision center around the lack of harm that it causes to the girl, and that it has positive benefits, which broadly fall under concerns for hygiene (keeping clean), femininity (reducing or stabilising libido, increasing attractiveness to husband) and ritual (bestowing gender identity, honour, dignity[xxvii]).

However, anecdotal evidence for the harm of FGC includes pain while passing urine, or desensitivity of the clitoris and reduced ability for sexual pleasure. Some also experience botched procedures such as an excised or split clitoris, some may suffer loss of blood, infection, or shock. Some may also face recurrent urinary tract and pelvic inflammation and infection that can cause sterility. Scar tissue, medical complications, and psychological trauma of having a procedure done without one’s consent may cause so much anxiety and anguish that a pleasant sex life can become difficult.

In any case, these explanations are situated in a web of political, social, and economic phenomena: preserving one’s Muslim identity by ensuring that the practice will continue through law and medical justification (as male circumcision has become); controlling the sexual urges of girls in the light of increasing teenage pregnancies; and the influence of Wahhabi or Salafist elements on Islam in Southeast Asia.

The target audience in this debate are not the midwives or the medical practitioners, but the attitudes of parents and schools vis-a-vis girls’ sexual and physical health and hygiene, because these parties are the ones who can either enable or prevent sunat on their children.

At the individual level, the most important issue is consent. The problem is not whether Muslim girls are being circumcised or not, but whether they are allowing these irreversible modifications to be made on their bodies. Some people may argue that it is  more beneficial to perform the procedure when children are still babies to avoid “complications, prolong[ed] pain, or embarrassment” (the exact same argument for infant male circumcision). [xxviii] But this begs the question as to why Muslim parents are “marking” their children’s bodies with “Islam” or with a procedure that has doubtful utility?

The level of acceptance of other forms of body modification like tattoos and piercings are largely dependent on dominant social paradigms which differ across countries. Most people would regard infant male circumcision or ear piercings on girl babies as normal, but not a tattoo. And yet, the most significant issue in this debate is the completeness, intelligence, and sanctity of God’s creation. Like every part of the human body, foreskins serve a specific purpose, both male and female. The underlying assumption of cleanliness and purity is that God created us with body parts that get dirty but are also absolutely possible to clean. Think of our noses, ears, mouths, and anuses. Why is the prepuce suddenly an exception?

Ever curious, at the age of 27, I finally asked my mother if I had been circumcised, whether physically or ritually. She said no (phew!) and explained that when I was born, the mak bidan was nowhere to be found. She had come to Singapore from Malaysia through family contacts after my sister’s birth in order to perform my mother’s post-partum birth rituals. However, she decided to return to Malaysia because she was part of a dying trade in an economically-growing Singapore. Upon learning this, I had one last question for my mother:

“Why didn’t you ensure that I was circumcised?”

“It’s a sunnah anyway, it’s not that important.”

This short exchange with my mother revealed to me the importance of parental attitudes. When done, “a tiny cut” might be dismissed as being “harmless”. But I was so glad that my mother had felt that this “tiny cut” was also equally “harmless” if not done.

Sya Taha is historically Javanese, politically Malay, and accidentally a migrant to the Netherlands whose interests include Quranic hermeneutics, gender, disability, and race in the Nusantara (Malay archipelago).


[i] World Health Organisation, ‘Female genital mutilation, Fact sheet N°241’ Updated February 2013, available at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/

[ii] Basilica Dyah Putranti (2008), ‘To Islamize, Becoming a Real Woman or Commercialized Practices? Questioning Female Genital Cutting in Indonesia’, Finnish Journal of Ethnicity and Migration, 3(2):23-31.

[iii] William G. Clarence-Smith (2012) ‘Female Circumcision in Southeast Asia since the Coming of Islam’, p.124-146, in Chitra Raghavan and James P. Levine (eds.), Self-Determination and Women’s Rights in Muslim Societies. USA: Brandeis University Press. Available at http://books.google.nl/books?id=QT3Tq6FfG0cC&pg=PA127&dq#v=onepage&q&f=false

[iv] Clarence-Smith (2012).

[v] See Sara Corbett, ‘A Cutting Tradition’, The New York Times, 20 Jan 2008, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/magazine/20circumcision-t.html?_r=2&ref=magazine&oref=slogin& and Abigail Haworth, ‘The day I saw 248 girls suffering genital mutilation’, The Guardian, 28 Nov 2012, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/nov/18/female-genital-mutilation-circumcision-indonesia.

[vi] Yayasan Assalaam Bandung, ‘Vision and Mission’, available at http://assalaam-bdg.or.id/visi-misi/.

[vii] ABCNews, ‘Malaysia storm over female circumcision’, 7 Dec 2012, available at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-12-07/an-malaysia-debate-over-female-circumcision/4416298

[viii] Isa A. Rahman, R. Shuib, and Othman M. Shukri (1999), ‘The practice of female circumcision among Muslims in Kelantan, Malaysia’, Reproductive Health Matters 7 (13): 137–144.

[ix] Haworth (2012).

[x] Claudia Merli (2008), ‘Sunat for girls in southern Thailand : its relation to traditional midwifery, male circumcision and other obstetrical practices’, Finnish Journal Of Ethnicity and Migration, 3(2):32-41. Available at http://dro.dur.ac.uk/5302/1/5302.pdf

[xi] Merli (2008).

[xii] Corbett (2008).

[xiii] See IRIN, ‘Indonesia: Female genital mutilation persists despite ban’, 2 Sep 2010, available at http://www.irinnews.org/Report/90366/INDONESIA-Female-genital-mutilation-persists-despite-ban, and Corbett (2008).

[xiv] Corbett (2008).

[xv] Merli (2008).

[xvi] Shafi’ifiqh.com, ‘What is the ruling on circumcision for women?’, available at http://www.shafiifiqh.com/category/fiqh-of-worship/taharah/circumcision/

[xvii] ‘Female Circumcision/Female Genital Cutting’, available at http://oumabdulaziz.arabblogs.com/femalecircumcision.html

[xviii] Ministry of Health (2008), ‘Ministry Of Health Report’, Family Health and Development Division.

[xix] Maznah Dahlui, ‘The Practice of Female Circumcision in Malaysia’. Talk given at Women’s Development Research Centre (KANITA), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

[xx] Toronto Star, ‘Muslim rite is modernised’, 16 Nov 2002, available at http://www.courtchallenge.com/news/torstar1.html

[xxi] Haworth (2012).

[xxii] ABCNews, ‘Malaysia storm over female circumcision’, 7 Dec 2012.

[xxiii] Mathias Hariyadi, ‘Indonesian Ulema in favour of female circumcision: a “human right”’, 24 Jan 2013, available at http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Indonesian-Ulema-in-favour-of-female-circumcision:-a-human-right-26948.html

[xxiv] Islamic Religious Authority Singapore (MUIS), ‘Frequent Asked Questions: Is circumcision compulsory for muslimah?’, available at http://www.muis.gov.sg/cms/oomweb/oom_faq.aspx?id=15104

[xxv] Merli (2008).

[xxvi] Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), ‘Female Circumcision’, available at www.aware.org.sg/information/female-circumcision/

[xxvii] Mardiana Abu Bakar, ‘Female Circumcision: A Viewpoint’. The Straits Times, 30 Oct 1994, available at: http://www.themodernreligion.com/women/w_circumcision.htm

[xxviii] Islamic Religious Authority Singapore (MUIS), ‘Frequent Asked Questions: Is circumcision compulsory for muslimah?’.


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