Part II: Cleanliness and religious reasons for FGC
By Saza Faradilla
Country of Residence: Singapore
This blog post is the second in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This second installment explains two of the five reasons raised by my interlocutors about FGC in Singapore: cleanliness and religion. (Read part one here.)
While medical practitioners confirmed that the cut has no effect on cleanliness, Muslim interlocutors believed it still helps with cleanliness, which was pivotal to their religiosity. Religiously, FGC is expounded upon in a hadith (record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), but there have been various interpretations of this hadith. Institutionally, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) has avoided releasing any official statements on the religious mandate of FGC for the Muslim community.
This second installment explains some of the reasons the interlocutors provided for practicing FGC – cleanliness and religion.
Reasons for FGC
The first reason some interlocutors (especially those who support FGC) shared is that of cleanliness. They believe a part of the vagina traps dirt and needs to be removed, which makes for easier cleaning. To them, this high hygiene standard is particularly crucial for prayer. The evocation of religion is significant here because it shows that my interlocutors actually view religion as the reason for FGC, and that cleanliness happens to fall under that umbrella. However, the practitioner I spoke to disagreed and said that there are no medical benefits to FGC because the “cut is so small, it doesn’t affect anything”. I believe the perceived idea of cleanliness and purity arises out of a misunderstanding of the cut and its specificities (amount cut, area cut etc).
According to Amnesty International, “FGC predates Islam and is not practiced by the majority of Muslims, but has acquired a religious dimension”. For most of my interlocutors, their belief in Islam is an extremely important reason for FGC.
I will first explore the ways my interlocutors linked FGC to Islam through the evocation of several hadiths and mazhab (Islamic jurisprudence, usually referring to specific Islamic teachers), and then go on to engage with different readings of these hadiths, and also discuss the position that religious authorities and leaders have taken with respect to FGC in Singapore. One of the hadiths that was alluded to by many of my interlocutors is the one told by Al-Baihaqi:
“There are a group of people who allow cutting for women by referring to the hadith where Um Habibah was cutting a group of women. On one day, Prophet Muhammad visited her and found a knife in her hand (for cutting). Prophet asked and confirmed that the function of that knife is really for cutting. Um Habibah asked, “Is cutting for women haram (forbidden)?” Nabi (Prophet) Muhammad said, “Oh women of Ansar, do the cutting but be sure to not cut too much.”
My interlocutors who support FGC said this hadith provided a clear approval of FGC from Prophet Muhammad, as he did not try to stop Um Habibah from cutting other women, but actually endorsed it. Not all my interlocutors were able to provide exacting details of this account, and they mention the details to varying extents. Most know of this as hearsay.
On the other hand, protestors of FGC interpret the hadiths and religious instructions differently. With reference to the same hadith above, Dalia said, “The fact that Prophet Muhammad came across this proves that it was already an Arabic tradition that was pre-Islamic. A lot of things that were already happening, the Prophet did not stop. He was trying to win over the Qurayshi people and so he could not exactly stop them. But the fact that he said to not take much means he already disapproves of FGC”.
I was keen to interview someone from MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore). Although repeated emails to them went unanswered, I found a past fatwa where MUIS strongly endorses FGC as part of the Islamic tradition.
“According to the majority of ulama, circumcision is compulsory for men and women. It should be done early in life, preferably when still an infant, to avoid complications, prolong [sic] pain and embarrassment if done later in life. Any good Muslimah doctor can perform circumcision for women.”
However, this fatwa was removed from the website in recent years, and MUIS has not since provided a reason for the removal or replaced it with another fatwa.
From my research, it is evident that religion is a significant reason for those who practice FGC. Indeed, religion is used to justify FGC around the Muslim world. It is notable that the same hadith is interpreted very differently by both proponents and opponents of FGC. In my concluding paragraphs, I will discuss the policy implications of MUIS taking an ambiguous stance toward FGC and urge them to produce a clear directive.
Part III of this series will focus on more reasons for the justification of FGC, including tradition and the control of female sexuality within patriarchy.
Saza is a Senior Executive of service learning at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she spent much of her college life developing her thesis on female genital cutting in Singapore. A highly under-researched, misunderstood and personal issue, Saza sought to understand the reasons behind this practice. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations as much as possible.