The complexities of female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore: Part II

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.

grayscale photography of woman kneeling on area rug
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

This second installment explains some of the reasons the interlocutors provided for practicing FGC – cleanliness and religion.

Reasons for FGC

Cleanliness

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).

Religion

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. 

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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.

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The complexities of female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blogpost is the first in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This first installment details the historical, social and economic contexts of FGC in Singapore. It also explains the limitations of academic discourses on FGC in the Southeast-Asian region, and especially Singapore.

It was a Saturday afternoon in September 2016 when my dad picked me up from university and we headed over to a relative’s house in Sembawang. We only ever gathered there for special occasions. This time, it was my cousin’s second birthday. We entered the room, and it was full of relatives in brightly colored shirts, jubah (long Malay dress), jeans and scarves. Of course, the star of the evening, my 2 year-old cousin, Anisah, donned a red and blue sailor outfit. I went to pick her up and carried her around the room. A 38-year old female relative, wearing a simple combination of black t-shirt and jeans came over to speak to me, and my sister, who was also around us.

Relative (R): “Anisah minggu lepas dah kena sunat (Anisah was cut last week).”

Saza (Sa): “Apa? (What?)”

R: “Ya, kat doctor (Yes, at the doctor).”

Sa: “Huh, perempuan kena sunat? (Women need to be cut?)”

R: “Ya (Yes).”

Sa: “Tapi ini salah! Ini against WHO guidelines semua. Ini human rights violation (But this is wrong! This is against WHO  guidelines. This is a human rights violation).”

Sis: “You pun kena sunat. (You were cut, too).”

My jaw dropped. I had never known about this cutting, and I was completely unaware that it was performed on me. I did not know it was performed on young children, and consented to by their parents at medical clinics or with traditional midwives. My complete lack of knowledge until that moment about a practice that my relative described as necessary for women speaks a lot to the specific kind of female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore: its hiddenness, prevalence amongst the Singaporean Malay community, the debate surrounding the procedure, and reactions to it.

This sparked an interest in researching about FGC for seminars during my undergraduate studies at Yale-NUS in Singapore, which eventually culminated in a year-long thesis on this practice.

Context of FGC in Singapore

It is unclear when the practice of FGC first began in Singapore. In 1998, researchers Andre Feillard and Lies Marcoes theorised that FGC reached Southeast Asia as part of Islamic traditions linked to the Shafi’i school of thought, but the spread of the practice to other parts of Southeast Asia is ambiguous. FGC in Singapore involves female Malays, who make up about 7% of the population (420,000 people). Out of these, there is an assumed prevalence of 60% of Malay women who have been cut. Previously, this procedure was performed by traditional midwives at homes, but now it is mostly conducted at 5-10 private clinics by female Malay doctors around the island. It costs about $30-50, and takes less than 30 minutes. There is no law or legislation banning FGC in Singapore.

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Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

In Singapore, Type I FGC is performed, though there is also a spectrum of this particular cutting – from symbolically placing a medical instrument (usually scissors) at the clitoris, to nicking the clitoral hood, to removing the hood itself. It is usually performed on young children below the age of five.

The Malay community holds differing views relating to this cutting. Some view it as mandatory, while others are more ambivalent, and some actively campaign against it.

Research (or lack thereof) on FGC in Singapore

FGC in the Southeast Asian region received very little academic attention until 1885. Andree Feillard and Lies Marcoes argued that it was only in 1885 that the Dutch ethnographer G. A. Wilken conducted a thorough survey of the practice in the region. He was the first to draw the conclusion that female circumcision was found exclusively among Muslims, which led him to believe that it was not an indigenous practice, but rather one “borrowed from the Arabs”.

In the only anthropological study of FGC in Singapore, Gabriele Marranci (an Australian anthropologist)  explained why this practice is so hidden. He suggests that this is a form of “religious ethnic resilience within an environment affected by an increasing push towards globalisation and national identity”. According to him, the structural inequalities faced by the minority Malay community have led them to hold strong to traditional rites and rituals as a way of ensuring the togetherness of the community. Here, he also references Kevin Hertherington’s concept of the Bund, which is defined as “an intense form of affectual solidarity, that is inherently unstable and liable to break down very rapidly unless it is consciously maintained through the symbolically mediated interaction of its members”. Secondly, he also points out that the government is keen to keep FGC hidden to avoid “opening a debate in Singapore that would not only involve the Malay Muslim community, but all Singaporeans as well as international observers”. Taking a pro-FGC stance would upset the international human rights community such as the United Nations and NGOs as well as receive backlash from the local feminist community. On the other hand, criticising FGC might be seen as an “attack on the Malay community itself”. A third reason is that the Malay Muslim community do not see this cutting as significant or think it necessary to be brought up for discussion. It is a tradition that is simply accepted as part of an early childhood ritual. However, Marranci does not clearly address the idea that if the cut is so hidden such that the women themselves are unaware of it, how does that solidify the identity of the community? As such, my research aims to build upon this question by understanding the reasons that compel Malays to practice female genital cutting.

Part 2 of this series will focus on cleanliness and religious reasons given for female genital cutting in Singapore. 

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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.