The complexities of female genital cutting in Singapore: Part IV

Concluding thoughts on the practice in Singapore

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blog post is the fourth in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This fourth installment provides a final analysis and concrete methods of engaging with discourses on FGC at the individual, community, governmental and international levels. Read part one here. Read part two here. Read part three here

In this research, I have contextualised the type of cut, stakeholders involved, on-going discussions on FGC locally and internationally, and FGC’s hiddenness. I hope this allows for a deeper understanding of the specific and unique type of FGC and the situation surrounding it in Singapore. My discussion of the reasons for FGC in Singapore is also non-exhaustive, but to my interlocutors, cleanliness, religion, tradition, and the control of female sexuality, are some of the most pertinent to their lived experiences. To the best of my ability, I have tried to represent fairly the perspectives and opinions of the various people with whom I spoke. In her book, The Twilight of Cutting, Saida Hodzic accurately pointed out that “differently positioned women take a variety of political positions toward cutting/anti-cutting campaigns, and the larger governance of their lives.” In these concluding paragraphs, I will further explore the continuity of this practice, ways to encourage productive and meaningful discourse about it, as well as policy implications.

Photo by luizclas on Pexels.com

FGC has been an unquestioned tradition in Singapore for centuries. I believe we need to place a critical lens on FGC and question the motivations of this practice. While taking into account the possible individual, family and social meanings that have been attributed to FGC, it is also important to question its necessity and impact on a young girl. I end most interviews by asking interlocutors if they think FGC will continue, and 70% of my interlocutors answered in the negative. Conversations about FGC and debates on it have been ignited, and more young parents are questioning the cut’s necessity. Once parental pressure is no longer a factor and this procedure has skipped a generation, FGC will be much harder to revive or continue. Sometimes the type of FGC done in Singapore does not leave visible scars or markings. Those against FGC have said that they know of young parents who choose to say their daughter has been cut even if she hasn’t, and no one is any wiser.

It is also important to take note of the vernacular languages that are used when discussing FGC, and determining the appropriate ways to debate FGC in the Malay community. Currently, the debates on FGC happen amongst specific circles of young Malays who are highly educated. It is important to engage with the older generation and those who may not have access to tertiary education about this practice. It is only in sincere conversations, which aim to listen, engage in dialogue, and not necessarily debate that perspectives will shift. 

When I first found out about the FGC performed on me when I was a baby, and questioned my parents about it, they insisted that it was mandatory and that they did it for my own good. They said FGC was necessary for “religious and health reasons, and so I won’t be adulterous.” These are similar to the reasons my interlocutors shared as well. As I went about my research, and interviewed religious leaders, medical practitioners, and feminist activists, I slowly clarified my parents’ beliefs, and today they no longer see it as mandatory (“though still good to do”), but I do think chipping away at their long-held beliefs has been successful. Similar to my interlocutor’s sharing that the language of female sexuality, children’s rights and consent is foreign or even “Western,” I think it is important that we find the right language and vocabulary to discuss these issues in Malay so that it is more readily accessible.

I hope to see more people and stakeholders engaging in these conversations. In particular, I hope this blog post would encourage medical practitioners, religious leaders, religious bodies and health ministries to enter the conversation about FGC in Singapore. From my ethnography, there are various undercurrents and rumors of the perspectives and policy positions engaged by these stakeholders. For instance, a medical practitioner said that there is a register of doctors who perform it and who have informally agreed to abide by a set of guidelines in order to standardize the procedure. However, neither this guideline nor register is publicly available. Having them come out with actual statements would clear various misconceptions about FGC’s necessity and its health and religious implications. 

I would urge the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to replace the fatwa it removed with a new one, so that religiously, the Muslim community can be assured of the ruling for FGC. The Ministry of Health (MOH) and Muslim Healthcare Professionals Association (MHPA) also have a responsibility to the larger Singapore community to ensure our safety and health. Because all doctors are registered and regulated under MOH, it is up to MOH to determine if FGC is aligned with the medical oath to do no harm. At the same time, it would be interesting to find out the positionality of medical practitioners performing FGC. Do they believe it to be necessary? Do they abide by the guidelines stated, especially given the spectrum of FGC that my interlocutors underwent? What are their specific reasons for performing FGC? Silence only breeds confusion. It is definitely time for the religious and health authorities to step up and clearly state their positions on FGC in Singapore. There is the very real fear that if FGC were banned in Singapore and practitioners disallowed from practicing it, this would lead to FGC being performed underground, where conditions are much less hygienic and can be more harmful. But, if the relevant authorities can counter the health, religious and female promiscuity reasons given for FGC, this practice will be regarded as unnecessary and might no longer be practiced here.

According to Hodzic, “Hahn and Inhorn testify to the persistence of one of the founding principles of applied medical anthropology, which is the notion that anthropology can and should provide cultural knowledge necessary for improving public health and health care.” I hope this research has provided a holistic, balanced, and informative understanding of the reasons for FGC in Singapore, and will be useful for religious leaders, medical practitioners, activists, and especially Malay women as we continue to critically analyze and discuss this practice.

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. She ends her thesis by advocating for medical and religious leaders to step up and clarify the fatwas and medical criteria surrounding this procedure in Singapore. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations. 

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

Tradition and patriarchal elements of FGC  

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blog post is the third in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This third installment explains some of the reasons the interlocutors provided for practicing FGC, including tradition and the control of female sexuality within patriarchy. Read part one here. Read part two here.

Reasons for FGC: Tradition

Many of my interlocutors allude to adat or Malay tradition when asked for reasons they practice FGC. They view it as a normalised and long-established cultural tradition, which is often performed without question. There are also some interviewees who believe this leads to the unity of the community and is intrinsic to the Malay identity. However, those who are unsupportive of FGC question the premise of this tradition and that if there is no rational or logical reason behind it, “it doesn’t make sense to blindly follow it.”

macro photography of purple flowers
Photo by Carissa Bongalosa on Pexels.com

According to Gabriele Marranci, “FGC is transmitted generation after generation as an ordinary act of Malay Muslim identity. It can be considered an integral part of Malay Muslim birth rituals and is linked to a specific Malay Muslim identity. Malay Muslims often say, “We do this because it is our tradition. It is something that all Malay Muslims share both here in Singapore and in Malaysia.” Indeed, many of my interlocutors also agree that this practice has been very much normalised in Singapore. “This is tradition: sisters, granddaughters, daughters all do it, said Fauziah, an interviewee. “This is a strong Malay tradition, we can encourage it, but don’t force. It’s a natural next step.”

This tradition is usually passed down a matrilineal lineage, with the grandmothers and mothers of the family encouraging and sometimes even forcing their children to cut their granddaughters. This could be due to the division of labour in Malay families, where women usually take care of matters concerning the children’s development and well-being, while the father provides the economic means to raise them. As such, many men would leave the decision-making regarding the execution of FGC to their wives. They might not even want to know anything about it. It is considered too insignificant for fathers to have a stake or say in the issue.

However, those who are against FGC view the unquestioning nature of this practice as symptomatic of a larger problematic trend of traditionalism within the Malay community. “People do not question or discuss this, and it is a problem that it is not critically discussed,” said Ermy, another interviewee. “People just do it blindly, and so this might cause harm and injury.” Many Malay families continue this practice in an inadvertent manner, and one that is continued not because it is “actively better” but because it is just not worse. As such, FGC is simply passed down and accepted rather than its rationale being questioned or challenged.

At the same time, I noticed that amongst those interviewed, younger people (around the ages of 20-40 years old) are unwilling to perpetuate FGC if the sole reason is tradition. “If it’s just based on tradition, it doesn’t make sense to do something like that,” Hanisah, a 38-year old teacher, said. “Culture is not important to keep if it is causing pain.” Many younger Malay Singaporeans do not view FGC as something that possesses active benefits, and therefore, they do not see the point or logic in continuing it.

Control of female sexuality within patriarchy

Seven out of my eight interlocutors who support FGC readily admit that the cut is important to control women’s sexuality. According to them, FGC is to “cut down on the girl’s sexual desires (nafsu).” They suggest that “by nature, women have a higher sex drive, and so this is to lower chances of sex before marriage.” When asked to explain precisely how FGC leads to lowered sexual desire, or how this relationship can be measured, most interviewees are uncertain. In fact, I had a rather drawn-out conversation (complete with drawings on both our ends), about how the removal of the clitoral hood actually reveals the clitoris more, and so that logically follows that it is more easily stimulated, and therefore, might lead to higher sexual satisfaction. Even though supporters of FGC might be unsure how FGC affects sexual desire, the principles they hold for that view is important to acknowledge.

Believing that FGC is important to control female sexuality might be reflective of the prejudices and biases against women in the Malay community. These traditional values may have arisen because women are traditionally seen as the bearers of morality in societies. As such, it is important within the Malay community to ensure that women uphold important societal values and any potential for deviance is weeded out as soon as possible.

(The fourth and final installment will provide an analysis and concrete methods of engaging with discourses on FGC at the individual, community, governmental and international levels.)  

Indiv - SazaSaza 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. She ends her thesis by advocating for medical and religious leaders to step up and clarify the fatwas and medical criteria surrounding this procedure in Singapore. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations as much as possible.

 

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. 

Indiv - Saza.jpg

 

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.

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.

Langkawi_Malaysia_School-girls-on-a-motorbike-01
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. 

Indiv - Saza.jpg

 

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.