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.

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Sahiyo’s petition to the United Nations needs your help

In December 2016, Sahiyo started a petition with Change.org to encourage the United Nations to invest in research on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Asian countries. The petition proposes to end FGM/C worldwide by 2030, and Sahiyo needs the support of 7,500 petition signers to accomplish our goal.

The United Nations reports that at least 200 million women have undergone FGM/C, but their data is mostly restricted to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. FGM/C is reported in many Asian, European, and Middle Eastern nations; however, there is a considerable lack of data from these countries, which means the global scope of the problem of FGM/C remains unknown.

In the past year, cases of FGM/C in Sri Lanka, India, and other Asian countries have come into the light of the media and attracted the attention of government officials. The Indian Government’s Ministry of Women and Child Development told the Indian Supreme Court that there was no official data to support the prevalence of FGM/C in India. This ruling was a massive disappointment to activists and researchers who are working to bring more research and awareness to the prevalence of FGM/C in India and Asia.

Asian countries have been excluded from the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme to Accelerate the Abandonment of FGM/C. With more support for research initiatives, Asian countries can conduct research, bring further awareness to the issues within their countries as well as in the global context, and propose legislative change with qualitative backing.

We need about 2,000 more signers to reach our petition goal. Click this link to help us advance our mission to eradicate FGM/C in Asia and worldwide! Help us spread the word by sharing our petition within your networks.

From birth to motherhood, a Singaporean Malay’s experience of Female Genital Cutting

By: Anonymous

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay Muslim

Growing up:

I was told as a child, that every girl had to go through it. There is basically NOBODY that you know who hasn’t gone through it. And I BELIEVED everything my mother said.

Perceptions Ingrained in our Minds:

It is dirty, unhygienic, curbs your sexual desires. Basically, what their mothers tell them, they relay it back to us.

Working adult:

I became a nurse. I studied, learned, saw the anatomy of the human body. As a nurse, I cleaned the vagina of women of different ethnicities. Of course, I noticed the difference. They had the hood and the two labia folds, and I did not.

At that time, as a Malay Muslim, I firmly believed that “my vagina is cleaner” than those who were not circumcised. I felt I belonged to a much “higher status” because I was “cut” and they were not. My fellow female Muslim nurses shared the same sentiments.

Marriage:

I had an inter-racial Muslicouple man woman wearing brunei islamic traditional costume clothe dress male female vector illustration veil and malaysia malaym marriage. I realized my sexual desire plummeted and I wasn’t really interested in sex much longer. I had a private conversation with my husband about it, and he was surprised that FGC was done in many Asian countries. He mentioned that as a Muslim himself, in his own country, FGC was not done. In his country none of his sisters underwent FGC.

Delivery:

I had a natural home birth for my first born daughter, assisted by my own husband.

The way the delivery occurred was unplanned, but it was the most beautiful experience for us both.

Post-Partum Worries:

The natural delivery left a stinging burning sensation on my clitoris region. I naturally thought it will go away. But it prolonged much longer that I expected.

A few months passed, and I still felt a strange sensation in my clitoris region. When I urinated, it felt like someone had punched me – it was sore. I refused to go for a health check-up as I didn’t want ANYONE to touch me. I didn’t want to touch it myself.

It’s coming to 10 months now past my baby’s birth, and my husband and I haven’t resumed sex yet. At first, I was fearful of the pain that might arise. Then, I didn’t want to experience any more intermittent sore sensation in my clitoris region. Thirdly, I didn’t have the sexual drive or desire mainly because I was breastfeeding.

I deeply pondered: Why am I still feeling this? Why does it still felt sore? Is it because of the FGC that my mother made sure I underwent when I was still a baby?

I haven’t talked to my mother about it yet. I guess no one talks openly about it. They just “snip it” when you’re a baby and everyone stays silent about it. I had many questions in mind! Was it done by trained personnel? Does the answer to that question matter anyway, since it’s wrong to do it?

My Baby and Social Pressure about FGC:

My mother kept insisting that I bring my baby for “sunat” to the clinic. She said it will be “over before you know it” – swiftly done.

My husband, on the other hand, refused to have it done to our daughter. He said women in his country did not have it done.

I started my own journey of reading and gaining more knowledge on FGC.

In 2016, at 30 years of age, it affects me now. I was upset that my mother did it purely due to social pressure. Even if you’re an educated woman, social pressure can still influence the way you make a decision.

I was in a mosque a few weeks back, a lady in her 50-60s approached me and chatted about my baby. She handed me her name card which indicated her business services. It read, “sunat perempuan”. I was shocked and disappointed. It is 2017, and still, this is being done by an unlicensed passerby who easily roamed the community promoting her services.

At present:

I joined a Facebook Group for young mothers in Singapore where women’s topics are discussed. One of the issues asked by many young mothers is “WHERE can I take my NEWBORN DAUGHTER for sunat? Which clinic is best?”

This question showed that young educated mothers are still unaware of FGC and its non-relation to Islam. They continue it because THEIR own mothers tell them to do it or that it is the NORM to perform “sunat” after you give birth to your newborn.

There they go, commenting and discussing the rate of several clinics, the packages that come with it (Ear Piercing + Sunat) and their good experience with the doctors who provided such packages to benefit themselves.

Every time I see such questions, I cringe. I commented on those posts about FGC but nobody has taken notice of my comments. Yes, I do hear mother’s voice that they are fearful to see the procedure done on their baby girls, YET they want it done. How conflicting! Other mothers who had undergone it with their newborn baby girls started giving reassurance that “it’ll be over before you know it. Stay strong mummy!” Subsequently, I messaged the mothers privately and gave them social media links (videos/texts) to educate themselves on FGC, especially on Islamic & social views.

It’s still a very long road to adjust the mindset of the Singapore Malay Muslim community on FGC. It’s done openly without a tinge of guilt in their hearts.

I’m sad it was done on me but I will NEVER let it happen to my offsprings.
When we educate the women, we educate the entire nation. Women have to choose wisely what is right and wrong. Don’t succumb to social pressure – just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t make it right.

The sacred self: Reflections on female circumcision by a Singaporean Malay

on 6 FEBRUARY, 2016. Republished here with permission.)

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay

By Nurul Fadiah Johari

I have a memory of my little sister going through circumcision. It is all vague to me now. I was 4, and she was a baby. I only remember being brought over to the house of an old masseuse who provided my mother with post-natal care. I remember hearing my sister, who was 8 months old at the time, wailing loudly and then something was buried in a pot of soil outside my home. I had naively thought that my sister was born with a penis and had to be circumcised, just like male babies. Later, I learnt that this was not the case.

In The Hidden Face of Eve, El Saadawi documents the gory and painful practices of FGM in the Arab world. This can be compared to findings from the Malay world. Though the practices here are slightly different, it is still done with the oft-quoted intent of controlling female sexuality, or the presumption that it is a religious obligation. This is ironic, given that the term sunat, in Islamic textual traditions, actually means “something that is not obligatory”.

In Islam, the body is sacred. It is neither a source of temptation nor sin. It is an amanah, or trusteeship from God. It simply just means that as souls, we humans have been entrusted to honour and beautify the body. It means that any form of harm contravenes Islamic principles. Muslims celebrate beauty of creation by preserving and protecting it. Hence, as a Muslim woman, I believe that my body is sacred and thus I honour it by exercising my full agency as a human being.

There are too many taboos and misunderstandings which have been perpetuated within an increasingly conservative Muslim community. Nonetheless, I choose to remain optimistic through the work I do and the voices of young Muslims (especially women) that I hear from many parts of the world. Social media has made it easier to hear the voices of women, which has traditionally been silenced. We are living in the 21st century after all. It is the age of youth and where the disempowered demand their voices be heard. One day, our collective prayers will be heard. And for that, I am thankful that changes will happen, one step at a time.

Let’s Talk About “Sunat Perempuan”

on 2 FEBRUARY, 2016. Republished here with permission). 

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay

By Afiqa Ab Rahman

Recently I attended a workshop where participants from Singapore, Malaysia, India, and Thailand shared their experiences and discussed Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Variations of the term include Female Genital Cutting (FGC) or “Sunat Perempuan”.

It was intriguing to hear the experiences and research findings from various countries. But what intrigued me the most was to find that FGM was not considered a problem in some countries. The participants from Thailand, for example, shared that 100% of their women have been cut as it is seen as an identity marker of being Pattani Malay and nobody questioned it.

From speaking to women, the researcher from Malaysia offered some reasons that were given on why FGM is done. She explained that some mothers thought that it was an empowering choice for the mother to decide on her daughter’s circumcision because it wasn’t the father’s or any male family members who decided. A participant from India opposed this “empowering choice” concept. What I understood from her comment was that patriarchy was to blame for having women internalise FGM as “ideas of women” and think that the choices they make for their daughters are empowering. I couldn’t agree more.

In my opinion, what is empowering is accepting that your daughter has personal agency and that they can choose what to do (or not) to their bodies. What is empowering is also to have the courage to question the practice.

Personally, I had been cut as a child. In fact, all the women in my family have been cut. The doctor used a sharp knife to nick my clitoral hood. And in all honesty, if I hadn’t asked my mother whether I was circumcised, I wouldn’t have known. I thought my vulva showed no signs of circumcision. When I asked my mother why she had me circumcised, she explicitly stated that it was to “decrease my libido” –the very same reason why all the women in my family have gotten circumcised.

Let’s think about this – as a woman, and as a mother, does that sound right? Doesn’t nicking the clitoral hood, expose it to external stimulations? How would it “decrease the libido”? Isn’t it also very patronizing that the reason for circumcision is to prevent girls from “becoming promiscuous and going astray”? And if the purpose of circumcision is to decrease women’s libido, what is being done to decrease men’s libido?

I think what we should be doing is not just accept this practice without questioning. Why is “sunat perempuan” so shameful to discuss and deemed a taboo? I think it’s about time people are open to discussing this so as to decide whether it’s really beneficial and necessary. This could save people a lot of money (from not having to pay for the procedure). And in some countries, it could save many lives too.

Female circumcision is no different from other forms of violence against women

on 5 FEBRUARY, 2016. Republished here with permission.)

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay

By Filzah Sumartono

So I was talking to my friend the other day and I brought up the issue of sunat perempuan or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). And my friend seemed pretty nonchalant about it.

Yeah, well…it’s something that is done when the child is very young, all kids have to do it, right? – No, only Malay kids. – Yeah, okay, so what’s the problem? I think there are bigger problems out there.

Well, the problem to me is that sunat perempuan is something that does not need to be done. There’s no medical basis for it, it’s not something that is taught in medical school, there are no health benefits from it. By cutting the child, you’re taking away something from the child that is not yours to take in the first place. And all this because of some vague notion of “culture” or to “prevent promiscuity” or a misunderstanding of “religion” or a misunderstanding of how the female body works.

I recently found out that someone I know sent her infant daughter to be cut. My heart broke when I heard the news. It doesn’t matter if the procedure that is done in Singapore is “just a small cut” or “won’t hurt very much”. The very idea that something is wrong with female reproductive organs or that it is not good enough the way it is and that it has to be cut reflects a deep-rooted idea that girls and women have to be controlled and subjected to many restrictions and etc.

Sunat perempuan is no different from other forms of violence against women. It is just one of the many ways society tries to control the female body, sexuality and being. In our Malay community, we begin the process at infancy. To not see it as a problem is to deny that this is part of a bigger picture of how society condones violence against women and removes women’s rights to live on their own terms.

‘I am relieved more parents are saying no to female circumcision’

on 5 FEBRUARY, 2016. Republished here with permission.)

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay

By Zuby Eusofe 

I was six years old when I was forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) aka sunat perempuan. I was in a deep sleep and all of a sudden, I felt a sharp prick on my clitoris. I was shocked, clueless and traumatised. I didn’t know what was happening to me. When I opened my eyes, I saw my late mum, my aunt and an old lady, who seemed to be in her sixties, gathered around me. I was still wearing my baju kurung (Malay traditional clothes) but my underwear was gone. After putting me through that ordeal, they asked me to get up and try to walk in my clothes but without my underwear.

The thought of going through this so-called “religious ritual” traumatized me for quite awhile. I remember having nightmares about it too.

I am relieved that more and more parents are saying no to FGM. Now that I have a son, I will educate him not to practice FGM when he has a daughter with his future family. This practice has to end. Even though there are still quite a handful of Muslim parents who practice the ritual just to please the elders, I think they should also prioritise their child’s well-being.

A recent study by Oxford University [1], suggests that babies feel pain just like adults. The researchers found that 18 of the 20 brain regions active in adults when they experienced pain were also active in babies. MRI scans also showed that babies’ brains had the same response to a weak ‘poke’ (of force 128mN) as adults did to a stimulus that was four times as strong (512mN) which actually suggests that babies have a much lower pain threshold.

Therefore, I believe that as parents we should not practise such traumatizing birth rituals. We should strive to abolish the practice of FGM for the sake of our next generation of daughters.

[1] http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2015-04-21-babies-feel-pain-adults

My Body Is Not Mine – A Muslim woman’s commentary on body autonomy

on 4 FEBRUARY, 2016. Republished here with permission.)

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay

By Zarifah Anuar

When I was two weeks old, my mother handed me over to her bidan (traditional midwife), my grand-aunt, to be circumcised. She did not witness the procedure and did not know exactly what was done to me. To her, the sunat was an act that all Muslims, regardless of gender, had to go through. It wasn’t up for discussion or debate. It was a non-issue to her, and it should be a non-issue to me too.

I didn’t know I had been circumcised until more than twenty-three years later when a colleague asked me if I had gone through the procedure. I answered, very confidently, that I would know if I had. I knew my body. Years of struggling with my own body shape, skin colour, and facial features had taken a toll on me, but at the end of the day, I knew my body.

“You should ask your mother,” she told me.

I did, and there is a part of me that regrets asking because I now know just how much my body is not mine. From birth, or perhaps even before that, it was never mine. It belongs to God, the Creator.

Or at least, that is what religious leaders and my parents tell me. I, however, call bullshit.

My body does not belong to God. My body belongs to their perception of God. My body, and their mutilation and policing of it, is part and parcel of their desire to control the female body.

They hide this under many guises, all in the name of God: sunat will make you cleaner, purer, less susceptible to sin, more able to be His servant. When you cover your skin from the eyes of men, you will appear more beautiful in the eyes of God. Lower your gaze and your voice, that way you will be His humble follower.

When you read deeper into the meaning of these messages, it translates into: you are a woman, this is how you will look, this is how you will behave. You will listen and follow because centuries of male leadership has made our community know nothing else but patriarchy and the control of women to feed the male need to dominate and have power.

God doesn’t tell women to be less. Islam doesn’t tell women to be less. Prophet Muhammad himself was surrounded by many strong, assertive women. It is patriarchy and the men who uphold it to this day that tells women to be less, so that they will be familiar with being nothing more than second to men; so that they will not question the norms that have been forced upon them.

I don’t know what was taken from me when I was two weeks old, but I do know that it was without my consent. What would a two-week old infant know, much less understand, about the world around her? An infant that age is barely even able to lift her own head.

“Did I cry?” I asked my mother when she told me that I had undergone the sunat at two weeks old. “Was I asleep? Did I wake up?”

My mother didn’t answer and instead told me that the conversation was over.

I refuse to accept that this conversation is over. Our community insists on owning the bodies of girls and women instead of allowing us to make our own decisions. Sunat marks the start of others deciding and policing what happens to our bodies. From then on some of us are forced into the hijab long before puberty, and we are judged and criticised based on what we choose to wear. Our autonomy over our bodies is restricted, at times even taken away from us.

I want to keep talking about what was taken away from me more than twenty-three years ago. Physically, I will never know what exactly it was, but symbolically it is my ownership over my body, and I will not stop fighting for it.

I did not circumcise my daughters, says a Malay Muslim mother

on 3 FEBRUARY, 2016. Republished here with permission.)

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay

By Zubaida Ali

When my daughters were born, I made the decision not to have them circumcised. Female circumcision is one of the most puzzling birth rituals in Muslim society. It has no health or aesthetic value whatsoever.

Circumcision was usually performed by a traditional midwife but now it is performed by a medical doctor at the clinic for a fee. Typically, parents will have it done on their baby one month after birth and like all surgical procedures, it endangers the infant to the risk of infection, pain, and trauma.

Before I made the decision to cut or not to cut, I asked my friends and searched the internet for legitimacy.  Why, where and how was this done, I couldn’t find any valid answers. Then I turned to the one place where Muslims go to for answers, the Holy Qur’an. To my surprise, there are no verses supporting it in the Qur’an. There’s only a vague hadith about male circumcision.

Yet female circumcision is accepted and performed by all Muslim families I know like a sacred duty. It is even surprising for me to discover that it varies with different sects of Muslims all over the world, and with different degrees of severity. From a pinprick to show blood to removal of the clitoral hood (which is what is done in Singapore) to having major parts of the labia removed like in some parts of Africa and Middle-East.

I will require more validity from theological and medical sources before I hand over my child for such a procedure.

As a Muslim and a mother, my reason for not allowing my child to undergo the procedure is why would Allah create an imperfect human body? Why would Allah create a body that requires the tampering and removal of anything so natural?

My two girls now live freely and uncut, and I have never regretted my decision to not violate their bodies for a cultural practice that has no place or validity in our rational society. Just say no to female circumcision.

Speaking out about Female Genital Cutting among Malays in Singapore

by Filzah Sumartono

Singapore is usually presented as a modern, cosmopolitan city. Yet, underneath the facade of modernity, female genital cutting (FGC) – known locally as ‘sunat perempuan’ is still practiced in Singapore within the ethnic Malay community who are predominantly Muslim.

Whenever I bring up the topic of female genital cutting with my non-Malay friends, they respond with shock and disbelief – “It happens in Singapore? Are you sure? Now? Still?” One reason for this lack of awareness is that it is rarely ever discussed in the Malay community, much less in public with people from outside the community. Sunat perempuan is a prevalent practice but generally remains within the ‘women’s realm’. Even Malay men have little or no knowledge or involvement in the practice.

Traditionally, when a boy is circumcised, a family gathering will be held where prayer rituals are done. However, when a baby girl is cut, there is no big “celebration.” This leads to the bewildering situation where many women are in fact, unaware that they have undergone the procedure unless they ask their mother or female relatives, or until they have a daughter of their own who will also have to undergo the procedure. For these reasons, sunat perempuan remains a hidden and silent ritual not just in Singapore society at large, but in the Malay community itself.

Within the community, it is very much seen as a non-issue. When I try to start a discussion about sunat perempuan with my Malay friends, the response is usually one of indifference – “Yeah, it happens, so what?”- after which the topic is dropped and discarded. Often, it seems like the Malay community does not see sunat perempuan as an issue or an issue serious enough to be discussed about. It is simply part and parcel of every Malay girl’s childhood. Since the circumcision does not seem to inflict any long-lasting or observable consequences into adulthood (or at least, none reported), the practice continues.

People cite religion, culture, social pressure, hygiene and the prevention of promiscuity as reasons to continue the practice of female circumcision. Yet, ultimately, whatever the reason given, the practice of sunat perempuan lies in the deeply rooted belief that women’s sexualities need to be controlled. The very act of cutting the woman’s sexual organ, whether just a symbolic prick or an extensive cut, is a deliberate act to impose societal’s restrictions on what a woman can and cannot do with her body. For women in the Malay community, this imposition of power begins at infancy.

The medicalization of sunat perempuan makes it even harder to eradicate the practice. There is no law or legislation banning the practice, allowing private clinics to offer the procedure legally. It is of great concern that medical professionals are performing procedures that are not warranted by any legitimate medical imperative but cultural reasons. From our research, there are 5-6 clinics offering the practice for a relatively cheap cost of USD 15-25 and they receive a regular stream of clients. We don’t know the official number of midwives still offering the practice.

The medicalization of sunat perempuan has made the practice seem safe, scientific and even of medical necessity. In addition to being performed in a “medical” setting, many don’t see a need for concern because the procedure that is done in Singapore is Type 1a (removal of clitoral hood/prepuce) or Type 1b (removal of clitoris with prepuce) and not as extreme as those done in other countries.

Our project in Singapore, called Gender Equality Is Our Culture (GEC), has been working with the support of an online platform Beyond the Hijab, to address the silence surrounding sunat perempuan in 3 ways:

1. Raising public awareness

To make this issue more visible, Beyond the Hijab ran a blog series on sunat perempuan sharing stories written by women about their experiences undergoing FGC. This brought sunat perempuan into the public spotlight and sparked some interesting conversations online.

2. Research

Given the lack of statistics and reasearch on sunat perempuan in Singapore, GEC has been doing its research to uncover the prevalence of the practice in our country. We recently conducted an online survey to find out the prevalence of FGC in Singapore and public perception of the issue.

3. Advocacy

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, a state funded body that is often seen as the authority on Muslim affairs in Singapore, has not made an official statement denouncing the practice of sunat perempuan. The Council previously made a statement explicitly supporting the practice of FGC but took it down some time ago which, small as it may be, is a welcome first step. Yet such gestures are not enough, especially considering the number of people in Singapore who support the practice on the basis of “religious” reasons. As of today, GEC is still trying to contact the Council on their official position.

(Filzah Sumartono is currently working at The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). She is the Project Coordinator for the UN-funded project called “Gender Equality Is Our Culture!” which works to reclaim culture as gender-equitable. Filzah conducts workshops on sex education, consent and healthy relationships. She is also one of the contributors to “Beyond the Hijab”, an online blog for women in Singapore to share stories about their experiences as women reconciling the demands of their religion and the pressures of the modern world.)