‘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.)