To ban or medicalise? Sri Lanka grapples with debates on Female Genital Cutting

(Please note that a version of this article appears on LankaWeb.com. It has been republished here with permission from the author.)

By Fatima Yasmin  

Country: Sri Lanka

Muslim religious organisations in Sri Lanka have called on the government to medicalise female circumcision to ensure the procedure is done under hygienic conditions. In their submission before the Parliamentary Committee on Women and Gender early in September, the Muslim groups stated that the Muslim community was very concerned about moves to ban the procedure on the grounds that it was Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  

Spokeswoman Noor Hazeema Haris has reportedly said that although Muslims wholeheartedly have supported the abolition of traditional practices harmful to women and children such as Female Genital Mutilation, the Islamic practice of female circumcision was very different.

She pointed out that the distinction is that female circumcision as practiced by Muslims in Sri Lanka, was a minor procedure, in which only the prepuce or hood of the clitoris was removed.

“It is something that is arranged and done by women. Those who say this is male oppression against women are mistaken. It is we who do it just like our mothers and grandmothers and countless generations of our women have done. We continue to practice it because we know it benefits us. Even educated Muslim women support it wholeheartedly,” she said. “If medical complications have arisen among some women circumcised by Osthamamis (traditional female circumcisors without medical training) as alleged by women’s rights groups, it is all the more reason to medicalise the procedure instead of prohibiting it, which will only drive the procedure underground and put girls and women at unnecessary risk.”

The move is a very dangerous one since it could lead to greater acceptability of FGM. There have been many complaints raised against traditional practitioners including the use of unsterile instruments and harming the clitoris in some cases. However, I believe the solution is to ban it altogether rather than medicalising it.

But analysts warn this could lead to an uproar from religious parties and have political implications since parties that come out against FGM risk losing a large and influential Muslim vote bank. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, an organization of religious scholars in the country issued a fatwa in 2008 stating that female circumcision was obligatory, and was among the parties that made representations to medicalise the practice early in September.

It is also a matter of concern to women’s rights groups that the said Parliamentary committee agreed to accommodate the representations and requested that medical evidence is submitted to prove that female circumcision of the type prescribed in Islam, as stated by these religious groups, causes no harm and benefits women.

A female doctor who performed the procedure before a health ministry circular prohibiting medical professionals from performing it came into effect in the country in October, and whose name has been withheld here by her request, said that she welcomed the move to medicalise it:

“I performed about 25 circumcisions a day in a private clinic, mostly infants. But there were women, too. Some were newly married and wanted to be circumcised at their husbands’ request. All I do is remove a little bit of skin covering the clitoris. I use a very fine instrument for the babies. It takes only a few minutes. In the case of adults, I inject an anesthetic before proceeding to circumcise them. My patients tell me it’s only the injection that hurts a bit and that after that they don’t feel a thing. It’s sore for a few days but heals fast. There is a huge demand for this service. It’s a shame that it’s now going back into the hands of untrained women who have no proper medical knowledge and who use unsterilized instruments for the purpose.”

A young mother who had her infant daughter cut by a traditional practitioner also agreed.

“Doctors refuse to do this now, and I was forced to get it done by an Osthamami. She took out a blade which looked as if it had been used many times and made a cut to my daughter’s genitals. Some blood came out. I could not bear to look. Later I checked it and noticed a cut had been made in the skin over the clitoris but the foreskin had not been removed. This is an improper circumcision according to my sister who is an Aalimah (religious scholar) and so I will have to get her circumcised again. Why are these so-called women’s groups against doctors doing it? We will practice it whether they ban it or not.”

However, a member of a prominent women’s organization said that prohibiting the practice is the right thing to do.

“FGM has been condemned as a violation of the rights of women and girl children by the World Health Organisation. WHO makes no distinction between FGM and the type of circumcision practiced here. It’s all the same. How can you cut these girls and call it a religious obligation? I understand there is a strong religious argument for the practice, but we cannot let religion affect the health of girls and women.”

And so the debate goes on – to ban or medicalise. One thing is for sure. It won’t be easy. Not only does the religious establishment in Sri Lanka, unfortunately, support the practice, but many local women are for continuing it, meaning the government and activists working to end FGM will face many challenges ahead before FGM can be abandoned in Sri Lanka.

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Let there be no more victims like me

By Anonymous
Country: Sri Lanka

I am a victim of Female Genital Cutting – some might want to call it circumcision, I call it Mutilation. Not quite the way that the proponents want to depict it as what always happens in Africa (infibulation) with horrific scars, but in the way, it happened to me in Sri Lanka where there are still scars, tiny, almost unnoticeable. But in all the ways that matter, it has damaged me no less than the most severe forms of mutilation.

To those who want to medicalize the procedure, let me say that I was cut by a qualified doctor, in a sterile environment, when I was seven-years-old. I remember that day clearly and it is I who have had to live with the consequence of what was done to me in the name of religion.  Not my religious leaders, not my elders, and not that doctor. ME, the woman who that child without a voice grew up to be.

Let me now take the arguments I’ve heard in support of the procedure and give you my perspective as someone who has first-hand experience of the negative impacts of FGC. I will use the term female genital cutting (FGC) since irrespective of what one wants to call it, that is what is done to a lesser or greater degree, depending on who holds the pin, blade or knife.

A. Sex lives as Adults

To the women who say that they have better sex lives due to FGC, I ask you this: what is your point of reference? Have you had sex with the same partner before and after your FGC to arrive at this conclusion?  Have you ever considered the possibility that you have been very lucky, and that whoever performed the FGC on you spared you any real damage? It is also very presumptuous for you to assume that NONE of the billions of uncircumcised women around the world enjoy great sex the same as you.

To the women who don’t have a horrific memory related to their own FGC and who don’t understand what all the fuss is about: let me tell you that neither do I. I don’t have any horrific memories of that day. My Mom who accompanied me held me gently, the doctor looked very professional and it was over before I knew what was being done. I felt a pinch, no bleeding that I can remember – just some cotton wool that smelled of antiseptic placed there after I was cut. And I walked out, confused, uncomfortable but definitely not traumatized. Sounds familiar?

It wasn’t until I was as an adult that I realized the impact of what was done to me. I feel pain during intercourse. Most of you may not. But does that mean you are not damaged? Have you ever considered the fact that intercourse is supposed to be more than just “pleasant” or something you put up with when your husband feels so inclined? In my case, I have been examined by a doctor who has seen the tiny scars and helped me understand the impact of those scars on my ability to enjoy sex.

Initially, I wondered whether what happened to me was a mere unfortunate mistake by this doctor. I have since then come across stories of others in Sri Lanka who were cut by the same and other doctors who share similar tales. So no, I was not an unfortunate accident – the doctor and others like him/her knew exactly what they were doing and did it nonetheless.

B. The need to perform the procedure on a child

All the literature shared by the supporters of this practice alludes to adult women enjoying their sex lives. However, I still have yet to come across any argument to support as to why the procedure needs to be performed on seven-year-old girls who have a long way to go before they begin their sex lives.

So, what is being promoted is, in fact, the sexualizing of children. News flash: these organs don’t stay dormant and get activated only when one gets married.

Personally, I find the very idea of parents allowing strangers to access to their daughter’s private parts for non-medical reasons and letting them alter her genitals, an extremely troubling thought. I’m more inclined to believe that in their hearts, they know that they are in fact desexualizing her. What they want in reality is to keep her pure and innocent until she could be given away. There is no thought given to the fact that she then has to live with a damaged body and fulfill marital obligations that she may not enjoy as much in their effort to keep her pure and innocent until she was given away.

C. The Religious Argument

Who decides on one’s religious belief? The individual or the individual’s parent?

Yes, the parents would bring up the child within the religious norms they follow, and yes in most cases the child would continue with that belief till the end, but this is not always true for everyone.

Hence, how do you justify altering a child’s body, without any medical reason, to be in alignment with the parents’ religious belief, when that child is yet to determine what path she would take or which God she will follow once she has learned enough to make that decision?

As for me, I don’t believe that the God who created me required any man or woman to tamper with my body, with the assumption that they can make it better. I believe the Quran when it says that all of God’s creations are perfect. I won’t let any man or woman tell me otherwise.

But my body has been altered irrevocably – it’s no longer the way God created it to be. My body is now in conflict with my religious beliefs. It has ended up representing the beliefs of others and not mine. The religious belief of others has also denied me pleasure that was my right and right given to me in the Qur’an. How can that be a just outcome by anyone’s standards?

Finally in the spotlight: Female Genital Cutting is getting national attention in Sri Lanka

Until a few months ago, Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in Sri Lanka was spoken about only in whispers within practicing communities and in a few news articles. Since last month, however, the issue has suddenly attracted the attention of the mainstream national media and has been the highlight of some crucial discussions among government ministers and activists.

In Sri Lanka, FGC is practiced among the Dawoodi Bohras (who call the practice Khatna or Khafz) and among the Sunni Moor and Malay communities (who call it Sunnath). While the Bohras cut the clitoral hoods of girls at the age of seven, the Moors and Malays cut baby girls when they are 40 days old. (Read more about it here.)

FGC is internationally recognised as a violation of the rights of women and children, and is illegal in several countries around the world. However, Sri Lanka — like its neighbour India — does not have a specific law against FGC/Khatna/Khafz/Sunnath.

In order to push for a law banning FGC, a group of human rights activists and lawyers have been gathering testimonies of Sri Lankan FGC survivors. These testimonies have drawn recent media attention, and were also formally submitted to the Sri Lankan Parliament Sectoral Oversight Committee in a meeting earlier this month.  

This long overdue exposure of the practice of FGC in Sri Lanka is strongly linked to the controversies around the country’s personal laws for minority communities like Muslims.

The background

The public debate about FGC has been brought about in the midst of the discussion in Parliament on reforms to the MMDA (Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act), which was enacted by the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1951. According to this website, “The origin of Sri Lankan MMDA stems from a code of law on marriage and divorce exported from Batavia (present day Indonesia) in 1770 during the Dutch rule. This law has gone through a process of codification over a period of time and is based on Sharia law and Islamic legal practices. However, the Act also includes provisions pertaining to local customs unknown to Islamic law…”

In addition, Article 16 in the Fundamental Rights chapter of the 1978 constitution of Sri Lanka enshrined MMDA and Muslim Personal Laws in Sri Lankan law through the following statement: “All written and unwritten law that existed prior to the 1978 Constitution is ‘valid and operative’.” This has been interpreted as legal validation of MMDA and Muslim Personal Laws and local customs even if they contradict, or are inconsistent with, the fundamental rights of Sri Lankan citizens. As the Sunday Observer stated in this article, “personal Laws exist to provide the minority communities the extra protection they need, but instead, they violate the fundamental rights of people in those communities.”

The MMDA reform debates have been ongoing for decades, but they recently came back into serious discussion, with the Sri Lankan government’s application to regain the GSP+ (Generalised Scheme of Preference) from the EU. This preference was taken away from Sri Lanka sometime in 2010 citing non-compliance with international Human Rights standards. One of the criteria cited by the EU to grant this preference back to SL, was to bring about reform to the MMDA; claiming it as a rights violation against women and children.

Citing these rights, many Muslim Women’s activists and lawyers urged for a ban on the practice of FGC, and gathered many testimonies from victims, which were presented to the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Women and Gender (POCWG) set up to address the MMDA reforms.

Hope for the future

In the past two weeks, with increasing media attention on FGC in Sri Lanka, some spokespersons from the country’s Dawoodi Bohra community have responded by defending the practice. Their argument is that FGC is “just a nick” and not harmful, should not be called “mutilation”, and that it is done for personal hygiene and for religious reasons.

However, in a positive sign, a group of senior ministers in the Sri Lankan government reviewed the practice of FGC and came to an agreement that the ritual needs to be treated as a public health issue. The meeting, held last week, included the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Women and Child Affairs and the Chairperson of the National Committee on Women. The ministers indicated that they would work with the local Muslim communities and help raise awareness about the issue of Female Genital Cutting.

My parents would not have cut me if they had the right information, says a Sri Lankan Bohra

By: Anonymous

Country: Colombo, Sri Lanka
Age: in her 50s

Circa 1970s, I was seven years old.  

I hardly have any memories of my life during this period and most are vague, but I do remember almost every waking minute of one particular day.

I woke up, I guess like any other ordinary day, had breakfast, and then was told by my mother to get in the car and that she was taking me somewhere. 

Whilst in the car, my mother who was driving, told me I should not tell anyone nor talk about where I was being taken that day. I was a fairly obedient and non-confrontational child, so obviously didn’t ask too many questions.

We arrived at a house, not too far from our own place, and I was taken in by my mum. My favourite Aunt was there too. I was happy to see her.

Next thing I remember I was in a room, laying on a table. I remember my aunt by my side, the doctor and his wife were in the room as well (I came to know that this was the doctor and his wife, later on in my life, I didn’t know this at the time). I don’t have a memory of my mother in the room, maybe it’s something I’ve blocked out, or maybe she was upset at what was going to happen and didn’t stay in the room. I remember two or more people holding down my legs. I’m not sure if I was screaming or protesting, I don’t have a memory about this, but I do remember PAIN, EXTREME PAIN, UNBEARABLE PAIN. Throughout this ordeal, my favourite aunt was by my side, obviously comforting me.

My next memory of the day was arriving home, I remember there being discomfort between my legs. I was kept in my parents room the entire day. They were exceptionally caring and sweet to me that entire day, and my naughty mischievous brother was not allowed anywhere near my vicinity.

I do not have any further memories of the immediate days that followed, which obviously would have been some sort of recovery period.

During my mid-teens is when I realised exactly what had been done to me that day as a seven year old child – circumcision, the cutting off of the clitoris, also known as female genital mutilation – FGM. As a young teenager I did not have access to much information about what a terrible act this was, but I knew enough with the trauma I went through, to know that this should never have been done to me.

At this point I would like to state that although the responsibility for this act, which we call Khatna in our community, lies solely with my parents, I DO KNOW, that if they had ACCESS to the right information, that FGM was a heinous act of violation upon the female body, they would not have gone ahead with it. (After all, it was officially banned by the UN sometime in the 1990s, so there must have been so little awareness about this in the mid 70s).

I know this, because when my daughter turned seven years old, this topic arose, and we were expected to do this for her as well. Both my husband and I were vehemently against this and were not willing to budge on our decision. We explained our case to my parents and made them aware that the UN banned it, they realised then that they were not informed of these views and easily accepted our decision.

I belong to the Bohra community which has its roots in Mumbai India, and I am born and bred in Sri Lanka. The practice of FGM or Khatna has been in our community for many generations. The apologists in our community often argue that we in the Bohra community administer this in a hygienic sterile environment, performed by formally qualified MBBS doctors in our community, thus claiming that unlike the ways it’s done in Africa, where many of the cases are prone to severe infections and sometimes fatalities, we don’t have such cases. I firmly believe that FGM, regardless of how, when and where it is performed should not be done to children who have NO SAY in it. No one has the right to violate or mutilate the body of young girls and modify them permanently. Many clerics in our community claim that this is done to cull the sexual pleasure in a woman, allowing her to be more devoted and committed to her husband’s desires. From my own experience, there is no truth to that idea. Thus the whole purpose of this practice is not achieved.

I’m happy to have shared my experience, and sincerely hope that the purpose of publishing my story will be achieved with the immediate banning of FGM in Sri Lanka.

‘Girls must be circumcised or they will grow up loose’: Three Sri Lankan women talk about Female Genital Cutting

by: Bintari Hamza Zafar, a concerned Sri Lankan Muslim citizen

Country: Sri Lanka

Female Genital Mutilation is a serious problem in Sri Lanka. Almost all Sri Lankan Muslim women are circumcised. Both Moors and Malays (ethnic Muslim communities in Sri Lanka) are of the Shafi school of Islam which regards female circumcision, or “sunnat”, as compulsory. They account for 98% of the local Muslim population. The Bohras who follow an Indian leader called Syedna also practice it very strictly. Local Bohras number about 3,000 people.

The All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU) which is the Supreme Council of Muslims of Sri Lanka has declared female circumcision obligatory in a fatwa in Tamil பெண்களுக்கு கத்னா செய்தல் (Pengalukku Khatna Seydal) and are very strict about it. I also heard that the Bohra leader Syedna has said it must be done.

Local Muslim girls are circumcised on the 40th day of birth or a little later. Bohra girls are cut between 7-10 years of age.

The amount of genital cutting differs from child to child. The operator is a woman called Ostha-maami. Usually, they nick the clitoris for a little blood to come and leave it at that. Educated families get it done by lady doctors who cut off part of the foreskin of the clitoris. But more severe mutilation also takes place and has been reported to us.

I give below some interviews that I recently conducted with women of my community.

Banu Mariyam (40 years, name changed)

Muslim girls must be circumcised or they will grow up to be loose. I have two daughters and got them circumcised when they were babies. The local Ostha woman came and did it. She took a large needle and pricked the clitoris till the blood came. She then wiped it and put some grey powder. I think it was ash.

She told me the blood has to come out or the girl’s clitoris will be big, and she will always touch there and grow up to be a loose woman. I don’t regret it. All our girls must be circumcised.

See Western ladies, see Princess Diana, how many men she had affairs with. Our women are much more decent. That is because we take the blood out and make it small. Then they can control themselves.

Fathima Nilufa (33 years, name changed)

I did not know of this practice till my daughter was born. My mother said she must undergo sunnat. I told her only boys undergo sunnat. She said no, girls also. Then she brought home the lady doctor, who cut my daughter. My baby cried a lot. The doctor put some kind of white powder on the wound and said it will heal.

Later I noticed baby’s clitoris was pink and swollen. I got angry and asked the doctor what she had done. She said she removed the skin over it like she did for the small boys. She said nothing to worry. It healed a little later. She is ok now, but I am still angry because my daughter was hurt. I don’t know why they do it. My mother said it must be done for Muslim people.

Sameena Begum (29 years, name changed)

I was married to an Aalim (religious scholar). A few days after my wedding night, he said he wanted to see my private part before having sex. Then he got angry and said I was not circumcised. He even shouted at my mother. My mother kept saying she had got me circumcised as a baby, but he did not listen.

He brought home an old Ostha-Maami in a taxi and ordered her to cut me. My husband held one leg and forced my mother to hold the other leg while the Ostha-Maami cut me. My mother was crying and told me not to scream as the neighbours could hear. It was very painful. I wish my mother had got it done properly when I was a baby.