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Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Debates about FGM in Africa,
the Middle East & Far East

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Debate Among Muslims:

FGM is a social custom, not a religious practice. However, in those Muslim countries where it is practice, FGM is often justified by a controversial saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed that seem to favor sunna circumcision involving minor cutting of the clitoris. The authenticity of these sayings are unconfirmed, and some scholars have refuted them. Even if true, they only permit the practice; they do not mandate it.

FGM has probably been performed for at least 1,400 years (some references estimate 2,000 years), and started during what Muslims call "al-gahiliyyah" (the era of ignorance). The Qu'r'an, Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Christian Scriptures (New Testament) is silent on the subject. The Sunnah (the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammed) contains a reference to female circumcision.

According to the Muslim Women's League:

"Those who advocate for FGM from an Islamic perspective commonly quote the following hadith to argue that it is required as part of the Sunnah or Tradition of the Prophet:

'Um Atiyyat al-Ansariyyah said: A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (pbuh) said to her: Do not cut too severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband'." 1,8

One interpretation of this passage is that the woman was going to proceed with the circumcision anyway; Muhammad suggested that she remove a smaller amount of her genitalia than she had perhaps intended to.

This passage is regarded by many Muslims as having little credibility or authenticity. The Muslim Women's League comments: "According to Sayyid Sabiq, renowned scholar and author of Fiqh-us-Sunnah, all hadiths concerning female circumcision are non-authentic." 1 An extensive analysis of classical Muslim authors is available online. 2

Many Muslims see passages in the Qur'an which, by implication, oppose FGM. they reason:

bulletGod apparently created the clitoris for the sole purpose of generating pleasure. It has no other purpose. There is no instruction in the Qur'an or in the writings of the Prophet Mohammed which require that the clitoris be surgically modified. Thus God must approve of its presence. And so, it should not be removed or reduced in size or function.

bulletThe Qur'an promotes the concept of a husband and wife giving each other pleasure during sexual intercourse. For example:
bullet"It is lawful for you to go in unto your wives during the night preceding the (day's) fast: they are as a garment for you and you are as a garment for them." (2:187)

bullet"...and He has put love and mercy between you." (30:21)

Mutilated genitalia reduce or eliminate a woman's pleasure during the act.

bulletThe Qur'an (An-Nisa': 119) states that Satan will try to trick humans into body modification: "And I will surely lead them astray, and arouse desires in them, and command them and they will cut the cattle's ears, and I will surely command them and they will change Allah's creation." This might be interpreted as forbidding FGM as well as tattoos, piercing and any other modification that alters the design of the human body as Allah created it.

Nawal El-Saadawi, a Muslim victim of infibulation, stated:

"The importance given to virginity and an intact hymen in these societies is the reason why female circumcision still remains a very widespread practice despite a growing tendency, especially in urban Egypt, to do away with it as something outdated and harmful. Behind circumcision lies the belief that, by removing parts of girls' external genitals organs, sexual desire is minimized. This permits a female who has reached the dangerous age of puberty and adolescence to protect her virginity, and therefore her honor, with greater ease. Chastity was imposed on male attendants in the female harem by castration which turned them into inoffensive eunuchs. Similarly female circumcision is meant to preserve the chastity of young girls by reducing their desire for sexual intercourse." 3

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Fatwas published:

Fatwas are published opinions by Muslim religious scholars. They are non-binding in law. But Muslim believers are expected to follow them. In Egypt, a number of Fatwas have been issued by the influential Egyptian Fatwa Committee on FGM:

bullet1949-MAY-28: They decided that it is not a sin to reject female circumcision.

bullet1951-JUN-23: They stated that female circumcision is desirable because it curbs "nature" (i.e. sexual drive among women). It stated that medical concerns over the practice are irrelevant.

bullet1981-JAN-29: The Great Sheikh of Al-Azhar (the most famous University of the Islamic World) stated that parents must follow the lessons of Mohammed and not listen to medical authorities because the latter often change their minds. Parents must do their duty and have their daughters circumcised.

2007-JUN-24: As noted elsewhere, the Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gum's announced that: "... this custom is prohibited."

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2006 international conference:

TARGET, a German human rights group, sponsored a conference on FGM in Cairo, Egypt. Muslim scholars from many nations attended. At the conclusion of the conference on 2006-NOV-24, their  final statement declared FGM to be contrary to Islam, an attack on women, and a practice that should be criminalized:

"The conference appeals to all Muslims to stop practicing this habit, according to Islam's teachings which prohibit inflicting harm on any human being. ... The conference reminds all teaching and media institutions of their role to explain to the people the harmful effects of this habit in order to eliminate it. ... The conference calls on judicial institutions to issue laws that prohibit and criminalize this habit ... which appeared in several societies and was adopted by some Muslims although it is not sanctioned by the Qur'an or the Sunna."

According to The Age online news source:

"Egypt's two top Islamic clerics, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar, the foremost theological institute in the Sunni Muslim world, and Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, attended the conference, which drew scholars from as far afield as Russia. Tantawi's and Gomaa's edicts are considered binding. 9

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Reaction by the rest of the world

The United Nations has supported the right of member states to grant refugee status to women who fear being mutilated if they are returned to their country of origin. Canada has granted such status to women in this situation. A judge of a Canadian Federal Court declared it a "cruel and barbaric practice."

In 1994 CNN broadcast footage of the circumcision of a 10 year old Egyptian girl by an unskilled practitioner. This program drew international attention to the operation. A 500 million dollar lawsuit was brought against CNN for allegedly damaging Egypt's reputation, It was rejected by the courts.

In the West, the procedure is outlawed in Britain, Canada, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

A U.S. federal bill, "Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation of 1995" was passed in 1996-SEP.

Section 273.3 of the Canadian Criminal Code protects children who are ordinarily resident in Canada, (as citizens or landed migrants) from being removed from the country and subjected to FGM. In the U.S. and Canada, the very small percentage of immigrants who wish to continue the practice often find it impossible to find a doctor who will cooperate. The operation is often done in the home by the family.

Legislation against FGM can be counter-productive in some cases. It might force the practice deeply underground. Women may not seek medical care because their parents might be charged.

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UN activity:

In 1958, the Economic and Social Committee of the United Nations invited the World Health Organization (WHO):

"... to undertake a study on the persistence of customs involving ritual practices on girls and on the measures in effect or planned to put an end to those practices." 4

The WHO responded that:

"the ritual practices in question, resulting from social and cultural conceptions, are not within the WHO's jurisdiction." 5

They subsequently changed their position. 6 In 1989, the Regional Committee of the WHO for Africa passed a resolution urging participating governments:

"... to adopt appropriate policies and strategies in order to eradicate female circumcision" and "to forbid medicalization of female circumcision and to discourage health professionals from performing such surgery."

In 1980, UNICEF announced that its anti-FGM program is:

"... based on the belief that the best way to handle the problem is to trigger awareness through education of the public, members of the medical profession and practitioners of traditional health care with the help of local collectives and their leaders." 7

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was ambiguous about FGM.

On one hand, Article 24, paragraph 3 states:

"States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children."

But Article 29 paragraph 1.c calls for:

"The development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own."

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Bans on FGM:

During 2007, FGM was banned in Eritrea. The Egyptian Health Ministry is seeking a law banning FGM in that country. That would leave Somolia, which lacks a central government, Sudan, and Indonesia as the two main countries where the practice would remain legal.

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Related essay:

bulletThe FGM debate in Egypt.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Position paper on Female Genital Mutilation/Female Circumcision," Muslim Women's League, at: http://www.mwlusa.org/
  2. Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, "Religious arguments about male and female circumcision," at: http://www.lpj.org/
  3. Nawal El-Saadawi, "The hidden face of Eve, Women in the Arab World," translated and edited by Sherif Hetata, Zed Press, London, 1980, P. 33.
  4. United Nations, 26th Session of the Economic and Social Committee, 1029th Plenary Meeting, 1958-JUL-10.
  5. WHO, 12th World Health Assembly, 11th Plenary Meeting, 1959-MAY-28.
  6. WHO, Resolution of the Regional Committee for Africa, 39th session, AFR/RC39/R9, 1989-SEP-13.
  7. UNICEF, Department of Information, "Position of UNICEF on Female Excision", 1980-SEP-23, Page 1.
  8. "Partial Translation of Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 41: General Behavior (Kitab Al-Adab)," at: http://www.usc.edu/
  9. "Muslim scholars rule female circumcision un-Islamic," The Age, 2006-NOV-24, at: http://www.theage.com.au/

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Copyright 1998 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1998-MAR-13
Last update: 2014-APR-23

Author: B.A. Robinson

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