FGM: It happens in Malaysia too

Publication Date: 
February 3, 2011
The Malaysian Insider
File photo of a traditional surgeon holding razor blades before carrying out female genital mutilation on teenage girls -Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 3 — Female genital mutilation (FGM) is not a familiar custom in Malaysia. FGM is synonymous with the Middle East and African countries, and is a shocking and barbaric practice. A number of academics and researchers have expressed concern over what seems to be a growing prevalence of FGM in Malaysia.

For many female Malaysian Muslim infants, circumcision is a rite of passage whereby a symbolic ritual of pricking their genitalia occurs after 40 days of birth. A needle is used to prick the genitalia lightly, and sometimes, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area is conducted. This depends on the person performing the procedure. It would also be wise to note that this is not an Islamic practice but traditional, and has no health benefits, unlike for boys and men.

Female circumcision is part of FGM, and FGM is classified into four types:

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) female genital mutilation is classified into four major types.

(1) Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris)

(2) Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).

(3) Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.

(4) Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.

However there seems to be no clear picture of the prevalence of the practices above nor what actually takes place. Several publications such as “The Practice of Female Circumcision among Muslims in Kelantan, Malaysia” (Ab. Rahman Isa, Rashidah Shuib, M Shukri  Othman, 1999) state that, “... although female genital practices are said to be carried out among some Muslims in Malaysia, it is not clear whether these are “non-cutting” rituals, similar to those found in Indonesia, or a form of clitoridectomy. In fact, neither reports by national groups nor documented evidence have been found.” Yet, the paper also states that Malaysia has been included in the book “Cutting the Rose” (1994) and in “The Hosken Report” (1993) as one of the countries which practises FGM. The latter notes the dearth of local materials on the subject but provides a glimpse into the situation in Malaysia, based on anecdotal reports and a study by Roziah Omar, a medical anthropologist.

Azrul Mohd Khalib, United Nations HIV and AIDS Co-ordinator, finds this to be a worrying trend. He acknowledges the fact that such practices have been happening for generations, but the recent proliferation of blogs which laud the rites beg questioning. Is it merely a pin prick or is it more than just a prick?

“The problem with female circumcision is that there is no standard procedure or medical benefits in the removal of a clitoral hood, labia and neither does it have any bearing on hygiene,” Azrul says. “However, with male circumcision, there is evidence that it reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60 per cent. The World Health Organisation recognises that. This does not mean that having sex sans protection is viable!”

Another pressing issue to contend with is that female circumcision is not conducted by doctors in government hospitals, but in private ones. And the ones who can afford private consultations are the growing middle-class professionals. Young mothers celebrate it on personal blogs (one example is  blog), and what piques researchers is the question of how a purportedly dying tradition is facing a resurgence.

Professor Datin Rashidah Shuib, of the Women’s Development Centre, Universiti Sains Malaysia, one of the co-authors of the mentioned paper, “The Practice of Female Circumcision Among Muslims in Kelantan, Malaysia”, observes that at first she thought that the practice would die out. “I thought it would die because of urbanisation, and being away from family pressures such as mothers, but I could be wrong. It would seem that more are practising this.”

She finds the phenomenon troubling because there is no need for it in the first place. “If you were to talk or read about it, the reasons given have something to do with controlling of women’s sexuality. Why? And what for? The clitoris is our sexual organ, an important one. Taking off the hood (if this is the case) makes no difference. If so why do it? And how do we safeguard that the procedures will be OK within the context of hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, etc? I don’t think our doctors should be doing this because this then validates and medicalises the procedure. For me personally, there is so much khilaf on this matter and the reasons given are not something I can buy easily. Isn’t Islam a rational religion? Plus, this is not practised in Saudi.”

Indeed, the Al-Azhar University outlawed the practice in 2007.

A study titled “The Practice Of Female Genital Mutilation Among The Rural Malays In North Malaysia” by Abdul Khan Rashid, Sapna S. Patil and Anita S. Valimalar (The Internet Journal of Third World Medicine. 2010 Volume 9 Number 1) focussed five villages in north Malaysia from 2008 to 2009. These villages comprised 1,581 Malay Muslims who were mostly farmers and fishermen. A private and a government clinic are available in a small town located 5km from these villages.

“There were 630 females in the five villages. All 597 villagers who had FGM performed on them responded either for themselves or their children, giving a 100 per cent response rate. The age of the respondents ranged from one month of life to 91 years. Of the 597 responders, 35.7 per cent (213) were less than 18 years old, 14.4 per cent (86) were between the ages of 18 and 30 and 49.9 per cent (298) were above 31 years of age. About nine per cent (55) were illiterate, 39.5 per cent (236) had education up to primary school, 39.2 per cent (234) secondary school, about four per cent (26) tertiary school and almost eight per cent (46) were not in the school-going age. Most (275) were single, 44.1 per cent (263) married, almost nine per cent (52) widowed and about one per cent (7) divorced. Most (323) were working and were earning more than RM529 (US$151) per month. The age FGM was done ranged from one month to 78 months. Majority (529) had FGM when they were less than 12 months old, almost six per cent (35) between the ages 13 to 24 months and equal numbers when they were more than 24 months of age. The more recent FGM were commonly performed by doctors in clinics.”

The following tables are proof that even adult women undergo such a procedure and support the practice. Religion was the main reason cited for the women undergoing FGM. “Irrespective of age and the education level, majority responded that FGM did not reduce their sexual desires,” the women said.

A recent Kosmo article on November 28, 2010, featured the popularity of female circumcision in Malaysia. Nikmah Suhaidi, 49, a midwife who was interviewed in the feature, disclosed that she also circumcised, “... wanita dewasa, sama ada wanita Melayu yang tidak pernah bersunat mahupun wanita yang baru memeluk Islam.” (She circumcises adult Malay women who have not undergone the procedure or recent converts). She also believes by doing such, it will control the women’s sexual desire. Adult women have 1.3cm of their labia cut. A razor blade is used to cut a baby’s genitalia while a small pair of scissors is used for adult women.

So why are modern, educated young mothers buying into a tradition that has no function?

The recent “Islamisation” and “Arabisation” of Malaysia could be a reason, says Azrul. Young Malaysians embrace rituals zealously as they claim their identities as devout Muslims. “But there is no Sunnah, or any verse in the Quran which promotes female circumcision. I do believe the increase of Malay women’s standing and economic status could be a factor. Perhaps we feel threatened by women and their sexuality. They are not just economically independent but also sexually independent. This is an extension of the virgin myth. We want our girls to be clueless. If she is a knowledgeable girl, then she must be loose. It’s not enough to deprive information to our girls, we do it physically to them too, to curb their sexual appetites.”