Statistics by the United Nations reveal that over 200 million girls and women globally are believed to have undergone female genital mutilation, ranging from partial removal of the clitoris to complete excision of clitoris and labia, as well as infibulation – an act of cutting and repositioning the labia to ‘seal’ and narrows the vaginal opening.

“I just take a needle and slit off the top of the clitoris, “said Dr Mighilia Aziza as she described a female circumcision or sunat perempuan, a surgery that involves cutting the genitals of females using a needle or pair of scissors.

“But it is very little,” added the obstetrician and gynaecologist from Rawang, Kuala Lumpur. “Just one millimetre.”

UN: Removal of the clitoris a violation of human rights

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), any form of procedure that intentionally alters or inflicts injury to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes is recognised as (FGM), and considered a violation of human rights and discrimination against women.

However, Dr Ariza Mohamed, an obstetrician and gynaecologist said, “There is a big difference between circumcision and female genital mutilation.”

Female circumcision is not banned in Malaysia, although public hospitals are prohibited from providing the surgery. On the contrary, the Malaysian National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs (JAKIM) introduced a Fatwa in 2009 declaring that female circumcision is obligatory or wajib for all Muslim women, unless deemed harmful.

93% of Muslim Malaysian women have been circumcised

In fact, a study in 2012 conducted by Dr Maznah Dahlui, professor of social and preventive medicine from the University of Malaya with 1,196 respondents revealed that up to 93% of Muslim women in the country have undergone circumcision, with 83% of respondents citing reasons for religious obligations, 35% for hygiene purposes, 15% to control one’s sexual desire and 7% to satisfy their partners.

The study also found that there is an increasing trend of healthcare professionals in private health facilities performing the procedure, instead of the traditional midwives.

“Both GP (general practitioners) and TM (traditional midwives) used small knives and scissors but only GP applied sterilisation,” according to the study, which also revealed that of the array of “surgical equipment” used by midwives, 60% were penknives and 0.2% were nail clippers.

Female circumcision costs just S$35 in Singapore

More recently, Filzah Sumartono from women’s rights group AWARE said that female circumcision is also still legal in Singapore despite many countries outlawing the act, however, the Singaporean health ministry has not commented on the subject.

“We know five or six clinics offer the procedure, at around 20 to 35 Singapore dollars,” said Sumartono. “It’s done openly. You can just call up to make an appointment.”

Such information is also shared amongst women who turn to online public forums to gather information on where to bring their daughters for circumcision.

Although the practice in Singapore did not involve manipulation of the vagina and labia, Sumartono posited that it is still a violation of woman’s rights. However, she added: “What I get from talking to my community is, ‘Oh, it’s just a small cut so why are you complaining?’”

Another finding that intrigued Dahlui was the women’s belief that female circumcision was a “compulsory” practice and a “symbol of religious obligation” despite the fact that a fatwa on the practice was only issued in 2009.

“My mum didn’t want to do it, it was my grandmother who really pressured her,” she explained, adding that all her Muslim friends were also circumcised.

Journalist Fa Abdul, who was circumcised at the age of six months, also wrote that the practice was outlawed by University Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious institution, in 2007.

Should circumcision be “medicalised”?

According to Sumartono, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore advocated the practice on its website, but it has since been removed. Neither the council nor any official authority has responded to clarify this mater.

“There is not a single verse in the Quran or anything from the collections of hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) that makes female circumcision a requirement,” said Dr Farouk Musa, a senior medical lecturer at Monash University Malaysia.

Although circumcision in Malaysia does not involve severe mutilation compare to other countries, “it is best not to do it,” he added.

“What right do we have? There is nothing good, only harm, because of the physical risks such as infection and psychological effects on the girl. I urge the muftis to revisit their fatwa by taking into account the views of Qaradawi and Al-Awa,” he said.

“As medical practitioners, we only carry out something with medical and scientific basis,” added Dr Harlina Sirah, associate professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. “Unlike male circumcision, there has not been any finding to show that FGM is beneficial. In fact, the procedure is risky.”

Dahlui also stated that this classification “constitutes a misuse of the professional medical role and may wrongly legitimise female circumcision as medically safe and beneficial.”

In 2012 the United Nations called for a global ban on FGM, increasing pressure on countries to take action. However, a professor from Penang Medical College, Abdul Khan Rashid, said at the time, “The problem with the West is that it is so judgmental. A lot of women now do it in private clinics in safe conditions, but if you’re going to make it illegal, the practice is going to go underground.”

“The way to eradicate it,” he added, is to “educate people about how wrong it is first, and ban it later.” MIMS

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