Mass Circumcision in Indonesia

My ability to read or understand Arabic is entirely non-existent, so I need to rely on people who have done the work and the translations. On the matter of female circumcision or mutilation, the commands come from the “Umdat al-Salik”—”Reliance of the Traveller”, as reported by the Australian Islamic Monitor, originally from Answering Islam.

Reliance of the Traveller, a classical manual of Islamic sacred law in Arabic with facing English text, commentary and appendices edited and translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller (1994) re ‘circumcision’ we find the Arabic actually says –
“Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male,
but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the clitoris (this is called HufaaD). ”  (p59)  (Shafi’I jurisprudence)
(Note the English version is falsely translated as ‘prepuce ‘ of the clitoris!!)

The Arabic word bazr does not mean “prepuce of the clitoris”, it means the clitoris itself (cf. the entry in the Arabic-English Dictionary). The deceptive translation by Nuh Hah Mim Keller, made for Western consumption, obscures the Shafi’i law, given by ‘Umdat al-Salik, that circumcision of girls by excision of the clitoris is mandatory. This particular form of female circumcision is widely practiced in Egypt, where the Shafi’i school of Sunni law is followed.  Note a comment by Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wakil Durubi in the English ‘version’ notes “Hanbalis hold that circumcision of women is not obligatory but sunna, while Hanafis consider it a mere courtesy to the husband.”

Are these the actual words of Mohammed, interpretations of his followers, or an excuse to protect the patriarchal society? Is FGM demanded by Islamic faith? Damned if I know. We do know that the the origins of FGM go back well beyond the development of Islam, and has also been practised by some Ethiopian Jews  but it is primarily Muslim girls and women today who suffer today. In the end, it doesn’t matter to the children who are mutilated; children mutilated because the religious leaders have convinced parents that this is what is expected of them and their daughters.

In 2006, journalist Abigail Haworth attended a mass ceremony to perform sunat perempuan or female circumcision in Bandun, Indonesia. The ceremony is organized by the Yayasan Assalaam, an Islamic foundation. On this April Sunday, 248 girls aged from 5 months to 12 years will be circumcised, and their parents paid 80,000 rupiah (£6) and a bag of food for each daughter they bring to be cut.

At the mass ceremony, I ask the foundation’s social welfare secretary, Lukman Hakim, why they do it. His answer not only predates the dawn of religion, it predates human evolution: “It is necessary to control women’s sexual urges,” says Hakim, a stern, bespectacled man in a fez. “They must be chaste to preserve their beauty.”

Here is part of her description of that day.

Inside, I was greeted by Hdjella, 57, a teacher and midwife who would supervise the cutting. She was wearing a pink floral apron with a frilly pocket. She had been a traditional midwife for 32 years, she said, although, like most dukun, she had no formal training.

“Boy or girl?” she asked me, brightly. I was almost six months pregnant at the time.

“Boy,” I told her.

“Praise Allah.”

Hdjella insisted that the form of FGM they practised is “helpful to girls’ health”. She explained that they clean the genitals and then use sterilised scissors to cut off part of the hood, or prepuce, and the tip of the clitoris.

“How is this helpful to girls’ health?” I asked. “It balances their emotions so they don’t get sexually over-stimulated,” she said, enunciating in schoolmistress fashion. “It also helps them to urinate more easily and reduces the bad smell.”

Any other benefits? “Oh yes,” she said, with a tinkling laugh. “My grandmother always said that circumcised women cook more delicious rice.”

Hdjella took me to the classroom where the cutting would soon begin. The curtains were closed. Desks had been covered in sheets and towels to form about eight beds. Around each one, three middle-aged women wearing headscarves waited in readiness. Their faces were lit from underneath by cheap desk lamps, giving them a ghoulish glow. There were children’s drawings and multiplication tables on the walls.

The room filled up with noise and people. Girls started to cry and protest as soon as their mothers hustled them inside. Rapidly, the mood turned business-like. “We have many girls to circumcise this morning, about 300,” Hdjella shouted above the escalating din. As children were hoisted on to desks I realised with a jolt: this is an assembly line.

Hdjella led me to a four-year-old girl who was lying down. As the girl squirmed, two midwives put their faces close to hers. They smiled at her, making soft noises, but their hands took an arm and a leg each in a claw-like grip. “Look, look,” Hdjella commanded, as a third woman leant in and steadily snipped off part of the girl’s clitoris with what looked like a pair of nail scissors. “It’s nothing, you see? There is not much blood. All done!” The girl’s scream was a long guttural rattle, which got louder as the midwife dabbed at her genitals with antiseptic.

In the dingy, crowded room, her cries merged with the sobs and screeches of other girls lying on desks, the grating sing-song clucking of the midwives, the surreally casual conversational hum of waiting mothers. There was no air.

Outside in the courtyard, the festive atmosphere grew as girls and their mothers emerged from the classroom. There were snacks and music, and later, prayers.

Ety, 40, was elated. She had brought her two daughters, aged seven and three, to be cut. “I want them to be teachers. Being circumcised will bring them good luck,” she said. Ety was a farmer who came from a village outside Bandung. “Daughters should be pure and obey their parents.”

Neng Apip, 28, was smiling radiantly. She said she was happy her newly cut daughter Rima would now grow up into “a good Muslim girl”. Rima, whose enormous brown eyes were oozing tears, was nine months old. Apip kissed her and gave her a rice cracker to suck. “Shh, shh, all better now,” she cooed.

At one point, Haworth realizes she is standing at an assembly line.

“We have many girls to circumcise this morning, about 300,” Hdjella shouted above the escalating din. As children were hoisted on to desks I realised with a jolt: this is an assembly line.

Hdjella led me to a four-year-old girl who was lying down. As the girl squirmed, two midwives put their faces close to hers. They smiled at her, making soft noises, but their hands took an arm and a leg each in a claw-like grip. “Look, look,” Hdjella commanded, as a third woman leant in and steadily snipped off part of the girl’s clitoris with what looked like a pair of nail scissors. “It’s nothing, you see? There is not much blood. All done!” The girl’s scream was a long guttural rattle, which got louder as the midwife dabbed at her genitals with antiseptic.

In the dingy, crowded room, her cries merged with the sobs and screeches of other girls lying on desks, the grating sing-song clucking of the midwives, the surreally casual conversational hum of waiting mothers. There was no air.

Haworth’s article touches on some of the political, financial, as well as religious reasons why FGM is so popular in Indonesia. A large portion of the political support comes from the Islamic religious right who, in the nature of theocrats everywhere legitimize their beliefs through legislation and government support. In Indonesia, doctors are free to bill for the procedure, pushing for the procedure in areas where religion is not leading the way. Some hospitals offered a package deal

The other six [hospitals] all gave package prices, varying from 300,000 rupiah to 550,000 rupiah (£20-£36), for infant vaccinations, ear piercing and genital cutting within two months of birth.

Protection of aid workers on the ground was Haworth’s rationale for delaying publication of the article for 6 years. In those 6 intervening years, thousands of Indonesian girls have been cut, somewhere between 86 and 100 percent of them. Indonesia’s population of 235 million is approximately 85% Muslim. That’s a lot of mutilated girls.

There are those who claim that FGM is not mandated by Islamic teaching, and they may be right. I most certainly not an Islamic scholar. However, it seems to me that it is almost exclusively the daughters of Muslim parents who are mutilated. Identifying the problem as religious and patriarchal in nature is relatively easy, albeit simplistic. This practice is implanted deep into the religious and cultural mores of some societies and will not easily be ended.

As a result of immigration and refugee movements, FGM is now being practiced by ethnic minority populations in other parts of the world, such as USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. FORWARD estimates that as many as 6,500 girls are at risk of FGM within the UK every year. In Western countries, FGM is carried out in a clandestine manner, often in unsterile conditions by untrained practitioners. The fact that parents and practitioners may resist medical care due to the potential of criminal charges complicates matters.

Answers are not easy to come by. We can only hope that exposing the practice as barbaric, and educating people to the harm they are causing will eventually bring FGM to an end.

Tolerance has boundaries.

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