Dr Bakary J Sonko
For a while now, there has been a growing call from some parliamentarians in our National Assembly as well as from Islamic scholars to repeal legislation put in place to protect young Gambian girls from the harmful traditional practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision (FGM). It is important to critically look at this issue with a view to 1) determine the harm that results from this practice visa vis any perceived benefits that could come out of it, 2) whether this practice is sanctioned by Islam or not, and 3) whether it is proper and legal to subject young defenseless girls to such a harmful practice without their consent. At the onset, it is very important to acknowledge that Islam is a very logical religion that always guides it followers towards what will benefit them in this world and in the hereafter and not what will harm them. Second, Islam is not at variance with scientific knowledge including modern medicine, physics, chemistry, Astronomy etc. because the principles governing these sciences are all creations of God (Allah) (SWT) who revealed the holy Qur’an to our holy prophet Muhammad (SAW), for our guidance. Furthermore, it is also a cardinal principle in Islam for believers to follow what the holy Qur’an dictates and the examples (Sunnah) of the holy Prophet (SAW). Based on these basic premises, we should be able to examine the three criteria listed above concerning FGM and determine whether this practice should be encouraged in our society or not.
Potential harm that results from FGM:
There is misinformation in our print media and in social media suggesting that FGM is not harmful. This is very far from the truth. The World Health Organization (WHO), the World’s most competent organization on matters relating to human health, has provided extensive evidence showing that FGM is a harmful practice that affects thousands or perhaps millions of young girls around the world. For the purposes of brevity here, only a few of the harms that can potentially be inflicted on young girls if subjected to this practice are given below:
o Chronic genital infections. With consequent chronic pain, vaginal discharge, and itching. Cysts, abscesses, and genital ulcers may also appear.
o Chronic reproductive tract infections. May not only cause chronic back and pelvic pain but infertility due to the permanent damage the infections can cause to the fallopian tubes.
o Urinary tract infections. If not treated, such infections can ascend to the kidneys, potentially resulting in renal failure, septicemia, and death. An increased risk of repeated urinary tract infections is well documented in both girls and adult women who have undergone FGM.
o Painful urination. Due to obstruction of the urethra and recurrent urinary tract infections.
o Vaginal problems. Discharge, itching, bacterial vaginosis and other infections.
o Menstrual problems. Obstruction of the vaginal opening may lead to painful menstruation (dysmenorrhea), irregular menses and difficulty in passing menstrual blood, particularly among women with Type III FGM.
o Excessive scar tissue (keloids). Excessive scar tissue can form at the site of the cut causing difficult births, tears, and potential loss of lives – for the mother and infant.
For a more comprehensive list of potential harms associated with FGM, please see the link below.
WHO Opinion on FGM
The natural question to ask from my perspective, is why any loving parent would want to put his/her daughter through this practice with all the potential harm that could result from it? Are there any benefits to the practice that outweigh the known harm caused as described by the WHO? Some may argue that one benefit is that putting young girls through FGM helps to diminish their libido and, therefore potentially prevents them from becoming promiscuous. Physiologically, that may be true, but what that could also potentially do is to deprive for life, their ability to enjoy their sexual life, because by cutting the clitoris sexual enjoyment becomes significantly diminished for life, in addition to all the other attendant harmful effects listed by WHO. Is this a moral or legal thing to do to defenseless little girls who will never have recourse to redress the harm inflicted on them? It is parents’ responsibility to teach their children, either boys or girls, good morals. It will be an abdication of parental responsibility to resort to FGM for girls to curtail their potential promiscuity and, why do we have to assume that girls are more likely to be promiscuous compared to boys? What is the rationale or evidence for this line of thinking?
Is FGM sanctioned by Islam?
The evidence for this appears to be very flimsy or nonexistent by many accounts. Generally, there is a dispute about the authenticity of the Hadith quoting the Prophet (SAW) allowing this practice when he arrived in Medina. Some scholars even suggest that this practice was only performed on slave girls as a means of controlling their libido while others suggest that attribution to the Prophet allowing this practice is a complete fabrication. The simple fact is that there is no where in the Holy Qur’an where FGM is mentioned; second, the prophet himself had four daughters and there is no evidence to indicate that his daughters went through this practice; third, the companions of the prophet also had daughters and there is no evidence indicating that their girl children had the procedure done on them. Yet, a cardinal principle in Islam is to follow the Qur’an and the Prophet’s examples (Sunnah). So, what is the basis of this practice if it is not in the Qur’an, not practiced by the Prophet, nor by his companions? Are we trying to be more Islamic than the Prophet (SAW) and his companions?
Furthermore, FGM is condemned in the strongest term by the Secretary General of the World’s foremost Islamic organization, “Organization of Islamic Conference’ (OIC) (please click the link below and read more on this issue). One would believe that the Secretary General of OIC would be knowledgeable about all things Islamic. The Organization of Islamic Conference has also condemned this practice and has urged its members to discourage it. The following Muslim majority countries around the world have prohibited FGM and criminalized it.
Egypt, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Niger, Oman and Senegal.
Based on the aforementioned evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the clamor for unbanning of FGM in The Gambia is not based on any strong religious tenets, but rather on customs and traditions. Gambians, particularly our Islamic scholars, cannot claim to be more knowledgeable than Islamic scholars from the Muslim countries named above.
Do we own our children and therefore can do whatever we want to them? Obviously, the answer to this question is an emphatic no! Every human being has a fundamental right which includes among others, the right to protection from harm, whatever the nature of that harm may be. Examples include but are not limited to the right to proper education, dignity, respect for autonomy, the right to enjoy life and many others. As evidenced by the WHO above, FGM poses great harm to children regarding many of the rights they are entitled to. These include the rights not to be harmed, deprivation of their ability to enjoy life like any male child, violation of their right to give consent for a practice to be performed on them that has the potential to negatively affect them all through life and, even expose them to the possibility of death. Since these girl children cannot defend themselves against their parents or guidance, it is the state’s responsibility, in this case The Gambian state, to offer them the protection they need through promulgation of appropriate laws. The laws currently in place in The Gambia to ban FGM are the right tools we need to protect our defenseless little girls from harmful traditional practices that have no basis in Islam.
There are too many other more urgent problems in The Gambia that require the most urgent attention of our parliamentarians and Islamic scholars to tackle, than this cultural issue. These include but are not limited to, rampant corruption, lack of jobs for our youths, food insecurity, tribalism in our society, crime, poor healthcare, and countless other issues. Solving these legitimate concerns of the Gambian people is where our energy and limited resources should be directed towards. There should be no place for a harmful practice like FGM, with all its associated negative medical consequences, in any society!