The current debate surrounding female circumcision, also known as FGM, in The Gambia and its propagators’ justification in Islam and the counterarguments preferred by its opponents have left many confused as to Islam’s position on the issue. The debate has reached such a point that some members of the National Assembly are considering repealing the law that bans the practice in the country and other politicians are taking strong positions on the issue. On social media, the issue has generated hot interactions that have at times degenerated to the level of insults and threats.
A lot of the debate in my opinion, has not been driven by a true, grounded understanding of the issues but rather conjecture and tradition; and a tendency to accept without question, the opinions and teachings of respected elders and Islamic teachers. Are the pronouncements of such people the absolute truth and are they grounded in Islamic law as professed?
I shall in this series, look at what female circumcision is, its history, the perceived benefits and dangers, the arguments for and against it, the principles of Islamic law regarding FGM and their theoretical groundings in the Qur’an, sunnah, consensus and analogical reasoning, Islam’s position on the issue and other issues and draw my conclusions. Even though I shall try to ground the write-up, I shall not follow a strict referencing standard. Rather, I’ll adopt a loose form of referencing as this is not an academic paper and I deliberately don’t want it to appear as such.
Female circumcision is according to the Oxford Dictionary, “the action or traditional practice of cutting off the clitoris and sometimes the labia of girls or young women”. The New York State Department of Health defines female circumcision as “the practice of removing either part or all of the external female genitalia”. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. It is important to note that all the definitions agree that female circumcision or FGM involves the cutting or removal of the external part of the female genitalia and that it is a form of injury to the female genitalia. This is important because the arguments of some of the proponents I heard and read on social media try to differentiate between the two and attributing degrees of acceptance based on which one is practiced in The Gambia as opposed to say, Somalia and other African countries and also referencing various ahadith. I shall therefore henceforth refer to the practice as FGM, the widely accepted term that describes the practice. In the treatment of the ahadith used by the proponents of FGM to justify the practice, I shall use the term FGM and female circumcision interchangeably because the reference in the ahadith use the term female circumcision. An important qualification in FGM is that it is done for non-medical reasons. It is in most cases done for cultural, social or religious purposes. (New York State Department of Health)
FGM is internationally recognised as a violation of an individual’s human rights and a form of gender-based violence. (World Vision) It is a reflection of deep-rooted inequality between the sexes in countries where it is practised and according to WHO, inhumane and degrading. As the practice is overwhelmingly practiced on minors, the organisation deems it a violation of the rights of children and exposes them to risks that might result in death or life-long consequences. It is also a violation of the person’s right to health, security and physical integrity.
FGM is divided into four major types. According to WHO website, the first type is “the partial or complete removal of the clitoris glans and / or the clitoral hood”. The second type is “the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans and the labia minora with or without the removal of the labia majora”. The third type “also know as infibulation, … is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoral prepuce/clitoral hood and glans”. The fourth type “includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area”.
Practiced mostly in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and in some Western countries by populations of those regions resident in the Western countries, FGM is estimated to have been performed on an estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide. (USAID: De-linking Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting from Islam) Even though the origin of FGM is not known, it has been established that the practice is at least 2,000 years old. It is believed that it was practised in Egypt to distinguish the aristocracy. Some believe that the practice started during the entry of black slave women into ancient Arabian society while others believe that it began with the arrival of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. (FGM National Control Group, England and Wales)
Some scholars believe that FGM has historically been used by primitive societies from the earliest times as a means of ensuring female virginity and curtailing female sexual desire and as a means of controlling female sexual behaviour in general. The Roman practice of slipping rings through female slaves’ labia majora as a means of preventing them from becoming pregnant and the Russian Scopti sect’s practice of FGM to ensure virginity are relevant examples. (FGM National Control Group, England and Wales)
FGM was until the 1980s widely known in English as female circumcision thus inferring equivalence in severity with male circumcision. From 1929, following Marian Scott’s (a Church of Scotland missionary) lead, the Kenya Missionary Council referred to the practice as sexual mutilation of women. The 1970s saw an increase in the reference to the practice as mutilation. American anthropologist Rose Oldfield Hayes referred to the practice as female genital mutilation in 1975 in the title of a paper published in American Ethnologist. In 1977, Edna Adan Ismail, who worked at the time for the Somalia Ministry of Health, discussed the health consequences of FGM with the Somali Women’s Democratic Organisation. Fran Hosken referred to the practice as genital and sexual mutilation of females in 1979 in The Hosken Report. The WHO held a seminar in Khartoum, Sudan in 1979 titled “Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children”. At a workshop also in Khartoum in 1981, held by the Babiker Badri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies (BBSAWS) titled “Female Circumcision Mutilates and Endangers Women – Combat It!”, 150 academics and activists signed a pledge to fight FGM. At another BBSAWS workshop in 1984, the international community was invited to write a joint statement for the United Nations in which it recommended that the “goal of African women” should be the eradication of FGM and the severance of the link between FGM and religion. The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children founded in Dakar, Senegal started referring to the practice as female genital mutilation in 1990 and the World Health Organisation adopted the term in 1991. (Wikipedia)
What are the health benefits of FGM? Literature providing medical benefits of FGM is rare and after an extensive search, an article attributed to Dr Haamid al-Ghawaabi states that among the medical benefits of FGM, “the secretions of the labia minora accumulate in uncircumcised women turn rancid, so they develop an unpleasant odour which may lead to infections of the vagina or urethra. I have seen many cases of sickness caused by the lack of circumcision”, (femalegenitalmutilationonline.wordpress.com). Another website (aofgblogs.com) states that Dr al-Ghawaabi also wrote that “another benefit of circumcision is that it prevents stimulation of the clitoris which makes it grow large in such a manner that it causes pain.” He also states that “circumcision prevents spasms of the clitoris which are a kind of inflammation”.
The literature is flooded with the harmful effects of FGM. The WHO website states that there are no medical benefits of FGM. On the contrary, it harms girls and women in many ways including removing and damaging healthy female genital tissue thus interfering with the natural function of girls’ and women’s bodies. The immediate medical complications of FGM according to the website include “severe pain, excessive bleeding (haemorrhage), genital tissue swelling, fever, infections for example, tetanus, urinary problems, wound healing problems, injury to surrounding genital tissue, shock, death”.
The long-term complications can, according to the website, include among other things “urinary problems (painful urination, urinary tract infections); vaginal problems (discharge, itching, bacterial vaginosis and other infections); menstrual problems (painful menstruations, difficulty in passing menstrual blood, and so forth); scar tissue and keloid; sexual problems (pain during intercourse, decreased satisfaction, and so forth); increased risk of childbirth complications (difficult delivery, excessive bleeding, caesarean section, need to resuscitate the baby, and so forth and newborn deaths; need for later surgeries: for example, the sealing or narrowing of the vaginal opening (type 3) may lead to the practice of cutting open the sealed vagina later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth (de-infibulation). Sometimes, genital tissue is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing both immediate and long-term risks; and psychological problems (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, and so forth.