Religious views on female genital mutilation
|Origin||Northeast Africa, possibly Meroë (current Sudan), c. 800 BCE – c. 350 CE|
|Earliest reference||163 BCE|
|Concentration||Africa, Middle East, Indonesia, Malaysia|
|Religions||Mostly Muslim, but also animist, Christian and one Jewish group|
|Required by any religion||None|
|Definition||"Female genital mutilation comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons" (WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, 1997).|
There is a widespread view among practitioners of female genital mutilation (FGM) that it is a religious requirement, although there is no unequivocal link between the practice and religion. Prevalence rates vary not according to religion but to geography and ethnic group, sometimes differing along national lines within the same ethnicity. There is an ongoing debate about the extent to which the practice's continuation is influenced by custom, social pressure, lack of health-care information, and the position of women.[a] The procedures confer no health benefits and can lead to serious health problems.
Figures from UNICEF in 2016 suggested that FGM is concentrated in 27 African countries, Yemen, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Indonesia. Over 200 million women and girls are thought to be living with it in those 30 countries. The highest percentages are found in Somalia, Guinea, Mali, Egypt, and Sudan, where 87–98 percent of women had experienced it.
FGM is practised predominantly within Muslim and Christian societies, but it also exists within animist groups. It is sometimes found within and adjacent to Muslim and Christian communities, but it is not required by Islam—indeed, Muslim scholars have declared it unIslamic—and predates it by centuries.[b] There is mention of it on a Greek papyrus from 163 BCE and a possible indirect reference to it on a coffin from Egypt's Middle Kingdom (c. 1991–1786 BCE). It has been found among Coptic Christians in Egypt, Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia, and Protestants and Catholics in Sudan and Kenya. The only Jewish group known to have practised it are the Beta Israel of Ethiopia.[c]
Until the 1980s FGM was widely known as female circumcision, which gave the erroneous impression that it was equivalent in severity and health effects to male circumcision. In fact, FGM has only got adverse health effects and is almost always more extensive than male circumcision. In 1990 the IAC began referring to it as female genital mutilation, as did the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1991. The WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA defined FGM in 1997 as "all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons". There are four WHO categories:
- Type I: complete or partial removal of the clitoral glans and/or clitoral hood;
- Type II (excision): complete or partial removal of the inner labia, with or without removal of the clitoral glans and outer labia;
- Type III (infibulation): removal of the inner and outer labia and the fusion of the wound, leaving a matchstick-sized hole for the passing of urine and menstrual blood;
- Type IV: miscellaneous practices, including symbolic nicking.
FGM is concentrated in what Gerry Mackie called an "intriguingly contiguous" zone in Africa—east to west from Somalia to Senegal, and north to south from Egypt to Tanzania. The practice is both "contiguously distributed and contagious", he writes: "It spreads across groups as more resource-endowed males encounter less resource-endowed females in circumstances of inequality." Marriageability is its "main engine of continuation". The practice's distribution in Africa meets in Nubia in the Sudan, leading Mackie to suggest that Type III FGM began there with the Meroite civilization (c. 800 BCE – c. 350 CE) to increase confidence in paternity.
The proposed circumcision of an Egyptian girl is mentioned on a Greek papyrus from 163 BCE. Spell 1117 of the Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts may refer to an uncircumcised girl ('m't), although there is disagreement about the word's meaning. Found on the sarcophagus of Sit-Hedj-Hotep, the spell dates to Egypt's Middle Kingdom (c. 1991–1786 BCE). The examination of mummies has shown no evidence of FGM.
Strabo (c. 64 BCE – c. 23 CE) wrote about FGM after visiting Egypt around 25 BCE, as did Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE): "the Egyptians by the custom of their country circumcise the marriageable youth and maid in the fourteenth (year) of their age, when the male begins to get seed, and the female to have a menstrual flow." Type III FGM became linked to slavery. João dos Santos wrote in 1609 of a group near Mogadishu who had a "custome to sew up their Females, especially their slaves being young to make them unable for conception, which makes these slaves sell dearer, both for their chastitie, and for better confidence which their Masters put in them".
The Bible does not mention FGM.[d] Christian authorities agree that the practice has no foundation in Christianity's religious texts, and Christian missionaries in Africa were at the forefront of efforts to stop it. Indeed, they led the way in referring to it as mutilation; from 1929 the Kenya Missionary Council called it the "sexual mutilation of women", following the lead of Marion Scott Stevenson, a Church of Scotland missionary. When, in the 1930s, Christian missionaries tried to make the abandonment of FGM a condition of church membership in colonial Kenya, they provoked a far-reaching campaign in defence of the practice.
Despite the absence of scriptural support, women and girls within Christian communities, including in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania, do undergo FGM. It has been found among Coptic Christians in Egypt, Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia, and Protestants and Catholics in Sudan and Kenya. A 2013 UNICEF report identified 17 African countries in which at least 10 percent of Christian women and girls aged 15–49 had undergone it. In Niger, for example, 55 percent of Christian women and girls had experienced it, against two percent of Muslim women and girls.
FGM is found mostly within and adjacent to Muslim communities. Prevalence rates among various Muslim nations depend on the ethnicity and location.  In Arabic, the practice is referred to as khafḍ (Arabic: خفض) or khifaḍ (Arabic: خِفَض). Khitan (Arabic: خِتان) means male circumcision, but it can also encompass FGM. Less severe forms of FGM, or what the World Health Organization calls Type I (removal of the clitoral hood and/or the clitoral glans), may be referred to as sunna (recommended).
Senior Muslim religious authorities appear to agree that FGM is not required by Islam or is prohibited by it. The Quran does not mention FGM or male circumcision. FGM is praised in a few daʻīf (weak) hadith (sayings attributed to Muhammad) as noble but not required. In addition to Sharia, the Ijtihad have been one of the four sources of Muslim law through the centuries. Ijtihad include fatwas (opinions of Muslim religious scholars), which are often widely distributed and describe behaviour that conforms to religious requirements. Fatwas have been issued forbidding FGM, favouring it, and leaving the decision to parents but advising against it.
Several Muslim leaders have called for an end to the practice. In 2004, after CNN broadcast images of a girl in Cairo undergoing FGM, then Grand Mufti of Egypt Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi declared that hadiths on FGM were unreliable. A conference at Al-Azhar University in Cairo in 2006 saw prominent Muslim clergy declare it unnecessary.
After a 12-year-old Egyptian girl died during an FGM procedure in 2007, the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research in Cairo ruled, according to UNICEF, that FGM had "no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions and that it is harmful and should not be practiced". Ali Gomaa, then Grand Mufti of Egypt, stated: "It's prohibited, prohibited, prohibited." Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation said in 2012 that FGM was "a ritual that has survived over centuries and must be stopped as Islam does not support it".
In 2018 the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland classified removal of the clitoral foreskin, a less severe form of FGM, as sunna (recommended). Performing FGM, including arranging for it to be performed overseas on resident Swiss girls, was outlawed in that country in 2012.
The various schools of Islamic jurisprudence have expressed differing views on FGM. The Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali schools of Islamic jurisprudence view it as makrama for women ("noble", as opposed to obligatory). For the Shafi'i school it is obligatory (wājib). Other scholars say it has no justification at all. Egyptian scholars such as Mohammed Emara and Mohammad Salim Al-Awa argue that FGM is not an Islamic practice and is not endorsed by Islamic jurisprudence.
In May 2012 it was reported that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was working to decriminalize FGM. According to reporter Mariz Tadros, they "offered to circumcise women for a nominal fee as part of their community services, a move that threatens to reverse decades of local struggle against the harmful practice. ... Many of the Brothers (and Salafis) argue that while it is not mandatory, it is nevertheless mukarama (preferable, pleasing in the eyes of God).
One hadith from the Sunan Abu Dawood collection states: "A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband." Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani describes this hadith as poor in authenticity, and quotes Ahmad Bayhaqi's opinion that it is "poor, with a broken chain of transmission". Yusuf ibn Abd-al-Barr commented: "Those who consider (female) circumcision a sunna, use as evidence this hadith of Abu al-Malih, which is based solely on the evidence of Hajjaj ibn Artaa, who cannot be admitted as an authority when he is the sole transmitter."
Another hadith used in support is in Sahih Muslim: "The Messenger of Allah said: When anyone sits amidst four parts (of the woman) and the circumcised parts touch each other a bath becomes obligatory." Mohammad Salim al-Awa states that, while the hadith is authentic, it is not evidence of support for FGM. He states that the Arabic for "the two circumcision organs" is a single word used to connote two forms of circumcision. While the female form is used to denote both male and female genitalia, it should be considered to refer only to the male circumcised organ. A hadith in Sahih Bukhari says: "I heard the Prophet saying. "Five practices are characteristics of the Fitra: circumcision, shaving the pubic hair, cutting the moustaches short, clipping the nails, and depilating the hair of the armpits." Mohamed Salim Al-Awwa writes that it is unclear whether these requirements were meant for females.
|FGM ceremony in Indonesia|
|Girl before procedure|
|Stephanie Sinclair (The New York Times Magazine, April 2006)|
According to William Clarence-Smith, Islamic Southeast Asia "overwhelmingly" follows the Shafi`i school of law, the only one to make FGM obligatory. The greatest opposition in the area, he writes, is from syncretic Muslims in Java; some practitioners use the root of the turmeric plant to perform an alternative symbolic procedure.
Islam introduced FGM into Indonesia and Malaysia from the 13th century on. Over 80 percent of Malaysian women claim religious obligation as the primary reason for practising FGM, along with hygiene (41 percent) and cultural practice (32 percent). The practice is widespread among Muslim women in Indonesia, and over 90 percent of Muslim adults supported it as of 2003. In 2013 the Indonesian Ulema Council, Indonesia's top Muslim clerical body, ruled that it favours FGM, stating that although it is not mandatory, it is "morally recommended". The Ulema has been pushing the Indonesian government to circumcise girls, arguing that it is part of Islamic teachings.
Shiite religious texts, such as the hadith transmitted by Al-Sadiq, state that "circumcision is makrama ("noble") for women. FGM is performed within the Dawoodi Bohra community in India, Pakistan, Yemen and East Africa. According to a 2015–2016 survey, over 80 percent of 365 Dawoodi Bohra women surveyed wanted the practice to end. In 2017 two doctors and a third woman connected to the Dawoodi Bohra in Detroit, Michigan, were arrested on charges of conducting FGM on two seven-year-old girls in the United States.
Judaism requires male circumcision, but it does not allow FGM and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) does not mention it. The only Jewish group known to have practised FGM are the Beta Israel of Ethiopia. The Beta Israel were not familiar with the Talmud, the Mishnah, and other religious scripture, and read and spoke little or no Hebrew. Most were flown to Israel between 1984 and 1991, where they converted to Orthodox Judaism. Once in Israel, the women abandoned FGM. A study in 1997 found that one third of the 113 Beta Israel women examined had experienced it; 27 percent had undergone partial or total clitoridectomy.
- Gerry Mackie and John LeJeune (2008): "An ethnic or religious explanation of FGM/C is not sufficient since, first, it is practiced in a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups; and second, the practice is not necessarily universal within the broad descriptive group, but is often practiced only within a number of subgroups. Take religion: there are Muslim communities who practice FGM/C, often believing that the practice is required by the holy book. Yet, nearby communities of the same religion may not engage in FGM/C, and worldwide most Muslims do not follow the practice. Religious obligation is an important factor in the decision to practice FGM/C, but is typically just one of several elements within what one WHO report (1999) calls a mental map that incorporates the stories, beliefs, values, and codes of conduct of society, and which are in fact 'interconnected and mutually reinforcing and, taken together, form overwhelming unconscious and conscious motivations' for its continuation."
- Islam is thought to have originated in Mecca in the early 7th century CE.
- Shaye J. D. Cohen (2005): Aside from the Beta Israel of Ethiopia (the so-called Falashas) ... no Jewish community, in either ancient, medieval, or modern times, is known to have practiced female circumcision."
- Samuel Waje Kunhiyop (2008): "Nowhere in all of Scripture or in any of recorded church history is there even a hint that women were to be circumcised."
- "Classification of female genital mutilation", Geneva: World Health Organization, 2017.
"Female genital mutilation". Geneva: World Health Organization. February 2017.
- Cappa, Claudia; et al. (22 July 2013). Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Statistical Overview and Exploration of the Dynamics of Change (pdf). New York: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). pp. 69–71.
- Yoder, Stanley P.; Yang, Shanxiao; Johansen, Elise (29 May 2013). "Estimates of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in 27 African Countries and Yemen". Studies in Family Planning. 44 (2): (189–204), 196–198. doi:10.1111/j.1728-4465.2013.00352.x. JSTOR 23408619.
- Mackie, Gerry; LeJeune, John (2008). "Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A New Look at the Theory" (PDF). Working Paper No. 2008-XXX, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre: 8. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-10-14.
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- This scene is based on this wall carving.
- Mackie & LeJeune 2008, p. 5.
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- Mackie 2000, pp. 266–267.
- Also see Hicks, Esther K. (1996). Infibulation: Female Mutilation in Islamic Northeastern Africa. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, p. 19ff.
- Knight 2001, pp. 329–330.
- Knight 2001, p. 330.
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