What is “Female Genital Cutting” and why are a majority of Muslims in S’pore practising it?

Approximately 75% of Muslim women have undergone Female Genital Cutting (FGC) according to a survey done by activist group “End FGC Singapore” in late 2020.

The procedure is more prevalent in the Malay-Muslim community compared to the Indian and Chinese Muslim community.

Many Malay Muslims, especially amongst the older generations, believe the procedure reduces a woman’s libido and decreases the risk of extramarital sexual affairs.

Others believe it is a compulsory part of Islamic law, though it is not listed as mandatory in the Quran.

Origins of female circumcision

Nobody knows where female circumcision – also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) – first originated from but anthropologists have proposed that it may have existed in ancient Egypt at least 2,000 years ago, noting the discovery of circumcised mummies.

There are several theories as to why FGM is performed.

Some advocates of FGM invoke medical reasons – for example, hygiene, or an enlarged clitoris that should be cut.

One goes back to the days of rampant slavery, thousands of years ago, well before Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

According to a publication by scholar Gerry Mackie, one way for a slave-trader to get more money was to sew up their young female slaves, in order to fetch a better price.

Another explanation relates to a woman’s worth at marriage: if her virginity is intact, she’s worth more. It also protects women from rape.

Female circumcision is not an Islamic religious practice although some Muslims have adopted the practice as a religious requirement.

How is female circumcision performed?

WHO classifies FGM into 4 major types:

  • Type 1: the pricking of the tip of the clitoris with a sharp instrument, like a pin, which leaves little to no damage.
  • Type 2: “Clitoridectomy” – the removal of part or all of the clitoris as well as part or all of the labia
  • Type 3: “Infibulation” – the excision or removal of the clitoris plus the excision of the labia minora as well as the inner walls of the labia majora. The raw edges of the vulva are then sewn together. When this heals it forms a wall over the vaginal opening. A small sliver of wood, or similar object, is inserted into the vagina to keep open a small hole so urine and menstrual fluid can pass.
  • Type 4: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising (burning) the genital area, and others not specified in the first three types.

What type of FGC is performed in Singapore?

Women in Singapore practice the Type 1 female circumcision, the less extreme among the 4 types listed by WHO, and the procedure is typically carried out on girls before the age of two.

Circumcisions in Singapore are done by female doctors at a handful of Muslim clinics and can cost less than SGD 50. Anesthesia is generally not needed.

What does Islam say about female circumcision?

In Islam, Muslims refer to two primary sources for guidance: first is the Quran and the second is the “Hadith” – a compilation of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings that include his words, actions, and things he approved of.

Muslims refer back to the hadith to make sense of verses in the Quran that may sound ambiguous.

For example, the Quran commands Muslims to perform pilgrimage but does not elaborate in detail the specifics. The Hadith in turn, provides the guidance – like a manual. It is also important to note that while there is only one version of the Quran there are multiple versions of the hadiths – some authenticated and some without substantiated backing by Islamic scholars.

There are four instances in which female circumcision is mentioned in the Hadiths. However, the intepretation of these Hadiths are subjected to debate by Islamic scholars.

According to some scholarly interpretations, female circumcision is not mandatory. The scholar or “School of Thoughts” that a majority of Singaporean and Malaysian Muslims follow considered the practice obligatory and a religious necessity.

What does MUIS say about female circumcision?

MUIS Head of Strategic Communications Ibrahim Sawifi has said MUIS “does not condone any procedures which bring harm to the individual”, adding that the council has “always held the position that FGM should be avoided”.

Manager of Singapore’s Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association Zhulkeflee Haji Ismail said that the custom of female circumcision has no religious basis.

“Some people just follow customs without knowing what they’re about,” he added.

While discouraged, female circumcision is not illegal in Singapore.

“Female circumcision, if done in the proper manner as prescribed by our Prophet Mohammad, ought to be continued,” one Malay woman from Singapore, who has recently had her granddaughter cut, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The retired civil servant, who asked not to be named, said this improved hygiene and had no adverse affect on a woman’s sex life.

She said the amount removed was “very tiny” and should not be classed as FGM because it was different to the more extreme types of cutting which can cause serious health problems.

The World Health Organisation, however, defines FGM as procedures which intentionally alter or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons and that provide no health benefits.

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