Debates about FGM in
the Middle East & Far East
This essay deals mainly with the response by Muslims to FGM. Some individuals and groups have condemned Islam for the practice of FGM. However, this condemnation is misplaced. In those countries where it is widely practice, FGM is forced upon children by people from all religious faiths, including Islam, Christianity, and Native religions. Two indications of this are Eritrea where FGM is performed on 90% of the girls and Ethiopia where it is forced on 75% of the girls. Both are predominately Christian countries. 1
Debate Among Muslims:
FGM is a social custom, not a religious practice.
However, in those Muslim countries where it is practiced, FGM is often justified by
a controversial saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed that seem to favor sunna circumcision
involving minor cutting of the clitoris. The authenticity of these sayings are unconfirmed, and some scholars
have refuted them. Even if true, they only permit the practice; they do not mandate it.
FGM has probably been performed for at least 1,400 years (some references estimate
2,000 years), and started during what Muslims call "al-gahiliyyah" (the
era of ignorance). The Qu'r'an, Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Christian
Scriptures (New Testament) is silent on the subject. The Sunnah (the words and actions
of the Prophet Mohammed) contains a reference to female circumcision.
According to the Muslim Women's League:
"Those who advocate for FGM from an Islamic perspective commonly
quote the following hadith to argue that it is required as part of
the Sunnah or Tradition of the Prophet:
'Um Atiyyat al-Ansariyyah said: A woman used to perform
circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (pbuh) said to her: Do
not cut too severely as that is better for a woman and more
desirable for a husband'." 2,3
One interpretation of this passage is that the woman was going to proceed
with the circumcision anyway; Muhammad suggested that she remove a smaller
amount of her genitalia than she had perhaps intended to.
This passage is regarded by many Muslims as having little credibility or
authenticity. The Muslim Women's League comments: "According to
Sayyid Sabiq, renowned scholar and author of Fiqh-us-Sunnah, all hadiths
concerning female circumcision are non-authentic." 2 An
extensive analysis of classical Muslim authors is available online. 4
Many Muslims see passages in the Qur'an which, by implication, oppose
God apparently created the clitoris for the sole purpose of generating pleasure. It has
no other purpose. There is no instruction in the Qur'an or in the writings of the Prophet
Mohammed which require that the clitoris be surgically modified. Thus God must approve of
the presence of the clitoris. And so, it should not be removed or reduced in size or function.
The Qur'an promotes the concept of a husband and wife giving each
other pleasure during
sexual intercourse. For example:
"It is lawful for you to go in unto your wives during
the night preceding the (day's) fast: they are as a garment for
you and you are as a garment for them." (2:187)
"...and He has put love and mercy between you."
Mutilated genitalia reduce or eliminate a woman's pleasure during the
The Qur'an (An-Nisa': 119) states that Satan will try to trick humans
into body modification: "
And I will surely lead them astray, and arouse
desires in them, and command them and they will cut the cattle's ears, and I
will surely command them and they will change Allah's creation."
might be interpreted as forbidding FGM as well as tattoos, piercing and any
other modification that alters the design of the human body as Allah created
Nawal El-Saadawi, a Muslim victim of infibulation, stated:
"The importance given to virginity and an intact hymen in these societies is the reason
why female circumcision still remains a very widespread practice despite a growing
tendency, especially in urban Egypt, to do away with it as something outdated and harmful.
Behind circumcision lies the belief that, by removing parts of girls' external genitals
organs, sexual desire is minimized. This permits a female who has reached the dangerous
age of puberty and adolescence to protect her virginity, and therefore her honor, with
greater ease. Chastity was imposed on male attendants in the female harem by castration
which turned them into inoffensive eunuchs. Similarly female circumcision is meant to
preserve the chastity of young girls by reducing their desire for sexual
Fatwas are published opinions by Muslim religious scholars. They are non-binding in
law. But Muslim believers are expected to follow them. In Egypt, a number of Fatwas have
been issued by the influential Egyptian Fatwa Committee on FGM:
1949-MAY-28: They decided that it is not a sin to reject female
1951-JUN-23: They stated that female circumcision is desirable because
it curbs "nature" (i.e. sexual drive among women). It stated that
medical concerns over the practice are irrelevant.
1981-JAN-29: The Great Sheikh of Al-Azhar (the most famous
University of the Islamic World) stated that parents must follow the lessons of Mohammed
and not listen to medical authorities because the latter often change their minds. Parents
must do their duty and have their daughters circumcised.
2007-JUN-24: As noted elsewhere, the Mufti of Egypt,
Ali Gum's announced that: "... this custom is prohibited."
2006 international conference:
TARGET, a German human rights group, sponsored a conference on FGM in Cairo,
Egypt. Muslim scholars from many nations attended. At the conclusion of the
conference on 2006-NOV-24, their final statement declared FGM to be
contrary to Islam, an attack on women, and a practice that should be
"The conference appeals to all Muslims to stop practicing this habit,
according to Islam's teachings which prohibit inflicting harm on any
human being. ... The conference reminds all teaching and media
institutions of their role to explain to the people the harmful effects
of this habit in order to eliminate it. ... The conference calls on
judicial institutions to issue laws that prohibit and criminalize this
habit ... which appeared in several societies and was adopted by some
Muslims although it is not sanctioned by the Qur'an or the Sunna."
According to The Age online news source:
"Egypt's two top Islamic clerics, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand
Sheik of Al-Azhar, the foremost theological institute in the Sunni
Muslim world, and Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, attended the conference, which
drew scholars from as far afield as Russia. Tantawi's and Gomaa's edicts
are considered binding. 6
Reaction by the rest of the world
The United Nations has supported the right of member states to grant refugee status to
women who fear being mutilated if they are returned to their country of origin. Canada has
granted such status to women in this situation. A judge of a Canadian Federal Court
declared it a "cruel and barbaric practice."
In 1994 CNN broadcast footage of the circumcision of a 10 year old Egyptian girl by an
unskilled practitioner. This program drew international attention to the operation. A 500
million dollar lawsuit was brought against CNN for allegedly damaging Egypt's reputation,
It was rejected by the courts.
In the West, the procedure is outlawed in Britain, Canada, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland
and the United States as well as probably in other countries.
A U.S. federal bill, "Federal Prohibition of Female Genital
Mutilation of 1995" was passed in 1996-SEP.
Section 273.3 of the Canadian
Criminal Code protects children who are ordinarily resident in Canada, (as citizens
or landed migrants) from being removed from the country and subjected to FGM. In the U.S.
and Canada, the very small percentage of immigrants who wish to continue the practice
often find it impossible to find a doctor who will cooperate. The operation is often done
in the home by the family.
Legislation against FGM can be counter-productive in some cases. It might force the
practice deeply underground. Women may not seek medical care because their parents might
In 1958, the Economic and Social Committee of the United Nations invited the World
Health Organization (WHO):
"... to undertake a study on the persistence of
customs involving ritual practices on girls and on the measures in effect or planned to
put an end to those practices." 7
The WHO responded
"the ritual practices in question, resulting from social and cultural
conceptions, are not within the WHO's jurisdiction."8
They subsequently changed their position. 9 In 1989, the Regional
Committee of the WHO for Africa passed a resolution urging participating governments:
"... to adopt appropriate policies and strategies in order to eradicate female
circumcision" and "to forbid medicalization of female circumcision and
to discourage health professionals from performing such surgery."
In 1980, UNICEF announced that its anti-FGM program is:
"... based on the belief
that the best way to handle the problem is to trigger awareness through education of the
public, members of the medical profession and practitioners of traditional health care
with the help of local collectives and their leaders." 10
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was ambiguous about FGM.
On one hand,
Article 24, paragraph 3 states:
"States Parties shall take all effective and
appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the
health of children."
But Article 29 paragraph 1.c calls for:
"The development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the
country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own."
Bans on FGM:
During 2007, FGM was banned in Eritrea. At the time, the Egyptian Health Ministry was
seeking a law banning FGM in that country. That left Somolia, which lacks
a central government, Sudan, and Indonesia as the two main countries where the practice
In late 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Resolution to Ban FGM worldwide. According to No Peace without Justice, Resolution A/RES/67/146
"... was cosponsored by two thirds of the General Assembly, including the entire African Group, and was adopted by consensus by all UN members. The resolution, which was hailed by the Ban FGM Campaign, reflects universal agreement that female genital mutilation constitutes a violation of human rights, which all countries of the world should address through 'all necessary measures, including enacting and enforcing legislation to prohibit FGM and to protect women and girls from this form of violence, and to end impunity'." 10