“Circumcision is obligatory [in Islam]. For men it consists of removing the prepuce from the penis, and, for women, removing the prepuce of the clitoris.” —The Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, Section e-4.3, by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri
While researching the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) within the Islamic world, I ran across many web sites that, while advocating against the practice, also made unfounded assertions that the practice was not required by Sharia Law. Desiring accuracy in reporting—but also being aware that a majority of the information about Islam on English-language web sites, nowadays, is apologist propaganda or outright taqiyya (sacred lying to protect Islam)—I consulted my shelf copy of The Reliance of the Traveller, which has been the standard manual for Sharia Law ever since its creation by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (1302-1367) almost eight centuries ago. In Section e-4.3, it is written that “[c]ircumcision is obligatory.” And it goes on to clarify that this prescription, for girls or women, is satisfied by “removing the prepuce of the clitoris.” Medically speaking, the prepuce of the clitoris is a fold of skin capping the clitoris that is formed by union of the labia minora and the clitoris.
The problem is this: removal of the prepuce may be all that is technically required, but, due to differing cultural assertions being made on an ongoing basis within the Islamic world, as well as the different levels of skill in the hands of the cutters, it is often much more that is taken than just the prepuce. With female genital cutting in the Islamic world, it is quite often the removal of all of the girl’s, or woman’s, external genitals that ends up taking place. Of course, while removal of the prepuce is all that is technically obligatory, many hold the belief that removal of more than the prepuce alone is better, or more Islamically devout, in addition to requiring a less-skilled genital cutter (and, therefore, saving money to boot).
The Different Types of Genital Cutting
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes four main types of FGM along the following lines: 1) partial or total removal of the clitoris, known as a clitoridectomy; 2) partial or total removal of the clitoris along with the labia (the inner and outer lips surrounding the vagina); 3) infibulation, which is the sewing together of the labia to decrease the size of the vaginal opening, sometimes leaving the clitoris in place, but ofttimes removing it; and 4) any other harm done to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, which includes pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping, and cauterizing—or burning—the genitalia. According to WHO, the removal of the prepuce alone, which is the minimum requirement under Islamic Law, is the least common form of FGM performed. (Read more of what WHO has to say about FGM here.)
Cultural Reasons for Genital Mutilation
If you ask a Muslim—either male or female—why FGM is necessary, there are several reasons that might be given: 1) to ensure that a woman keeps her virginity until marriage; 2) to promote hygiene, due to the traditional belief that the clitoris and the labia are unclean; 3) to render the girl or woman more suitable for marriage, by quenching her desire for premarital sex; 4) to increase the sexual pleasure for the man, according to traditional beliefs; and 5) to fulfill the spirit and the letter of Sharia Law, in accordance with The Reliance of the Traveller as well as any known fatwas which may have been issued regarding the matter. (A fatwa is a religious ruling by an Islamic mufti, according to his interpretation of Islamic texts.)
Genital cutting can be the cause of both immediate and long-term medical difficulties, especially acute and recurrent problems with infection. The severity of these problems will vary for each female individually. In some places, especially when those hiring the traditional cutter are not wealthy, the cutting is done on a bed, a tabletop, the floor, or even on a blanket on the ground. Needless to say, the maintenance of a sterile field is rare to nonexistent in such cases. The experience of the person performing FGM can be a factor, as well as the tools being used. The cutting is often performed with sharp glass, razor blades, or kitchen knives. Quite often, the cutter does not sterilize the instrument being used between patients. And when it comes to infibulation—the sewing together of the labia—cutters may, on occasion, utilize thorns instead of needles, and often without the use of sterile thread. (Read more about female health issues, with regard to genital cutting here.)
Female genital mutilation is forbidden in the United States, and even some Islamic countries such as Egypt formally ban the practice—although, in the case of Egypt, a legal loophole allows the practice under sterile conditions, if performed in a doctor’s office; and, in many other Islamic countries, the laws against the practice are simply not enforced. It might be interesting to note that there have been over half a million cases reported in the US, many of which were performed in other countries prior to coming here. But it is also believed that many have been performed in the US illegally; and there are, without doubt, a significant number of unreported cases.
In the US, female genital cutting is considered abuse and a serious human rights violation. It is gender violence against girls and women that is traditionally carried out against their will. FGM is painful and offers no health benefits in exchange for the misery caused. Yet Muslim communities in the United States want to establish Sharia Law courts to handle complaints regarding this inhumane practice, among others. These courts, although informal in their legal status, would be allowed, according to public policy, to hear complaints and adjudicate matters involving FGM, so as to keep any formal legal complaints from being lodged in a court of US law. Keeping these cases under the radar of US courts will, in many cases, only serve to ensure that females in need of better medical care remain untreated. Many will suffer, or even die, because law enforcement has been kept out of the matter. (Quite often in this country it is law courts who get medical treatment or counseling for people who need it, in response to a legal complaint or arrest.) According to the Supremacy Clause in Article Six of the Constitution, Sharia Law courts should not be allowed under any circumstances, but Muslims are pushing for them, nevertheless.
How Traditional Cutters Operate
In Kenya, the practice of FGM was abolished, by the national government, in 2011. When there is a conflict between national law and Islamic Sharia Law, however, the Sharia generally wins. So, traditional surgeons—women who specialize in the manner of midwives—roam the countryside, engaging in the practice of genital cutting wherever there are customers. The tool of preference for most is the razor blade.
The reason most traditional cutters give for the existence of their gruesome services is to eliminate the sexual desires of the little girls or young women getting cut, in order to keep them from being “spoiled” before they wed. Once a girl starts to take pleasure in chasing boys, it is time for her to get cut. The village women whose job is to enforce Islamic standards of morality will have a talk with the girl’s mother and then see to it that a traditional cutter is summoned.
It is customary, in Kenya, that up to five women hold immobile the girl who is being abused, after first binding her with ropes and blindfolding her. Once the cutting is all over, alcohol is poured into the wound to stanch the bleeding. The techniques employed are all according to centuries-old tradition. (For confirmation, read here.)
After the Cutting Is Done
After a girl has been cut, the girl’s legs are tied, and she is told to remain still for three weeks. She is blanketed and given tea to drink. Her wounds are cleaned daily, and after two weeks her ropes are removed. After the third week, she is allowed to leave her sick bed.
No part of this process is happy for the little girls who undergo this barbarism. Yet, as adults, most will defend the practice, rather than have to admit that they lost something precious, for this would, indeed, be just too horrible to face.
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by EagleRising.com