Female Genital Mutilation – Is It an Islamic Problem?

| by Malhar Mali |

I recently got into a discussion with a friend who commented on my piece about Islam and the discourse around it.

He affirmed Reza Aslan’s statement of:

“Female Genital Mutilation is not an Islamic problem, it’s a Central African problem,”

by linking to this Politifacts research piece which rated Aslan’s statement as “MOSTLY TRUE.”

So, I decided to take an in-depth look. Right off the bat, I’ll openly say that I’m using David Pakman’s video as the skeleton for this short piece – so don’t think of this as an original, but, rather, a complementary addendum to go along with his video.

While the Politifacts reporter does a good job at disecting Central Africa, writing:

“Seven of the top eight countries with very high rates of female circumcision are majority Muslim, including the “almost universal” levels in Somalia, Egypt, Guinea and Djibouti. But Eritrea, as Aslan said, is №5 among countries with high prevalence at 89 percent, and it is home to more Christians than Muslims, according to Pew Research’s Religion and Public Life Project.

Ethiopia, which is 63 percent Christian and 34 percent Muslim, has a moderately high rate of 74 percent, making it №11 on the list.

So the countries in which female genital cutting is a practice are mostly Muslim, but they are not exclusively Muslim. Of the 29 countries tracked by UNICEF, 14 are home to more Christians than Muslims.

The two Middle Eastern, and predominantly Muslim, countries, Yemen and Iraq, have much lower rates of 23 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Other majority-Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are not listed,”

she fails to reach the accurate conclusion with the information provided, or rather, importantly, NOT provided.

Meaning, while FGM might not be isolated simply in Muslim majority countries in Central Africa, there are many countries and communities in the Middle East and Southeast Asia which the UNICEF Report does not provide numbers on.

Reza Aslan says:

“No where else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is Female Genital Mutilation a problem (other than Central Africa)”

He makes this statement at the 2:06 mark

This is a blatant lie – whether told out of ignorance or with the intent of deception is another issue to cover.

Female Genital Mutilation is something found almost exclusively in Muslim majority countries and Muslim communities outside of Africa.

I’ll use eight examples to solidify my point.

  1. Iraqi Kurdistan: A vast majority of women in Iraqi-Kurdistan have undergone FGM with some regions reaching a top ratio of more than 80%
  2. Malaysia: ~93% of Muslim women surveyed were circumcised
  3. Pakistan: in the Bohra community
  4. Indonesia: despite it being banned, communities seem to be continuing the practice
  5. Kuwait: A study found 38% of women surveyed had been mutilated
  6. United Arab Emirates: where ~34% of women are mutilated
  7. Qatar: the practice persists
  8. Oman: Up to ~78% of women could face Female Genital Mutilation

These are only eight instances. Pakman’s video lists much more.

An issue is that many Middle Eastern countries are not open to being surveyed about these private, cultural, and often religious practices. As a result, the numbers are often not accurate representations of reality, being suppressed due to the taboo of talking about closed sexual practices etc.

You could perhaps say that Female Genital Mutilation is not strictly limited to Islamic countries and cite Central Africa – that statement would be true.

You could also say that this is not something from solely Islam but an Abrahamic religious tradition as observed by its occurrence in Christian and Jewish communities – but then you would have to concede the fact that the majority of countries and communities where Female Genital Mutilation still occurs are practicing Muslim.

Perhaps an explanation is that when Islam swallowed large swaths of land through colonialism in North and Central Africa (this will come as a surprise to some readers: whites are not the only ones who colonized and did barbarous things in the past) the practice was not eradicated, which is why it continues today – but then you would also have to consider why these practices are still happening around the world where it wasn’t always a cultural tradition.

So, yes, while saying “Female Genital Mutilation is solely an Islamic problem” is not true due to the Christian majority countries in Central Africa that still practice it, it would be a mistake to characterize it as something that is not found exceedingly in Islamic countries and communities.

The problem with good sophists like Reza Aslan (I’ll give him that much) is that they often skirt around the truth; mixing in fallacious statements with slices of objective facts; dancing quickly with light words, and endearing with grins which enable those who are clutching at strands to hold tight onto their particular view of the world – and not take a critical look at what exactly is being said.

Tl;dr: Yes, to a degree, Female Genital Mutilation is an Islamic problem – in that it is, for the most part, only still practiced in Islamic countries and communities.

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Malhar Mali likes to write about how and why people think they way they do; secularism, human rights, politics, and culture. You can connect with him on twitter here.

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4 Comments

  1. Teed Rockwell

    I did some online research on this sometime ago.This is a complicated question, as the following additional facts illustrate.

    FGM is illegal in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran sends imams to African Countries to give lectures urging them to abandon FGM bcause they claim that it is UnIslamic The fact that the two most reactionary purveyors of Conservative Islam see this practice as UnIslamic is a pretty strong argument against describing it as an Islamic practice. There are some imams in Egypt who claim that it is Islamic. However the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, the highest religious authority in Egypt, issued a statement that FGM had no basis in core Islamic law, and this enabled the government to outlaw it entirely. In Mauritania, where almost all the girls in minority communities undergo FGM, 34 Islamic scholars signed a fatwa in January 2010 banning the practice.

    In the Arab peninsula, the practice is done primarily by Kurds and Bedouins. As these people have wandered throughout the Arab world, there many countries where the practice occurs, but usually the majority Islamic cultures condemn it as something done by these ignorant tribal peoples. The Kurdish state in Iraq has banned FGM, and several Kurdish clerics have protested this law as unIslamic. But once again, the establishment position is that it is not a proper Islamic practice.

    The Muslims did not bring FGM to Indonesia. It was already there, as a practice in Pagan Micronesia. It’s also practiced by Australian Aborigines. According to a report prepared by the US state department, the practice in Indonesia is largely symbolic, involving a very light pinprick that heals without leaving permanent damage. In some cases, it is even performed symbolically on a plant stalk. I don’t like the symbolic implications of such an act, but it’s clearly misleading to identify the symbolic act with the barbarism of real FGM.

    It appears that the Clerics who defended the practice are the Islamic analog to redneck backwoods preachers. Those on the top of the Islamic hierarchies are at worst neutral, and frequently openly condemn the practice. This is true not only of Muslim Liberals but of even the most conservative fundamentalists. The only reason that more Muslims are involved in the practice today is that Islam spread into areas where it was already there, and either tolerated the practice or were unsuccessful at stamping it out. Those few FGM countries that are majority Christian or Animist had no more success. And in countries that are majority Muslim, the Christian and Animist Minorities also perform FGM at the same rate.

    Most of the arguments you present could also be used to argue that eating hummus is an Islamic practice (or was until Trader Joe’s got the rest of us eating it.) Even if most people who eat hummus are Muslims, that does not make eating hummus an Islamic practice. Nether FGM or hummus have anything to do with Islam, It’s a purely cultural correlation, not a tenet of the faith.There is one Hadith that allegedly supports FGM, but that Hadith is considered to be fraudulent by most of the sources I have encountered, for purely historical reasons. Muslim scholars have a very elaborate system of scholarship for determining the authenticity of Hadith, and by that standard this Hadith is on the bottom rung. The most obvious reason for thinking it fraudulent, however, Is that it says that this practice was done by members of Muhammad’s tribe, and there is very strong evidence that they never did it. (Such as the fact that they don’t do it now.)

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  2. Asiff Hussein

    Female circumcision is certainly Islamic. The female circumcision that Islam requires involves removing the skin (prepuce) around the clitoris, which enhances, not curbs women’s sexuality. This procedure allows the clitoris to be exposed for greater stimulation since it does away with the prepuce which serves as an obstacle to sexual satisfaction. The clitoral prepuce also harbours germs such as the cancer-causing HPV. Thus female circumcision as required by Islam prevents urinary tract Infections and transmission of cancer-causing HPV to husbands through oral sex. Even Western women are going for it under the name hoodectomy. See: http://asiffhussein.com/2015/04/02/female-circumcision-the-hidden-truth/

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    1. Teed Rockwell

      Thank you so much for this detailed and scholarly piece of writing. This issue is indeed even more complicated than I realized. I will make a point at looking at some of your other articles. Nevertheless, I think you are being misleading when you use the word “circumcision” to describe such radically different procedures as removing the clitoris and hoodectomies. The Idea that Islam requires removing the clitoris was not generated by the so-called “Jewish Media”. (that bigoted term besmirches an otherwise excellent article, and I would request that you remove it.) Many conservative Muslims and Islamaphobes believe this, and it is important that they be told they are mistaken. Using the same word to describe two very different operations is not going to help clear things up.

      I also would recommend that Muslims go with their scholarly traditions that makes this operation optional rather than mandatory. One of Muhammad’s many great contributions to humanity was his extension of new rights to women. I think having a bunch of men tell women what they should do with their Lady Parts is not in the spirit of his fundamentally progressive vision.

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