We live in a world where male circumcision is common among many different societies and religions, such as Judaism and Islam, and it is hardly thought twice about. However, female circumcision is a much more sensitive topic. Female circumcision is more commonly known as female genital mutilation (FGM) and is defined as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” (World Health Organisation). FGM or khifa?d?, as it is known in Arabic, is mostly carried out on young girls between birth and 15 years of age. It is important to address the controversy attached to the association between Islam and FGM and the history of it, as there is much dispute over whether it is an Islamic ritual. In the past few years FGM has acquired an increased amount of media coverage and attention across the world, which has made it slightly easier to analyse its prevalence in the world today.
There is no doubt to the fact that female circumcision existed as a pre Islamic ritual, but many people strongly associate it with Islam. Male circumcision, khit?n, is a ritual carried out at some point during childhood. There is no dispute that khit?n is an Islamic tradition as the Prophet approved of it, and was circumcised himself, whereas the Qur’an only mentions khifa?d? once when the Prophet warns against severity in circumcision, as it would increase the risk of severely harming the woman but also would make her less appealing to her husband. A woman who has undergone certain types of FGM is likely to have sexual problems such as pain during intercourse and decreased sexual satisfaction, which are some of the reasons why it is said that female circumcision makes a woman more desirable to marry as they are less likely to be unfaithful. However, as the Prophet did not forbid khifa?d? altogether most Muslims interpret it as recommended but not compulsory and many Muslims use this as an argument to oppose the ritual.
In previous years it has been thought by many people that female circumcision is a practice only carried out in Africa, however in recent years it has become apparent that it occurs a lot in the Middle East and across Asia as well. In 2015 Unicef carried out a study to assess the prevalence of FGM around the world. The study found 29 countries where FGM is most common, and combined these countries have an estimated Muslim population of 388 million (Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life 2009). It found that over 80% of girls and women aged 15-49 years have undergone FGM in Egypt, Djibouti and Sudan, which are all predominantly Muslim countries. Egypt has one of the highest percentage of girls in the world who have undergone some type of FGM, reaching 91% in 2013 (WHO). Historically, although Egypt is in Africa, it has stronger cultural and political links with the Middle East. Muslims make up over 80% of the population of Egypt, which contributes to the link between Islam and FGM. In Somalia the term for female circumcision is ‘sunna’ (Blystad 2014: 25), which comes from the Muslim concept that something was ‘the way of the Prophet,’ which implies quite a strong link between Islam and FGM.
However, in the last couple of years there seems to have been a global decrease in the percentage of girls around the world suffering from FGM. The WHO says that female circumcision has ‘no health benefits for girls and women’. The procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts infections as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths. Many people see the practice as a severe violation of women’s rights, but it many countries it seems that it is the mother who encourages and enforces circumcision upon her daughter. This could potentially lead to a weaker link between Islam and female circumcision. In 2012 the UN General Assembly put eliminating FGM on the global agenda. Since 2012 there has been frequent media coverage on the practice. According to Unicef, 91% of married Egyptian women aged between 15 and 49 have been subjected to FGM, 72% of them by doctors. Unicef research suggests that support for the practice is gradually falling: 63% of women in the same age bracket supported it in 2008, compared with 82% in 1995. In a ground breaking legal case, Dr Raslan Fadl was the first doctor to be trialled for FGM in Egypt, where the practice was made illegal in 2008 but is still widely accepted and carried out by many doctors in private. Although the doctor was found not guilty this case indicates a change for Egypt. If education on the risks and potentially fatal consequences of FGM increases throughout the world, female circumcision may become a thing of the past.
Overall, although it is not written in Islamic law, it is hard to say that female circumcision is not an Islamic ritual. The prevalence of FGM in predominantly Muslim countries is undeniable, although of course many people that practice female circumcision are not Muslim. Whether a Muslim views female genital mutilation as an Islamic ritual sometimes does depend on how they interpret the Qur’an, as not all Muslims believe that it is a necessary practice. Due to the increased media attention that FGM has gained over the recent years the prevalence seems to have decreased. It is hard to say whether this will continue into the future, but as eliminating FGM is now on the UN’s global agenda one can hope that one day it will be a thing of the past.