Extent and Persistence
According to the previously cited UNICEF report on the prevalence of FGM in Africa, there are four countries in which over 90% of girls are circumcised, all of which have a Muslim majority: Somalia (98%), Guinea (96%), Djibouti (93%) and Egypt (91%). In terms of raw numbers, Egypt is the worst offender, with over 27 million girls having undergone the procedure. Worldwide, it is estimated that female genital cutting affects up to 200 million girls in varying degrees of severity, with as many as 60 million of these victims found in Indonesia alone.
As disturbing as these figures are, they are unfortunately beginning to manifest themselves in the West as well, due to rising immigration from Muslim countries. In the UK, there were over one thousand cases of hospital attendances due to FGM recorded by the National Health Service in just three months between April and June 2015 – roughly eleven instances per day. The same amount were recorded in the first three months of this year, also. It had previously been estimated that up to 100,000 girls in the UK had been victims of genital cutting.
This problem is clearly exacerbated by mainstream clerical support for the practice among Muslim authorities in the West. For example, the imam Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad, a board member of the UK’s Islamic Sharia Council, has argued that there is a “proper” way of performing female cutting, stating that “it is consensus of all scholars that female circumcision is sunnah [i.e. in accord with the teachings of Muhammad]”.
Returning to FGM in the Muslim world, there may be a correlation between its prevalence in certain Islamic countries and adherence to the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islamic law. As we have already seen, Reliance of the Traveller – a sharia manual dealing primarily with the Shafi’i doctrine – says that “circumcision is obligatory for both men and women”, and the school’s eighth-century founder also declared it to be a religious necessity, in contrast to other jurists who saw it as merely recommended. The Shafi’i school is one of the largest schools of Islamic jurisprudence in terms of global adherents, and is predominant today in many of the world’s major hotspots for FGM, including Egypt, Indonesia, Somalia, and Kurdish regions of Iraq. It is also prevalent among the FGM-practising Muslim minorities in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Thailand, among others. In Africa, four of the five countries with the highest rates of FGM follow Shafi’ite Islam (Somalia, Djibouti, Egypt, and Eritrea - the latter being a significant Muslim minority, maybe as high as 48%, within a non-Muslim country).
We can no longer continue to deny the Islamic dimension of FGM, and its prevalence among Muslim communities worldwide. We must begin to have a more open, honest discussion about the nature and scope of the problem, just as we must also pressure Muslim organisations and leadership to forcefully condemn it and work transparently to bring this misogynistic barbarity to an end.