Thursday, 9 June 2016

Female Genital Mutilation: An Islamic Or "Cultural" Practice? (Part 1)

An African Problem?

It is frequently claimed by Islamic apologists that FGM is merely an “African problem” that has its roots in tribal customs that long predate Islam, and is practised by people of all faiths across the continent.

It is certainly true that Muslims are not the only community to practise FGM, and that it is prevalent among peoples across Africa that are not Muslim. But this does not mean that Islam should not be held at least partially responsible for its continued popularity in many countries. In 2013, UNICEF published a statistical analysis of genital cutting focusing predominantly on Africa. Of the thirteen countries in the study in which over 50% of the female population are subjected to FGM (see opening pages at the link above), ten of them have a Muslim majority. Additionally, in the remaining three countries that do not have a Muslim majority – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Liberia – a higher percentage of Muslim women and girls undergo cutting compared to the Christian population. Overall, there is a higher percentage of Muslims than Christians practising FGM in 20 out of 24 countries examined in the survey (see page 73).

There are other important points to consider, as well. For example, although FGM is practised by many Coptic Christians in Egypt today, the custom was entirely borrowed from Islam, and was not an accepted tradition in the country or among any sect of Christianity prior to the Islamic conquests of the seventh century. Female cutting is also increasingly widespread in Islamic countries outside of Africa, for example in Iraq, where a 2012 study found that in one region alone, 40.9% of Sunni Muslim women and 23.4% of Shi’ites suffer it, with no Christian women affected at all. Meanwhile, in Thailand, FGM is commonplace only in the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, where Muslims make up a majority.

But perhaps the most compelling evidence that FGM is not merely an “African problem” comes from the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia. Research conducted by anthropologists throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century concluded that female circumcision was not a native custom in the Indonesian archipelago, but was introduced to the region by Islam, and was generally not practised by any non-Islamic peoples there. More recently, a wide-ranging 2003 survey by the United States Agency for International Development found an average rate of female circumcision of 97.5% across eight study regions, all of which have Muslim majorities. Furthermore, Indonesia’s largest Muslim advisory organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has issued a religious ruling supporting FGM on Islamic grounds.

All of this demonstrates that although FGM is undeniably a problem among certain non-Muslim communities and is not exclusive to Muslims, it nevertheless remains primarily and overwhelmingly an Islamic problem.

Coming soon: The Islamic theological basis for FGM.

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