Monday, March 25, 2013

Chocolate balls.

I used to worry that I couldn't tell if there were any alcohol in chocolates. Once I ate chocolate easter eggs containing whiskey and didn't realise it until my friend said my face was really red.

The Dutchman was gifted a small box of chocolates from the office. Accidentally bit into one that tasted really weird, so I spat it out in the sink.

"I think I'm starting to recognise the taste of alcohol. Just so you know, don't eat the chocolate balls, okay?"

His reponse? "Yeah, you should avoid the balls in general."

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My inner Shafi'i.

Even though we should really be chilling out on the weekends, the Dutchman and I are always finding excuses to have some tea and cake at our favourite neighbourhood cafe -- just two roads away.

Just as we were leaving, a couple walks in with their pet dog.

Me: Huh, you can bring dogs into the cafe??

Dutchman: Relax, it's just your inner Shafi'i speaking.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Female Circumcision in South East Asia

This post was first published in the Islamic Monthly.
I am a Muslim of Malay ethnicity, who was born in Singapore, where Malays are an ethnic and religious minority today, and lived there until I was 24 years old. The Malays, of whom 99 percent are Muslim, are the indigenous people of Singapore and the Malay archipelago. Until the arrival of the British colonizers in the early nineteenth century, this area (which covers what is south Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and south  Philippines today) shared many cultural and linguistic similarities.
When I was about six years old and attending a kenduri, or ritual feast, for two male cousins who had just been circumcised, I whispered to my mother, “Are girls circumcised too?” Growing up in Singapore in the 1990s, boys were commonly circumcised before puberty (around eight or nine) – making it seem like a rite of passage into adulthood. The six year-old me observed the fuss and attention they got: they were not allowed to eat certain foods, they could only bear to wear a kain sarong for up to two weeks due to the pain, and had to be fanned at night to keep the wounds dry. These ritual feasts to celebrate a boy’s circumcision are less common today, partly due to the increasing use of doctors to carry out circumcision, and usually on infants a few weeks old.
My mother explained to me girls were indeed circumcised, and that sunat perempuan (Malay for ‘female’ sunnah, or ‘tradition’) involved “a tiny cut”, without giving any more details. At that age, it didn’t occur to me to ask if any women I knew had been cut, because there were never any ritual feasts. Later, I would discover that this female genital cutting, as it happened historically and today, has undergone various changes and yet, many aspects of this ritual remained the same.
When I asked my mother again recently, she revealed that she and her seven sisters had all undergonesunat. In Singapore in the 1940s, sunat involved cutting off a piece of a girl’s prepuce or clitoral hood, making it flat instead of naturally covering the top of the clitoris. By the time my sister was born in the 1980s, it was more common to practice a symbolic form of sunat in the form of scraping of the prepuce using a penknife or scissors.
Both of these procedures had been done by a mak bidan, or post-partum midwife, whose role was to help mothers with bathing and nursing their babies, and also get back into shape after a natural birth with the use of tummy wraps, herbal drinks, herbal applications, massage, and bathing of the newborn baby. The mak bidan had performed the sunat after bathing my sister, who was then just a week old.
My mother was too young to remember when she had her own sunat done, guessing it was probably when she was a few weeks old. During her childhood, undergoing sunat was a big deal for both girls and boys, but only boys enjoyed social celebrations in the form of ritual feasts and processions. In contrast, sunat perempuan was carried out by the midwife, often in the presence of only the mother, quickly and without much fuss. When my mother tried to ask her own mother any questions or to attend the procedure, she was dismissed as being mentel, or excessively curious in matters of sexuality.
The term female genital mutilation (FGM) is considered by its supporters to be a negative judgment of the act. The World Health Organisation has four classifications of FGM, with first and final category describing the kind of procedures going on in Southeast Asia.[i] Others use the term ‘female circumcision’ (FC) or ‘female genital cutting’ (FGC) to maintain a sense of neutrality. However, I feel that the term ‘female circumcision’ is also not technically accurate, because circumcision means ‘to cut around’, which is overwhelmingly the method of male foreskin removal.
To remain faithful to the point of reference, which is Southeast Asia, I will use the term FGC and sunatperempuan and interchangeably to refer to a variety of invasive procedures such as cutting off a small piece of the highest part of the clitoral hood (also known as the prepuce or foreskin), drawing blood by scraping or pricking, as well as non-invasive procedures such like spreading blood or spreading antiseptic on the area.
Symbolic sunat perempuan such as cutting a peeled turmeric root placed over the clitoris, spreading chicken blood onto the clitoris, or cleansing with antiseptic and then blowing over the area, are significant and the first two rituals were estimated by Basilica Putranti to make up half of all incidents in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in 2002. These procedures were often done on girls as they reached puberty, though there was a trend by the 1980s to lower the age to a few weeks old.[ii]
How did FGCbegin in the region?
While there is a much debate about FGC as experienced in the African continent, the literature on the subject generally disregards the ritual as practiced in Southeast Asia. Some scholars contend that when Islam spread to Southeast Asia in the 13th century, female cutting was also introduced to the region. However, there exists scarce literature on the beginnings of FGC in this area. The most informative source on the incidence of FGC in Southeast Asia can be found in a chapter of a recent anthology about Muslim women’s rights. The chapter details the history of the practice based on local reports dating from the colonial Dutch East Indies and contemporary sociological and anthropological research.[iii]
There exists no convincing evidence that any form of FGC predated the spread of Islam to the region. In fact,, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs prevailed in Southeast Asia before Islam and the followers of both  faiths reject both male and female circumcision. Further, some 19th century syncretist Muslims in Java rejected FGC as well, considering it an ‘Arab custom’. However, most of the population declared it to be optional. The royal families of Java also employed a non-Arabic word for FGC such as kres ortetesan (‘pricking’). Among the orthodox Muslims, the term sunat perempuan or khitan perempuan(‘female circumcision’) is more commonly used, until today. [iv]
What is happening today?
Photographs taken by Stephanie Sinclair in 2006 of a mass sunat perempuan ceremony in Bandung, Indonesia, were published in 2008 and surfaced again late last year, making public a ritual that usually takes place behind closed doors.[v] Her pictures show girls ranging from nine months to nine years of age undergoing the ritual as done by a team of middle-aged women. The sunat, as described, involved cutting of a piece of the clitoral hood (the size of a “nail clipping”) using a sterilised pair of scissors. Sinclair had attended a ceremony organized and sponsored by Yayasan Assalaam Bandung, a foundation that provides Islamic education and social welfare services and sees itself as an open, inclusive, moderate, and dynamic organisation.[vi]
In Malaysia, a university survey of 1000 respondents found that over 90 percent of Muslim women reported being circumcised.[vii] A study in Kelantan found that all of the women in the labour ward had undergone FGC.[viii] In Indonesia, the figure is upwards of 86 percent, with 90 percent of adults supporting it.[ix] In her study of southern Thailand, Claudia Merli applies the same description to the province of Satun, because of cultural and regional proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia.[x] However, there have been no surveys done in Singapore. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the incidence today is much lower than in Malaysia or Indonesia.
During my mother’s childhood, much mystery surrounded the practice, which was passed down the generations, quietly and without protest. It was “just tradition”. In south Thailand, the bidan has the “exclusive authority to perform female circumcision and reject the idea of this operation ever passing into the hands of medical personnel” for physical and ritual/religious reasons.[xi] In Indonesia, traditional circumcisers say they “learn the practice from other women during several years of apprenticing.”[xii] Nevertheless, more and more doctors are performing FGC today.
Various reasons are offered for female circumcision, for example, to keep “clean”; to “purify the genitals and bestow gender identity”; to “control women’s sexual urges”; because women can only be beautiful if chaste; to help them not be “as wild”;  to make them “more beautiful in the eyes of their husband”; or to make the latter “more excited in bed”.[xiii] In Singapore, some of the older generations point out that the reason that some young women are “wild” today is because they are not circumcised. Others also argue that there is neither much harm nor pain because of the very small amount of flesh that is removed (described as the size of a nail clipping, a quarter-grain of rice, a guava seed, a bean, the tip of a leaf, or the head of a needle)[xiv]. They also stress the importance of supposedly avoiding the clitoris. A midwife known for cutting away “too much” flesh might be boycotted:
She had discussed the topic of sunat with a man well versed in Islamic law who had not let his own daughter be circumcised, claiming that the practice is neither necessary nor compulsory because it is not mentioned in the Koran. Despite this conversation, Wati and her husband decided to follow the local tradition, with a sense of pressure coming from other villagers, whose disapproval they wanted to avoid. The local bidan was not taken on as she was ill-famed for cutting away “too much,” some even said the whole clitoris. Another bidan was summoned from another location.[xv]
Religious opinions
The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia follow the Shafii school of law, which declares FGC as wajib, or obligatory. In contrast, the other three Sunni schools, together with the Shia schools, consider FGC a sunnah or a recommended act. Just like male circumcision, there is no mention of it in the Quran. The form of FGC taking place in Southeast Asia seems to follow this general and gender-neutral rule from al-Nawawi to remove the prepuce at a young age, but also at an older age if it causes no ‘harm’.[xvi] This ruling is found in his chapter on taharah or purity, indicating that the concern was for the cleanliness of the genitals, especially the area under the prepuce, and consequent validity of acts of worship. Indeed, about half of the reasons mentioned above by midwives and parents for the practice reflects a concern for hygiene.
With regards to hadith, or Prophetic sayings, there is much debate on which are considered authentic, and therefore authoritative enough to be taken as a source of law. The most commonly-cited hadith(here) mentioning circumcision has been used to both promote and discourage FGC. Other hadith that mention circumcised parts (here and here) are also making a larger point about purifying one’s body after sexual intercourse, but not necessarily ordaining circumcision. Other hadith whose authenticity cannot be confirmed variously urge to not “cut deeply”, “abuse”, “cut into”, or “exceed the limit”, but instead to “trim”, “reduce the size of the clitoris”, or to “cut off only the foreskin”.
In short, there is no fully authentic text in which the Prophet Mohammad required or recommended the circumcision of women any more than the circumcision of men. There may have been FGC in the Prophet’s society, but there was no equivocal ban on it. This type of minimal FGC as practised in Southeast Asia has also been identified as the ‘mild’ type of cutting found in early Islamic societies, which was aimed to protect women’s “dignity and well-being” or make her “honourable”. Thus, it is dangerously framed as the ‘real’ or ‘most Islamic’ FGC. [xvii]
However, most Muslims do not make a direct link between their everyday actions and textual evidence, learning instead from our immediate forefathers the rituals, symbols, and acts that make us Muslim (or not). For example, we pray by first imitating movements from our parents or other authority figures in our lives and often only learn the significance of the words and movements when we are older. Likewise, while FGC may have started in Southeast Asia as an “Arab custom”, today it is a religious norm that parents seek for their children, because everyone else in the family or in the village has done it, for generations.
Social responses
Today, in Southeast Asian society, we are witnessing a growing trend towards institutionalising and medicalising FGC. In 2008, the Ministry of Health in Malaysia reported that 88 percent of their female staff had their daughters circumcised by doctors in the private practice.[xviii] Another study in Indonesia revealed that 65 percent of FGC was performed in hospitals.[xix] In Singapore, a woman Muslim doctor admits to “circumcising five to six patients a day”, mostly babies and prepubescent children.[xx]
In Malaysia, the Fatwa Committee of Malaysia’s National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs ruled in 2009 that female circumcision, was “obligatory for Muslims but if harmful must be avoided”.[xxii] More recently, in Indonesia, the Indonesian Council of Ulema ruled in favour of female circumcision and added that although it cannot be considered mandatory, it is still “morally recommended”.[xxiii] The leader of this council however warned to avoid “excesses” in the removal or cutting of the clitoris — a position supported by the hadith mentioned earlier. A similar advice is given by the Islamic Religious Authority of Singapore on their website.[xxiv]
The trend towards medicalisation is also worrying because while it may reduce pain and struggling, it would also allow for a deeper or more severe excision – as was being promoted in a village in south Thailand by some missionaries from India.[xxv] The institutionalisation of FGC in countries with parallel laws for Muslims and non-Muslims may aggravate existing socio-religious problems, especially if fatwa have been passed to make this practice obligatory.
There are currently no active campaigns against eradicating FGC in Southeast Asia. This is perhaps due to the high acceptance of the practice in Malaysia and Indonesia for socio-religious reasons. However, in Malaysia there are studies being done and public talks hosted by research centres such as the Women’s Development Research Centre of University of Science, Malaysia (USM) and women’s rights organisations such as Sisters in Islam. AWARE, a secular women’s rights organisation in Singapore, has a web page dedicated to explaining FGC in the Singaporean context.[xxvi]
Contextualising sunat
Local explanations for female circumcision center around the lack of harm that it causes to the girl, and that it has positive benefits, which broadly fall under concerns for hygiene (keeping clean), femininity (reducing or stabilising libido, increasing attractiveness to husband) and ritual (bestowing gender identity, honour, dignity[xxvii]).
However, anecdotal evidence for the harm of FGC includes pain while passing urine, or desensitivity of the clitoris and reduced ability for sexual pleasure. Some also experience botched procedures such as an excised or split clitoris, some may suffer loss of blood, infection, or shock. Some may also face recurrent urinary tract and pelvic inflammation and infection that can cause sterility. Scar tissue, medical complications, and psychological trauma of having a procedure done without one’s consent may cause so much anxiety and anguish that a pleasant sex life can become difficult.
In any case, these explanations are situated in a web of political, social, and economic phenomena: preserving one’s Muslim identity by ensuring that the practice will continue through law and medical justification (as male circumcision has become); controlling the sexual urges of girls in the light of increasing teenage pregnancies; and the influence of Wahhabi or Salafist elements on Islam in Southeast Asia.
The target audience in this debate are not the midwives or the medical practitioners, but the attitudes of parents and schools vis-a-vis girls’ sexual and physical health and hygiene, because these parties are the ones who can either enable or prevent sunat on their children.
At the individual level, the most important issue is consent. The problem is not whether Muslim girls are being circumcised or not, but whether they are allowing these irreversible modifications to be made on their bodies. Some people may argue that it is  more beneficial to perform the procedure when children are still babies to avoid “complications, prolong[ed] pain, or embarrassment” (the exact same argument for infant male circumcision). [xxviii] But this begs the question as to why Muslim parents are “marking” their children’s bodies with “Islam” or with a procedure that has doubtful utility?
The level of acceptance of other forms of body modification like tattoos and piercings are largely dependent on dominant social paradigms which differ across countries. Most people would regard infant male circumcision or ear piercings on girl babies as normal, but not a tattoo. And yet, the most significant issue in this debate is the completeness, intelligence, and sanctity of God’s creation. Like every part of the human body, foreskins serve a specific purpose, both male and female. The underlying assumption of cleanliness and purity is that God created us with body parts that get dirty but are also absolutely possible to clean. Think of our noses, ears, mouths, and anuses. Why is the prepuce suddenly an exception?
Ever curious, at the age of 27, I finally asked my mother if I had been circumcised, whether physically or ritually. She said no (phew!) and explained that when I was born, the mak bidan was nowhere to be found. She had come to Singapore from Malaysia through family contacts after my sister’s birth in order to perform my mother’s post-partum birth rituals. However, she decided to return to Malaysia because she was part of a dying trade in an economically-growing Singapore. Upon learning this, I had one last question for my mother:
“Why didn’t you ensure that I was circumcised?”
“It’s a sunnah anyway, it’s not that important.”
This short exchange with my mother revealed to me the importance of parental attitudes. When done, “a tiny cut” might be dismissed as being “harmless”. But I was so glad that my mother had felt that this “tiny cut” was also equally “harmless” if not done.
Sya Taha is historically Javanese, politically Malay, and accidentally a migrant to the Netherlands whose interests include Quranic hermeneutics, gender, disability, and race in the Nusantara (Malay archipelago).

[i] World Health Organisation, ‘Female genital mutilation, Fact sheet N°241’ Updated February 2013, available at
[ii] Basilica Dyah Putranti (2008), ‘To Islamize, Becoming a Real Woman or Commercialized Practices? Questioning Female Genital Cutting in Indonesia’, Finnish Journal of Ethnicity and Migration, 3(2):23-31.
[iii] William G. Clarence-Smith (2012) ‘Female Circumcision in Southeast Asia since the Coming of Islam’, p.124-146, in Chitra Raghavan and James P. Levine (eds.), Self-Determination and Women’s Rights in Muslim Societies. USA: Brandeis University Press. Available at
[iv] Clarence-Smith (2012).
[v] See Sara Corbett, ‘A Cutting Tradition’, The New York Times, 20 Jan 2008, available at and Abigail Haworth, ‘The day I saw 248 girls suffering genital mutilation’, The Guardian, 28 Nov 2012, available at
[vi] Yayasan Assalaam Bandung, ‘Vision and Mission’, available at
[vii] ABCNews, ‘Malaysia storm over female circumcision’, 7 Dec 2012, available at
[viii] Isa A. Rahman, R. Shuib, and Othman M. Shukri (1999), ‘The practice of female circumcision among Muslims in Kelantan, Malaysia’, Reproductive Health Matters 7 (13): 137–144.
[ix] Haworth (2012).
[x] Claudia Merli (2008), ‘Sunat for girls in southern Thailand : its relation to traditional midwifery, male circumcision and other obstetrical practices’, Finnish Journal Of Ethnicity and Migration, 3(2):32-41. Available at
[xi] Merli (2008).
[xii] Corbett (2008).
[xiii] See IRIN, ‘Indonesia: Female genital mutilation persists despite ban’, 2 Sep 2010, available at, and Corbett (2008).
[xiv] Corbett (2008).
[xv] Merli (2008).
[xvi] Shafi’, ‘What is the ruling on circumcision for women?’, available at
[xvii] ‘Female Circumcision/Female Genital Cutting’, available at
[xviii] Ministry of Health (2008), ‘Ministry Of Health Report’, Family Health and Development Division.
[xix] Maznah Dahlui, ‘The Practice of Female Circumcision in Malaysia’. Talk given at Women’s Development Research Centre (KANITA), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).
[xx] Toronto Star, ‘Muslim rite is modernised’, 16 Nov 2002, available at
[xxi] Haworth (2012).
[xxii] ABCNews, ‘Malaysia storm over female circumcision’, 7 Dec 2012.
[xxiii] Mathias Hariyadi, ‘Indonesian Ulema in favour of female circumcision: a “human right”’, 24 Jan 2013, available at
[xxiv] Islamic Religious Authority Singapore (MUIS), ‘Frequent Asked Questions: Is circumcision compulsory for muslimah?’, available at
[xxv] Merli (2008).
[xxvi] Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), ‘Female Circumcision’, available
[xxvii] Mardiana Abu Bakar, ‘Female Circumcision: A Viewpoint’. The Straits Times, 30 Oct 1994, available at:
[xxviii] Islamic Religious Authority Singapore (MUIS), ‘Frequent Asked Questions: Is circumcision compulsory for muslimah?’.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

'Real' Dutch Muslimas Tackle Migration and Islamophobia

This post was first published at Muslimah Media Watch.


From this year onwards, wearing a niqab is officially an offence in the Netherlands, with "stiff fines" as the punishment. Last year in 2012, interior minister Liesbeth Spies and the Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders pushed for on dual nationality, which received mixed support within Parliament.

What does wearing a face-covering veil and having another nationality have to do with each other? According to Liz Fekete, author of "A Suitable Enemy: Racism, Migration, and Islamophobia in Europe", before September 11 2001 the Dutch government was more concerned with the economic integration of specific groups such as the Moroccans and Turks. These communities had migrated to the Netherlands in the 1960s onwards, and who were experiencing high levels of unemployment and poverty. Then, security measures primarily focused on asylum-seekers and immigrants. However, after 9/11, security services took the view that Islam per se constituted a 'threat'.

This is the view of nativist populist parliament member from the Dutch Freedom Party, Geert Wilders. Wilders is known for his advocacy against immigration from Muslim countries, against the 'Islamisation' of the Netherlands and Europe at large, as well as peppering his speech with Arabic words such as jihad, shariaummah, and taqiyya to demonstrate how much he claims to know about Islam. Among older people in the Netherlands, he is popular and taken seriously. In 2009 he famously said in an interview with Dutch news site that he was not scared of hijabi Muslims in the Netherlands and was ready to take them on:

"If I was Foreign Minister, I would ban headscarves the day I entered office. And let all the headscarves flap in Malieveld [a field]. I'll eat them raw."

In response, Al Nisa, a voluntary organisation in the Netherlands for Muslim women, launched a campaign in 2010 called 'Real Dutch', which aimed to counter the public debates and images about Muslim women. Several posters were made for public display, with images of women that appeared to be of Moroccan, Turkish, and Hindustani descent. One of these posters showed a Muslim women wearing a hijab with a blue-and-white design known on Delft pottery, while eating a raw herring, a Dutch delicacy. The text says "Raw Deal", a direct reference to Wilders' words. Another poster showed a white woman drinking tea, referencing the then top candidate of the Labour party, Job Cohen. Cohen was known for visiting minority ethnic groups and promoting dialogue, which earned him the mocking nickname of "tea drinker".

"Raw deal"

"A cup of tea in the mosque?"

"Yes we can make it even more fun!

My favourite is the poster that subverts the slogan of the Dutch tax institute "We can't make things anymore fun, but we can make it easier!". Here the woman says that "Yes, we can make things more fun!", which implies an active and positive contribution to Dutch society, without necessarily doing 'typical' Dutch things. According to their website, the objectives of the campaign were to show that Muslim women from minority communities were indeed, Dutch (and that even white Dutch women can be and are Muslims):
The Muslim women’s organization Al Nisa stands for self-confident Muslim women. The organization allows for change by making women literally visible and by providing a stage for them. Women who may also like herring, licorice and a slice of cheese, who love to go camping and who enjoy a cup of tea with a biscuit. Women who besides being Muslim are also Dutch.
The text describes the campaign as an effort to integrate Muslim women into mainstream Dutch society because what do you know, it turns out that they enjoy Dutch food and Dutch activities too! This describes the integration model of the European Union, where new migrants (and especially those from "Third Countries") should try as much as possible to emulate people in their host country. Specifically, these migrants should embrace as much as possible concepts like democracy, human rights, and homosexuality -- all of which are commonly framed to be lacking in migrants from Muslim countries.

Open Society Foundations found this campaign to be "refreshing, more accurate, and very much needed", especially because "there is not one niqab or burqa in sight". While there are very few Muslim women who do wear a niqab in the Netherlands, they still exist. If they are eliminated for a poster campaign simply to show politicians that Muslim women are actually human beings, does this make a niqabi fair game for Islamophobes?

In 2012, Al-Nisa created a new campaign called "Do You Know Me?" to create positive images of Muslim women in the Netherlands. The video features two women of Moroccan descent (one playing soccer, one in the park), one white Dutch (owner of a bakery selling typical Dutch cookies and cake), one Pakistani (a dental hygienist) and one of Turkish descent (an artist). Women of other ethnicities are shown briefly in the video, but other significant Muslim communities in the Netherlands are missing: Indonesians and those of Indonesian descent, and the Surinamese.

The focus on Moroccan and Turkish communities fits into the larger discourse about Muslims in the Netherlands, where "Muslims" are usually code for "Moroccans" or "Turkish" communities. As Liz Fekete argued in her book 'A Suitable Enemy', European countries maintain data and surveillance on immigrant groups and asylum-seekers in order to enforce Europe's borders. This prevalent idea is illustrated by a recent government report by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research. Even though the report is called "Muslims in the Netherlands 2012", it focuses on Muslims "of Turkish or Moroccan origin" (recent and largest groups of migrants) but also "smaller Muslim groups originating from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Somalia" (asylum-seekers).

Meanwhile, Muslims from backgrounds who do not pose a security concern since they are not asylum-seekers nor migrants are of no interest to the Dutch government and politicians. The report even admits that:
Muslims from countries such as Surinam, Indonesia and the former Yugoslavia, as well as the small group of native Dutch Muslims (estimated at 13,000) are left out of consideration in this study due to a lack of research data.
Al-Nisa’s campaigns are indeed a breath of fresh air with their positive images of Muslim women. While responding to political discourses is beneficial and interesting in that it shows an awareness of current debates, it also risks being reactive and risks perpetuating the discourses about who Muslims are and how they should integrate into mainstream Dutch society. It is important, as a movement of Muslim women, to find allies among all other Muslim women (such as Indonesian women, as a start) and other marginalised groups (such as Eastern Europeans).

In our attempt to show “who Muslims are,” we should be careful to not fall into the anti-immigrant, anti-asylum, and pro-integration lines of thinking of our host country. We can tackle Islamophobia by breaking down the ideologies behind such ideas, rather than by showing that we are not scary.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Tiny Cut: Male and Female Circumcision in Singapore

Originally written for

In my immediate family, I am the only one uncircumcised.

My earliest memory of encountering circumcision was when I was about six years old. I had to attend a kenduri, or ritual feast, for two male cousins who were recovering at home after undergoing the procedure at a private clinic earlier that day.

Both of them were wearing kain sarong, with the front of the cloth held out and away from their fresh wounds with a clothes hanger bent around their waists. I observed the attention they got around their new bodies: they didn’t shower for days, were supposedly fanned at night to keep the wounds dry, and were not allowed to consume certain foods that could slow down their healing (e.g. prawns, beef). Curious children were not too well tolerated in these events, and only my mother was willing to answer my question, in a hushed whisper, in between Quran recitations and platefuls of food.

“Are girls circumcised too?”

“Yes, but just a little bit… potong sikit aje.”

My mother vaguely explained to my six year-old self that girls were indeed circumcised, but that sunat perempuan (‘female circumcision’) involved only “a tiny cut”. I remember thinking that it must not have been common because there were never any ritual feasts for my female cousins.

Children who grew up in the 1990s commonly encounter male circumcision just before puberty–around the age of eight or nine years old. More commonly known as sunat (Malay for ‘tradition of the Prophet Muhammad’), it represents a rite of passage into adulthood. In the past, male sunat was accompanied with festive ritual feasts and street processions. These cultural performances are less common today, partly due to the use of doctors to perform circumcision with anaesthesia and increasingly, on infants a few days or weeks old.

There are four types of male circumcision, and the most common procedure done in Singapore, as estimated by a doctor, is the Plastibell technique (see video) which aims to completely expose the head of the penis. It is today done on a range of ages, from five to about 15. A newborn, who is born with his foreskin fused to the glans of the penis, must first undergo a forced tearing of the two organs before cutting off the foreskin and sewing the remaining skin together, often without anaesthesia. A boy before or entering puberty may have already experienced retraction of the foreskin, thus needing only the latter part of the procedure and usually with anaesthesia.

Most public hospitals do not encourage this non-essential surgery on very young infants because of the risks involved (since one baby boy died from excessive bleeding and infection). However, parents who want it for their newborns often simply go to certain male Muslim doctors who will do it for around $80 to $100. The rate of male circumcision in the Muslim community is very close to one hundred percent, unlike female circumcision.

A Tiny Cut

Recently my mother revealed that she and her seven sisters had all undergone female sunat in the 1950s. She was too young to remember her own sunat, guessing it was probably when she was a few weeks old. She described that in her time, this involved cutting off a piece of a girl’s prepuce or clitoral hood, making it flat instead of partly draping over the clitoris. I also recently discovered that my older sister had been circumcised also at one week old, although by the time she was born in the early 1980s, she had a symbolic sunat in the form of a scraping of the prepuce using a penknife or scissors. However, a female friend born in the 1980s said that she remembers going for sunat at the age of four or five years at another woman’s house, and experiencing excruciating pain.

In the past, female sunat was done by a mak bidan, or post-partum midwife, whose role was to help mothers to help mothers with bathing and nursing their babies, and also get back into shape after a natural birth with the use of tummy wraps, herbal drinks, herbal applications, massage, and bathing of the newborn baby. Today, it is almost exclusively done by women Muslim doctors, and the process reportedly involves nicking the prepuce with a small pair of scissors, without anaesthesia. Although no comprehensive surveys have been done, a woman Muslim doctor admits to “circumcising five to six patients a day”, mostly babies and prepubescent children.[i]

During my mother’s childhood, undergoing sunat was only a big deal for boys. In contrast, female sunat was usually done without fuss in the presence of the mother. When my mother tried to ask her own mother any questions or to attend the procedure of her sisters, she was dismissed as being mentel, or excessively curious in matters of sexuality. Today, as both female and male sunat are being increasingly performed on infants, it no longer plays a social role.

Male and female circumcision is often given differential treatment. At the international level, the biggest opponent to female circumcision is the World Health Organisation. This international organisation has launched a zero-tolerance worldwide campaigns to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM/the term preferred by its opponents), classified into four categories–the first and last of which describe the kind of sunat being carried out in Southeast Asia. Predictably, some Muslims see this ban as a form of Western cultural imperialism. Proponents of female sunat prefer the term ‘female circumcision’ or ‘female genital cutting’ to maintain a sense of medical neutrality (even though ‘female circumcision’ is not technically accurate as circumcision means ‘to cut around’), and will cite religious and social reasons.

In contrast, there is no large and unified movement against male circumcision, only a handful of groups mostly based in the United States or Canada, including online support groups. The global debate on female circumcision often frames it as being more harmful than male circumcision, which is often said to have medical benefits. Even Islamic debate has resulted in ambivalent and contradictory fatwa (religious rulings) on female circumcision in Egypt, Malaysia, and Indonesia–which allows it if no harm is done–while male circumcision carries on, undisturbed. In Singapore, there is no such debate on either kind of circumcision. What role do these practices play in today’s Singaporean Muslim community?

Overt arguments: Religious and medical

The Quran, the first source of Islamic law, mentions neither male nor female circumcision. Some can quote verses 2:124 or 16:123 from the Quran, which only indicate Abraham as a model for Muslims. They then argue that circumcision was one of the commands given to Abraham as a test of his faith, as mentioned in some of the hadith, or sayings of Muhammad. The logic, then, is that male circumcision becomes an act of faith. However, this logic cannot be extended to a child who is not old enough to be accountable for his or her own actions.

The logic of female circumcision is slightly different. Some women who find support from textual religious sources usually quote a hadith that describe the historical existence of the practice and how Muhammad did not forbid the practice but only warned the women involved to not do it excessively. Thus, those who follow it do it purely to fulfil a religious norm because the alleged benefits cannot be proven.

Religious arguments for circumcision often fall in between religious and medical reasons, because ritual cleanliness is closely related to physical cleanliness. In classical fiqh or jurisprudence, acts of worship require both physical and ritual purity, although the former can be exempted in certain cases of emergency. Being ritually pure determines when you can pray, fast, or do other acts of worship. Being physically clean is important as part of keeping good hygiene and thus a healthy body.

Thus, the most common religio-medical reason for circumcision is to ensure the penis or vulva is clean, so that acts of worship are valid. Another popular hadith that exhorts gender-neutral circumcision as part of physical hygiene, alongside the trimming of the moustache, pubic hair and nails, is used by supporters of male circumcision (it’s part of hygiene) as well as surprisingly, both the supporters (no gender differentiation) and opponents (‘moustache’ indicates reference to only men) of female circumcision.

Without the foreskin of the penis or the clitoris, there is no need to actively ensure that the area underneath is clean and free of smegma (combination of sebum and shed skin cells). However, this is not because “the foreskin is dirty”, as one young mother put it, but because parts of our bodies simply get dirty with use. What is not well-known is that these secretions are only produced after puberty–thus being “dirty” is certainly not a reason to circumcise newborns.

Educated parents of some circumcised newborns today (and in the recent past) often cite medical arguments, assuming that the natural penis is impossible or very difficult to keep clean. As circumcision is a given, what some young mothers are concerned about is the time taken for the wound to heal. They explained that it’s easier to circumcise someone that is relatively immobile and will not scratch the wound (“babies sleep all day”) and that according to folk knowledge of wound healing, having a diet of breast milk will help the wounds heal faster.

However, perhaps because they are not exposed to non-Malay Muslims, many are not aware that converts to Islam (whether male or female) are not required to undergo circumcision in order to be socially accepted as Muslims. While for men this is sometimes a point of humour, among women it is almost unheard of. In any case, they would have surely learnt by this age to keep themselves clean–physical cleanliness is thus clearly possible without circumcision.

Those who oppose circumcision in a religious sense emphasise the perfection of the design of God. As another male friend put it, “If one believes in God, then it would make sense that God designed it that way.” If God had made us “in the best of moulds” as mentioned several times in the Quran, then every part of our body serves a physical and divine purpose. According to this line of thought, the sensitive head of the penis and the clitoris are certainly meant to be partially protected most of the time, and only fulfil their erogenous functions in their original sensitive and supple condition when needed during sexual arousal.

While some educated Muslim parents prefer to give the hygiene argument, because it does not seem logical to them to follow a norm without reason, there are as many who have never questioned this religious norm because of how they perceive themselves in relation to their religion.

Covert arguments: Power and identity issues

Why do so many young parents circumcise their newborn boys? Some can vaguely mention some parts of thehadith mentioned above, but there is the complete acceptance of sunat as a socio-religious norm, without necessarily knowing the rationale. As one male friend said simply, “It is commanded” and as one young mother said after circumcising all her sons “I never thought of why we [did it]”. Only one young mother stated that she did not circumcise her daughter because she was concerned about medical consequences, as she was exposed to the global debate on FGM. However, I’ve never met any parents who had thought twice about male sunat.

For older boys who are circumcised, the practice is bound up with rites of passage into adulthood and Muslimhood. A male friend who was circumcised at 11 years old (slightly later than his friends) confided that he was “scared” but that he knew he had to do it eventually, especially after other Malay boys were “taunting him for still having a foreskin”. Additionally, new fathers perhaps cannot imagine their sons looking different. More importantly, the myths of a “dirty” foreskin prevent them from imagining an intact penis and a different hygiene routine.

For the parents who follow this norm and know that it causes pain, they are thinking about how to reduce their child’s pain or make them forget it, but not eliminate it. Hence, doing sunat at a very young age, or hoping for anaesthesia (but not necessarily checking). At times it seemed more like they did not want the trauma of realising their child was in pain–this would be more obvious in the form of sobbing and suffering toddlers or teenagers, than a sleeping or crying baby (they cry anyway for everything else, right?).

Unfortunately, this represents larger attitudes around religious issues in Singapore. Religious norms, by virtue of having lasted thousands of years, must be true. Myths are created to support it, such as “the foreskin re-grows at the age of 35” from a new mother. When religious norms are questioned, the debate often stops in the intellectual dead-ends of either “the Prophet is infallible”, or “beware of unscrupulous scholars”. There is no effort for independent thinking, which is condemned for its selfish nature. Often, such arguments are pre-emptively dismissed by phrases such as “only God knows best” and “everything the Prophet said is truth”. But isn’t there is a difference between truth and claims for truth?

Living in an era of science and technology, we also have the tendency to justify religious norms with reason, conferring beneficial results (whether real or fictitious) upon them. For example, when I used to work at a mosque, we often explained that Muslims could not eat pork because of the viruses in it, wilfully ignoring all our healthy, pork-eating Chinese friends. Likewise, we confer medical benefits on routine circumcision (i.e. without medical necessity) such as reducing chances of penile cancer (which is already extremely rare), HIV transmission, and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

As for identity issues, we sometimes twist ourselves with circular arguments to confirm to ourselves the superiority and rightfulness of our religion and culture. Almost all public hospitals in Singapore do not allow routine infant male circumcision, with a prominent doctor stating that she “does not support any GP who runs into complications”, and a woman Muslim doctor even says “there is no medical rationale” for female circumcision (although she still continues it, perhaps to prevent unsanitary alternative options). Despite this, the practice still continues because since we believe Islam as we know it is perfect, everything that is said to be in the name of Islam should be correct.

My family has all been touched by sunat: my father, my mother, my sister and my brother. When I asked my mother why I had not been circumcised, she replied that “it’s a sunnah, it’s optional.” She didn’t think it was such a big deal if it was not done.

When my Dutch husband converted, my father sweetly convinced him to sunat his “small banana”. Although he could have sidestepped the issue by pointing out that he had, in fact, done a small procedure for a tight foreskin, he refused to do so on the principle that it was an unnecessary mutilation of the body, an idea echoed by the Islamic taboo on tattoos and plastic surgery.

Being forced to think about circumcision on adults made me think about the issue differently. Since I believe God made us, I firmly believe that we are created perfectly, and that every part of our bodies have a specific function. Like any other surgery, circumcision could be necessary for those with medical issues (and even then, there are minor procedures to solve certain problems). But for the vast majority of men and women who had sunat without their knowledge or informed consent as a child, I salute their faith if they would do it again today.


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