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A Slight Scratching of the Clitoris

Not, I assure you, for the reason most obvious to many readers' thinking. There's been quite a few things percolating through my thoughts lately, among them a brief mention I came across while reading Half the Sky (Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn) last year to female circumsion in Malaysia.

That took me aback largely because I had no idea we even had female circumsion in Malaysia. At first, I thought it was some isolated practice, possibly derivative of much older minority non-Muslim customs. A cursory attempt to educate myself on the subject online brought up scholarly research into the practice done in 1999, which sampled 262 women in Kelantan. Though I was unable to access more than the first page, what the research clearly stated out front was that this was related to female circumcision as it is known and practised in Muslim society, and that the Malaysian version of female circumcision involved a piercing of the clitoris or pupice with a sharp object to draw a small amount of blood, as opposed to the excision of the clitoris and/or labia we generally associate with this ritual. The World Health Organization lists this as Type IV Female Genital Mutilation/Female Genital Cutting: "...pricking, piercing or incising, stretching, burning of the clitoris, scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice, cutting of the vagina, introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or to tighten the opening."

What struck me most about learning this was that I had literally, prior to reading about the subject in a foreign publication, never even heared about female circumcision in Malaysia, not even in feminist histories of the country written by local authors. I was appalled and angry, but at the time, vaguely suspicious this was a practice largely isolated to northern peninsular Malaysia, a stretch culturally equivalent in its representation of fundamentalist religion to say, the US's Bible belt. Then, I discovered an article published in Malaysiakini from November 2009 (mirrored in full here at a blog) that stated the Health Ministry was in the midst of drawing up guidelines "based on Islamic guidelines and current practices." This is in line with the Shafi'i school of Islamic law, which calls for mandatory circumcision of both males and females. The Shafi'i school is the dominant school of Islamic law in Malaysia.

The general logic behind female circumcision is that it helps to curb female sexual desire, while enhancing male sexual desire. Islamic belief has it that women are by nature more sexually needy than men, and that is partially responsible for the idea that women are at fault for crimes of desire in Muslim society. This emphasis on emotional, sexual womanhood is not necessarily consistent. The Quran is fairly clear that men and women are equally responsible for their morality and spirituality, even though it puts women under the charge of men on account of their added emotionality, and physical shortcomings (menstruation and pregnancy are both considered just cause for women's propensity towards emotionality). So on the one hand, women are infantile creatures that need a firm hand to guide them through life, while on the other hand, women are adult enough to be held accountable for every deviation they make from spiritual righteousness. Incidentally, the Quran does not prescribe circumcision for either gender. Male circumcision is a borrowed cultural practice from the Jews, adopted to show allegiance to an Abrahamic religion, as Islam considers itself the last word of YHWH after He spoke to Jesus.

Female circumcision, like male circumcision, was already widely practised long before the arrival of Islam. It was practised on both genders across many ancient peoples, Abrahamic or otherwise. The oldest documentation on circumcision comes from Egypt at about 2,000 years B.C. Wherever it was practised, from ancient Africa to Renaissance Europe, medical reasons for circumcision (ie. "cleanliness") were only tacked on much later after the fact. It is generally seen as a rite of passage into adulthood, even though, as the Malaysiakini article notes, these days, female circumcision (and many male circumcisions) are actually done within the first year after birth in Malaysia. More commonly, as with Jews and Muslims, it is a means of connecting different members of the same community with each other.

None of this entirely explains the skip in logic that occurs in the premise for female circumcision as modern proponents explain it (supported via hadiths): that it helps to curb female sexual desire, while enhancing male sexual desire. Certainly, with the more severe forms of Female Genital Mutilation, the actual physical pain of removed body parts and tying up what remains to block entry by any sexual partner apart from designated husbands more than likely will prevent women from wanting sex -- for simple, and once again, painful, physical reasons. In Malaysia though, the circumcision prescribed for girls is, as I mentioned earlier, Type IV -- pricking the clitoris until it bleeds. What on earth could poking an infant girl's privates with a sharpie possibly do to make her want less sex? There's a tempting analogy to make here about thinking of the clitoris as a peculiarly male part (a tiny pseudo-penis which becomes erect during sexual stimulation) on what logically, to many people, is a female form. If we do consider the clitoris as a tiny penis, then the "comfort" a husband could derive from not rubbing against it with his affirmatively male sexual organ during intercourse is, from a very certain perspective, understandable. Not necessarily logical, since most healthy women are born with a clitoris (circumcision being the most obvious way to remove the offending part), but there are people who find rubbing penises entirely an affront to all cultural and biological norms.

What I'm saying here is, if you don't have the stomach to think it's natural for some men, with their male sexual bits, to physically like each other, then the idea of it being natural for a woman, with her tiny pseudo-penis, to physically like you is probably about as scary as the fictional female sex beast who preys on men because she isn't properly tied down with five kids underfoot and one more underway.

Or you could look at some of the historical insecurity about this idea, which reveals that connecting the clitoris with overtly male behaviour and aggression isn't new. Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph, had this to say in response to Hind bint Utbah, a Quraysh woman who famously wore necklaces made from the ears and noses of Muslim fighters felled in battle and once openly mocked the Muslim army in satirical poetic verse after the Battle of Uhud, where she had lost many male relatives including her father:

"The vile woman was insolent, and she was habitually base,
since she combined insolence with disbelief.
May God curse Hind, distinguished among Hinds, she with the
large clitoris,
and may he curse her husband with her."

(Quote taken from Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed, itself referring to an account from Tarikh al-Tabari.)

Now, we have this unseen, barely discussed, hush-hush issue that's apparently been in Malaysia for a long time, whose logic is doubtable at best, propagated by medical practitioners who should be giving more balanced advice. Note that the Malaysiakini article mentions that young urban mothers with the means to do so, who consulted gynaecologists or paediatricians on the feasibility and truth of female circumcision, were also told it "could help their daughters curb sexual desire." Considering how widespread the article made it sound, this topic never came up when I was in school, neither from the mouths of my female religious teachers, who preached all kinds of things women are wont to do, nor among female Muslim friends my own age. It's not talked about, it's never brought up, and we have no real way of knowing if it's on the rise or already practised on most of the female Muslim population.

In the tradition of turning to your elders for good advice, I went ahead and asked my parents about female circumcision. Did they know this happened in our country? I wasn't worried my parents circumcised me. Both my parents are liberal and logical in their spiritual views, and this seemed quite beyond their scope of participation. My father was utterly disgusted at the notion of mandatory female circumcision, if it was imposed in Malaysia, as the Shafi'i school of law, once again, implies. My mother outright dismissed female circumcision happening in my generation as utterly baseless, though she later conceded that it happened back in the old days, out in the villages.

My parents, as much as I love and respect them, aren't infallible sources of wisdom. But it was worth a shot.

There's a lot of questions I want to ask here that I'm just unable to find accessible research about. Scholarly study in my country seems stuck on the 1999 paper by Ab. Rahman Isa, Rashidah Shuib and M Shukri Othman, which I am still curious to read. The Malaysiakini article came out 10 years later, and although it does mention that JAKIM (the Malaysian Islamic Development Department) and the Health Ministry were working on guidelines to help legitimise and medicalise the procedure, I've not been able to find any guidelines as such online -- or even a notice that guidelines had been put in place. Is female circumcision a recent trend, introduced along with growing Islamicisation? Does it have older historical roots in Malaysia, arriving much earlier with 13th century Arab traders who brought Islam? What's the regional dispersal of this practice? For example, is it more widespread in rural Malaysia, and going obsolete in urban areas?

These walls, for any other subject, would be intriguing puzzles, but for this one, the silence is frightening to consider. One thing we do know is that Islamicisation, herein homologous to the spread of Wahhabism, is on the rise in Malaysia. That has included calls for more separation of the genders in the public sphere, whether these are physical boundaries, such as excessive peer pressure to conform to a mode of dress, or denying Muslim women their legal rights under the constitution. There's a domino effect of what rights women have over their reproductive health that they stand to lose in this climate, and while women's organisations in Malaysia have addressed many of these potential losses, it's kind of strange to me that female circumcision isn't more widely condemned. If women are being driven further into a legal and intellectual underground, then even an apparently harmless pinprick to the clitoris can become a more dangerous form of physical excision as voices of criticism are stifled.



Mar. 18th, 2011 06:48 am (UTC)
Arright, you two. :D

But yeah, I was completely baffled to hear it happened in Malaysia too. Specifically, my first question was, "Where did we go wrong?" That made way too many cascading flowcharts happen in my head.