The general flexibility in basic Islamic law is that if something is not directly forbidden (prohibited) then it is allowed. As harsh as many people consider Islamic law to be, this openness of the law allows for a lot of tolerance overall. However, it can be misconstrued, too, as it is in the case of female genital mutilation (‘FGM’) and how certain Muslims and non-Muslims consider Islam's stance on it to be.
Islamic law states that a woman can divorce her husband if he does not provide sexual satisfaction (we’ll ignore the fact that the egos of most men would not be comfortable, let alone accepting, of this being a reason for divorce, but that’s a matter for another day (maybe)). This means that the sexual satisfaction of a woman is her right, Islamically. (Does that really surprise some people?)
Now, going back to the ‘general flexibility’ outlined above, because there is no direct prohibition within the Qur’an or the Hadith regarding FGM there are those who would use that ‘silence’ as proof of its permissiveness. Some will refer to one hadith where the Prophet (saw) said to a woman who used to perform such circumcisions in Medina ‘Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband’. This hadith, found in Sunan Abu Dawud, is classified as ‘weak’ but it does, of itself, make clear that any FGM done should be minimal and should not have an adverse affect on the pleasures of either the woman or her husband.
It’s at this point, as grim as it is, that I think one should consider (without going into detail (sorry)) the different types of FGM. The World Health Organization lists four major types of female genital mutilation:
- Other: all other harmful procedures to the genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing (yes, those who have their clitoris pierced ‘for fun, etc’ here in the West have undergone female genital mutilation), incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area
Now, in light of the harm the types of FGM bring about to the girl/woman (urinary tract infections, childbirth complications, infertility) they cannot be considered to be permitted Islamically. Sure, I’m not a scholar but a key aspect of Islam (contrary to a lot non-Muslim assertion) is common sense. Whether people exercise or recognize such sense, though, is a different matter, unfortunately.
(As an important aside, it should be noted that there's no record (as far as I'm aware) of any of the Prophet's (saw) wives (ra) or daughters (ra) ever being circumcised.)
So it’s not endorsed within Islam (even if some Muslims and non-Muslims think it is), and it’s something being practiced by people of numerous faiths, which then begs the question: why is it done? When 3 million girls annually in Africa alone are at risk, it’s not an issue to be ignored.
Some of the ‘whys’:
- reduction in female libido which, in turn, keeps her ‘pure’
- a (invasive and gross) form of peer and social pressure (‘so-and-so had their daughter circumcised and so should we, otherwise the community will shame us’)
- a much more invasive and painful way of safeguarding chastity (a ‘chastity belt’ utilizing flesh)
- social control
Now, going back to the aforementioned ‘pleasure’ which, Islamically, is a right of both spouses – since it has been medically established that the removal of the clitoris, the prepuce (the most sensitive parts of the human body (thought to have more than 70,000 nerve endings!), and so forth reduce or eliminate the pleasures a woman can experience then, other than when it is a medical necessity, it’s haram.
If you think the West is ‘super-advanced’ with regards to FGM, then you need to take on board the fact that even in the early 80s, in the United States, there was promotion of female circumcision (Playgirl had an article called Circumcision for Women: The Kindest Cut of All (that was in the late 70s, but still)), and it was only in 1997 that it became a federal crime to make any non-medically necessary cutting upon the genitals of a minor girl for any reason, whether religious or otherwise, and to any degree.
That’s barely 15 years ago!
So how about a different approach – instead of hurling abuse and accusations and so forth at those who are ‘practicing’ FGM, educate them. Through education and understanding you’ll take away the overbearing social conformity aspect, you’ll give women the courage to step up and stop what they went through from happening to their daughters, you’ll give men an awareness that what they’ve been allowing to happen is wrong, you'll give boys the courage to protect their sisters...
Allah (swt) admonishes those who blindly follow and do the things their forefathers did (2:170, 5:104, for example) and, to a large degree, that’s the crux of the problem here: the practitioners are continuing with this because it’s what their forefathers did. Insha’Allah, through education and understanding, this abuse and debilitating practice can be brought to an end – but, considering the fact it hasn’t even been two decades since the West ‘ended’ the practice, there’s no real moral high ground for them at this point in time.
Is it frustrating and horrifying to those of us who are against the practice? Sure. Patience and perseverance, though, will lead to awareness, change, and better things (Insha'Allah).