FGM perceived as a religious practice by the practicing communities

It is important to observe the link between religion and Female Genital Mutilation because, while several reasons are given by communities practicing FGM, such as respect for tradition, control of female sexuality, eligibility for marriage, religion is often one of the first answers given. 

  • In Mali, 64% of women consider FGM a religious imperative, as do 57% of women in Mauritania and 49% of women in Egypt, for example (UNICEF, 2013).
  • Beyond individual justification, religious authorities themselves may make FGM a religious imperative, as in Indonesia or Malaysia (Human Rights Without Frontiers, 2018).

Studies show that many individuals primarily justify their practice of FGM in the name of religion. Thus, even if the practice is not religious in the sense of a formal obligation imposed by law, it is still experienced as a religious practice by the groups concerned. Although non-religious in theory and doctrine, FGM can be religious in practice. Therefore, for the individuals who practise it, it is a religious practice.

How can this be explained?

FGM is often wrongly associated with the sexual purity of women: control of their sexual desire, virginity before wedlock and fidelity once married. However, since purity is highly valued in religious texts and ideologies (among Christians and Muslims in particular), FGM is perceived as a way of complying with the religious requirements of morality and chastity. (Lethome Asmani I, Sheikh Abdi M., 2008)

Similarly, marriage has an important role in the doctrines of the monotheistic religions. Since FGM is linked to the idea of a girl’s or woman’s eligibility for marriage, it appears once again as a way of respecting the path traced by religious norms. 

Regarding the link established between FGM and Islam, the use of the Islamic term “sunna” to refer to the practice reinforces the misinterpretation of FGM as a practice recommended by Islam (Lethome Asmani I, Sheikh Abdi M.,2008). Similarly, the term “khitaan (“circumcision” in Arabic) may be understood by some as referring to both male and female circumcision, while others believe that “khitaan” refers only to the male operation. Finally, FGM is also erroneously associated with the idea of “cleanliness”, allowing the practice of tohara (a ritual of ablutions which allow one to pray) (Lethome Asmani I, Sheikh Abdi M., 2008).

According to Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, if FGM is experienced as a religious practice, it is mainly because it contributes to the creation of a collective Muslim identity, far more than to an individual one (Hayford S, Trinitapoli J, 2011 ). In other words, the practice is a sign of belonging to a community and helps to strengthen its cohesion. Collective meaning prevails here over the sacred aspect, which is thus only secondary. (Bouhdiba A., 1975)

In Guinea for example, 64% of women believe that the primary point of FGM is social acceptance, while only 32% put the respect of a religious obligation at the forefront (UNICEF, 2013).

“FGM (…) is more a practice by Muslims than a practice of Islam” Abdelwahab Bouhdiba (Bouhdiba A., 1975)

Examples from the members

Somalia: Religion is used to justify the practice (as well as in Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia) and the majority of religious leaders argue that FGM is justified by Islam. Among the minority of Somali scholars dissociating FGM from Islam, very few dare say it publicly. So, which strategy can we adopt? 

  • Few are aware of the real implications of FGM. It is therefore necessary to explain to religious leaders the consequences of FGM, since Islam prohibits cutting organs for non-medical reasons 
  • Religious scholars must meet each other (diaspora, communities who don’t practice FGM …) 
  • We must highlight religious leaders who have dared to publicly display their opposition in order that they become a reference group, and to encourage more scholars to express their position openly.

Somaliland (Newell-Jones K., Baseline Research Report, 2016): The adoption of a policy of abandonment of FGM (begun in 2009) is complicated by tensions between the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the latter refusing to prohibit type I FGM (“Sunna”). According to a study, this view is reflected in the community, since 80% of men and 63% of women are in favor of legislation prohibiting all types except “Sunna”, while less than 10% are in favor of the prohibition of all types. Moreover the majority of religious leaders (79%) classify FGM type III as “not required” by Islamic law, and 87% consider the “Sunna” type as “honorable” 

  • There is a similar problem among Kenyan Somalis who categorize FGM into two types: type III which is considered non-Islamic, and “Sunna” that cannot be opposed.

Members emphasized that Islam is practiced in thousands of different ways in the world: there are different schools of thought (Malikism, Ismailism, Ibadism, Shafeism, etc.):

  • Within the Shafi school, it is common to consider excision as a religious obligation (Shafi School Religious Thinking), and this school is far from being marginal: it is present in Indonesia and Malaysia, among the Malays of other countries (Singapore, Sri Lanka, Brunei), dominant in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Iran, and mainly in Egypt, Sudan and Somalia. In these regions, FGM is strongly justified by religion (Stop FGM Middle East, 2005) (sometimes even by the government and political parties). According to a survey, 95% of Indonesians and Malaysians say religion is their main motivation to practice FGM.

Other groups also justify FGM in the name of religion, such as the Mufti of Oman (Ibadism), the Dawoodi Bohras in India and the Mufti of Dagestan (Sufi)

“The Community of Practice on Female Genital Mutilation” is part of the “Building Bridges between Africa and Europe to tackle FGM” project, supported by the “UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM”.
The project is coordinated by AIDOS in partnership with GAMS Belgium.

The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UNFPA, UNICEF or any other agency or organization.

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