Many were shocked on 6 February, when the United Nations Children’s Fund ranked Indonesia third behind Egypt and Ethiopia in the global practice of female genital mutilation and cutting. Indonesia’s inclusion in the Unicef report was largely responsible for raising the global tally from an estimated 130 million to 200 million women and girls who have undergone the practice. The international community turned on Indonesia, asking why a country long considered to offer a “moderate” interpretation of Islam suddenly seemed little different to other more “conservative” Muslim nations.
Many Indonesians rejected the Unicef report, not wanting to be mentioned alongside African countries as leading exponents of genital cutting. Indonesians are quick to point out that female circumcision in Indonesia is different to the form practiced in Africa. In most cases it is a symbolic procedure, involving only a slight scraping or pricking, usually of the clitoral hood. This type of genital cutting is classified by the World Health Organisation as Type IV, and is considered to involve less harm or risk than the other three categories, which involve removal of genital tissue.
The defensive response to the report could partly be due to the procedure’s strong association with Islam. Although the Unicef report does not link the problem to religion, most of the countries where female genital cutting and mutilation is practiced are majority Muslim. In an environment of escalating global (or western) hostility toward Islam, many Indonesians may be reluctant to accept what international organisations such as Unicef (which is seen by many to represent western values and interests) have to say about their country. For many Indonesians, the report implies that Islam is a religion that subjugates women and girls, and they are not happy about being painted in this light.
The Unicef report used data from a 2013 Ministry of Health population survey (Riskesdas). The survey found that the practice of genital cutting was common in both rural and urban areas. It found 51.2 per cent of girls aged 0-11 had been subjected to the practice, with the highest prevalence recorded in Gorontalo (83.7 per cent) and the lowest (2.7 per cent) in East Nusa Tenggara. The top 10 provinces were Gorontalo, Bangka-Belitung, Banten, South Kalimantan, Riau, West Java, West Sulawesi, Jambi, West Sumatra, and West Nusa Tenggara. The overwhelming majority of girls (72.4 per cent) were circumcised between 1-5 months of age.
The Ministry of Health survey did not explore attitudes toward the practice of genital cutting. But research conducted in West Sumatra and Lombok in 2013 by Islamic Relief, one of the world’s largest independent Muslim nongovernmental organisations, found that many respondents believed that the practice was important for girls to become good Muslims and to help “stabilise female sexual libido”.
Although many women in the Islamic Relief study described the practice as a “religious obligation”, the research found that none of them could actually refer to any Qur’anic verse or hadith (the sayings of the prophet) that provided theological justification for the practice. This finding underscores the fact that in many areas of Indonesia, genital cutting is performed primarily for cultural reasons, with almost no knowledge of the theological basis for the ritual. In recent years, however, these cultural practices have taken on a more religious tone. In a deeply religious society like Indonesia, it is not surprising that people will try to imbue cultural traditions with religious meanings.
As in other Muslim-majority societies, female circumcision has been subject of contestation between the state and religious authorities in Indonesia, with women stuck in the middle. In 2006, the Indonesian Ministry of Health issued a circular (surat edaran) banning the practice. The circular was immediately criticised by Muslim groups, who pushed back against the decision. The Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) published a fatwa opposing the banning of female circumcision in 2008, and called on the government to repeal the circular. It based its fatwa on a hadith that said “circumcision is sunnah (required) for men and it is a form of honour for women”.
Religious scholars have argued that evidence of the authenticity of this hadith is weak. Fathayat NU, the women’s arm of the largest Muslim social organisation in Indonesia, Nahdhatul Ulama, declared that there is no single verse in the Qur’an mentioning female circumcision as a religious obligation. Notably, Dr Asrorun Ni’am Sholeh, secretary of the fatwa division of MUI, has said that the 2008 fatwa was not meant to provide theological justification (jawaban hukum) for circumcision, but rather it was intended to respond to community concern about banning the practice. As many communities still wanted to perform the practice, he said, it was important that the government made the service available. He added that, although there was no clear health benefit to female circumcision, it still had to be carried out as part of “religious identity”.
Under mounting pressure from some Muslim groups following the MUI fatwa, in 2010, the Ministry of Health published a circular that provided guidelines for medical professionals on female circumcision. Pragmatically, the ministry recognised that if people were going to circumcise their daughters, it was important that they adhered to standards of hygiene and didn’t cause permanent damage. In 2014, however, this regulation was repealed, following domestic and international pressure, including from the UN Human Rights Committee.
Just as women’s rights advocates have used human rights discourse to denounce the practice, however, supporters of genital cutting have also used the language of human rights to justify its ongoing existence. Banning female circumcision, they argue, violates Indonesian Muslims’ right to religious freedom.
The apparent popularity of genital cutting in Indonesia is another sign of the more widespread commodification of Islam in the country. Indonesian Muslims appear to be increasingly interested in publicly expressing their religious identities, including through the purchase of Islamic goods and services. Mass circumcision rituals or celebrations are becoming more common, and sensing a commercial opportunity, even private Catholic hospitals in Jakarta have offered the service.
Some people see this more prominent expression of religious identity as a positive development, as a means for creating a more united Islamic ummah, or community. But it is dangerous when creating an ummah takes the form of targeting women’s bodies. Even worse, when the rhetoric focuses on controlling girls’ sexuality, to ensure that they are pure, chaste and therefore “good” Muslims.
Female circumcision in Indonesia might only entail a small scratch. But apologetic attitudes end up perpetuating cruelty against Indonesian children. To cause damage to our children’s bodies without their permission – especially without sound health or religious reasons – is simply wrong.