We Just Don't Talk About It
- 12 Posts
- Age 18
This article was written in observance of Girl Summit 2014. Information about FGM, its harms and justifications, can be found elsewhere. Here, I talk about the issue in a Malaysian context.
Reading the resource pack for Girl Summit 2014 I stumbled upon the link to the 29 countries where FGM/C (henceforth only referred to as FGM); Malaysia was not on it (or any other Southeast Asian countries where the practice is still prevalent), which is not a surprise, but a disappointment nonetheless. We have no solid movements advocating for the discontinuation of this practice, nor do we have much on-the-ground awareness of the issue either. As a child, I had gone through the procedure. So did a majority of my (Malay Muslim) friends and, of course, my family. As far as I know, people remain largely in the dark on the topic.
As a young girl (well, I say young – in reality this happened only a few years ago) I remember two occasions where FGM was brought up outside the privacy of my own tumultuous thoughts. The first was a radio interview on a local Islamic radio station about the importance of female circumcision*. The interviewee explained that girls couldn’t control their sexual urges if they didn’t have their genitals ‘cleansed’, and that we would be moral deviants less FGM was performed on us. An example was given: the ‘sexual freedom of Western women’, where FGM is not a widespread practice. The second occasion was brought about by me. I was sitting with my friends at a neighbourhood playground, each of us on perched a swing set. In a quiet, hushed voice reserved for discussion of serious matters, I asked them, “Did you guys get sunat* when you were younger?” Everyone quietly said yes, and that was enough for me, at the time – to know that I wasn’t the only one.
Everyone talks of the health concerns regarding FGM but to me, as someone who was circumcised and comes from a culture where circumcision is done regularly and for the most part safely, health concerns don’t register as much as the psychological impact. When I first discovered that that particular part of my anatomy were incongruent with what I was born with, I was shocked. And I had to find out on the Internet, where thousands of articles are written against the condemned practice of FGM in other countries, compounding the shame and horror I felt at the time.
Opposition movements were (and are) concentrated on countries so far from where I live, with experiences that vastly differ from the environment I grew up with and am around now. Furthermore, the language used always falls too harshly on me, as I think it ultimately serves to set up an alienating dichotomy between 'educated' people who know FGM is wrong, and those who carry it out regardless of harmful effects. In reality, people within my community just don't know. We don't talk about it. And when the time comes for another baby to be put up for the procedure, we continue the practice because we don't realize we have other options. It took a while for me to fully comprehend what had been done to my body, and to deal with its ramifications. Sex education in this country is abysmal and sunat is such a normalized, ubiquitous practice, it may as well be inextricable from the birthing process. So right now, I’m speaking strongly to Malaysians (our Malay Muslims especially) to seek knowledge on the subject.
A study on female circumcision in Malaysia by Maznah Dahlui stated that 62-90% of girls in Malay Muslim communities have undergone female circumcision. It is considered obligatory for a majority of our Muslim jurists (despite backlash and claims otherwise), but even without the endorsement of authorities or external bodies, this practice would still be carried out due to its place in tradition. It is an accepted, government-approved medical practice such that it’s mainly performed in hospitals and clinics now. A lot of people don’t actually take time to get to know their bodies, so if you’re a Malay Muslim living in Malaysia, yes, there’s a high chance that you have been circumcised.
As I’ve said above, the radio interviewee provided the justification that circumcision will ‘control’ us women from our wanton lust (this justification is, ironically enough, not offered for male circumcision) and safeguard our hygiene, but mainly, it all comes down to tradition. If you interviewed the common person on the street, they would have little to say on the matter. When interviewed, most people defended it on the grounds that ‘it doesn’t harm us, so let’s continue the practice.’ To them, it’s simple: it’s always been done, so why question it? Indeed, if these people were to read up on the matter, they would be saying, why question the WHO?
Whatever it being said about the long-term health and mental
effects of FGM (for let’s not beat around the bush, it is
mutilation – an ugly word for an ugly practice), whatever
debates have arisen regarding consent, I only have one thing to
say as someone who has had it happen to me: I don’t like it, and
I don’t want any other girls to undergo such an unnecessary
procedure for such unsubstantiated justifications, for no other
reason than ‘that’s the way it has always been’. Autonomy of my
own body would feel more conceivable to me if I still had every
single part of my body that I was born with. I don’t want any
other girl out there to come to the same shocking realization
that I did, that autonomy can be so easily overrided by people
who simply do not wish to break from a useless, poorly justified
Personally I would appreciate more in-depth research and continued scholarship on the issue. A simple Google search of ‘FGM in Malaysia’ yields little results of substance. Access to this sort of information for a layman is thus severely limited.
*Sunat is the Malay word used to mean circumcision. It is applied both to FGM and male circumcision.