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Undercutting Female Circumcision

Photo Source Amnon Shavit | CC BY 2.0

Malaysia has always been the land of myths in the colonial imagination. The myth about those who run amok when possessed by demons; the myth of the Pontianak, the female vampire, inhabiting banana trees; the myth of the lazy native.

Today, Malaysia is still the land of myths, though one has to be careful about the way the word myth is used.

Remember the two lesbians who were publically caned in Malaysia, but they were not really caned, just “forcefully tapped” with a rod? The myth here is about shariah punishment for sexual ‘crimes’ or ‘deviance’. Is the lashing of women sanctioned by the Quran? How is it to be done? To what extent is lashing actually carried out in Muslim countries? There are those who will also point out that caning as a form of punishment is part of the old British colonial penal code, forgetting that Malaysia is not obliged to retain this code and that this code is compatible with Islamic code.

The debate goes on and on. It becomes hard to tell what, actually, is going on from what people believe is going on, putting the caning of women in Malaysia in the realm of myth.

In the case of the lesbians, however, Malaysia proposed its own real and by no means mythical  ‘gentle’ solution. The Malaysian way of punishment is still extreme and humiliating, but there are varying degrees of extremism, as we know. The fact is, however, that there is no tradition of real, hard flesh-splitting caning of women in Malaysia. So why the need to mete out a ‘light’ form of it?

Now there is this news that a representative of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry in Malaysia recently defended the practice of infant female circumcision in Malaysia at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. It is part of a Malaysian cultural “obligation”, he said.  But “the type of circumcision practiced is very mild and does not involve any cutting,” he added.

By cultural did he mean the Islamic culture of Malay Muslims, the largest ethnic group in Malaysia, since none of the other Malaysian ethnicities practice female circumcision? Ah, but female circumcision is not required in Islam. Yes it is. No, it isn’t. Like caning, the hijab and polygamy, people will argue endlessly about what is and isn’t required in Islam. Neighboring Singapore, too, which is not a Muslim majority country and is touted as one of the wealthiest, most modern city-states in the world, tolerates female circumcision within the Malay community there, though, to the best of my knowledge, it is Malaysia that speaks of it for the first time in terms of “no cutting involved”.

Circumcision without cutting? Incision implies cutting, circumcision means to cut around. So there is no Malaysian word for what is “mildly” done to the clitorises of babies? Even in the Malay language, the same word for male circumcision is used for female circumcision: sunat. The only difference is that the word perempuan—female—is added on, but that in itself tells us very little about the difference in technique in the two types of circumcision.

One would have to talk to the doctors to find out how, exactly, female circumcision is carried out in Malaysia, though even here the picture is unclear. This is just one of the many reasons why Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) and other groups have slammed the government representative for giving misleading information to the UN.

As someone who has researched and written fiction about circumcision, the truth of the matter is that no Malay woman I know has been circumcised. This was never a part of my adolescent or adult conversations. I know a fair amount of Malays who have daughters and granddaughters. I also happen to have family members who are sociologists and Islamic philosophers, so I know the kind of advice that is sought from them and given.

Malaysian Muslim women may not know whether they are circumcised or not, people say. They may not remember what was done to them as babies or young girls. The men, too, may not even know, the joke being that so many men don’t even know where clit is or what it should look like.

Plus Malay women are reserved. They don’t like to talk about these things. Odd, then, why some are so willing to talk to the media about their private parts. Even the Deputy Prime Minister is calling attention to the clitorises of Malay women, the same Deputy Prime Minister who is trying to accommodate child marriage in the country. Malay women have spent decades getting themselves hijabed. Now the first thing that someone is going to think when they look at a Malay woman is: Is she circumcised?

I don’t like to assume that Malay women—city women or kampong women—are stupid and don’t know their own bodies. Anyway rumour has it, from men and women, that a lot of Malay women simply aren’t circumcised. And the few women I have heard claim that they are circumcised relate the experience almost as hearsay, a story about a story rather than an account of direct experience. We don’t even remember the details of the first time we get our teeth pulled, they say.

But it is dangerous to say that few Malaysian women are circumcised and to do so, in a way, would be to help the enemy side. If the general sense is that women are not circumcised, the risk is that measures will be stepped up to get them circumcised, with real cutting, and this is exactly what many don’t want to happen.

However, if Malaysia feels some sort of need to use women to show to the world that they are following Islamic traditions even though there is no consensus on what they are, this invention of ‘mild non-cutting’ can actually be quite subversive. It undercuts the will to a horrible and unnecessary practice.

Maybe doctors who are pressured into carrying out this ritual, when they are in cold surgical rooms with female babies, they simply say a prayer over clit. Maybe that is what mild non-cutting is.

Whatever the case, the message is that the sexuality of Malay women has to be regulated, and somebody is making decisions over their bodies since the decision to circumcise them is made when they are babies or young girls.

Perhaps the most persistent myth of all is the notion that if you control sexuality, society will be more moral and ethical. The Victorian era has shown us that this is simply not true. And Malaysia still remains a country that certainly does not have a clean corruption record. It still has one of the biggest political and financial scandals involving the former Prime Minister and his wife hanging over its head.

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Masturah Alatas is the author of The life in the Writing (Marshall Cavendish, 2010) and The girl who made it snow in Singapore (Ethos Books, 2008). She is currently working on a novel about polygamy. Masturah teaches English at the University of Macerata in Italy, and can be contacted at: alatas@unimc.it    

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