Fa Abdul, 47, didn’t know she was circumcised or went through “khitan” as a baby until she was nine years old. The discovery was made during her brother’s circumcision.
I asked whether I was circumcised too. My aunts told me I was circumcised when I was just a few months old. – Fa Abdul
However, Fa isn’t alone in her late discovery. In 2012, at least 93% of Muslim women in Malaysia underwent some form of circumcision.
The practice of cutting female genitalia appears to be normalised in Malay Muslim society, with a study amongst rural Kelantanese Malay communities citing it as a desirable practice.
The practice, despite being a norm in the community, has received international backlash and outcry to ban it.
What Is Female Genital Mutilation And Why Is It Legal In Malaysia?
In 2018, at the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Malaysia defended its stance in allowing the practice to continue in the country .
The reason given by Malaysia’s representative is that the removal of the folds of skin surrounding the female’s private parts is not harmful and, “it is not detrimental to their sexual health.”. The representative further suggests that the practice isn’t qualified as Female Genital Mutilation or FGM.
An opinion that medical practitioners in Malaysia concur with.
We are very much against what is going on in other countries like Sudan. That is very different from what we practise in Malaysia. And there is a big difference between circumcision and female genital mutilation. – Dr Ariza Mohamed, obstetrician and gynaecologist at KPJ Ampang Puteri Specialist Hospital in Kuala Lumpur 
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified FGM into four types, and many medical practitioners have suggested that in Malaysia, only Type 1 and Type 4 are performed .
- Type 1 (clitoridectomy) – partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce
- Type 2 (excision) – partial or total removal of the clitoris and the lips of the vaginal opening (labia minora), with or without the excision of the larger outer lips (labia majora)
- Type 3 (infibulation) – narrowing of the vaginal opening with the creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris
- Type 4 – All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping and burning (cauterisation)
Medical practitioners in Malaysia view female circumcision as only Female Genital Cutting (FGC) and not Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a practice prominent in Arab and African countries.
Consent Not Yours To Be Given
In Malaysia, as Fa Abdul has witnessed it being performed on her newborn daughter involves a needle prick to the clitoral hood at a private practice. Once a drop of blood drips from the wound, the procedure or ritual is complete.
I was asked to carry my daughter and my ex-husband was asked to hold her legs apart so she doesn’t move. The doctor showed us a needle and assured us it would just be a moment and wouldn’t be painful.
She slit her labia, my daughter cried, a drop of blood fell and that’s it. It finished in mere seconds. The doctor said, “See, that’s it. That’s done, you can take your baby out”. – Fa Abdul
Dr Harlina Siraj, a physician specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology whose family has had circumcisions, said seeing a “mak bidan” or midwife circumcise her five-month-old daughter was traumatic.
As opposed to Fa’s sterile experience, the “mak bidan’s” traditional set-up comprised of a razor, turmeric root as an antiseptic and a lit candle to sterilise the razor. Dr Harlina recounts assisting the “mak bidan” by holding her daughter’s leg down during the ritual .
That was very traumatic to me as a doctor. I cried after that and said I would not have anyone in my life ever go through that. – Dr Harlina Siraj, obstetrics and gynaecology specialist
The procedure is often recommended to be completed before female babies turn two years old. A medical doctor who performed it at her clinic shared that by performing it at a tender age the healing process is quicker and trauma won’t be elicited.
The correct method is to only remove the prepuce or excess skin on the clitoris and no stitches are done on the genitals. In fact, the process is also very simple and should not be painful. – Dr Phia Mujer, a medical officer at Klinik Mynur Bangi 
The WHO, thinks that the practice remains a violation of rights with no medical justification. FGM and FGC “have no health benefits. It can lead to not only immediate health risks but also to long-term complications to women’s physical, mental and sexual health and well-being.
The practice that often takes place before a woman could give informed consent is seen as a violation of children’s rights. The CEDAW committee and WHO views any form of FGM, even in the mildest form should be marked as gender violence and when performed on a child, it is a form of child abuse.
The practice is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women and as an extreme form of gender discrimination, reflecting deep-rooted inequality between the sexes. As it is practised on young girls without consent, it is a violation of the rights of children. – World Health Organisation 
When the state fatwa or Islamic ruling declared it mandatory in 2009, Harlina, along with other medical practitioners, was at the forefront in condemning it. They were, however, the minority group that opposed the practice in Malaysia.
According to a previous study, 20.5% of Muslim doctors have a hand in the practice of FGC in Malaysia. The doctors were unaware of the legal and international stand against FGC and stood firm in their belief that the practice should continue.
In 2012, the Ministry of Health stated a guideline would be in place to assist medical doctors and to ensure FGC is conducted by professionals rather than the traditional unsterile method. An act that only gives solid ground for the practice to persist in Malaysia.
If you come up with the guidelines and you medicalize it this means you’re ok with it, despite it having no medical benefit. – Syarifatul Adibah, Senior Programme Officer at Sisters in Islam
The Outdated Practice That Still Has A Place In Malaysia
Both Fa Abdul and Dr Harlina weren’t inclined to defy the practice in the first place as it is seen as a rite of passage in their household.
I didn’t think much about female circumcision until I gave birth to my baby daughter at age 21. I wasn’t really keen to know then too because of all the changes happening to my body and life, so I left it to my female relatives to take care of it. – Fa Abdul
It is also the case for many more Malay Muslim mothers out there who have allowed the practice to be performed on their newborn daughters. Many relented to the successful persuasion of their mothers and/or mothers-in-law, letting the elders take control of their decision.
Everything was handled by my in-laws, they controlled everything. – A participant in a focus group discussion conducted by Sisters In Islam 
There is an expectation or pressure that the practice of FGM or FGC should be continued, and mothers fear that the refusal to perform the ritual would cause them and their children to be ostracised or criticised by their families.
It’s something that has been passed down since the olden days. So, we still have to consult our mothers, and families on their views. Even though we are scared to partake in FGC, the blame would rest on us if there’s any issue in the future, they would chide, ‘hah tu lah, tak nak sunat’. – A participant in a focus group discussion conducted by Sisters In Islam 
Deferring Views On FGM
In December 2022, Dr Amalina Bakri, a Malaysian medical doctor currently residing in the United Kingdom, shared that her newborn daughter will not undergo female circumcision as the practice is considered illegal in the UK. The doctor who has used her social media platforms to combat medical misinformation had another thing coming, the wrath of the Malay Muslim community in Malaysia.
Her Twitter post unleashed a round of discourse on what is the consensus of FGM or FGC in Malaysia, setting two different forts of beliefs. The linkage of FGM or FGC to Islamic practices stemmed from the Arabic word khitaan or khataan. Supporters of FGM and FGC translated the word that appears in several religious texts, as a word interchangeable for both male and female circumcision.
However, some pointed out that khitaan only refers to male circumcision as the Arabic word for female circumcisions is khifaadh.
Some religious scholars have few hadiths (a collection of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings] to back their notion, and in Malaysia, the grey area is only exemplified by different muftis pointing to different rulings in their states.
The National Fatwa Council issued a religious edict in 2009 stating it is mandatory or wajib for Muslim girls and women to be circumcised, however, it varies in each state based on the interpretations by scholars and government officials. The fatwa became an iron-rod justification for many Muslim mothers.
The Wilayah Mufti also shared a few hadiths and proofs that mentioned it is mandatory or compulsory. So we hold on to that as we are following Imam Shafie’s teaching. When there’s a ruling, it sounds a bit heavy. – A participant in a focus group discussion conducted by Sisters In Islam 
The former mufti Terengganu, Ismail Yahya, has also questioned the practice on religious grounds. He was part of the minority that opposed the edict. He sees that the matter doesn’t have a concrete foundation in religious scripture.
Where’s the source for it being done on children? Do you choose your rights when you’re weeks old? – Ismail Yahya, former mufti of Terengganu
To date, Perlis is the only state that decreed the practice as sunnah. In islam, sunnah refers to an act of worship that is encouraged but isn’t obligatory in Islam, not doing so wouldn’t be sinful.
Reasons Behind The Ongoing Practice
Among the reasons for female circumcision is hygiene, which is also the primary reason for male circumcision. It is also the persistent belief held by mothers who ensured their daughters are circumcised, riding on the perception that uncircumcised women are less ‘clean’ spiritually.
Another popular reason is that it would reduce female sexual desire, prevent girls from becoming promiscuous, and protect them from premarital affairs.
They said females are circumcised so that they don’t grow up to be wild girls—so that they become good girls. – Fa Abdul
The removal of the flesh in FGM and FGC is said to lessens the sensitivity of the clitorises, and hypothetically control female libido.
The clitoris sensitivity of uncircumcised women is higher. So, if they are single mums or widows, there is a higher desire to remarry. Or to have a boyfriend. – A participant in a focus group discussion conducted by Sisters In Islam 
Dr Harlina found this to be a bogus claim as FGM and FGC have only resulted in various sexual dysfunctions among women.
It should not be performed to help with (decreasing) female sexual desire, that’s wrong altogether. – Dr Harlina Siraj, obstetrics and gynaecology specialist
The literature reporting sexual dysfunction of women after FGM/FGC have been sparse in Malaysia but are growing in countries such as Egypt and Sudan.
Based on a research in 2021 examining multiple previous studies, women who have been circumcised reported a decreased sexual satisfaction, reduced frequency of an orgasm and decreased lubrication during intercourse . The dysfunction is associated with the removal of erogenous zones and sexually responsive cells during circumcision.
Depending on the type of mutilation, circumcised women have also experienced more pain during sexual intercourse. Women that went through Type 1, 2 compared to Type 3 circumcision reported lesser pain.
To Fa Abdul, however, the procedure she went through did not achieve the intended purpose.
It makes no difference to me. I have had a heart-to-heart talk with my daughter and it also makes no difference to her. She’s as sexually functional as any other female who has not been circumcised. – Fa Abdul
Blurred Lines Of Religion And Culture
Fa Abdul upon reflection thinks that the practice of FGM/FGC is rooted in the Malay Muslim community copying behaviours from Arab and African countries, seeing it as having religious origin.
We are confusing it with Islam and we think whatever they do is Islamic. – Fa Abdul
However, the obligatory ruling of female circumcision in Malaysia moves against the tide in the Islamic world. Several Muslim majority countries such as Egypt and the neighbouring Indonesia have banned the practice .
Despite no reported complications – there is no concrete scientific evidence that proves its benefits either in comparison to male circumcision prescribed by the religion has been found to reduce health risks for human papillomavirus, genital ulcers, herpes simplex virus type 2 and syphilis.
Many over the years have spoken up and highlighted that the practice is unnecessary in this day and age. However, with religion being one of the pillars of the ongoing FGM/FGC practice, it is easier to go with the flow and allow tradition to take over.
We were already born into the culture that society expected us to do it. Doing it becomes automatic, you just follow and stop asking questions.
I was young and naive and I actually didn’t know what I was doing — the question I asked myself was: ‘if it’s pointless, then why do we do it? – Fa Abdul
Giving Back Control To Female Bodies
Fa Abdul, Dr Harlina Siraj and other advocates that support the end of FGC and FGM believe that women and girls should have more say over what happens to their bodies. Females who have experienced it in the past did not have the same opportunity or freedom to voice out.
The practice that continues to have a place in many parts of the world including Malaysia, at its core, is seen as a form of gender inequality that restricts girls’ sexuality or a symbolic “chastity belt.”
Numerous factors contribute to the prevalence of the practice. Yet in every society in which it occurs, FGM is a manifestation of entrenched gender inequality. Some communities endorse it as a means of controlling girls’ sexuality or safeguarding their chastity. Others force girls to undergo FGM as a prerequisite for marriage or inheritance. – UNICEF 
In a country where religion and culture are at an impasse, banning the practice would only backfire.
Banning it outright could backfire. Many still believe it is a religious or very much-needed cultural practice. A blanket ban would drive many to seek female circumcision elsewhere, which would have a worse effect, like mak bidans in the villages using unhygienic equipment.– Fa Abdul
The fight to put an end to the practice, however, requires a more delicate touch. It requires educating the community, and it has to be led by those that have a hand in the practice to persist in the community.
It’s better for medical doctors and religious scholars to educate the public that this isn’t religious, but a cultural practice with no evidence of suppressing female sexual feelings. We should forgo this practice. – Fa Abdul
Currently, in Malaysia, few organisations are conceding with Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to abandon FGM/FGC by 2030. These are:
- Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) is a non-profit organisation based in Malaysia sought to advocate for women’s rights issues. In the FGM/FGC front, ARROW has collaborated with Orchid Project and Asia Network to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in producing a report on the issue in Malaysia.
- Sisters In Islam (SIS) has been instrumental in bringing the voices of Muslim women to the surface. In matters of FGM/C, the organisation has been vocal in ending the practice.
Explore our sources:
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- Dahlui, M., Yut Lin, W., & Wan Yuen, C. (2012). Female circumcision (FC) in Malaysia Medicalization of a religious practice. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 19(Suppl 1), S7.
- Isa, A., Shuib, R., & Othman, M. (1999). The practice of female circumcision among Muslims in Kelantan, Malaysia. Reproductive Health Matters, 7(13), 137-144. Link
- M.Al-Adam. (2020). Malaysia’s anti-FGM advocates: Leave our bodies alone.Al Jazeera. Link
- M.Kasztelan. (2015). Female Circumcision Is Becoming More Popular In Malaysia. vice.com. Link
- M.Lum. (2022). Say No to Female Genital Mutilation. CodeBlue. Link
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- Sisters In Islam. (2021). Perceptions Towards Female Circumcision In Malaysia. Link
- A. Nzinga., S.De Andrade Castanheira., J.Hermann., V.Feipel., A.Kipula., R.Bertuit & J.Bertuit. (2021). Consequences of Female Genital Mutilation on Women’s Sexual Health & Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.The Journal Of Sexual Medicine. Link
- CodeBlue. (2022).Female Circumcision Should Be Prohibited And Not Medicalised — Azrul Mohd Khalib. Link
- T.Zai. (2022). Zafigo x SIS: Changing Perceptions On Female Circumcision In Malaysia. Zafigo. Link
- UNICEF. (n.d). Female genital mutilation. Link