Muslim rite is modernized
SINGAPORERatna Damayanti considers herself a modern Muslim woman. Like many of her peers in this wealthy island nation, she counts coffee shops and jazz bars among her favourite haunts and watches Friends every week.
Damayanti also thinks of herself as more modern than her conservative Muslim girlfriends who wear the Islamic headscarf. But the extroverted college student does have one thing in common with them.
They were all circumcised when they were a few days old. And she says that if she ever has daughters, she will have no qualms about putting them through the same procedure.
"It's not like they are removing everything," she says.
In Singapore's small Muslim community, female circumcision involves nicking the prepuce, the skin covering the clitoris.
It is markedly different from the practices of some Muslim communities in Africa and the Middle East decried by human rights activists as female genital mutilation. In those cases, a young girl's clitoris is clipped and burned. In a few communities, all the external genitals are cut off and the remnant tissue is sewn up to leave only a small opening.
Those practices originated 1,400 years ago, before the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, says Noor Aisha Binte Abdul Rahman, a professor at the National University of Singapore.
Singapore's milder form is viewed as symbolic of this tradition.
But the custom has no religious basis and there are no guidelines except that it should not bring harm to believers, says Zhulkeflee Haji Ismail, manager of Singapore's Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association.
"Some people just follow customs without knowing what they're about," the scholar says. "Traditions die hard."
Yaacob Ibrahim, the government minister in charge of Muslim affairs in this city state, says he does not plan to circumcise his daughter, since it is not a religiously required practice.
He says there are no laws regulating the practice in Singapore, whose predominantly Chinese population of 4 million includes 300,000 Muslims, most of them ethnic Malays.
Circumcisions in Singapore are done by female doctors at a handful of Muslim clinics. Elsewhere circumcisions are often done by non-medical practitioners in unsanitary conditions.
Dr. Masayu Zainab Masagos Mohamed, who circumcises five to six patients a day at a Singapore clinic, says the procedure is usually carried out on babies or prepubescent children. But it has been done on women of all ages.
The procedure involves using stainless steel scissors to make "a small nick" of a centimetre or so on the skin.
No anesthesia is used because the injection would be more painful than the cut itself, Zainab says, and she prescribes an antibiotic cream for the punctured skin. The procedure costs about $17 (U.S.) and isn't covered by insurance.
Zainab, who wears a headscarf, says there is no medical rationale for the practice, although many Muslim women think there is. In the past, Singapore females were circumcised at home by Malay midwives, Zainab says.
Not all Singaporean Muslims embrace the practice. Some, like 27-year-old housewife Nur Naadiya Chia, says it is "outdated and inhumane."
"I don't think I'd let my daughters be circumcised," says Chia, who converted to Islam at 18. "It's not compulsory and there's no reason why I should do it."
But most Muslim women go along with the practice. They say it does not affect sexuality nor cause discomfort.
"The procedure is like having your ears pierced," says Zaileen Mohammed Zain Tahar, a mother of two sons and a daughter. "It's nothing."
For more information on female genital mutilation, go to www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/femgen/fgm1.htm, www.religioustolerance.org/fem%5fcirm.htm, www.jannah.org/genderequity/equityappendix.html, www.fgm.org.
Additional resource (added 2010 Feb 9): www.datehookup.com/content-female-genital-mutilation.htm