News Series The 'Splainer

The ’Splainer: What is female genital mutilation, and what does it have to do with Islam?

Kajiado Community members participate in an Anti-FGM and Ending Child Marriage protest during an Orange the World activism event in Kenya on Nov. 25, 2016. Photo courtesy of UNIC/Newton Kahema

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which RNS gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) This week, two Muslim physicians were indicted in a high-profile genital mutilation case in Michigan: One was charged with performing female genital cutting on two 7-year-old girls, and the other with allowing use of his clinic for the procedure. Both the doctors and victims belong to the Dawoodi Bohra sect, a branch of Shiite Islam based in India but also found in Pakistan, Yemen and East Africa, whose adherents regularly practice cutting. This is believed to be the first time anyone has been charged under a U.S. federal law criminalizing FGC.

The arrest reignited a discussion on female genital mutilation in the U.S., including among Bohra Muslims. It also spurred a Michigan state lawmaker to introduce anti-Shariah legislation, even though the practice is not based on Islamic law. So what is FGM, and what are its religious underpinnings, if any? Let us ’Splain.

First of all, what do you mean by ‘cutting’ the genitals?

The terms “female genital mutilation” and “female genital cutting,” frequently abbreviated as FGM or FGC, refer to cutting the external female genitalia for any nonmedical reason. Depending on local or cultural customs, that might mean a small nick on the clitoris or rubbing a razor against the clitoris or labia minora. “That’s the most common category,” Raquel Evita Saraswati, a Muslim advocate against gender violence, told RNS. But she added that it can also entail the removal of all the external genitalia “and sealing of the entire area, leaving just a small hole for urination.”

FGM procedures are usually conducted by a physician, midwife or traditional practitioner with little medical knowledge. Complications are common and often deadly.

In cases where the cut is virtually unnoticeable, girls can grow up without ever realizing what was done to them. In other cases, women are left unable to feel sexual pleasure or bear children. Some experience crippling pain during sex.

In the Michigan case, the doctor claimed she merely wiped away a mucous membrane from the girls’ clitorises. But medical examiners say the victims showed “abnormal” genitalia, including scar tissue, small lacerations, “altered” labia and an incision. And other women from the Bohra community say cutting, usually at the age of 7, is common. “None of us remember being ‘wiped,’” writes journalist Tasneem Raja, who was raised in a Bohra family and was subjected to FGM when she was about 7. “We were cut. Some of us bled and ached for days, and some walked away with lifelong physical damage.”

I can’t imagine — why would people subject their daughters to FGM?

Join the club. The reasons people cite are varied, but it’s generally related to controlling female sexuality — if it hurts or she can’t feel pleasure, she won’t seek out extramarital sex — and maintaining purity for marriage. And to be fair, many women willingly participate in the procedure.

Among Bohras and some other groups, FGM can also be about removing “bad germs.” It can also be about beauty: Some believe it produces a desirable smoothness of the genitalia. But more than that, it’s simply a long-standing tradition. However painful and dangerous, social pressure is real. When FGM is near universal in a community, a girl’s future marriageability depends on her being cut.

When did FGM begin? Is it a Muslim practice?

Researchers have theorized that cutting “might have been practiced in ancient Egypt as a sign of distinction, while others hypothesize its origin in ancient Greece, Rome, Pre-Islamic Arabia and the Tsarist Russian Federation.” Herodotus also wrote about FGM in Egypt back in the fifth century B.C.

In 19th-century America and Europe, FGM was used to “cure” insanity, masturbation and libido. It is also done by some animist groups, and Jews used to practice it in Ethiopia, where it is widespread among Christians and Muslims.

Percentage of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years who have undergone FGM, by country. UNICEF, 2013

Although there is no mention of cutting girls’ genitalia in the Quran, some Muslim communities do promote FGM on religious grounds. “In some schools of jurisprudence it’s considered widely acceptable,” Saraswati said, referring to the Islamic law traditions that dominate in different Muslim societies.

“So in Indonesia, because of the school of thought there, the practice is pervasive,” she said.

Muslim supporters of FGM often cite a hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, that can be interpreted as allowing cutting, Qasim Rashid writes in his book “Extremist.” But, he says, it is one of many hadith whose authenticity is in doubt.

FGM has also been roundly denounced by Muslim leaders and scholars — including the dean of Egypt’s influential Al-Azhar University. A 2011 United Nations report states that over 4,100 religious leaders have taught followers that FGM is not sanctioned by Islam, and nearly 1,000 religious edicts called on Muslims to end cutting.

Still, in Egypt, upward of 90 percent of women aged 15-49 have undergone FGM, which was outlawed in 2009 — but Coptic Christians and Muslims are said to practice it at about equal rates. In other Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, FGM is virtually nonexistent.

FGM is a global practice. Graphic courtesy of Sahiyo

FGM doesn’t happen often in the US, right?

According to the World Health Organization, FGM has been documented in 30 countries, mainly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. “There’s a stereotype that FGM happens just on the African continent,” Saraswati said. “But it’s actually part of the birthing procedure in regions around the world. So FGM is actually something that’s growing.”

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control estimates at least half a million women and girls are at risk of FGM. This number may be an overestimate: It’s based on immigration from countries where cutting is practiced. But two years ago, researchers found that FGM rates in the U.S. had doubled in the past decade.

The practice is not new in the U.S., where some fundamentalist Christian groups have also used it to control female sexuality, Saraswati said, “because they don’t want girls to have sexual desire, or they say the clitoris is too big.” One woman recently spoke out about her FGM, which happened in a Midwestern church clinic that cut girls who masturbated.


About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, focuses on Muslims in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.


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  • If there is anything that should unite all women – Christian – heathen, is this issue. No person has the right to do such to any girl, baby, woman. This is barbaric.

  • My understanding is this is not only a muslim problems. That said, it should not be happening.

  • This is also a common practice in Africa, though not exclusively associated with Islam in my understanding. Clearly barbaric as already noted.

  • I guess the practice of male circumcision doesn’t bother anyone enough to rate an article or discussion.

  • As usual, the response from the feminist community is deafening silence… Which clearly illustrates that women’s rights are only for SOME women, those who are more equal.

  • it’s very sad; isn’t it. Perhaps they are in the handwringing position we are…..what do you do after you pray? I wonder what would happen if we all set a time together to pray on this matter – like made a really big issue of it – all over the world….. I wonder what the Lord would do with it…..

  • I read ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’ by Alice Walker way back – mid ’90s and found it very powerful and based on an unexpected topic. Picked up the novel because I had enjoyed The Colour Purple. Never had any sense from the novel it was anything but a cultural practice – which it explores.

  • The 3,000 year (or more) year old practice can be discussed another day. You can talk about how many baby boys die of it, how many are inhibited in the sex act and for how many is sex painful as a result. And what about difficulties in childbirth? That’s what I thought. Sorry, Jim.

  • This is an interesting take that feminists don’t care. I have a varied group I follow on twitter (conservatives, liberals, socialists, libertarians, and everything in between). This is actually a very hot topic amongst folks of various walks of life-including feminists and those who strongly reject the descriptor. There is downright horror that FGM or FGC is being practiced.

    Maybe you’re not seeing it. I sure am. And people are angry about it.

  • This is a topic that is being studied. A few are noted below. Professor Brian Earp has written quite a bit on male circumcision.

    It’s anecdotal, yet, my friends who’ve had children many have avoided male circumcision. There will be a generation of young men who aren’t circumcised unless they choose to do it later.

  • This is barbarism disguised by religion. Those who believe in God and practice this crime on young girls should ask this question to themselves: Why did God create the clitoris if needs to be cut? If it is essential, , why didn’t God mention in the Koran, Bible and Torah?

  • Jim, I have long been against the modern day practice of circumsicion. I know many women–and men, some of whom are medical professionals and should know better–say that it is done to prevent cervical cancer. This justification was de-bunked decades ago, and has absolutely zero basis in scientific fact.

    As for men, the most frequent justification I’ve heard throughout my lifetime, are two things:
    1. The father of the boy is circumsized, and doesn’t want his son to feel “different” from his father, and
    2. The man doesn’t want his son to have “problems in the locker room.”

    Considering the barbarism of the practice, and non-medical need for circumsicion (there are some instances where it needs to be done to ensure ability to urinate and so on), and the heartbreaking stories I’ve heard from multiple mothers who had their babies circumsized, (at the behest of the pediatrician), and then had to deal with trying to surgically correct a botched procedure (often multiple surgeries over a period of years), and through that horror learned never to have it done on susequent male children, I cannot condone the continued practice as a matter of accepted necessity.

    As for women, many tell me they do not like the way an intact penis “looks.” The foreskin is there for a reason. Physicians in this country–at least in great majority, would never *think* of removing the prepuce of the clitoris; it would cause extreme discomfort, probably for a lifetime, at least. At worst the mutilation would cause extreme aversion to sex. Certainly it would not be pleasurable.

    So, not all women are indifferent to the issue of male circumsicion. I try to convince every new mother I meet not to circumsize their baby until they have thoroughly researched it–and I recommend watching the procedure too–and I’m happy to say I’ve had some success.

    Removal of the foreskin, btw, takes about 15 inches of skin (in the adult). Shouldn’t men have a say in what is done to their own bodies?

    I think so.

    As a side note, I’ve had partners of both kinds, and find there is substantial disparity in sensitivity. The uncircumcised penis, much like the clitoris, is highly sensitive and responds completely differently to touch than their perpetually naked brethren.

  • There are multiple, valid studies that show partners of uncircumcised men actually do have an increased risk of HPV infection and cervical cancer.

  • It is beyond belief how many people have heard about this and do not believe it is happening. The second most unbelievable fact is the number of people in this day and age have never heard about it either thru ignorance or down right do not care.