In 2016, there was an international uproar over news that it is still legal to carry out female genital mutilation in Singapore, in spite of growing worldwide condemnation of the same. According to The Independent, the practice is still done by many Malay Muslims in Singapore, though it is generally spoken about in hushed tones.
What is female genital mutilation (FGM)?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injuries to the female genital organs, for non-medical reasons.”
Though there are four main types of FGM, the type which is practised in Singapore falls under Type 1, called clitoridectomy. This is “the partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals), and in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).”
The Independent quotes Ms. Filzah Sumartono of women’s rights group AWARE as saying that in Singapore, the practice – known locally as sunat perempuan – is usually done before the age of two and may involve cutting the tip of the clitoris or making a small nick.
Health risks of FGM
The WHO further asserts that “FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways.”
Immediate risks can include severe pain, excessive bleeding (haemorrhage), genital tissue swelling, fever, infections (e.g., tetanus), urinary problems, wound healing problems, injury to surrounding genital tissue, shock, and even death. Of course, risks would depend on the severity of the FGM procedure followed.
In the long term, FGM may cause urinary, vaginal or menstrual problems, sexual issues and even psychological problems like depression and anxiety.
Why is FGM done?
thinking woman with question mark on gray wall background
FGM has religious and sociocultural roots. Many communities attribute it to religion and hence tend to follow the procedure practised by their ancestors. Most are under societal and familial pressure to conform to tradition.
Apparently, one of the chief reasons for FGM is to prevent premarital sex and to ensure marital fidelity. Many communities believe that FGM reduces a woman’s libido and helps her resist extramarital sexual acts.
Some communities claim that FGM improves female hygiene if done properly.
What the world is saying
It is understood that FGM takes place in at least 45 countries spread over Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In Asia, the procedure is very much prevalent among the Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Maldives, India and Pakistan.
Most countries, including the U.K, have outlawed FGM calling the practice inhuman and a violation of human rights. For many, it is quite surprising that FGM is still not considered illegal in a developed city-state like Singapore.
What Singapore is saying
A quick check on some of the online forums in Singapore led us to conclude that FGM does get carried out in many clinics here, with the fees ranging from S$30-S$35. Some clinics even offer a package deal, if done in conjunction with ear-piercing.
Female genital mutilation in Singapore does happen
Some women, however, seem to be in the dark about this procedure. When asked about FGM, Halima* had this to say, “I have heard of it but we don’t do it here in Singapore. Only boys need to do (circumcision) when they’re about 9 years old.”
We asked Amirah* about her views on female genital mutilation in Singapore. She says quite matter-of-factly, “It isn’t ‘getting rampant’, most of my Muslim friends (myself included) have done it. It’s for religious reasons. I was about 6-8 (then) I think.”
So, did it hurt? “Just a tiny bit, like an ant bite”, she continues, “I was fine within like 5 mins. I realised when this whole issue got blown up in the media that I didn’t even know the difference between a cut and uncut clitoris haha. (I am)Fairly certain I have not been damaged in any way. And I don’t think it has affected me in any negative way that the media portrays, including a decrease of libido, discomfort, etc either lol.
Nuba’s* views were similar to Amirah’s*. She too thinks that the Western world is overreacting and equating the FGM carried out here with the more severe versions done in Africa. “The ones done here are under Muslim law, it’s just a small snip (of the clitoral hood)..barely visible”, she clarifies.
Even Zoya* believes that “it improves the woman’s hygiene.”
So, is the Western world making a hue and cry about nothing, when it comes to FGM in Singapore? Should religion be left to itself? Or are such ancient, rural practices inhumane, and deserve to be left in the past?
The debate continues and we want to know what you think too!
*Names have been changed on request.
(Sources: The Independent, WHO)