Recent moves to condemn the Islamic duty of female circumcision on the grounds that it has no basis in religion are bound to meet with failure. Not only is female circumcision Islamic, but it is, according to the best scholars of Islam obligatory. This means Muslims are bound to practice it and this right to practice it is guaranteed by both the law and constitution of Sri Lanka.
Besides, the female circumcision which Islam prescribes is not Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) but a very beneficial practice involving the removal of the prepuce of the clitoris, which is similar to the foreskin removed during male circumcision. It facilitates genital hygiene and improves sex life. Nowadays even American women choose to undergo it as a cosmetic surgery popularly known as hoodectomy.
The evidence for circumcision, both male and female, come from the ahadith (Sayings of Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him) like the following:
1) Five are the acts of fitra: circumcision, removing pubic hair, clipping the moustache, cutting the nails, plucking the hair under the armpits (Sahih Bukhari & Muslim)
Circumcision, like the other fitra acts involving the removal of redundant outgrowths that contribute to uncleanliness, takes the human body to a more perfect state ordained by God, which is why it is called an act that is in accord with the fitra (God-given natural inclinations of humans). That it should apply equally to females as much as males goes without saying as both sexes have a prepuce, a fold of unclean skin covering the erectile tissue of their genitals. Besides, it is a well established principle of Islam that males and females are to be treated equally in all respects where they are similar and there can be no doubt that in this respect they are indeed similar.
2) When the (male) circumcised part meets the (female) circumcised part, bath becomes obligatory (Ahmad, Tirmidhi)
Here we have the Prophet declaring that the bath following sexual intercourse (without which no prayer is valid) becomes obligatory when both the circumcised parts meet The fact that the Prophet defined sexual intercourse as the meeting of the male and female circumcised parts when stressing on the need for the obligatory post-coital bath pre-supposes the obligatory nature of circumcision in the case of both males and females.
3) Abdullah Ibn Umar states that the Prophet instructed some Ansar (Medinan) women visiting him to ‘be circumcised’ (Mukhtassar zawaid musnad al bazzar, Ibn Hajar).
4) The Prophet told Umm Atiyyah Al Ansariyyah, a lady who circumcised girls in Medina: “When you circumcise, cut plainly and do not cut severely, for it is beauty for the face and desirable for the husband” (Abu Dawud & Tarikh Baghdad of Al Baghdadi).
But that’s not all. We have a few more traditions concerning the Prophet’s closest companions who believed it to be necessary for women:
1) Umm Al Muhajir said: “I was captured with some girls from Byzantium. (Caliph) Uthman offered us Islam, but only myself and one other girl accepted Islam. Uthman said: ‘Go and circumcise them and purify them” (Adab al Mufrad of Bukhari)
2) Umm Alqamah says that when the nieces of Ayisha’s brother were circumcised, ‘A’isha was asked: “Shall we call someone to amuse them?” “Yes” she replied (Adab Al Mufrad)
So here we have Uthman, one of the closest companions of the Prophet and the third Caliph of Islam ordering that some women who had converted to Islam be circumcised. The other tradition tells us that the Prophet’s wife Ayisha had her nieces circumcised, suggesting that she believed it to be obligatory.
Early Arabic literature also testifies to the fact that female circumcision was thought to be obligatory by the community. In the story of the Muslim Champion and the Christian Damsel occurring in the Alf Layla wa Layla (Thousand and One Nights) we are told of this Christian girl who at her request was expounded the tenets of the faith by a Muslim soldier in the days of the Caliph Umar. The story continues: “And she became Muslimah, after which she was circumcised and he taught her to pray”. The balance of evidence indicates that circumcision is obligatory for both males and females.
The Islamic Procedure
All the early scholars of Islam were agreed that all that is needed to be removed in the circumcision of the female is the prepuce of the clitoris, the fold of skin covering the clitoris. This is the female equivalent of the foreskin in males which is taken off during circumcision.
1) Ibn Hajar Asqalani states in Fathul Bari that it constitutes the removal of “the skin covering the cock’s comb-like structure, and not the flesh”.
2) Abu al-Hasan Al Mawardi says of the female’s circumcision: “It is to be limited to cutting off the skin in the shape of a kernel located above the genitalia. One must cut the protruding skin without removing the whole fold”
3) Ibn Taymiyya says in Majmoo Al fatawa: “Her circumcision consists of cutting the prepuce which is like the cock’s comb”.
4) Ibn Jawzi explains in his commentary on Sahih Al Bukhari that bazr (the clitoris) is ‘the part left behind when the woman is circumcised’, showing it is the prepuce that is removed, but not the clitoris.
These early scholars of Islam did not offhandedly decide how it should be done. They based it on a saying of the Prophet where he is reported to have told Umm Atiyya Al Ansariya, a lady who circumcised females in Medina:
When you circumcise, cut plainly (in a shallow manner) and do not cut deeply, for it is beauty for the face and desirable for the husband” (Sunan Abu Dawud)
This hadith clearly indicates the procedure to be followed in the circumcision of girls. The words “Cut plainly and do not cut deeply” (ashimmi wa-la-tanhaki) is to be understood in the sense of removing the skin covering the clitoris, and not the clitoris. The word ashimmi used here comes from the root word m-sh-m which literally means ‘to sniff’, thereby implying a delicate sniff of steel (over the clitoris to remove its skin). La tanhaki means ‘do not cut deeply’, ‘do not uproot’ which is a clear prohibition to do harm to the clitoris. Thus it is very clear that the Prophet commanded the removal only of the clitoral prepuce and prohibited harming the clitoris in any way.
The expression “It is beauty (more properly brightness or radiance) for the face” (ashraq li-l-wajh) is further proof of this as it is to be understood to mean a face suffused with pleasure, in other words, the joyous countenance of a woman, arising out of her being sexually satisfied by her husband. Another version of the hadith puts it more directly, for instead of ashraq li’l wajh (radiance for the face) it gives ahwa li’l mar’a (more pleasure to the woman). When the Prophet said that it was more desirable for the husband, what he obviously meant was that he would be pleased that his wife too had attained orgasm at about the same time as him – perhaps even had multiple orgasms – and that he would not need to exert himself further to ensure she is fully satisfied. The idea here is that it is only with the removal of the clitoral prepuce that real sexual satisfaction could be realized. The procedure enhances sexual feeling in women during the sex act since a circumcised clitoris is much more likely to be stimulated as a result of direct oral, penile or tactile contact than the uncircumcised organ whose prepuce serves as an obstacle to direct stimulation.
As shown by numerous studies, male circumcision confers significant health benefits. That its female equivalent which involves an analogous procedure, the removal of the prepuce of the clitoris, should offer similar benefits goes without saying. It has been found that the genital hygiene of women is, on the average, poorer than that of men because of numerous folds and the semi-hidden position of the clitoris. Whether we like it or not, it’s easier for males to retract and clean their foreskins of the regular buildup of smegma than women to clean theirs due to the obvious anatomical differences as shown above. It would be necessary for them to retract the hood each day or every other day, in order to prevent adhesions forming and smegma collecting beneath the prepuce.
It has been found that urinary tract infections (UTIs), an all too frequent complaint in women even more so than in uncircumcised little boys was very likely being caused by smegma buildup beneath the clitoris. He lost no time advocating what he called a hoodectomy, removal of the hood of the clitoris, in other words the skin or prepuce covering the clitoris to permanently prevent smegma accumulation.
Female circumcision also contributes to preventing HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) transmission to male partners of women enjoying oral sex as the virus which finds a congenial home beneath the prepuce of the clitoris could be transmitted through cunnilingus or oral sex resulting in the occurrence of oral cancer among men. Interestingly Actor Michael Douglas recently revealed that his throat cancer was caused not by smoking or drinking, but by HPV (Human papillomavirus) contracted by giving oral sex to women.
The procedure also prevents unpleasant smells associated with the smegma buildup beneath the clitoris. Men as is widely known are turned off by unpleasant smells during sex and when it comes to oral sex could be easily put off (unless of course his partner has washed her clitoris by retracting it thoroughly with soap or body wash). So why go through all this as a routine matter when it could be permanently corrected by a minor surgery, preserving sexual joy in its purest form.
Fulfilling Sex Lives
Detractors claim that female circumcision reduces sexual pleasure in women. This is because they have deliberately lumped it together with unislamic forms of Female Genital Mutilation like clitoridectomy and infibulation practiced in some African countries. These harmful forms have a detrimental effect on female sexuality but cannot be compared with Islamic female circumcision which has the opposite effect from these. In fact it contributes to enhancing sexual satisfaction in women during the sex act rather than decreasing it. This procedure is gaining popularity among Western women, and especially American women who are only too familiar with the benefits of male circumcision, but not so much for health reasons as to lead satisfactory sex lives. It is popularly known as hoodectomy, after the hood of the clitoris (clitoral prepuce) that is removed in this minor procedure.
So isn’t it high time feminists who always seek to conform to the dictates of unislamic forces revise their stand on this issue. If not for its obvious benefits, then at least for the equality between the sexes it confers. Besides it very unlikely that those Muslims –and especially women – practicing it will ever give up the practice, given its Islamic basis.
All evidence suggests that the practice is not decreasing, but increasing due to greater religious awareness. Thus what is needed is to educate people, especially women, on the correct procedure. In this regard, Indonesia recently took a positive step by medicalising the procedure and stipulating what needs to be removed, namely the clitoral prepuce. This is indeed the way to go.
The Writer is Vice President- Outreach, Centre for Islamic Studies