Turning to the Quran to stop FGM

By Samhita Mukhopadhyay May 29, 2007

("A student recites a coral verse on female genital mutilation during the world social forum in Kenya.") Health activists in sub-Saharan Africa are seeing that attempts at stopping FGM based on women’s rights isn’t working, so they are turning to the Quran, to find evidence that it is not a religious necessity. Abdi, who speaks about female genital mutilation on behalf of the US-based Population Council, said invoking Islam penetrates years of cultural indoctrination.

"Women don’t have to torture themselves. Islam does not require them to do it," said Abdi, who underwent the procedure when she was 6 and was a college student by the time she realised it was not necessary from a religious viewpoint. With age-old cultural roots, female genital mutilation is practised today in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt and other parts of the Arab world such as Yemen and Oman. In the rest of the Islamic world – the Middle East, North Africa, southeast Asia – it’s nearly non-existent.

I am sure part of the problem is that Muslim ideas and Western feminist ideas tend to run in opposition to one another. The feminist movement, as it is understood world-wide, is considered to be Western and white. It seems almost logical that local leaders would reject the terms of women’s rights if they are based on a Western model of "women’s liberation." However, the health risks of FGM are real and cannot be ignored internationally. But it is important to listen to these activists on their own terms.

Late last year, the top cleric in Egypt – where the practice is pervasive and many believe it is required by Islam – spoke out against it, saying circumcision was not mentioned in the Quran, the Muslim holy book, or in the Sunna, the sayings and deeds of Muhammad – the two main sources of Islamic practice. "In Islam, circumcision is for men only," Mohammed Sayed Tantawi said. "From a religious point of view, I don’t find anything that says that circumcision is a must" for women. Laws against female genital mutilation exist in many of the regions where it is practised, but poor enforcement and lack of publicity can hinder the laws, human rights groups and women activists say.

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