2018 Sep 26
Sri Lanka is a country that’s increasingly lacking in conversation about “taboo” topics such as birth control, menstruation and fundamental sexual education. The latest piece of information that has been disrupting Sri Lankan social media is female circumcision and the technicalities surrounding it. A recent article in a prominent newspaper has created a large amount of traction on online platforms with both males and females alike calling the practice “inhumane and brutal” and berating the newspaper for publishing a piece of writing backed by “insubstantial” claims of it being a mandatory practice to all Muslim women “as stated in the Qur’an”. There are many opinions and statistics being thrown around by the people of the internet, but very few have actual research to back them up. To have a clear understanding of the topic at hand, we delved into its depths.
What exactly is female circumcision?
Ideally and in plain terms, female circumcision is a minor surgical procedure that removes a small tissue from the surrounding area of the clitoris, which is medically called the prepuce, or colloquially the “hood”. It is the same as male circumcision where the foreskin or the prepuce in male genitals is removed. This practice isn’t meant to be harmful to those who patronize it. In fact, it is a cosmetic surgery in Western countries, known as Hoodectomy or Clitoral Unhooding, supposedly done by women who want to experience heightened pleasure and increased hygiene, though debate on how effective it is, is still on-going. It is also completely legal in every country of the world, provided that it is carried out correctly.
In a Sri Lankan context, through habit and unquestioned tradition, many of Sri Lanka’s Muslim ethnicities such as Moors, Malays and Dawoodi Bohra communities have come to practice unsafe female circumcision even in the present day. In 2008, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, a religious association with widespread influence in Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, issued a fatwa (or a ruling) declaring female circumcision mandatory.
The specifics of the practice vary according to region and ethnicity. Testimonies by Moor and Malay women express that this ritual is carried out 40 days after birth by an “osthi maami”, a medically untrained woman who uses a blade to “nick”, draw blood, and sometimes sprinkle ash on the wound. What is “nicked” and how deep it is nicked varies according to each woman. Testimonies by Dawoodi Bohra women express that the practice is called “khatna” and recount how a struggling female child aged 7 is pinned to a table whilst a medical professional removes part of her clitoris with no anaesthetic, causing agonising pain that they can vividly remember well into their adult lives.
The difference between Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Female Circumcision
In an ideal world, the above traditions are practiced in safe, sterilised environments, painting a happy picture for all parties involved. But in reality, this is far from the truth. Due to the lack of regulation and medicalization of female circumcision, Sri Lankan women who go through this procedure are often traumatized for life, undergoing Female Genital Mutilation, rather than circumcision. The intent of FGM is neither hygiene nor increased pleasure, but the complete opposite of that. A horrific act commonly practiced amongst African tribes and communities, FGM is the removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and/or labia major in order to desensitize a woman’s sexual organs, thereby decreasing chances of infidelity. Although atrocious in nature, the reality of the modern world is that this practice is not only common in Africa, but is regularly practiced in our very own country as well. Under the guise of circumcision, many women’s reproductive organs have been defaced, their bodies violated and thoughts scarred for the rest of their lives.
According to a Reuters article, of the 3,000 Bohras in Sri Lanka, anecdotal evidence suggests that as many as 70% – 90% of women have undergone this procedure and of the nearly 2 million members of the Moor and Malay communities, a majority of these women are still subject to this abuse.
Female Circumcision in Sri Lanka and the problem at hand
Although prevalent in the lives of many women all around the country, female circumcision or female genital mutilation are practices unregulated by law and has thereby a large absence in studies or public data available. However, in June of 2017, a report compiled by women activists and survivors was officially submitted to Sri Lankan authorities such as the National Child Protection Authority, the Human Rights Commission and multiple parliamentary committees. This report included 15 personal testimonials on FGM in Sri Lanka, amongst others. Further, Sudarshini Fernandopulle, a Member of Parliament and specialist in public health, alongside a group of female lawmakers, has engaged with the ministries of health and justice in an effort to eradicate the practice.
Given the sheer number of personal testaments at hand, the fact that Sri Lanka keeps ignoring a problem as serious as FGM sits right under their noses is inexcusable. As debate around the practice slowly opens up once again, it is important for us as a country to realise the importance of regulation, medicalization and freedom of choice when it comes to matters such as these, and take action towards the safety and protection of our women.