Making Excuses for Islam and FGM

Across the world, around 200 million women and girls in thirty countries are the victims of female genital mutilation (FGM). Most of them become victims of the practice before they are old enough to object. A majority of the victims are Muslim but likewise, a majority of Muslims don’t practice FGM. However, within those Muslim communities that carry it out, it is seen as part of the religion.

A Short History of FGM

In the West many associate FGM with Islam, though it was around long before the religion began. While a majority of current victims are Muslim, many also belong to other religions. Those include Christianity, Judaism (very rare), and older African religions.

The practice of FGM began in Africa. No one knows for sure when or how. It was originally a cultural tradition relating to maintaining control over women and ensuring a particular man is the father of her children.

However, when it spread to other parts of the world it was via Islam. FGM was unheard of in Asia before Islam came to the region in the 13th century. Further, in that part of the world, it is only Muslim communities that practice it.

Heather’s Theology

Personally, I have no time for the argument that FGM has nothing to do with Islam. There are two main arguments I use to associate FGM with Islam amongst those who practice it:

1. Islam says that it has been around since time began. Muhammad’s role was to make people aware of it. This is the basis of their argument that Israel (and the rest of the world) actually belongs to them and not the Jews. If that argument is okay for land ownership, it’s okay for FGM too.

2. Just because something was around before the religion came along, doesn’t mean the religion can wash its hands of responsibility. Many imams have taught that FGM is the right and proper thing to do for centuries. If Islam agrees the practice is bad, they should not be doing this. The “cultural practice” thing is just an excuse. There are multiple things that become part of a religion’s traditions that originally had nothing to do with it. Christmas in Christianity springs to mind.

In addition, because FGM (and male circumcision) was unknown in Asia before Islam, and its introduction to Asia was as part of Islam, it is therefore absolutely a religious practice in that part of the world.

The Requirement of FGM in Islam

There are four basic types of FGM. The worst leave a women in constant pain so that even walking is difficult. All also reduce sexual pleasure, though some women insist there is an increase in pleasure from the most mild forms. None, of course, are necessary, and all pose at least some danger to the woman if only from infection.

Most imams will admit that the Qur’an and hadiths do not require FGM, but many still teach that it should be done, especially in Sunni Islam, which accounts for 80-90% of Muslims. There are four main schools of law in Sunni Islam: Hanbali, Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Maliki. The first two consider FGM obligatory and the other two recommend it.

Let’s be clear. FGM is about controlling women. There is no way to credibly defend it, although many still try.

The Decline of FGM

These days, FGM is declining in most parts of the world. In Africa in particular, UN and WHO health workers are cooperating well with their local counterparts. They work tirelessly to educate people about the dangers of the practice and they are succeeding. In particular, they work to get local chiefs on board after which changes usually happen very quickly.

They are particularly successful in communities that are Christian or that adhere to older African religions. This is because no one is saying, “I’m doing this to show my love for Jesus,” or something similar. It’s different in Muslim communities. Although there is no requirement for FGM in the Qur’an, many imams still teach it. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, is especially problematic.

FGM in Indonesia

In Indonesia, things are not looking so good.

Although they do not practice the worst forms of FGM, the procedure is still dangerous and unnecessary. The first video below is a repeat from my first ever post about FGM. It is by CNN‘s Saima Moshin, reporting in the Muslim community in Bandung, Indonesia. It shows women bringing their daughters and granddaughters to the annual circumcision clinic there. The date of the annual clinic is Muhammad’s birthday. Yes – this is what they do to celebrate the occasion. Don’t tell me that has nothing to do with Islam!



The women is this video clearly cite the religion as requiring FGM.

Below is a more recent video, also about FGM in Indonesia. This one is from Al Jazeera. Like the one above, it shows the widespread belief that FGM is an Islamic requirement for women and girls.



Indonesia, of course, is the country where Muslim apologist Reza Aslan insists that women are “100% equal to men”. FGM, once illegal, became legal again after lobbying by the Islamic Council.

FGM isn’t the only area where Muslim ideas of what makes a good woman pertain in this Muslim-majority country. Women who want to be police officers have to undergo “purity tests” as part of the admission process.

 FGM in Russia

Last year a Muslim cleric, Ismail Berdiyev, in Russia tried to defend FGM after a report showed the practice was common in the North Caucasus region. The Telegraph report on his comments:

“All women should be circumcised so there would be no debauchery on earth, so that sexuality is minimised,” Mr Berdiyev, a prominent figure in Dagestan, told a correspondent from Interfax, a Russian news agency.

“The Almighty created woman to bear and raise children,” he added. “[Circumcision] would not affect that. Women would not stop giving birth. But there would be less promiscuity.”

He went on to clarify that although Islam does not prescribe the practice, “it is necessary to reduce female sexuality. If it was done to all women, it would be very good.”

Russian women, of course, had a fair bit to say about Berdiyev’s attitudes. But, one of the most prominent Orthodox priests in Russia, Vsevolod Chaplin, a former spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, came out in support of Berdiyev. (The Telegraph again):

“What feminist howling!” [Chaplin] wrote in a Facebook post defending the right of minorities to preserve religious traditions.

“Circumcising all women probably isn’t necessary. Orthodox women don’t need it because they are not promiscuous,” he wrote.

“Of course God created women to bear and raise children. Feminism is a lie of the 20th century,” he added.

Mr Berdiyev himself later said he had been misquoted.

I’m not entirely sure how you misquote yourself on Facebook, but religion has a tradition of changing reality to suit themselves.

The imam admits that FGM is not a requirement of Islam. That obviously makes no difference in the way he presents it to his adherents. FGM came to Russia with Islam and is only a part of Muslim communities. Therefore, like in Asia, it is a religious practice. Claims it is “cultural” are just an excuse. An excuse to abuse and control women.

FGM in Britain

Campaigners at an anti-FGM march in Bristol. There are estimated to be more than 20,000 British girls a year at risk of FGM. Photograph: Chris Cronin/Forward (Source: The Guardian)

Large scale immigration from countries that have FGM to the West in recent decades means governments have had to find ways to deal with it. Many, including New Zealand, have made it illegal. The laws usually include forbidding taking a citizen out of the country to undergo the procedure elsewhere. That’s difficult to police and so it’s usually the way it still continues.

The Guardian reports that the British NHS (National Health Service) estimates that 20,000 girls and women are currently at risk of FGM. As part of their efforts to stop the practice, they began collecting statistics in 2015/15. In that year, 5,700 British women and girls underwent FGM, though only 18 of the procedures occurred in the country. They estimate that 66,000 British women have undergone FGM.

This Telegraph story includes video of three British women describing their experience of what it was like to be “cut,” as they call it.

FGM in the United States

Dr Jumana Nagarwala

Dr Jumana Nagarwala (Source: Henry Ford Hospital)

It seems that in the US some doctors have been performing FGM. Thus families don’t even have to take their daughters out of the country to try and avoid the law as they are doing elsewhere.

A report from the Associated Press states that Detroit doctor Jumana Nagarwala was charged with performing female genital mutilation (FGM) on two seven-year-old girls. Dr Nagarwala, via her attorney, denies the charge. The attorney apparently says Dr Nagarwala is the victim of a “political divide” in the mosque, though there was no indication what that means. My suspicion is that people are starting to stand up against the non-Qur’anic requirement for FGM and are therefore reporting those who carry it out.

The Detroit News reports of the arrest:

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala is accused of performing the procedure on two Minnesota girls that left them with scars and lacerations. Her attorney, Shannon Smith, insists that Nagarwala conducted a benign religious ritual that involved no mutilation.

Dr Fakhruddin Attar

Dr Fakhruddin Attar (Source: St Joseph Mercy Health System)

Since then, two more doctors have been arrested. The Detroit News goes on to say:

Prosecutors on Friday charged two other Bohras [Dawoodi Bohra is the Muslim sect all three belong to], Dr. Fakhruddin Attar and his wife, Farida Attar, with conspiracy. Fakhruddin Attar owns the Detroit-area clinic where the alleged procedures were performed in February, and investigators say the couple knew Nagarwala was doing the procedures after business hours.

Dr Nagawala is denying she even cut the two girls at all. Doctors examining them say both have damage to their genitals consistent with FGM. Mother Jones reports:

Federal officials believe Nagarwala may have been clandestinely cutting girls since at least 2005. It’s the first case of its kind in the United States, where female genital cutting is a criminal sexual act and has been illegal since 1996. The practice is widely seen as an attempt to curb women’s sexuality by making sex less enjoyable, even painful.

Nagarwala admits she performed a procedure on the two seven-year-old girls, but says she didn’t cut them—she merely wiped away a mucous membrane and gave the gauze to the parents, who would bury it in keeping with Bohra tradition. She told investigators she’s not aware of anyone in her community who practices cutting.

Mother Jones

I highly recommend the Mother Jones piece. The difference between it and most accounts is that it’s written by Tasneem Raja, a women who grew up in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim sect in Detroit that is the subject of the investigation. Raja was cut as a child. (Not all Bohras practice FGM, but it is widespread.)

Raja writes:

Our sect is known as the Dawoodi Bohras, a Shiite branch of Islam based in Gujarat, India, with an estimated 1.2 million followers around the world …

As little girls, nearly all my female Bohra friends and I underwent khatna, the sect’s term for this practice. None of us remember being “wiped.” We were cut. Some of us bled and ached for days, and some walked away with lifelong physical damage.

As I pointed out above, in India, FGM was unheard of before the introduction of Islam. Therefore, in this case FGM is religious.

Besides, how does saying it’s cultural make it okay? It doesn’t. It’s still an appalling form of abuse. The “it’s cultural” whine is merely an attempt to excuse religion. And, once again, that’s where the Huffington Post enters the story.

Huffington Post

The Huffington Post has a history of whitewashing Islam. I think their motives are probably good – they want to reduce Muslimophobia, which is widespread these days. The frequent terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists means that the ignorant now have a prejudice against all Muslims.

There is also a rise of politicians on the far right in both the US and Europe who are whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment. President Trump’s rhetoric has been part of this, though many of his European equivalents are even worse.

However they frequently go too far, simply making excuses for bad behaviour or making icons out of ridiculous things. Their constant celebration of the hijab is a good example. The hijab is a piece of clothing which was designed to oppress women. Wearing it is not an achievement, and nor is it a symbol of feminism!

The news of the exposure of doctors performing FGM has seen the Huffington Post once again leap to the defence of Islam. The article ‘Lawmaker Says Female Genital Mutilation Case Is Reason To Vote For Anti-Sharia Bill‘ has what I’m sure they think is a pithy sub-title: Even though, as one scholar put it, “FGM has nothing to do with Islam, and Islam has nothing to do with FGM.”

The Lawmaker, State Rep. Michele Hoitenga (R), is quite wrong – the FGM case is not a reason for an anti-Sharia Bill. The Huffington Post has that right, and if they had stuck to that I’d have no issue with them. An anti-Sharia law is quite unnecessary and the case against the Detroit doctors is irrelevant to it. For a start, charges have been laid against the doctors. Therefore current law is clearly sufficient. An anti-Sharia Bill is an example of Muslimophobia.

(Note I say Muslimophobia and not Islamophobia. Islam is a belief system and everyone should be free to criticize it and dislike it. If someone wants to be anti-Islam, rather than anti-Muslim, that shouldn’t be an issue.)

Huffington Post says, “FGM has nothing to do with Islam”

Christopher Mathias of the Huffington Post makes a good case against anti-Sharia Bills,  which are apparently pending in fifteen US states. As usual though with this media outlet, they go too far. He goes on to insist there is no link between Islam and FGM, and anyone who says there is, is an Islamophobe:

Qasim Rashid, visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal School of Islamic Studies, wrote in a HuffPost blog post in 2014 that FGM predates Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

“FGM existed long before Islam and it sadly persists today as a cultural tradition that traverses religious lines,” Rashid wrote. “For example, in Ethiopia, Muslims, Christians, and Jews have all practiced FGM — though no faith endorses the act.”

And because there is no solid theological basis for FGM in Islam, Rashid said, the only people today who believe FGM is a part of Islam are “Islamophobes and extremists [who ascribe to Islam].”

Everything that Rashid writes in the first two paragraphs is correct. Then comes the logical disconnect. The fact “there is no solid theological basis for FGM in Islam” does not mean there is no connection. As I hope I have made the case, FGM actually does have something to do with Islam. That does not make me either an Islamophobe or a Muslim extremist.

I am genuinely pleased that Rashid and many other prominent Muslim scholars and leaders are speaking out against FGM. It is when people like him speak from within the religion that change happens. However, to deny that Islam isn’t a perpetrator of this crime against women is simply dishonest.



h/t: Raymond Riches (Al Jazeera, Indonesia), Jerry Coyne (Huffington Post), Jerry Piven (Mother Jones)
See also today’s post by Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True, ‘Once again, is female genital mutilation connected with Islam?’



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29 Responses to “Making Excuses for Islam and FGM”

  1. Ken says:

    Such an awful practice, whether the excuse is religion or culture.

  2. Coel says:

    In Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books, she gives a straightforward test for whether FGM is “Islamic” or not. That is, do the local imams speak in support of the procedure, or do they routinely condemn it?

    As far as I can tell, it is routine in the Islamic world for imams to speak in favour of FGM, though many are neutral, saying little about it. It is, however, uncommon for imams to vocally oppose FGM, which is why it is appropriate to place blame on Islam for FGM.

  3. Randy schenck says:

    Excellent report and it should get the widest reading possible. The world needs to know about this disgusting practice and they need to know the association to Islam. As with any religious practice it is like sheep to the slaughter. If it were truly sexual control they are after, they would be castrating the male population. Odd we don’t hear of any moving in this area.

  4. phil loubere says:

    Well argued, Heather, and I like your distinction between Islamophobia and Muslimophobia, an important point. There are some Christian rites specific only to certain sects, for example, snake handling, which are nevertheless a direct result of their interpretation of Christian texts. It would be disingenuous to argue that such a practice is not tied to Christian belief.

  5. Ben Goren says:

    Claims it is “cultural” are just an excuse.


    It is no exaggeration to state that slavery was literally a foundational pillar of the culture of the antebellum American South, and its cultural significance was often cited in defense of the practice.

    Anybody who can understand why a pro-slavery argument based on culture is invalid should have no trouble understanding why any argument based on culture is invalid.

    Culture changes, first and foremost, whether you want it to or not.

    But, ultimately, the “culture” argument is nothing more than, “We’re already doing it this way and we don’t want to change.” Phrased thus, it’s obvious why one should have compassion for the people making the argument…but it’s also obvious why the argument itself isn’t merely utterly unpersuasive, but an outright admission of indefensibility.



    • Ned says:

      Yes, and regardless of the details in the holy books, when it comes to cultural practices in the modern world, religion is almost always a force for maintaining the status quo (or reverting further into the past). Islam has been central to the spread and continued life of FGM by its commitment to cultural conservatism in sex related issues that keeps the Imams from rocking the gender boat, independent of any “theological” considerations.

  6. jose says:

    “Hanbali, Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Maliki. The first two consider FGM obligatory and the other two recommend it.”

    Hi, could you share a reference for this bit? I have tried to research online but haven’t been able to find any actual laws, just general overviews. (not being facetious, genuinely asking). Many thanks.

  7. Grant Palmer says:

    A robust analysis. Good to read

  8. nicky says:

    Excellent, as we have become used to.
    I’m a bit more curious about the Indonesian case. Hasn’t the practice been increasing over the last decades? How widespread was it under, say, Colonial rule? When was it made legal?
    I say this because until fairly recently the hijab was also rather uncommon there.

    • It was made illegal in Indonesia in 2006. That apparently made no difference, especially as the Islamic Council still recommended it. In 2010 the government issued guidelines for how it should be performed to try and limit the types done to the most mild. The latest ruling from the Islamic Council came in 2013, and they were still recommending it, specifically as part of Islamic teachings. They government just recently made it illegal again at the end of 2016 (I didn’t know that) until replying to you.

      A UNICEF report from 2015 says that 49% of Indonesian girls have undergone FGM by the time they are 14, 85% by 18, and 97.5% overall.

      • nicky says:

        Thanks for that, but that is all quite recent.
        How common was it under the Dutch, before the Dutch or say in the fifties and sixties? Do we have any data?
        As said, I suspect it is, like the chador, a kind of recent development.

        • I don’t know the data, but I’m not so sure that FGM is like the chador, burka, niqab etc. Even societies that otherwise treat women reasonably well, like the Kurds, practice FGM. It’s been something that’s been going on for centuries. If there had been a break under colonial government, which I very much doubt, it’s unlikely to have started again. Afaik, it never stopped.

          Colonial governments introduced their law codes, but weren’t known for protecting women from religious or cultural rites. It’s only recently that any of those same governments have introduced anti-FGM laws in the West and there’s no reason to think they had them in colonial times. I think if they had, or if there’d been a reduction in FGM under colonial law, we’d know about it.

          • nicky says:

            The only thing I could find is that it came to Indonesia in the 13th century with the arrival of Islam (supports your thesis there). And that it has been ‘prevalent’ since, whatever that means.
            On the other hand, years ago I also read some Dutch colonial ‘literature’ about sexual exploits of the colonialists, but even in detailed descriptions of the ‘pussies’ (and detailed they are), there is no mention of mutilation.
            There is also the notion that some of the FGM in Indonesia did not involve actual cutting, but piercing and/or extracting some blood.

          • Everything I’ve read says it’s a more mild form that’s usually done there. I believe the most common form is the removal of a small part of the prepuce. If one of the worse forms was done, I’d say this form was a good first step towards stopping it if they were unable to persuade them to stop altogether. (WHO, UNICEF etc have focused their efforts on countries where the worst forms are done.) This milder form is the type the Indonesian government promoted as the “proper” way to do it.

          • nicky says:

            Yes, if the ‘demand’ could be satisfied by the removal of part of the prepuce, we would go a long way towards the goal of limiting the mutilation. Reduced to a mutilation so minor as to be happy about.
            Since Mohammed allegedly (if we accept his existence) said not to overdo it, it should be compatible with Islam. I would love to see those imams to be more clear on that.

  9. nicky says:

    Heather, I feel a bit thick (dim-witted) to say this, but I also do not fully understand argument 1. It is not a disagreement, I simply do not understand the argument. Could you elaborate a bit more?
    (Note, I fully get -and agree with- argument 2).

    • No worries. The argument from Islam is that it didn’t come along with Muhammad. Islam has always been the religion of the world. Everything else is an interloper. Therefore, when Muhammad was going around taking over territory, he was was taking back what actually belonged to Muslims. When (ahem) we have a worldwide caliphate, that it will not be a new thing, that is returning the world to what it already actually is. People got things wrong before Muhammad came along, and he was returning them to the correct path. That work is continuing today as Muslims spread across the planet.

      There was therefore, nothing before Islam, because Muslims say Islam has always existed. Therefore, they can’t say that FGM was something that was before Islam either.

      I admit it’s a pretty weak argument, but so, quite frankly, is Islam’s argument regarding who really owns everything.

  10. Katherine says:

    Great work, but there are a few additional argument you may have overlooked.

    1. FGM in Asia is to the best of my knowledge found solely among Muslim societies, which overwhelmingly suggests it spread with Islam. It made it all the way across Asia to Indonesia and Malaysia, yet has absolutely no place (nor does male circumcision) in the adjacent or intermediate non-Muslim societies.

    2. Non-Muslim groups who practice FGM are all located in Africa, with reports of tribes in Amazonia or New Guinea as the (inevitable for humans) random exception.

    3. Further I once read that all non-Muslims who practice FGM in Africa are in direct contact with Muslim FGM practitioner societies, which is noteworthy since most Niger-Congo language family groups do have male genital cutting rituals.

    • I don’t know about your third point, but I did make the first two points both here and in my original post about FGM. The fact that FGM moved into Asia with Islam and isn’t practiced by non-Muslims is why I say that in Asia it’s a religious practice, not a cultural one.

    • nicky says:

      Yes, Heather made the first two points very clearly. Did you read the OP? Your third point is interesting, and I think it might be true, but it is in dire need of some data.

  11. Rasmo Carenna says:

    You write that “An anti-Sharia Bill is an example of Muslimophobia”.
    I think I get where you come from but I am not sure I agree entirely with that quote. Sharia is a kind of legal system, a set of doctrines and prescriptions, not a group of people. I am strongly anti-Sharia as I believe any person should be if they want to call themselves “liberal”.
    If in same places there are problems with a community that wants to rule itself according to a parallel system that is opposed to the most basic rules of individual freedom (and all the other “western” things), I think it may be legitimate to explicitly ban it. Or at least, I don’t see why it should be evident that this is not the case.
    I am not trying to be confrontational, I liked your post very much.

    • The reason I think the laws to ban it are potentially a sign of prejudice is because US law is already in force, and takes priority over all other laws. Already, no one can put any other law code above US law in that country. Sharia is no different. It is already illegal for Sharia to take precedence in any situation, just like it’s illegal for NZ law to trump US law in the US.

      These Detroit doctors allegedly performing or enabling FGM have been charged with a crime under US law. That they were acting legally under Sharia is not a potential defence. A specific law against Sharia was not required to charge them.

      Also, if Sharia is going to be singled out, that’s not fair. There are plenty of other religions that have laws that are different from the laws of a country. We live with that. We put up with multiple religions railing against abortion, contraception, adultery etc, telling people they will burn in hell for eternity for engaging in those things for example, but none of those things are illegal under the law.

      • nicky says:

        It is not that there are no other religions that have laws that are different from the laws of a specific country, but Sharia is proposed, and pushed, against those very laws: it is contended it should be imposed regardless. That is a good reason -and hence fair- to single it out, methinks.

  12. Leigh Jackson says:

    The reasons given to justify the practice of genital mutilation of infants and children are irrelevant. The forced mutilation of one person’s body by another person cannot be justified.

    If we could choose only to eliminate the genital mutilation of one sex, it would have to be that of girls. Their mutilation is far worse than that of boys.

    We do not have to choose.

    Forced genital mutilation is wrong and must cease.

    • nicky says:

      Tell that to the mollahs. If you have any impact so much the better. Anything that will reduce the practice is welcomed (immo). If that means only cutting a part of the prepuce, I’m all for it.0


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