When I was barely a few days old, my parents decided to circumcise me – a practice done by a majority of the Muslim population of Malaysia. I didn’t know this was considered wrong by some, or even an anomaly until years later when I joined Medical school in the UK. My family also had no clue that what they’ve done could be perceived as wrong.
I am wary about using the term female genital mutilation (FGM) in this reflection as I don’t feel like I was mutilated. Strictly speaking however, if one were to look at the definition of FGM, and the different types of it, then what was done on me can very easily be considered type 1 FGM as a small part of clitoris was removed. My feelings on this are also echoed by the Malaysian government in many of their publications, and recently in the CEDAW session, a representative vehemently opposes the notion that female circumcision, as it is practiced in Malaysia, is a form of FGM.
I’m still unsure of what to think of this practice I’ve thought of as normal for almost all my life – I do wonder whether the only reason I now think of female circumcision (as it is done in Malaysia) as wrong is because of my idealisation of Western Medicine and values. This is because I have not experienced anything negative out of the circumcision done to me. In a study done by AR.Isa (1999) on a group of over 200 Malaysian Women in a maternity ward, all of the women interviewed also “could not see any harm in it,” and expressed desire to do it on their future offspring. Regardless of this, I do feel a sense of victimhood, but I have only started feeling this because I am told what was done to me is wrong. All 18 years of my life growing up in Malaysia, I lived in blissful ignorance, not knowing I was any different or what was done to me is perceived by some as ‘immoral’, and this is potentially what most Malaysians feel – and could that be better?
One of the common side effects of FGM is trauma and adverse psychological wellbeing. This is not very applicable to Malaysians as female circumcision (FC) is done on babies which results in ‘sufferers’ having no recollection of it ever happening. Another potential side effect is that removal of the clitoris might lead to reduced sexual pleasure. However, as it is often done at a very early age, these women often have no point of comparison of sexual satisfaction pre-and post-circumcision. This leaves me left to wonder 'how can I miss something I've never had?'
There’s a lot of coverage on the adverse effects of FGM. However, those that do appear on the news are often about people who’ve had Type 2 or Type 3 which is far more intrusive and has been shown to have long-term impacts. There is little to no research on the long-term impacts of Type 1 FGM done on babies, and close to no coverage of it in the Western media. Articles on FGM in the news tend be very emotive, showing how barbaric and inhumane it is – which is why Malaysians are not in the news about this, because what is done in Malaysia is comparatively minor, despite it also being classed as FGM. The practice is also medicalized in Malaysia as more and more doctors are now offering this service, with the practice becoming increasingly regulated in recent years. This helps to reduce negative side effects such as a potential for infections.
I feel that grouping together a comparatively safer version of FC as a form of FGM not only alienates a whole population, but also vilifies the practice without a proper understanding of what happens. This makes it harder to inform Malaysians on this issue, as the narrative of FGM which is widely available is not one they are able to relate to.
This is the other side of the coin which hasn’t been explored.
I recently had a discussion with my mum about why she chose to have it done on me. She explained that she was told to do it by her own mum as it is supposedly compulsory in Islamic tradition. When asked whether she did any research on it herself, she explained that all she knew about it came from her mum and the elders around her at the time. She further clarified that at the time, information was not as easily accessible as it is now and there was no one to challenge or offer a different approach.
She made clear that she did it out of love, to save me from “excess sexual desires”, and to fulfil a religious obligation. She had never heard of any risk associated with it or any negative consequences to come as a result of it. When asked if her opinions have changed, she said they hadn't – she still thinks she did the right thing.
It is easy to picture someone who has done ‘FGM’ on their daughter as someone with little to no education in a place somewhere far and remote. In Malaysia however, this is a practice done by people from all walks of life – including those of a higher ‘socio-economic’ status. My mum, for example, is a highly-educated women who graduated from a university in the United States and has 2 masters and a PhD in Economics to boot. This begs the question of what importance does one place on traditional, long practiced religious values.
You tell me it’s wrong and I believe you,
I have no reason not to.
You’re the West, and the West is always the best.
But this culture of mine,
This culture I was given, and this culture I’ve held
You say it’s inhumane and it takes my rights away,
That it diminishes me and it invalidates me.
And I believe you,
Because you’re the West, and you must be the best.
I am now a victim, I wasn’t before.
But it’s okay because I am now enlightened?
I’ll throw this culture away,
This culture you call barbaric.
But can I even call myself a victim?
What was done to them was so much worse,
But you say we are – and so we must be.