By Meghana Bahar –
One of the most important principles of Islam is that you have to speak up for any form of injustice. If you do not, that is considered a sin.
In many countries, laws governing Muslim families stem from verses in the Qur’an, which guarantees gender equality. But the guarantors of justice are not just. Very often, such laws ensure that beneficiaries are, overwhelmingly, Muslim men. Whether it be divorce laws or laws on inheritance, men are generally the faction that Islamic jurists greatly favour, over women and children.
Inequality, in this regard, is a form of injustice.
The Qur’an asserts in many verses[i] that women and men are equal:
“I shall not lose sight of the labour of any of you who labours in My way, be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other.” (Chapter 3: verse 195);
“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another.” (Chapter 9: verse 71);
This equality is echoed throughout the Qur’an, with ‘men and women’ emphasised multiple times:
“Verily for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves before God, and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God unceasingly: for all of them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward.”(Chapter 33: verse 35).
Islam and Feminism
Islamic feminism is the active engagement of Muslim feminists, be they scholars, activists or artists, in reviving Islam’s egalitarian nature by articulating a feminist middle path, where one does not have to choose between religion and universal human rights, between critiquing the west and being servile to local conservatives—a more holistic framework that also considers the lived realities of Muslim women[ii].
Muslim feminists re-read the Qur’an and interpret it for themselves[iii]. They say women can be religious authorities too. This is a strong gesture of agency and one of self-empowerment. It demonstrates that Muslim women do not need to be saved nor do they need to wait for permission to be the navigators of their own lives. This act of reclamation is not applauded enough. Patriarchs fear this, because they do not want to give up their power. Instead, they offer up the uninformed view that feminism is immoral, and a foreign import.
But, their fear is baseless, because in fact, there is enough power to go around. It is just that power is concentrated to a privileged few, just as half of the world’s wealth is owned by 0.7% of our planet’s richest people[iv]
Obtaining equal rights for women thus rests on how particular countries interpret Qur’anic verses and transfer them into laws. Islamic law consists of a broad range of legal aspects and is implemented in varying degrees across the world. In Malaysia, Tunisia, Egypt or Morocco, among others, Islamic law has undergone multiple reformations to address contemporary issues facing Muslim communities.
In Sri Lanka, the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA)[v] is currently undergoing a review process, which activists hope will lead to the removal of unjust provisions that violate the rights of women and children. We also want to see changes in how laws are administered by mostly male Quazi courts, who cannot know what it is to be a woman stripped of all her inheritance and made destitute.
Reforms have been delayed for far too long because of the actions of a privileged few, mostly Muslim male politicians, who attempt to derail much needed change for Muslim women and children. Such detractors, who stand in the way of feminist activism, demonstrate qualities that can only be seen as the behaviour of scared children.
In a polarised environment such as this, it is very easy to mount blame and guilt on the Muslim community by saying Islam is oppressive towards women. Such stereotypes do not help foster a harmonious and peaceful society in our multi-ethnic nation, where Muslim communities continue to contribute in colouring that diversity.
One way of not succumbing to this is to learn more about Islam from a variety of authentic sources. In some cases, testimonies by Muslim women would be quite sufficient simply because their stories and voices matter.
Dismantling Man-made Myths about Female Circumcision
Last week, social media spaces brought to light that gross misinformation was being shared by those who claimed to be guardians of true Islam. The fliers and articles shared by a minority group within the Sri Lankan Muslim community, namely Wahhabi-Salafis[vi] , a puritan strain of Islam, attempted to illustrate that female circumcision (FC) is obligatory in Islam. They carried false information on Prophetic traditions based on unverifiable hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) to support their claims. It is very difficult to think of the Prophet as a woman-hater. There are more hadiths that praise women asking men to respect them. Islam should not be regarded by considering only a few weak hadiths.
Online engagements with members of this faction revealed that they intend for medicalised khithan or khatna, the Arabic terms for circumcision. One of the proponents of this practice claim they rather like the term ‘hoodectomy’, the act of removing a girl child’s clitoral hood, and think it is “nice”[vii]. Justifications for this procedure, apart from it being touted as obligatory, range from better health, cleanliness, decreased incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and enhanced sexual pleasure. They also cite a number of unverified doctors and researchers, particularly elevating American ones, and claim unsubstantiated testimonies of increased sexual pleasure by American women.
A 2013 research study conducted by Islamic Relief[viii] , a non-governmental organisation, in West Sumatra and Lombok, Indonesia, found that respondents believed that FC was important for “controlling female sexual libido” so that “girls could become good Muslims”. The study also found that there was no theological basis for the practice as they could not refer to any Qur’anic verse or verifiable hadith that advocated for it.
News reports of a visitation to the Parliament by this above-mentioned faction of Muslims, and indeed by their own social media advertising, highlight that the “sisters” are proud of each other’s efforts in lobbying Parliament. It is no surprise that some of the chief instigators of patriarchy are women.
Muslims are not a homogenous race. We consist of diverse ethnicities. We are not monolithic nor do we share the same ancestral lineages. This request for the medicalisation of FC in Sri Lanka by a minority faction within the Muslim community, therefore, raises grave concerns for all. The deciders should ultimately be all Muslims, and this means considering the views of Muslims of all walks of life, including the less privileged.
Largely a taboo topic, female circumcision among Muslims in Sri Lanka, specifically among Moor, Malay and Dawoodi Bohra women, is widely prevalent[ix]. The practice has taken place more as a cultural ritual passed down generationally. Although many women have opposed this imposition on their bodily integrity and denounced it in brave testimonies, the rise of FC touted as an obligatory practice is a modern phenomenon, running parallel to the upsurge of global Islamophobia.
Activists and women’s rights defenders, over the years, have taken their worries about medicalised FC or female genital cutting to universal human rights mechanisms. International covenants such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) specifically obligate governments to respect the rights of girls and women by upholding that female genital mutilation (FGM) violates those rights.
Indonesia reconsidered re-banning FGM[x], after it was initially banned in 2006 and reinstated in 2008, following an Islamic fatwa (decree) issued by the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Council of Religious Leaders). It allows only medical professionals, such as doctors, midwives and nurses, to carry out the procedure “properly”.
In Malaysia, although it is widely prevalent[xi], FC or FGM is still shrouded in secrecy. It is still being contested as to whether it is mutilation that occurs because it usually involves a slight pricking or slitting of the clitoral hood—as if that is not already a violation. A 2009 fatwa issued by the National Fatwa Committee turned it into a religious matter and as in neighbouring Indonesia, medicalised it.
It should be noted that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has produced a list of health risks[xii] for FGM, including psychological consequences, urinary tract infections, menstrual problems, obstetric complications and sexual problems, among others.
FGM is un-Islamic
Recently, Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah[xiii], a government-run educational and Islamic legal research institute in Egypt, a high ranking body that derives its research from Qur’anic and Prophetic literature, confirmed in a press statement that the practice “… has no religious origin, it only dates back to inherited traditions and customs, the biggest evidence of it not being a religious duty for women is that the Prophet Muhammad had not circumcised his daughters”[xiv]. The institution expressed that FGM is religiously forbidden due to its negative impacts on the mental and physical well-being of women and girls. The statement was supported by scientific research issued by accredited medical institutions and objective international health organisations.
Wahhabi-Salafis who insist on enforcing FC or FGM on Muslim girls and women in Sri Lanka maintain that it is for enhanced sexual pleasure—the question that then arises is who are the recipients of this sexual pleasure? Given the reality of already unequal relations between Muslim women and men, it is very hard to imagine that medicalised female circumcision is genuinely for the well-being of women and girls.
“…A work of God, who has ordered all things to perfection.” (Chapter 27: verse 88)
If the creations of the Divine are perfect, who are we to tamper with them?
Access to Information on Bodily Rights
Religious clergy are the last font of sexual knowledge any reasonable individual would go to, for all the reasons stated in this article. Muslim women are not all victims. They have agency. They do not need self-serving men to speak for them. Least of all, to speak on behalf of their bodies, or even be told how to feel.
There is no confusion here. FC or FGM is a harmful traditional practice that has proven to be a violation of women’s and girls’ bodily autonomies. It should be banned. And more attention should be paid to empowering young women with tools and resources that inform them of their bodies. They should be encouraged to talk openly about issues that affect their health and well-being. Sri Lanka’s Family Planning Association and Women & Media Collective are safe spaces that facilitate such conversations among youth and the LGBTIQ community.
If women’s and girls’ full emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual well-being is prioritised by the State, discussing sexual health should not be shameful if it means it will help prevent future trauma. Initiatives like Instagram’s the Vulva Gallery[xv] and TARSHI[xvi], an Indian non-governmental organisation working on sexual and reproductive health and rights, are other channels of accessing diverse information.
The Sri Lankan Ministries of Health and Education should ensure that diverse voices of women are prioritised when raising awareness about women’s and girls’ bodily rights. These voices can be a good mix of the young and old, secular and religious, that represent every ethnic group. A culture of healthy, public debate on sexual and reproductive health and rights to demystify the myths and misconceptions surrounding these, is the way forward.
[i] Translations are from Muhammad Asad (1980): http://www.muhammad-asad.com/Message-of-Quran.pdf .
[ii] See the Musawah Framework for Action: http://www.musawah.org/about-musawah/framework-action .
[iii] See the work of theologian Dr Amina Wadud: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/quran-and-woman-9780195128369?cc….
[iv] Wealth distribution statistics: https://inequality.org/facts/global-inequality/ .
[v] About Sri Lanka’s MMDA: https://mplreforms.com/aboutmmda/ .
[vi] The Salafi movement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salafi_movement .
[vii] The hidden truth and untold benefits of female circumcision: https://asiffhussein.com/index.php/2015/04/02/female-circumcision-the-hi… .
[viii] Indonesia under pressure over female genital cutting: http://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/indonesia-under-pressure-over…
[ix] FGM in Sri Lanka: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/fgm-sri-lanka-nick-17121812285….
[x] FGM in Indonesia: https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2082455/indonesia-… .
[xi] FGM in Malaysia: https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/36377.
[xii] Health risks of FGM:http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/health_consequences_fgm… .
[xiii] About Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dar_al-Ifta_al-Misriyyah .
[xiv] FGM is not Islamic: https://www.egyptindependent.com/female-genital-mutilation-is-not-islami… , and http://www.egypttoday.com/Article/2/51304/Female-Genital-Mutilation-is-d…, also http://www.dar-alifta.org/Foreign/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=1881&CategoryID=1 .
[xv] The Vulva Gallery: https://www.instagram.com/the.vulva.gallery/.
*Meghana Bahar – A Sri Lankan gender and media activist, Meghana began her career as a development journalist and documentary film producer at age 19. She has 19 years of experience working as a communications specialist for women’s and human rights transnational movements on access to essential medicines, Muslim family law reform, indigenous resistance, LGBTQIA rights, and digital literacy. She has also briefly been on the editorial board and served as a media advisor for New Ceylon Writing. She is currently an independent consultant for video for change pioneers, WITNESS. Meghana’s academic journey has been steered towards a focus on women’s bodily integrity and bodily autonomy, including sex, sexualities, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and healing woman- woman relationships, specifically mother-daughter relationships. Her passion lies in ancestral lineage healing.