The author is an undergraduate student at UW-Madison.
With Islamophobia growing in the Western world, many Muslims feel it is our duty to “sugar coat” or change the message of Islam in order to make the religion seem acceptable to Western culture. Many of us will take something controversial and try to convince those around us that Islam meant “something else” and that the real message is compatible with American culture. Unfortunately, as so many people begin to make these excuses, some Muslims begin to feel they are true and the original message put forth by the Qur’an is now changed to fit a culture that is not always compatible with the Islamic way of life. One of these topics is that of female circumcision.
Female circumcision is a hot topic within Muslim circles because of the controversy coming from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. There are Muslims who believe that female circumcision is not allowed in the religion and there are those who believe it is required. In truth, it would be incorrect to say that female circumcision has no place in Islam regardless of whether it is allowed or not allowed simply on the grounds that there is not enough evidence supporting either position.
The most important thing to know is that Islam protects a woman’s right to sexual enjoyment and health and if female circumcision violates those rights, automatically the practice would be considered forbidden. However, the Western world is quick to assume that female circumcision is harmful to a woman without considering the different types of circumcision and also taking into account that any surgery, even common male circumcision, carries with it the possibilities of infection if not done in a sterile environment and performed by a medical professional. The same goes for circumcising a female.
The World Health Organization separated the female circumcision procedure into four categories. Type 1 circumcision is the removal of the clitoral prepuce, which is very similar to the prepuce of a penis, which is removed during male circumcision. This is the most basic procedure of female circumcision and the only procedure that would be allowed in Islam. The other procedures, types 2 and 3, where the labia minora, labia majora and clitoris may be extracted, are considered forbidden as they carry with them too many possibilities of bodily harm.
There is slight confusion regarding what is female genital mutilation (FGM) and what is female circumcision. In truth, the two terms have been used interchangeably but carry with them two very different connotations by the speaker. “Female genital mutilation” is often used when the speaker is condemning or speaking out against female circumcision whereas “female circumcision” is mostly used when discussing the practice as a medical procedure. The problem with only using the term “female genital mutilation” is that technically, if one is going to use a term that suggests the mutilation of one’s sexual organs, “male genital mutilation” would be just as appropriate considering Type 1 female circumcision and the common male circumcision procedure are very similar. Most professionals now only use the term “female genital mutilation” when referring to the more extreme types of female circumcision: removal of the labia minora and/or labia majora and clitoris.
The reason this topic is so controversial within Muslim circles is because there are hadiths (teachings of the Prophet) that support circumcising a female but these hadiths are considered “weak,” which means they cannot be used to create an Islamic ruling based on the fact that it is not known if they came from the Prophet or not. The Qur’an, however, does not condemn female circumcision as long as it does not compromise the health of the female.
For more information on the process of labeling a hadith “weak” or “strong,” please refer to this website. Finally, due to the amount of information about this topic, I would like to direct everyone to my blog where I have written a much more in-depth piece on female circumcision in Islam.