Imagine having part of your clitoral hood severed as a child and having no memory of it. Now imagine finding out about this missing piece of flesh as an adult woman.
Sunat Perempuan, a Malay term that translates to “female circumcision,” is a form of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) commonly practiced among Muslims but kept in the shadows of the community.
There are two main reasons why people practice Sunat. Some believe that it reduces girls’ sexual desires, reinforcing the traditional chastity of Muslim women. Others argue that, like male circumcision, it’s more hygienic to have the clitoral hood cut — this belief is linked to the religious importance of cleanliness in Islam.
Despite the practice being illegal in many countries around the world, Singapore’s authorities are strangely reluctant to address the widespread but controversial practice of FGM/C. While the Singaporean government steers clear of addressing Sunat, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) has adopted a reticent stance about the necessity of cutting little girls. Meanwhile, members of the Muslim community generally shy away from such conversations.
Due to the deep silence surrounding Sunat, many Muslim women do not realize that they have been cut as babies. And when they do find out as adults, they often experience intense shock, feelings of betrayal, and delayed anger.
VICE World News spoke to two local activists to learn more about the hidden reality of female circumcision in Singapore.
Sya Taha is a Muslim activist who runs Crit Talk, a platform for Muslims to discuss taboo topics like FGM/C. Saza Faradilla is an anti-FGM/C activist who only learned a few years ago that she was cut as an infant. Motivated to learn more about FGM/C in Singapore, she dedicated her university thesis to the topic. Both Taha and Faradilla are part of a community-led movement to end the practice in Singapore.
VICE World News: What got you interested in raising this issue of Sunat and having a space for women to talk about it?
Saza: I think it was at my niece’s 2nd birthday party, where my aunt happily announced that she was cut two weeks ago. I was really, really shocked because I didn’t know that Sunat was something that happened to girls as well. I was like “this is a WHO violation, this is a human rights violation, this is wrong,” then my sister beside me was like, “oh, you were cut too.” I was floored. I did not expect that at all. I was 22 years old, and I had no inkling of this cut on women at all.
I just felt very, very violated and I felt very upset that something potentially harmful happened to me without my consent when I was a baby.
Sya: I think it’s from my own personal experience. I didn’t find out about the practice until I was 28 or 27. I think I read an article about it happening in Malaysia, so I asked my mum if I had been Sunat before. I wasn’t but my older sister was.
And as I spoke to my friends, they only found out as adults, when they asked their parents. Invariably, they feel violated. They feel like something has been taken away from them, and they don’t know how their sexual life and their physical well-being would have been if they had not been cut, because you don’t know what you’re missing.
How did you not know that this was something happening to girls in your family, is it just something that is not openly talked about?
Saza: Yeah, it’s not. I think sexuality — especially female sexuality — is not talked about within the Malay community. FGC is done very quietly compared to Male Genital Cutting (MGC). When MGC is done, there’s something called kenduri, which is like a festival. But for FGC there’s no celebration or ceremony. That’s why nobody knows about it, especially outside of the community.
For men it’s considered a rite of passage, but for women it’s really something that is kind of hidden and shut away.
How is it done here in Singapore?
Saza: In Singapore, we are really not sure how much is cut, what is being cut, what is used for cutting, and how much we’re being charged for the cut. Some of the doctors use scissors, some use penknife, some use lasers. And they don’t learn it in medical school; they learn it from senior doctors.
FGC used to be done by traditional midwives, but today it’s done by doctors. And part of the problem with this medicalization is that people believe it’s perfectly fine to do the cut because it’s hygienic, it’s sanitized, it’s safe. Because it’s done within the boundaries of our healthcare system, which is often assumed to be ethical, safe, reliable, and effective. But in actuality, it’s not as highly regulated as it should be. Each doctor does it very differently and there’s such a variety in cutting.
Sya: I think across Southeast Asia, there are no standards on what’s being cut. If we look at academic journals, some practices make a rice grain-sized cut of the clitoral hood. There are also practices that scrape the hood with a blade. There’s also ritual pricking, where they palace turmeric over the genitals and they scrape the turmeric, so nothing is actually done to the child. I’ve also read about ritual swabbing with antiseptic.
What are the impacts of being cut at a young age?
Sya: So one argument we often hear for why it’s okay to cut babies, both boys and girls, is that they fall asleep after the procedure. But research shows that what happens when you face such a huge physical trauma of being cut as a baby, is that your body goes into neurological shutdown in order to protect yourself, because nobody is there to save you. That’s why babies come back lethargic or sleepy after they are cut.
We can talk about the damage at a societal level and also at an individual level. I think individually, to know that your physical integrity has been compromised somehow, invariably adults find that very discomforting. At a societal level, we’re basically saying that we own our children and they have no say over their own bodies, and that we still believe that we should control the sexual behavior of our girls.
And how about their sex lives as adults?
Saza: In terms of sexuality, I had a lot of difficulty understanding how this cut leads to decreased libido for women. Because most of the time the cut is done on the clitoral hood, not the clitoris. So there is a lack of understanding really about how it decreases libido. I think especially in the Malay community women are often considered the moral bearers of society, and whatever can be done to protect a woman’s dignity and sexuality, is seen as especially important.
Sya: There’s no research done on this, but one of my family members told me that when she has sex she feels pain in the clitoral region. It could be because the hood has been reduced and a function of the hood is to protect the clitoris from direct stimulation. So there could be more women having pain during sex because of this.
Should the state be more involved in terms of having a stance on FGM/C?
Saza: Definitely. As Muslims, we are also citizens of the state and we should fall under their protection. And for a medical procedure that is done on minors, for Singapore that takes so much pride in its healthcare and regulation of medical malpractice, there should at least be some regulation or some documentation so that doctors know what they should be doing.
Why do you think there’s a lack of leadership when it comes to this topic?
Sya: I think it’s similar to other things that affect the Malay Muslim community. When it’s anything to do with religious laws or cultural practices, I feel like the state is very careful in what they want to say. They sort of leave it to the religious authorities to decide. It doesn’t just apply to Sunat, but also things like marriage laws and laws on polygamy. I think they are wary of putting it down in black and white.
What would you like to tell young mothers who are considering doing it to their young daughters?
Saza: I would say do your research. Ask yourself why you are doing it. Some people do it because their mothers did it on them, instead of really thinking about the harms that could come out of this. Not only physical harm, but also emotional trauma. This is removing a piece of skin, unsolicited, for no medical reason, from a child. And if you’re doing it because of religious reasons, really research about those religious reasons. Call MUIS and ask them what is the religious reason for it, to determine whether this cut is really mandatory. And think about whether this is something that you would want your daughter to be able to consent to, or to be able to do it herself when she’s older, if she chooses to.
Sya: I have a 6-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter, and I chose not to have them cut. I think that if this is truly an Islamic value — and I’m a practicing Muslim — I believe that they should have the choice to do that for themselves. If they truly think it’s part of being a good Muslim, then as an adult they can go and do it for themselves.
Do you feel like this is something that will go away anytime soon?
Saza: Now more people are questioning it, and so we really hope it will go away but I’m not sure. I’m very hopeful that it will, but I think we do need our health leaders, our religious leaders, and our community leaders to step up and make a public statement. Those assertions from our leaders, I think, would be the core of principled leadership, which is what we really need within the Malay community.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.