Fa Abdul is the epitome of a cosmopolitan Muslim woman. She’s a columnist, TV scriptwriter and producer of theater plays in Malaysia. She’s also a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM).
That makes her one of the more than 200 million girls and women alive today worldwide who have undergone FGM, the “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons,” as described by the World Health Organization.
It’s not hard to see why the world wants FGM to end. It’s pointless, gravely violates women and perpetuates deep-rooted inequality between the sexes. In the last 30 years, worldwide FGM rates have fallen by 14 percent thanks to new laws and dedicated advocacy. Malaysia, however, is in no hurry to join this trend. Local medical practitioners defend female circumcision as a religious practice encouraged by Islam, while government officials call it a “cultural obligation” that’s here to stay.
I spoke to Fa about what it felt like to be cut and what she feels about more people deciding what to do with women’s body without their consent.
VICE: Can you walk us through your experience?
I don’t remember being circumcised as a child. I only found out when I was nine during my brother’s circumcision. That’s when I asked whether I was circumcised too. My aunts told me I was circumcised when I was just a few months old. Curious, I asked whether it was for the same reason my brother is being circumcised, which is for hygiene and cleanliness sake. They said females are circumcised so that they don’t grow up to be wild girls—so that they become good girls.
According to my mom, the person who circumcised me is a “mak bidan” (Malay for “midwife”) and not a medical doctor. The procedure was done at home, my mom couldn't remember if she even had all the right equipment.
Watch: Reversing Female Circumcision
Did the procedure achieve what it was supposed to?
I don't think it did because I grew up having normal sexual desires. I’m a very open person. I believe everyone masturbates. So if I was circumcised to suppress my sexuality, it did not achieve its objective as at the age of 10 I was already masturbating.
Did you carry on this tradition when your daughter was born?
I didn’t think much about female circumcision until I gave birth to my baby daughter at age 21. I wasn’t really keen to know then too because of all the changes happening to my body and life, so I left it to my female relatives to take care of it.
When the day came, my ex-husband and I took our daughter to the clinic with a female doctor. I started getting concerned then and asked more questions. She explained, “It’s nothing much. We are just going to slit her labia."
I was asked to carry my daughter and my ex-husband was asked to hold her legs apart so she doesn’t move. The doctor showed us a needle and assured us it would just be a moment and wouldn’t be painful. She slit her labia, my daughter cried, a drop of blood fell and that’s it. It finished in mere seconds. The doctor said “See, that’s it. That’s done, you can take your baby out”.
Does it still hurt today?
It makes no difference to me. I have had a heart to heart talk with my daughter and it also makes no difference to her. She’s as sexually functional as any other female who has not been circumcised. Is there a scar?
A vagina looks different from one person to another so I don’t really know how to compare mine to others.
Does this affect your ability to orgasm?
I orgasm pretty well, thank you.
Do you think this practice is oppressive to Muslim women?
Many people's point of view is that if it doesn’t hurt you and doesn’t affect you, then what’s the problem with having it done? I’m saying it’s completely unnecessary.
In this 21s century, we are challenged to be knowledgeable, informed, to educate and debate. For us to blindly follow a culture for generations without knowing why we are doing it or if it’s benefiting us in any way … it is so unempowering.
When did you realize that there's something wrong with this tradition?
It was quite late. I was around 34 years old and going through an unhappy divorce, dealing with the Sharia court. It made me question whether my religion ensures a smooth path for a woman to free herself from marriage as stated clearly in the Quran. My divorce wasn’t easy.
That opened the door for me to question other things, such as the hijab I was wearing for the past 20 years or so of my life. One by one, it all started to make sense to me. I lost trust in some of the Sharia practices in our country. I took off my hijab. I started questioning a lot of things, including female circumcision. When you get that moment of enlightenment, and you start questioning things, you stop being oppressed. You start to steer your own ship and not let blind cultural beliefs determine how you live your life.
Do you think FGM should be made a crime in Malaysia?
Banning it outright could backfire. Many still believe it is a religious or very much needed cultural practice. A blanket ban would drive many to seek female circumcision elsewhere, which would have a worse effect, like mak bidans in the villages using unhygienic equipment.
It's better for medical doctors and religious scholars to educate the public that this isn’t a religious, but a cultural practice with no evidence of suppressing female sexual feelings. We should forego this practice. Parents should educate their daughters on acceptable moral and sexual behavior instead of getting them circumcised and then hoping that this would avoid behavioral problems. They should do this instead of putting them unnecessarily under the blade.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.