This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
Farah* decided long before her daughter Salsabila’s* birth that the now 1-year-old would undergo female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital cutting (FGC).
The housewife had had a tough time finding a doctor who was willing to perform the procedure, and she lacked the funds for it.
“Most hospitals don’t do this anymore. But at this event, the procedure is free and we get cash for participating,” Farah told VICE.
Salsabila was only one of roughly 150 girls aged 3 months to 11 years old whose parents brought them to the mass circumcision event. Starting at 4 a.m., families gathered in front of the public building in Bandung, Indonesia’s fifth-largest city, where the event was held. Parents signed their children up for the procedure via WhatsApp.
It was not only the cash incentive of Rp200,000 ($14.57) that enticed Farah; faith and tradition were her primary motivations.
“I was circumcised, and so were my grandmother and great grandmother. We believe circumcision is a religious teaching,” she said.
The Assalaam Foundation has been hosting mass circumcisions yearly since 1948.
“We do this to emulate the attitudes of Prophet Mohammed, primarily his holiness and purity,” Deden Syamsul Romly, coordinator of the event and head of research and development at the foundation, told VICE.
A total of 230 boys and girls took part in the mass circumcision. Every child who was circumcised received a goodie bag with Rp200,000 ($14.57) and snacks.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 200 million girls worldwide have undergone FGM. A 2016 UNICEF report placed Indonesia as the country with the third-highest prevalence of FGM after Gambia and Mauritania, with an estimated 54 percent of girls under 14 having been cut. In reality, there are likely more as many families perform FGM independently or with unqualified local midwives.
FGM has been proven to have no medical or practical benefits whatsoever. In fact, the procedure can cause bleeding, cysts, pain during intercourse, and birthing complications.
The WHO defines FGM/C as “any procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
The WHO identifies four types of FGM:
- Clitoridectomy, or the partial or total removal of the clitoris
- Excision, the partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora, sometimes also the labia majora
- Infibulation, the narrowing of the vaginal opening by cutting and repositioning the labia minora or labia majora using stitches
- All other harmful procedures on the vagina, including pricking, piercing, and scraping for non-medical reasons
Romly denied that the services provided by his foundation fall under FGM. He said the procedure does not involve cutting or injury to the female genitalia.
“See for yourself, no child is crying after the circumcision,” he said. “We don’t do procedures like those depicted in the media. There’s no blood.”
Assalaam Foundation staff told VICE that they make an incision on the clitoral hood with a single needle, which they do not classify as "cutting."
The Assalaam foundation faced backlash for their yearly mass circumcision event in 2006, when a WHO team came to observe the scene. The WHO immediately urged the foundation to stop offering female circumcision services.
Watch the VICE documentary about a doctor’s efforts to heal the traumatic wounds of FGM survivors:
After the WHO’s visit attracted media attention, the Assalaam Foundation put its yearly circumcision event on hold in 2007 and 2008. Romly said that in these two years, the foundation researched the role of female circumcision in Islamic teachings.
The Assalaam foundation adheres to the belief that circumcision is preferable for women, but not required from a religious standpoint.
“Circumcised women are blessed in accordance with our study of the hadiths,” Romly said, referring to the record of the words and actions of Prophet Mohammed. “She shines in front of her husband.”
Inside the building, several rooms were transformed into makeshift operating rooms. On a table stood a fluorescent light and a container full of cotton balls, needles of various sizes, and antiseptic solution.
Cholida has been the foundation’s go-to doctor since 2008, specialising in female circumcision. She also trains midwives and female religious teachers to perform the procedure.
She explained that circumcision offered by the foundation involves a needle prick to the skin covering the clitoris. A covered clitoris, Cholida said, hampers sexual sensations and gathers bacteria. “Women often have trouble orgasming. Circumcision takes care of that. Isn’t that a form of equality?” Cholida asked, adding that this method also fulfills the goal of reducing libido in women.
“We graze the clitoral hood. Medically and logically, which would be more sensitive? Something covered or uncovered?” Cholida asked. “When we open up the clitoris, sensation is automatically increased.”
“Women often have trouble orgasming. Circumcision takes care of that. Isn’t that a form of equality?”
Cholida denied that her work violates the WHO’s recommendations. As long as there is no cutting involved, she said, the procedure is totally safe.
“It’s clear that we don’t fall into the WHO’s classification of mutilation,” she said.
Not all women who perform FGM have a medical degree like Cholida. Some, like Aminah*, have no medical background whatsoever, but simply learn through apprenticeships.
“I’m safeguarding the foundation’s moral responsibility to God,” Aminah told VICE.
The legality of FGM in Indonesia remains a gray area. In its 2010 regulations, the Ministry of Health (Kemenkes) did not explicitly outlaw the practice, as long as it was limited to an incision to the clitoris. The Kemenkes does not recognise this as FGM.
In 2014, the Kemenkes declared that female circumcision “is not done for medical reasons and has no known health benefits.” But many Indonesians continued to perform female circumcision, prompting the Kenmenkes to release a statement saying female circumcision must be done with the health of the girl or woman in mind, and not involve any type of genital mutilation.”
The Indonesian Ulema Council, a highly influential quasi-governmental body of Muslim clerics, believes that female circumcision is permissible as long as it does not cause excessive wounds and only removes the clitoral hood.
Dr. Mahesa Paranadipa from the Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI) said the claims that FGM can increase orgasms and lower libido in women have no medical basis. Instead, it can lead to sexual dysfunction and difficulty orgasming.
“Female circumcision is not taught in any medical university,” Paranapida told VICE, adding that all Indonesian doctors must adhere to a strict code of ethics and the highest professional standards. Since female circumcision is not bound by medical standards, any mistake made during the procedure cannot be rectified legally.
“In the end, people who see the worst effects of FGM file complaints with the IDI,” she added.
In provinces like South Sulawesi, female circumcision rituals are often accompanied by celebrations involving extended family. In other places, the practice remains a “secret” between the mother and the midwife. It’s not uncommon for a girl to grow up not knowing she was ever cut.
“This is a matter of faith,” Romly, the organiser of the circumcision event, said. “Sometimes faith cannot be rationalised, right? We are just following Islamic law. If it were forbidden, we would be against it.”
Romly also cited adultery and free sex as the result of women’s high and uncontrollable libidos. To him, female circumcision leads to a healthier and more halal sex life.
“Sometimes I see women frequently changing partners and having free sex, especially in larger cities. I often wonder to myself, ‘were you circumcised when you were little?’” Deden said.
*Some names have been changed to protect subjects’ identities.
Adelia Rahma Santoso contributed to this report.