What I Did When My Daughter Asked to be Circumcised

A shocking request sends a mother on a quest to learn more.

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Dec 3 2016, 4:30pm

Ilustración por Daniella Syakhirina

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia

"Mom, I wanna join a mass circumcision!"

If this sentence came out of my five-year-old boy's mouth—whom I call Cah Ganteng (Handsome Kid)—I would've been indifferent. But this came from my daughter—a young girl who is barely ten years old. I was shocked, and at a loss for words.

I'm a single mother of two working to earn my college degree in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. My children live in Makassar with my parents. I told my parents to raise their grandchildren as they see fit, and, because of this, I was instantly curious as to why my daughter wanted to be circumcised. What the hell would prompt a nine-year-old girl to ask me this?

I quickly called my mom. Apparently the idea wasn't hers alone. The Islamic kindergarten my boy attends was holding a mass circumcision for girls. My mom thought it would be a good idea to listen to the advice of local Islamic preachers and have my daughter circumcised.

My mother and I were soon in an intense debate. Neither of us budged from our convictions. I told my mother about the negative effects of female genital mutilation (FGM), citing the World Health Organization (WHO) to back up my argument. My mom simply stuck to her religious convictions. Unfortunately, none of my arguments worked. My mother insisted that my daughter needed to be circumcised.

I didn't know what to do. I eventually just told her, "I don't know what else to say. I'll leave it up to you mom. But to be honest, as a mother myself, I wholeheartedly do not want my daughter to be circumcised." Something about this softened my mother's resolve. She refused to back down from her religious beliefs, but she agreed to delay the discussion until a later date.

My friend Irma Susanti Irsyadi, who works as a foreign language teacher, said that her daughter's circumcision left her traumatized. "I felt really sorry for my eldest daughter," she said. "I had just become a parent and I was inexperienced. There were a lot of people who told me that girls had to be circumcised and I just followed along.

"My husband and I went to a midwife and asked her to circumcise our first child. I had no idea what the exact process was, but when she came out of the room my daughter was sobbing. After that, I looked into the history of female circumcision and I immediately regretted our decision."

Irma and her husband agreed to never let another daughter get circumcised.

Worldwide, some 200 million female circumcisions were performed in 2015, according to WHO data. At least 60 million of those were here in Indonesia. The WHO considers FGM violence against women and calls for the global eradication of the practice.

The Indonesian government doesn't release official statistics on female circumcision, said Wiyarni Pambudi, a doctor and an expert on female circumcision. She explained that the practice in Indonesia was far less invasive than in other countries. Antiseptic is applied to the vagina and then a needle is used to scratch the skin of the clitoral hood. But even a minor procedure like this isn't exactly safe, Wiyarni explained.

"In Indonesia, health professionals aren't taught about female circumcision," she said. "The problem here is that the is lack of any actual information on the female circumcisions performed by traditional healers. Since there's so little information out there, there is no way to guarantee that it's safe. It could be safe, or it could not be safe at all."

Still, a lot of medical professionals in Indonesia perform female circumcisions in order to maintain a good relationship with their clients, Wiyarni said.

I decided to dig deeper. I went to see Tunggal Pawestri, an activist and mother from South Jakarta. When her daughter was born in 2006, the Ministry of Health had banned female circumcision in hospitals—arguing that the practice was unsafe. Tunggal was lying in her hospital bed shortly after giving birth when she heard the nurses decline to circumcise a woman's newborn girl.

"I was giving birth at a hospital in Jakarta, not in some rural area," she said. "I realized then that there are a lot of parents who want their children to be circumcised as soon as they're born."

Religion continues to be a strong motivator. When the Ministry of Health banned the practice, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) criticized the central government, arguing that Islamic practice recommended female circumcision for all Muslim girls. The ministry relented in 2010 and allowed certain medical professionals to perform female circumcision. In 2013, the ministry's ban on female circumcision was lifted entirely.

Tunggal researches female circumcision at the the center for the study of gender and sexuality at the University of Indonesia. Half of the mothers surveyed said their daughters were circumcised. They said their daughters circumcised because they wanted to follow religious teachings, conform to cultural traditions, or because boys were also circumcised.

Activists need to approach religious leaders at big Islamic organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah to discuss the matter, Tunggal said.

"Other than that, we have to hold a lot of workshops, campaigns, outreach, and public discussions to educate people about female rights," she said.

In Indonesia, the topic is a point of contention among several Islamic clerics. Some say the act is sunnah (rewarding) but others say it is mubah (not required). Mahbub Maafi, the steward of Pusat Lembaga Bahtsul Masail at Nahdlatul Ulama told me that, personally, he couldn't support a ban on the practice.

"The ban doesn't have a strong theological foundation," Mahbub said. "This restriction is not in accordance to Sharia Law unless it is seen as painful to the victims."

But Mahbub believes that something needs to be done to make the practice safer and less painful.

"What's important is to establish clarity regarding the practice of female circumcision," he said. "The medical experts would know this better. There needs to be a more humane practice."

I thought of my own daughter. All too often young girls undergo the procedure without having enough information to make the right decision. My mother might change her mind in the future, but I decided that this is my daughter's decision. I plan to tell her everything I learned, explaining all the data and dangers of female circumcision. When she's older, she can look over all the information and make a decision on her own. I'll support her regardless of her decision. Our bodies belong to us and us alone.

Indanavetta Putri is a single mother, a lover of short movies, and a freelance writer.

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