The day I saw 248 girls suffering genital mutilation

Published on The Guardian, by Abigail Haworth, November 18, 2012.

In 2006, while in Indonesia and six months pregnant, Abigail Haworth became one of the few journalists ever to see young girls being ‘circumcised’. Until now she has been unable to tell this shocking story.

It’s 9.30 am on a Sunday, and the mood inside the school building in Bandung, Indonesia, is festive. Mothers in headscarves and bright lipstick chat and eat coconut cakes. Javanese music thumps from an assembly hall. There are 400 people crammed into the primary school’s ground floor. It’s hot, noisy and chaotic, and almost everyone is smiling.  

Twelve-year-old Suminah is not. She looks like she wants to punch somebody. Under her white hijab, which she has yanked down over her brow like a hoodie, her eyes have the livid, bewildered expression of a child who has been wronged by people she trusted. She sits on a plastic chair, swatting away her mother’s efforts to placate her with a party cup of milk and a biscuit. Suminah is in severe pain. An hour earlier, her genitals were mutilated with scissors as she lay on a school desk.

During the morning, 248 Indonesian girls undergo the same ordeal. Suminah is the oldest, the youngest is just five months. It is April 2006 and the occasion is a mass ceremony to perform sunat perempuan or “female circumcision” that has been held annually since 1958 by the Bandung-based Yayasan Assalaam, an Islamic foundation that runs a mosque and several schools. The foundation holds the event in the lunar month of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and pays parents 80,000 rupiah (£6) and a bag of food for each daughter they bring to be cut.

It is well established that female genital mutilation (FGM) is not required in Muslim law. It is an ancient cultural practice that existed before Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It is also agreed across large swathes of the world that it is barbaric. At the mass ceremony, I ask the foundation’s social welfare secretary, Lukman Hakim, why they do it. His answer not only predates the dawn of religion, it predates human evolution: “It is necessary to control women’s sexual urges,” says Hakim, a stern, bespectacled man in a fez. “They must be chaste to preserve their beauty” … //

… By geopolitical standards, modern Indonesia is an Asian superstar. The world’s fourth-largest country and most populous Muslim nation of 240 million people, it is beloved by foreign investors for its buoyant economy and stable democracy. It is feted as a model of tolerant Islam. Last month, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited London to receive an honorary knighthood from the Queen in recognition of Indonesia’s “remarkable transformation”. Yet, as befitting an archipelago of 17,000 islands, it’s a complicated place, too. Corruption and superstition often rule by stealth. Patriarchy runs deep. Abortion is illegal, and hardline edicts controlling what women wear and do are steadily creeping into local by-laws.

Although Indonesia is not a country where FGM is widely reported, the practice is endemic. Two nationwide studies carried out by population researchers in 2003 and 2010 found that between 86 and 100% of households surveyed subjected their daughters to genital cutting, usually before the age of five. More than 90% of adults said they wanted the practice to continue.

In late 2006, a breakthrough towards ending FGM in Indonesia occurred when the Ministry of Health banned doctors from performing it on the grounds that it was “potentially harmful”. The authorities, however, did not enforce the ruling. Hospitals continued to offer sunat perempuan for baby girls, often as part of discount birth packages that also included vaccinations and ear piercing. In the countryside, it was performed mainly by traditional midwives – women thought to have shamanic healing skills known as dukun – as it had been for centuries. The Indonesian method commonly involves cutting off part of the hood and/or tip of the clitoris with scissors, a blade or a piece of sharpened bamboo.

Last year, the situation regressed further. In early 2011, Indonesia’s parliament effectively reversed the ban on FGM by approving guidelines for trained doctors on how to perform it. The rationale was that, since the ban had failed, issuing guidelines would “safeguard the female reproductive system”, officials said. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama, also issued an edict telling its 30 million followers that it approved of female genital cutting, but that doctors “should not cut too much”.

The combined effect was to legitimise the practice all over again.

It is impossible to second-guess what kind of place holds mass ceremonies to mutilate girl children, with the aim of forever curbing their sexual pleasure. Bandung is Indonesia’s third largest city, 180km east of the capital Jakarta. I had been there twice before my visit in 2006. It was like any provincial hub in booming southeast Asia: a cheerful, frenzied collision of homespun commerce and cut-price globalisation. Cheap jeans and T-shirts spilled out of shops. On the roof of a factory outlet there was a giant model of Spider-Man doing the splits … //

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