Script for my latest video on What the Patriarchy?! Below the video.
Hello, salaam, and welcome to What the Patriarchy, where we’re working to dismantle the patriarchy one Islamic feminist issue at a time! I’m Dr. Shehnaz Haqqani, PhD in Islamic Studies and an assistant professor of Religion.
Today, we continue our summary of Dr. Kecia Ali’s book Sexual Ethics & Islam, now at chapter 6, which is titled “reduce but do not destroy”: female ‘circumcision’ in Islamic Sources. I like how it says “Islamic sources” and not “Islam.”
If you HAVE to assign just one chapter from this book to a Muslim audience to complicate the idea of “Islam” to them, or if you HAVE to read just one text that will complicate what “Islam” means for you, I think this is it. It does an excellent job challenging any popular Muslim assumptions and expectations of what it means to say that something is Islamic.
Important note before I continue, Ali doesn’t use the word genital mutilation here, or circumcision, just genital cutting – and that’s a statement.
Did you know that according to The Reliance of the Traveler, which is a classical Shafi‘i legal manual, circumcision is obligatory on both men and women? Yeah, for women, it involves reducing or cutting the clitoris (which for those who have it, I hope you know that it can take you places you’ve never imagined). The patriarchy really hates everything about us women, including like one of the most important and essential organs in our bodies, doesn’t it, like the most imp source of pleasure most of us have, ya?
But another fun fact: did you know that male circumcision is not obligatory or fardh in all of the legal schools, in all of fiqh? The same folks who require it for men also require it for women, and others consider it a sunnah, a noble act. And other sunni schools, also, actually consider it at least a sunnah, a highly commendable thing for women to be circumcised. My personal favorite: for the Hanafis, it’s a courtesy to the husband. #OkWhatEven?!
Side note, because, of course. In my native language, which is Pashto, the word for circumcision is sunnat, which is also the word for sunnah, things that the Prophet Muhamamd did that he encouraged us to do as well. But yet, sunnat or male circumcision is treated as a mandatory thing, not sunnah, as by Muslims all over the world! And also, was the Prophet Muhammad even circumcised? (No, this question is not addressed in the book, but just a huge question mark for me about what sunnah even means here!)
So this ch deals with the question of female circumcision or female genital cutting, how it’s viewed in the historical classical texts and how contemporary Muslims approach the issue, including activists and scholars in parts of the world where it’s practiced. If you think it’s irrelevant, you’re wrong. Important point here that a) the majority of Muslims don’t practice FGC, and wherever FGC is common, it’s performed by all the religious communities there, not just Muslims. One exception is southeast Asia, where FGC was totes unheard of before Islam but with the coming of Islam there, it’s practiced only by the Muslims. That’s because the legal school that’s dominant there is the Shafi‘i school and that’s where it’s considered fardh, obligatory, for both women and men to be circumcised.
The ch discusses how activists approach the issue, vs how jurists have historically approached it. Some scholars still support and insist on it, and others don’t. There are different ways it’s to be performed, there’s disagreement on how much of the clit is to be removed – some want the whole thing removed, some want it barely scraped because it’s all symbolic anyway, some go so far as to want not just the clit but also the labia minora AND the labia majora removed partially AND have the vaginal opening sewn up with just a tiny, tiny opening left for urine and menstrual blood to come out. Don’t do this! This is very dangerous for the woman’s health!
Talk about the meaning of the word “Islamic”! Since some of the legal schools that so many Muslims consider the ultimate source of Islam and take a bit more seriously than they should require that females be circumcised, does this mean that female circumcision or genital cutting is an Islamic thing? It’s not in the Qur’an, but it is in a questionable hadith, even tho the Prophet Muhammad never circumcised any of his daughters, not before Islam and not after.
So can we say then, or is it totally honest to claim, that Islam prohibits female genital cutting like some Muslims claim? Again, as one of the recurring points of every chapter in this book highlights, your answer depends on what “Islam” means.
What we should do, perhaps, is to acknowledge that the classical texts DO require or recommend something like female circumcision, but we can critique them for doing so. Or we might say that it’s un-Islamic because it’s not found in the Qur’an.
The author is critical, however, of using only the Qur’an as our source of Islam – but her point here is that some Muslim scholars claim that “Islam” does not allow FGC but they’re actually not telling the complete truth unless they tell us what they mean by Islam, declaring their own interpretation as more Islamically authentic than the side arguing in support of FGC. But the reality is that the Qur’an doesn’t speak of male circumcision, either. There are hadiths, questionable and probably not correct—and not found in Bukhari or Muslim—that do endorse FGC. That’s where the whole “reduce but don’t destroy” phrase in the title of this chapter comes from. Abu Dawud himself, the collector of this hadith, criticizes this hadith and declares it weak.
The author notes that a more holistic approach to thinking and talking about FGC is to argue “for the sanctity of the body from a spiritual rather than a medical perspective” (p. 133). So, consider, for example, this question: How could the jurists allow female circumcision – or any circumcision – while simultaneously saying that changing God’s creation was not permissible? I mean, these dudes prohibited something like plucking the eyebrows, getting tattoos, etc., claiming that this is changing God’s creation, but then in the same breath, they required circumcision for boys and girls?! The issue with that spiritual approach, though, as the author also notes, is that it would apply to male circumcision as well.
So then for those who want male circumcision but not female, the author suggests that a case against FGC can be made by referencing the severity of the consequences for FGC compared to male circumcision, such as medical complications, including infection, pain, a diminished sexual response, and secondary infertility.
The author then provides a detailed discussion of the hadiths on female genital cutting – we have stuff like, “reduce but do not destroy,” circumcision being sunnah for women and obligatory for men, and ablutions after “the two circumcised parts meet” (of the spouses or sex partners). The author then critiques translations of the language in these hadiths and misleading summaries and translations of female circumcision debates from the historical texts into contemporary English.
In the Conclusion of the chapter, the author offers some suggestions for activists and others who do not support FGC because they find it ethically unacceptable. I won’t get into those here, but it’s a very helpful discussion.
In the coda, we also read about how American, western attitudes towards female genital cutting are informed by what I think are pseudo-liberal claims of bodily autonomy that we allow some people but deny to others. The author points out that since the publication of the book, genital surgery has risen dramatically among white American women. The coda also challenges us to rethink the way we approach FGC, including how we talk about it as a Middle Eastern, or an African, problem and not an “Islamic” one. In our conversation about this, we tend to characterize those who do partake in FGC basically as barbaric people who don’t understand Islam and aren’t practicing Islam correctly. She challenges the dichotomy of Islam vs Muslims, where Muslims are the bad guys and Islam is the good guy but followed by the bad guys. Ya, don’t do that either.
Again, this ch like the others, is concerned with authority, legitimacy, who determines whether a certain practice or action is Islamic or not, what is Islam, what are the sources of Islam? Is it determined by God in the Qur’an? The Prophet in hadiths? The companions of the Prophet? The classically trained scholars of Islam who gave us fiqh and sharia? Or simply Muslims themselves and what they do? If the latter, what do we do with the huge diversity that we have with Muslims and their practice of Islam and what each group and community of Muslim finds acceptable and unacceptable? And the fact that for too many things, our ideas of what’s acceptable and not have changed over time?
I’ll stop there. Go read this chapter – it’s one of my favorites and I think offers wonderful food for thought.
Next up is Ch. 7 on female bodies and male agency in the Qur’an.